Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Polity.

Lecture notes.


Features of fluidity – lightness, cannot easily hold their shape, neither fix space nor bind time, time matters.

‘Bonding’, in turn, is a term that signifies the stability of solids – the resistance they put up  against separation of the atoms’. p. 2

Fluidity or liquidity as fitting metaphors when we wish to grasp the nature of the present, in many ways novel, phase in the history of modernity. p.2

Origins of metaphor:

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto: All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. p. 4 (section Bourgeois and Proletarians)

The first solids to be melted and the first sacreds to be profaned were traditional loyalties, customary rights and obligations which bound hands and feet, hindered moves and cramped the enterprise. p. 3

This process of melting solids “laid the field open to the invasion and domination of instrumental rationality or the determining role of economy”. p.4

However free and volatile the ‘subsystems’ of that order may be singly or severally, the way in which they are intertwined is ‘rigid, fatal, and sealed off from any freedom of choice’. (…) Rigidity of order is the artefact and sediment of the human agents ‘ freedom. p.5

From Estates to  Classes

Estates – no-appeal-allowed allocation-by-ascription.

Classes – the totality of life conditions and life prospects and determined the range of realistic life projects and life strategies. pp. 6-7

Today patterns and configurations are not longer “given”, they are to follow from (be shaped and reshaped) individual’s activity.  pp.6-7

Zombie categories and zombie institutions (Ulrich Beck) – the family, class and neighborhood. p.6

Research question(s):

Are, and if yes, in what measure old sociological concepts appropriate for the investigation of the new, fluid, world?

Five of the basic concepts from the orthodox narratives to be examined:

- emancipation

- individuality

- time/space

- work, and

- community.

Modernity – characterized by a changing relationship between space and time. […] Modern time has become first and foremost, the weapon in the conquest of space. pp.8-9

From Panopticon (Bentham/Foucuault) to post-Panoptical.

Power has become truly exterritorial, no longer bound, not even slowed down, by resistance of space. p.11

Nomadism ↔  Sedentarism


Modernity put liberation on the top of the agenda of political reform and “freedom” at the top of list of values. p.18

Is liberation a blessing, or a curse?

Two kinds of answers were given:

1) Doubting the readiness of ordinary folks for freedom.


- people being mislead, cheated and deceived

- outrage against the “mass” unwilling to assume the risks and the responsibilities which come together with genuine autonomy and self-assertion

- “embourgeoisement” of the underdog

- mass culture

2) Contesting the benefits of “liberation’.


- a human being released from coercive social constraints is a beast rather than a free individual (Hobbes)

- absence of effective constraints will make life ‘nasty, brutish and short’

- patterns and routines imposed by condensed social pressures makes the social life predictable. pp. 18-20

The agenda of emancipation has been all but exhausted. […] ‘The individual’ has already been granted all the freedom he might have dreamed of and all the freedom he might have reasonably hoped for; social institutions are only too willing to cede the worries of definitions and identities to the individual initiative, while universal principles to rebel against are hard to find. p.22

Society we live in stopped questioning itself (Cornelius Castoriadis). This is a kind of society which no longer recognizes any alternative to itself. p. 22

Accommodation of critique – “Contemporary society has given to the ‘hospitality to critique’ an entirely new sense and has invented a way to accommodate critical thought and action while remaining immune to the consequences of that accommodation, and so emerging unaffected and unscathed – reinforced rather than weakened – from the tests and trials of the open-house policy.” p. 23

Critical theory – it targeted a specific type of modernity.

That heavy/solid/condensed/systemic modernity of the ‘critical theory’ era was endemically pregnant with the tendency towards totalitarianism. The totalitarian society of all-embracing, compulsory and enforced homogeneity loomed constantly and threateningly on the horizon – as its ultimate destination, as a never-fully-defused time-bomb or never-fully-exorcized spectre. That modernity was a sworn enemy of contingency, variety, ambiguity, waywardness and idiosyncrasy, having declared on all such ‘anomalies’ a holy war of attrition; and it was individual freedom and autonomy that were commonly expected to be the prime casualties of the crusade.

