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BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

Zygmunt Bauman’s wide-ranging and influential work addresses many academic and social issues including ethics; culture and politics; consumerism and poverty; social uncertainty and personal insecurity; political disengagement and moral indifference. His ultimate intention is to attempt to provoke people to aspire and reach-out towards something better... In his book Modernity and Ambivalence 1 Bauman began to theorise about organisation, and personal difference, and as a result introduced the ‘allegorical’ figure of the stranger. Drawing upon the sociology of Georg Simmel (and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida)2 Bauman suggests that the stranger is the person who is present yet unfamiliar – essentially, society's category of the undecidable. Through modernist attempts at structuring society, life has become organised into familiar and manageable categories; however, there are always social groups who cannot be administered, who cannot be separated into established categories and resultantly controlled.


(1993, Polity Press) In this influential book, Bauman argues, that modern society has made every attempt to make our lives understandable and controllable. However, its ‘promise’ has not been delivered – furthermore, we no longer believe it ever can or will. Bauman argues that our postmodern age is the time for reconciliation with ambivalence; we must learn how to live in an incurably ambiguous world. 2

And also the philosophy associated with Giorgio Agamben (on state power and exclusion). For example see: (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life


BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

Despite this, in consumer-societies the ‘strange and the unfamiliar’ can be seen as enticing: for example, with different styles of food, different fashions (and of course the mysterious allure associated with international tourism). Therefore, it becomes possible to purchase the ‘distant’ allure of what is unfamiliar. However, this ‘strangeness’ also has a more negative side: The stranger, because they are not familiar, and therefore not subject to the same social mechanisms of order and control, cannot be controlled and ordered in the usual and predictable ways; as a result they are seen as people who exist outside of society's ‘borders’. We expect people to behave according to the structural categories that have been imposed upon them; when they don’t, our relationships cease to make sense. Unfamiliar identities therefore seen as ‘fearful’

• Potential examples of strangers/outsiders:

Linking into this, Bauman's most famous book, Modernity and the Holocaust 3, is an attempt to give a full account of the dangers of these kinds of fears. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s (and Theodore Adorno's) ideas in relation to totalitarian politics & societies – he develops the argument that the Holocaust should not be simplistically understood as an event in Jewish history, (or an inexplicable regression to pre-modern barbarism). Instead, it should be understood as being intricately connected to the principles of









categorisation, and efficiency, such as its tendency to impose: 3

(1991, Polity Press), this book addresses the ethical dilemmas presented as a result of the modernist monstrosities encountered as a result of the Nazi-organised holocaust.


BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

Procedural rationality

The division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks

The taxonomic categorisation of different species (e.g. ‘plant’ families)

The tendency to view rule-following as morally good for all,

In Bauman's analysis the Jews can be understood as 'strangers' within Europe; the Final Solution being an extreme example of attempts to excise the uncomfortable and indeterminate elements associated with them.

• The banality of evil

From the mid and late 1990’s Bauman's books began to look at two different but interrelated subjects: postmodernity and consumerism. Bauman began to argue that a shift had taken place in modern society - towards the latter half of the 20th century – a change that altered society from being a system of producers to a society of consumers.

• Fordism/Post-Fordism

[Since the turn of the millennium, Bauman’s books have tried to avoid the confusion surrounding the term 'postmodernity' by using the metaphors of 'liquid' and 'solid' modernity.]4 In recent works, Bauman has tackled the political dilemmas associated with the postmodern, or (as he prefers to categorise them) 'Liquid Modern' times that we now exist in. •

Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (1998),


In his books on modern consumerism Bauman writes of social fears being more diffuse and harder to pin down; for example, in his book, 'liquid fears' – he examines the fear associated with paedophilia, which is amorphous and has no easily identifiable reference point. 3

BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

Globalisation - the Human Consequences (1998),

In Search of Politics (1999),

Liquid Modernity (2000),

Liquid Love (2003),

Liquid Times (2007),

Bauman has also highlighted the decline of traditional political institutions and class politics, alongside the rise of identity politics, and the fluid and fragmentary nature of social bonds and individual identity. He suggests that these developments are increasingly contributing towards the rise of selfish 'individualisation'; which in turn is eroding our capacity to ‘think and act’ in terms of social or common interests. However, (and strangely for a postmodernist) he insists that politics can still become a democratically generated search for collective solutions – able to bring about the translation of private troubles into public concerns. Whilst his work accepts the developments of the social conditions that Anthony Giddens ‘Renewal of Social Democracy’ refers to, he refuses to accept many of the conclusions that make up the politics of Third Way. Instead, Bauman continues to question state approaches to markets, individual responsibility and social justice. Central to Bauman's analysis is the notion that today's societies operate around principles of consumption rather than production. As such, democratic ‘freedom’ in contemporary society is to be understood as “the freedom to choose how to satisfy our individual desires” via the medium of the consumer market. As a consequence, individual ‘freedom’ itself has become privatised and commodified – a development which in turn fuel’s an increasing disinterest in politics (both local and global).


BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

At the local level: People, citizens – retreat from political activity. At the global level, we are forced to increasingly exist under massive and fluctuating economic conditions of insecurity and uncertainty. (Bauman tells us that): More than two billion TV screens will be switched on at any given time. Television has conquered the Earth and its inhabitants. What, though, is the outcome of this successful invasion?

Despite this, Bauman suggests that "this world of ours needs socialists more than at any other time. Like the phoenix, socialism is reborn from every pile of ashes left day in, day out, by burnt-out human dreams and charred hopes."

But – where can this re-birth come from? Politics doesn’t seem to offer us answers: Despite politicians speaking a progressive language of community and social regeneration, it is ultimately modelled on consumer freedom and 'individual (identity) empowerment'. This only serves to perpetuate the fragmenting insecurities and uncertainties. In promoting this, Governments replicate the volutive logic of a consumerism, which promotes 'biographical solutions to socially produced afflictions'. [Identity products – free-trade / organic]

As such, we need to find new ways to re-politicise these increasingly private actions and redirect them towards public issues, so as to:


BA Hons Social Science & Joint Hons Pathways: Zygmunt Bauman – Lecture 7

… Re-collectivise the privatised utopias of "life politics" so that that they can acquire once more the shape of the visions of the "good society" and "just society"' (Bauman, 2000, p51). The extent to which national governments can address the systemic problems inherent within global capitalism is a problematic and troubling scenario. But, there is still an optimistic strand within Bauman’s works that believes that it is possible. We need to move beyond the legacy of the crude political structures that the modernist way of thinking (and organising) has left for us. (We just don’t yet know when or how ...)

• Comments on Bauman’s approach (strengths/weaknesses):


Week 7 Zygmunt Bauman lecture  
Week 7 Zygmunt Bauman lecture  

Dr Craig Hammond - University Centre Blackburn College: Lecture notes on Zygmunt Bauman