Monday, April 25, 2011

Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part II

I want to dedicate the second part of my review of Liquid Modernity to those of its parts that I found to be objectionable. My problem with the entirety of Bauman's work is that whenever he talks of people, humanity, or mankind at large, he always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males. Let's take, for example, the following statement, in which the erasure of women is so complete as to be shocking:
'Work' so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And 'work' so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the 'natural condition' of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity. (137)
These statements are, of course, completely true if by "humanity as a whole" and "every single member of humankind" we refer exclusively to men. For women, the situation was and still is the exact opposite. Working mothers are routinely blamed for causing "extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity" of their poor, abandoned children. Women are constantly exhorted to "opt out" of the workplace and demonized for not doing so. Working conditions are geared towards making the life of working women as inhospitable as possible. If we keep this in mind, Bauman's references to "humanity as a whole" become egregiously offensive.

In a similar vein, Bauman bemoans the disintegration of the patriarchal family, which brought about the liberation of all those pesky females he loves to erase. He becomes as preachy as any fundamentalist when he begins to lament the evils of divorce, especially when people who dare to abandon loveless marriages are not rich:
There is little doubt that when 'trickled down' to the poor and powerless, the new-style partnership with its fragility of marital contract and the 'purification' of the union of all but the 'mutual satisfaction' function spawns much misery, agony and human suffering and an ever-growing volume of broken, loveless and prospectless lives. (90)
How dare you, poor and powerless folks, look for satisfaction outside of the confines of the patriarchal family? You need to sit tight, patently bearing your miserable, loveless marriages.

What Bauman prefers to overlook in his anti-divorce rants is that, in the absolute majority of cases in the developed countries, it is women who seek the divorce (in 2010 in the US it was 72% of divorces petitioned for by women to 28% by men). The situation is even more clear-cut among college-educated couples where, according to the data provided by American Law and Economics Review, women file for divorce in about 90% of cases. This is not at all surprising since marriage is still a losing proposition for women even in the most developed countries. Women are still stuck with more housework, the greatest burden of child-rearing and very little gains coming out of being married other than some dubious prestige the TV shows try to convince us exists for women who get married. Married women live shorter lives than single women, while married men live longer than single men. For this reason, in real life (as opposed to what we are being told by television and newspapers) men are a lot more interested in marriage than women. The disintegration of the patriarchal family that bothers Bauman so much is, indeed, robbing men of power. At the same time, it liberates women. Women, however, are not a group that Bauman ever notices. 

It is often difficult for me to distinguish whether on this topic Bauman is being purposefully obtuse or if he genuinely, sincerely does not realize how biased his statements are. This is one of the foremost thinkers of our times. Is it possible that the whole history of women has passed him by? Look, for instance, at the following statement:
It is no longer the task of both partners to 'make the relationship work' - to see it work through thick and thin., 'for richer for poorer', in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one's own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. (164)
Can Bauman really not know that to suffer in silence, practice resignation, trim one's own preferences, compromise and make sacrifices was only and exclusively the task of a woman in patriarchal family structures? Can he possibly have missed the entire history of manuals for married women that proliferated from the Middle Ages until today and that exhorted (and still do) women to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family in the very terms that Bauman employs here? Is he being disingenuous with full knowledge of what he is doing, or is he truly this blind to the situation of an entire half of humanity? Note also the slippage into the Christian rhetoric that is quite unexpected in a Communist and a Jew. Apparently, Bauman's need to push women back into the confines of the patriarchal family structure is so overwhelming that he forgets even the Marxist dogma that religion is the opium of the people.

6 comments:

profacero said...

So, you're going to use this discussion of Bauman (both parts) for something academic, right? I think you should (although perhaps someone has - I read the book last summer and then got distracted, didn't check on debates about it or look nearly enough into contexts, haven't read Badiou or enough of Deleuze or Zizek, blah blah).

Pagan Topologist said...

I don't think that women are the only people who sacrifice in marriages. Looking at my parents, I think both of them gave up a lot so they could stay together. I don't think either of them realized how much the other gave up. My dad built a much bigger house than he would have liked because mother wanted it. He would have much preferred to have spent the money on cars and more travelling. My mother gave up a grand piano she had inherited because my dad thought it was too difficult to move around when he waxed the floors. These are just the first examples that come to mind.

Clarissa said...

profacero: No, not really. At least not at this point. The reviews are my way of taking notes so that I can always refresh my reading of a book later on. My memory is horrible.

PT: I'm sure there were and are individual stories that counteracted the general narrative. However, sacrifice as female duty has been preached to women for centuries. Even today, I have seen many women abandon grad school or their profession altogether because they "had to" follow the boyfriend/fiance/husband even if his career was far less prestigious and important. I do not know a single case where a man would do that for a woman. I'm sure they exist, but the majority of sacrifices (and really stupid ones) still are female. Often, they later get dumped and now work bagging groceries at the checkout line. Which does not prevent yet another generation of hopeful female fools from dropping their entire lives in order to follow some guy around.

Pagan Topologist said...

Hmmm. My first wife dropped out of grad school because she did not like the environment where her advisor forbade her to take any time off for vacations to see her family, etc. She worked the rest of the time I was in grad school. I supported her through a few years of grad school after I got my Ph. D. and a tenure track job. She also dropped out of that program. She asked me for a divorce a few years later. I continued to pay her some alimony for three years after our divorce, as well as child support while our daughter was living with her.

cringe-all said...

These were all illustrations intended to show that Bauman doesn't write with women in mind. Your post however says at the beginning, " always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males." How about some examples to show that he writes only about white people?

Clarissa said...

This is s very good question. Bauman's central idea that he reiterates from one work to another is that progress doesn't exist and the idea of progress is something that no human being can reasonably defend. I'm sure that African-Americans and Jews, to name just two groups of people, would beg to disagree. Not being a slave and not having to live in a pale of settlement must surely feel like progress for these people. I wrote about it in my earlier review of Bauman's Does Ethics Have a Chance in the World of Consumers and didn't want to repeat myself.