Principal icons of that modernity:

- fordist factory

- bureaucracy

- Panopticon

- Big Brother

- the Konzlager.  pp. 25-26

We have been emancipated from belief in the act of creation, revelation and eternal condemnation. With such beliefs out of the way, we humans found ourselves ‘on our own’ – which means that from then on we knew of no limits to improvement and self-improvement other than the shortcomings of our own inherited or acquired gifts, resourcefulness, nerve, will and determination (Lessing). p. 28

Comment V.S.: is this related to Nietzsche’s dead of God? Or with Dostoyevsky’s “If God is dead, everything is possible”?

Two features of our novel form of modernity:

1. The gradual collapse and swift decline of early modern illusion: of the belief that there is […] an attainable telos of historical change, a state of perfection to be reached tomorrow, next year or next millennium.

2. Deregulation and privatization of the modernizing tasks and duties, change from collective action to individual action. The idea of improvement through legislative action of the society gradually changes towards the self-assertion of the individual. p. 29

Individualization and individualization processes: Freud→Elias→Beck.

Modern society exists in its incessant activity of ‘individualizing’ as much as the activities of individuals consist in the daily reshaping and renegotiating of the network of mutual entanglements called ‘society’. […] The meaning of ‘individualization’ keeps changing, taking up ever new shapes. p. 31

Individualization consists of transforming human ‘identity’ from a ‘given’ into a ‘task’. p. 31

Modernity replaces the heteronomic determination of social standing with compulsive and obligatory self-determination. p.32

Now, as before – individualization is a fate, not a choice. p. 34

Ulrich Beck: individualization as a biographical solution to systemic contradictions. p. 34

Individual ↔ Citizen

The citizen is inclined to seek her or his own welfare through the well-being of the city, while the individual tends to reject the “common cause”, “common good”, ‘good society” or “just society”. p. 36

Colonization of public by the private – public interest is reduced to curiosity about the private lives of public figures. p. 37

A wide and growing gap between the condition of individuals de jure and their chances to become individuals de facto – that is, to gain control over their fate and make the choices they truly desire. p. 39

Society is now primarily the condition which individuals strongly need, yet badly miss – in their vain and frustrating struggle to reforge their de jure status into the genuine  autonomy and capacity for self-assertion. pp. 40-41

Toward a new critical theory:

- to question the job with which human beings are charged today – the self-constitution of individual life and the weaving as well as the servicing of the networks of bonds with other self-constituting individuals.

- to question the precariousness of human partnerships

- to criticize the fragility of all common action

- to move beyond the impossibility of generalizing experiences, lived-through as personal and subjective, into problems fit to be inscribed into the public agenda. pp. 49-50

Defense of public sphere: Any true liberation calls today for more, not less, of the ‘public sphere’ and ‘public power’ It is now the public sphere which badly needs defence against the invading private – though, paradoxically, in order to enhance, not cut down, individual liberty. p. 59


Joshua discourse ↔ Genesis discourse, or order↔disorder (pp. 54-55)

The world sustaining the Joshua discourse and making it credible was the Fordist world as the highest achievement to date of order-aimed social ingineering. p. 57


Capital and labour were fixed to the ground. Now capital travels light, while labor remains as immobilized as it was in the past. p. 58

Domination of instrumental rationality, but without knowing the ends (goals).

No Big Brother, no Supreme office (multiplication of authorities).

Everything, so to speak, is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best – that is, to the greatest conceivable satisfaction. It is up to the individual to ‘tame the unexpected to become an entertainment’ p. 62.

Leaders ↔ Counsellors pp. 64-65

Leaders – act as two-way translators between individual good and the ‘good of us all’, or (as Wright C. Mills would have put it) between private worries and public issues.

Counsellors – are wary of ever stepping beyond the closed area of the private. Illnesses are individual, and so is the therapy; worries are private, and so are the means to fight them off. The counsels which the counsellors supply refer to life-politics, not to Politics with a capital P; they refer to what the counselled persons might do by themselves and for themselves, each one for himself or herself – not to what they all together might achieve for each one of them, once they join forces. pp. 64-65

Demise of politics as we know it: the activity charged with the task of translating private problems into public issues (and vice versa) became the discussion of private problems of public figures. p. 70

The new consumerism is driven not by needs but by desire. […] Not founded upon the regulation (stimulation) of desire, but upon the liberation of wishful fantasies. p. 74

Commodification of the body – it has to fit, to be healthy.

