Bringing it all Back Home: Zygmunt Bauman on Modernity

By Matt Dawson

1988’s ‘Sociology and Postmodernity’ came during a transitional phase in Zygmunt Bauman’s academic career.  It was published in between the two texts which began to establish his reputation as a major theorist in his adopted home of the UK, 1987’s Legislators and Interpreters and 1989’s Modernity and the Holocaust while also ushering in his focus on modernity as a sociological question.  Its inclusion is his 1992 manifesto for a ‘sociology of postmodernity’ Intimiations of Postmodernity indicates its importance to this question.  This period was also a transitional phase in Bauman’s means of sociological communication.  Re-reading this text nearly 30 years later one encounters, as Tester and Jacobsen once put it a Bauman who is not yet ‘Zygmunt Bauman’.  Those familiar with Bauman’s writing style in his liquid modern phase – metaphorical, free-flowing, poetic – may be surprised by the, dare I say conventional, style of this nevertheless immensely readable essay.

Transitional phases in intellectual careers are axiomatically marked out by a shift in one’s focus. But, I would also suggest they encourage scholars to reckon with the very questions which led them into intellectual study: what is it exactly which interests us about the social world? What, if any, fundamental assumptions do we hold?  Bauman was no different.  In this short piece I reflect upon how Bauman’s transition into the field which would make him ‘Zygmunt Bauman’, the sociology of modernity, indicated a new concern yet was also a continuation of his long-running intellectual focus.  It was the combination of these which made Bauman into the inspirational sociologist he would become for many of us.

To begin with the new topic. Bauman approached modernity, as with many of his main concepts, as a metaphor. This metaphor was meant to be used to understand the dominant trends and pressure in a specific conjuncture of a historically continuous process. To use the Eliasian language of this paper, phrases such as ‘modernity’, and its later manifestation of ‘post’ and ‘liquid’ modernity operate as shorthand for the ‘products, reflections, aspects or rationalisations of social figurations’.  This is precisely why, in this paper and elsewhere in his ‘postmodern’ period, Bauman advocated a position which rejected a ‘postmodern sociology’ in favour of a ‘sociology of postmodernity’.  The former, suggested initially by Simmel but coming to fruition via Garfinkel, Schutz, Wittingstein and Gadamer, came to stand not as a way to understand the emerging social figuration but as a reflection – a ‘mimetic representation’ – of it.  This had value as an ‘intellectual genre’ of interest primarily to cultural workers and intellectuals. A sociology of postmodernity on the other hand sought to understand a postmodern society in it’s own right as an emerging figuration. Therefore, this was potentially relevant beyond these groups. 

As noted by David Evans in his comments on this piece Bauman turns to consumption to understand the emerging forms of postmodern social control, cohesion and integration.  This paper also introduces a figure who, while often left out of analysis of Bauman’s work became a significant presence in his sociology of modernity: Sigmund Freud. Here Bauman discusses the increased centrality of the pleasure principle, long thought by Freud and his followers as needing to be repressed to allow for the maintenance of civilization and capitalism, as a key reproductive feature of postmodern capital. As he would later put it, ‘the reality and pleasure principle strike a deal’ which allowed – until the events of 2008 – for the emergence of an increasingly consumerist, neoliberal capitalism. Bauman would go on to use Freud for a key element of his metaphor of modernity: freedom and security. This was understood not as a Freudian conflict but as a Baumanian pendulum shaping the different phases of modernity.

By thinking of modernity as varying attempts to solve the unsolvable contrast of security and freedom, Bauman returned to a driving concern throughout his career. Bauman’s sociology was instinctively a sociology of being human. By saying this I mean to suggest that his sociology always encouraged us to think of figurations such as modernity and postmodernity as particular attempts by humans to bring order and sense to their environment. In his first original English-language book, 1973’s Culture as Praxis, Bauman had turned to structuralist anthropology to understand the ‘project of culture’ as that which unites humanity in their attempt to distinguish themselves from nature and make their world ordered. As he put it in language which later would become more fashionable, culture concerned ‘being structured and being capable of structuring…the twin-kernels of the human way of life’.  15 years later in Sociology and Postmodernity Bauman was turning his focus to arguments concerning modernity to unravel how these particular forms of ‘postmodern culture’, and the figuration which they served, had come into being. 

Elements of Bauman’s later discussion of how modernity had changed – the aforementioned conflict of freedom and security, the (ir)relevance of universal moral codes, the agency of politics to control power, the (in)stability of identity – could be seen as responses (to use one of Bauman’s favourite phrases) to the human, all too human need to turn this existential quandary of being human in the world into a (never fully resolved) sociological problem. I suspect I am not alone in saying it precisely this element of Bauman’s work which was so enticing: he asked the big questions. His work, as he puts it at the end of this paper, was always an ‘invitation to a debate’ on how sociology can grasp the fundamental problems of human-togetherness expressed as a problem of modernity.

As we know, there would be further transitions in Bauman’s intellectual career. Most notably, he would give up on the concept of postmodernity. He did this precisely due to its problems as a metaphor. Postmodernity’s value for historical explanation was limited given that ‘if words mean anything, then a “post X” will always mean a state of affairs that has leaved the “X” behind’. Furthermore, Bauman chafed at his sociology of postmodernity being included with the problematic postmodern sociology which, by eschewing understanding one social figuration in favour of celebrating another’s demise, revelled in the ‘sweet scent of decomposition’, as his memorable critique of Baudrillard put it. However, throughout the twists and turns of Bauman’s sociology of modernity, he would always return to the project indicated by this paper and reflective of his broader intellectual career: to understand how and why humanity has created the social figuration which it finds itself currently trying to navigate.

Matt Dawson is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. He tweets at @mattpdawson. 

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