Shopping as exorcism

Consumer dependency as a substituent of society: In a consumer society, sharing in consumer dependency – in the universal dependency on shopping – is the condition sine qua non of all individual freedom; above all, of the freedom to be different, to ‘have identity’. pp. 84-85

the mobility and the flexibility of identification which characterize the ‘shopping around’ type of life are not so much vehicles of emancipation as the instruments of the redistribution of freedoms. p. 90


community – the last relic of the old-time utopias of the good society. p. 92

civil space – the provision of spaces which people may share as public personae.

models of civil space:

- La Defense is first and foremost the inhospitality of the place: everything within sight inspires awe yet discourages staying (emic place).

- The second category of public yet non-civil space is meant to serve the consumers or, rather, to transubstantiate the city resident into a consumer. In the words of Liisa Uusitalo, ‘Consumers often share physical spaces of consumption such as concert or exhibition halls, tourist resorts, sport activity sites, shopping malls and cafeterias, without having any actual social interaction.’ Such spaces encourage action, not inter-action. (phagic place)

- non-places (Marc Auge) – airports, highways

- empty spaces – spaces empty of meaning, they are seen as empty.  pp. 96-97

conquest and routinization of time

instant living

unstable and transient objects


Self-confidence of moderns: Progress? Do not think of it as ‘the work of history’ It is our work, the work of us, who live in the present. p. 131

Progress= the self-confidence of the present. p. 132

The absence of an agency able to “move the world forward’

It is unclear what the agency should do to improve the shape of the world in the unlikely case that it is powerful enough to do it. pp. 133-134

Fear of Big utopias.

Progress has now been ‘individualized”, deregulated and privatized. p. 135

The transformation of labour toward flexibility.

individualization of labor and stresses associated with it

inadequacy of old form of solidarity, union action.

disengagement and loosening of ties linking capital and labour. p. 149

the reproduction and growth of capital, profits and dividents and the satisfaction of stockholders have all become largely independent from the duration of any particular local engagement with labour. p. 149

capital has become light, exterritorial, unencumbered and disembedded. p. 149

politics has today become a tug-of war between the speed with which capital can move and the ‘slowing down’ capacities of local powers, and it is the local institutions which more often than not feel like waging a battle they cannot win. p. 150

ideas become the main sources of profit, rather than material objects.

4 categories of people presently engaged in economic activity (according to Robert Reich):

- ‘Symbol manipulators’, people who invent the ideas and the ways to make them desirable and marketable

- People engaged in the reproduction of labour (educators or various functionaries of welfare state)

- People employed in ‘personal services’ – the sellers of products and the producers of desire for products

- ‘Routine labourers’, tied to the assembly line or ( in more up-to-date plants) to the computer networks and electronic automated devices like check-out points. pp. 151-152

Procrastination as delay of gratification.

To “put ploughing and sowing above harvesting and ingesting the crops, investment above creaming off the gains, saving above spending, self-denial above self-indulgence, work above consumption.” p. 158

Procrastination led to two different tendencies

- work ethic, or work for the work’s sake

- aesthetic of consumption p. 158

Instrumentalization of the world: Precarious economic and social conditions train men and women (or make them learn the hard way) to perceive the world as a container full of disposable objects, objects for one-off use; the whole world – including other human beings. p. 162

Bonds and partnerships tend to be viewed and treated as things meant to be consumed, not produced; they are subject to the same criteria of evaluation as all other objects of consumption. p. 163


All communities are postulated; projects rather than realities, something that comes after, not before the individual choice. p. 169

Three models of unity

- nationalism

- patriotism

- republicanism

The republican model is the sole variant of unity (the only formula of togetherness) which the conditions of liquid modernity render compatible, plausible and realistic.

This model of an emergent unity which is a joint achievement of the agents engaged in self-identification pursuits, a unity which is an outcome, not an a priori given condition, of shared life, a unity put together through negotiation and reconciliation, not the denial, stifling or smothering out of differences. p. 178

The ‘unholy trinity’ of uncertainty, insecurity and unsafety, each one generating anxiety. p. 181

Body and community are the last defensive outposts on the increasingly deserted battlefield on which the war for certainty, security and safety is waged daily with little, if any, respite. p. 184

The decline of nation-states – eroded by the new global powers armed with the awesome weapons of exterritoriality, speed of movement and evasion/escape ability; retribution for violating the new global brief is swift and merciless. p. 186

Discreditation of nation-states sovereignty

The role of violence in the birth and perseverance of community. (R. Girard) p. 194

the task of sociology – to make intelligible the human condition.

Sociology, one is tempted to say, is a third current, running in parallel with poetry and history. Or at least this is what it should be if it is to stay inside that human condition which it tries to grasp and make intelligible; and this is what it has tried to become since its inception, though it has been repeatedly diverted from trying by mistaking the seemingly impenetrable and not-yet-decomposed walls for the ultimate limits of human potential and going out of its way to reassure the garrison commanders and the troops they command that the lines they have drawn to set aside the off-limits areas will never be transgressed. pp. 203-204

Sociologists, artists and philosophers – have to be at home in many homes, but to be in each inside and outside at the same time, to combine intimacy with the critical look of an

outsider, involvement with detachment – a trick which sedentary people are unlikely to learn. p. 207

Taking distance, taking time – in order to separate destiny and fate, to emancipate destiny from fate, to make destiny free to confront fate and challenge it: this is the calling of sociology. And this is what sociologists may do, if they consciously, deliberately and earnestly strive to reforge the calling they have joined – their fate – into their destiny. p. 210

The need for sociological imagination: sociology is needed today more than ever before. The job in which sociologists are the experts, the job of restoring to view the lost link between objective affliction and subjective experience, has become more vital and indispensable than ever, while less likely than ever to be performed without their professional help, since its performance by the spokesmen and practitioners of other fields of expertise has become utterly improbable. p. 211

Sociology -  enlightenment aimed at human understanding. p. 211

Sociology is the sole field of expertise in which Dilthey’s famed distinction between explanation and understanding has been overcome and cancelled. p. 211-212

The kind of enlightenment which sociology is capable of delivering is addressed to freely choosing individuals and aimed at enhancing and reinforcing their freedom of choice. Its immediate objective is to reopen the allegedly shut case of explanation and so to promote understanding. It is the self-formation and self-assertion of individual men and women, the preliminary condition of their ability to decide whether they want the kind of life that has been presented to them as their fate that as a result of sociological enlightenment may gain in vigour, effectiveness and rationality. The cause of the autonomous society may profit together with the cause of the autonomous individual; they can only win or lose together. p. 212

The absence of guaranteed meanings – of absolute truths, of preordained norms of conduct, of pre-drawn borderlines between right and wrong, no longer needing attention, of guaranteed rules of successful action – is the conditio sine qua non of, simultaneously, a truly autonomous society and truly free individuals; autonomous society and the freedom o f its members condition each other. Whatever safety democracy and individuality may muster depends not on fighting the endemic contingency and uncertainty of human condition, but on recognizing it and facing its consequences point-blank. pp. 212-213

Orthodox sociology ↔ sociology of liquid modernity

Orthodox sociology was preoccupied with the conditions of human obedience and conformity

Sociology of liquid modernity must therefore put individual self-awareness, understanding and responsibility at its focus.

Doing sociology and writing sociology is aimed at disclosing the possibility of living together differently, with less misery or no misery: the possibility daily withheld, overlooked or unbelieved. Not-seeing, not-seeking and thereby suppressing this possibility is itself part of human misery and a major factor in its perpetuation. Its disclosure does not by itself predetermine its use; also, when known, possibilities may not be trusted enough to be put to the test of reality. Disclosure is the beginning, not the end of the war against human misery. pp. 215-216

Impossibility of neutral sociology.

There is no choice between ‘engaged’ and ‘neutral’ ways of doing sociology. A non-committal sociology is an impossibility. Seeking a morally neutral stance among the many brands of sociology practised today, brands stretching all the way from the outspokenly libertarian to the staunchly communitarian, would be a vain effort. Sociologists may deny or forget the ‘world-view’ effects of their work, and the impact of that view on human singular or joint actions, only at the expense of forfeiting that responsibility of choice which every other human being faces daily. The job of sociology is to see to it that the choices are genuinely free, and that they remain so, increasingly so, for the duration of humanity. p. 216

2010-10-31 23:59:16


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