Book of the Week: 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World

Les Gofton hitches a very enjoyable ride with a silver surfer heading towards the future

August 26, 2010

Frank Sinatra, along with every innocent soul forced to endure the horrors perpetrated on the tune by his karaoke-armed admirers, loathed My Way, the appalling hymn of self-congratulation with which he became inextricably entwined in his declining years. The master of phrasing and lyrical chiaroscuro would instead, whenever given the choice, select an obscure and improbable piece on which to whet his formidable skills. My own favourite is the marvellous There's a Flaw in my Flu.

Zygmunt Bauman, for more than 40 years a peerless ornament to the intellectual life of Britain in general, sociology and Leeds in particular, here demonstrates a similar inclination to exercise his considerable gifts in unexpected territory, displaying commendable breadth and analytical chops in 44 bite-sized pensées, ranging from excavations of Twitter to swine flu and privacy, before reprising some of his Golden Oldies - consumerism, inequality, the collapse of the banks, Georg Simmel on fashion, Albert Camus and Antonio Gramsci. Reading these marvellous little pearls of lucid and beautifully formed exposition indeed recalls a master balladeer from the past: like old 78s, none of them more than three minutes long, elegant as a Billy May arrangement of a Harold Arlen tune, sharp and effortless as a Charlie Parker solo.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of a Bauman lecture will acknowledge his gifts. The elegance of beautifully clear but wide-ranging and erudite arguments, subtly and smoothly organised - look, no jargon, no labyrinthine theoretical scaffolding. Bauman, as Peter Beilharz has remarked, believes that sociology has a mission; that it exists to make sense of the world, to see through the institutionalised befuddlements of what he nowadays refers to as "liquid modernity" - postmodernity, or perhaps late modernity, shorn of the invisible raiments so admired by its apostles 20 years ago. His greatest achievements undoubtedly lie in the unblinking analyses of totalitarianism and modernity he presents - entirely appropriate for a Polish-Jewish refugee from both Nazism and Bolshevism, but only possible because of a joyously free-ranging syncretism that can marry a mastery of sociology in all its forms with themes and observations from classical and modern research.

In some ways, these are almost literally snapshots. Bauman is a keen photographer and many of these pieces resemble nothing so much as the search for the "decisive moment". The gift of illumination by the unexpected conjunction of material - children and parents talking placed alongside a Jorge Luis Borges fable; the problems of predicting the future, and the demise of the ancient systems dedicated to this task (aeromancy, alectoromancy, aleuromancy, alphitomancy, anthropomancy, anthroposcopy, arithmancy, astro-diagnosis, astrognosy, astrology, astromancy, austromancy, axinomancy) is set alongside the burgeoning "science" of Sovietology in the late 1980s ("permanently and lavishly awash with funds, armed with numerous research institutes, and boasting thousands of celebrated scholars").

As the Berlin Wall was about to collapse, the denizens of this Emerald City were torn between those who foresaw a gradual convergence with capitalism, towards a "corporatist" solution, and the doomsday scenario of MAD (mutually assured destruction) as the unavoidable outcome of a world so long divided, so bitterly entrenched. Not one of these notables foresaw the actual denouement. For Bauman, it is a short hop from this to the recent meltdown of the banking sector and then the economy of the West, similarly unexpected by the legions of "quants" precisely charged with anticipating this kind of event in the seething engines of the financial juggernauts under their command. William Goldman, remarking a similar inability to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw in Hollywood, pronounced his most famous aphorism - "Nobody knows nothing".

For Bauman, the ineffability of the future may be an unavoidable feature of the human condition, and the role of experts - like England's midfield - may always be disappointing and woefully inadequate to the task, but he is a sociologist. As Erving Goffman pointed out many years ago, we routinely predict the future with very high degrees of success when we step into the road, confident that most drivers will not accelerate towards us, or when we invite guests to dinner and they do not steal our silver. Bauman cites Gramsci, who averred that the best way to predict the future was to agree what we wanted, and then cause events to conform as closely as possible to those goals by working together.

The apparent modesty of this project is, I suggest, profoundly misleading. In the preface, Bauman describes its origins: the editors of La Repubblica commissioned him to produce one letter a fortnight. These 44 are the product of two years, 2008-09. The letters are from a liquid modern world, he says. Liquid because it is perpetually changing, incapable of keeping its shape; liquid because we are borne on its currents, our plans and possibilities shaped by whatever should float by, and whether it sinks or swims.

And they are liquid because our technology, in the past a source of mastery over the world, of advance and improvement as technical progress ameliorated the risks and inclemencies of nature, has, rather than offering us better solutions to our problems, overwhelmed us with a tsunami of information. Max Weber's fear of a history of rubbish is more ubiquitous than ever before. How, Bauman ponders, to sort the wheat from the blizzard of chaff, of "lies, illusions, rubbish and waste".

These letters attempt to do just that. They are, he tells us, "travel reports" - from the information superhighway, perhaps, as this is an octogenarian who has not budged from Leeds! The form, in point of fact, is highly significant. The brevity, the commitment to provide stories that traverse the apparently "obvious", immediate and mundane world, alongside tales of the exotic, the bizarre and far-off. In the state of liquid modernity, Bauman argues, these elements are to be conjoined - the obvious made strange in order to remake its familiarity, to set us, once again, at home with a world become alien as culture itself is made and remade moment by moment.

The choice of 44 letters itself has significance. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish romantic poet, created a character - "His name is 44" - as a symbol for freedom. There are no clear reasons for this, but its very indeterminacy and fluidity allows it to stand, for Bauman, "for the awe of, and hope for, the arrival of freedom".

The letters, then, are in themselves a response to the social world as Bauman sees it now. Their variety and idiosyncratic topics are a conscious response to the indeterminacy and unpredictability of its fads, fashion and tumult.

Like the work of Theodor Adorno, Bauman's has been shaped, more than anything else, by the shadow of the Shoah, the great storm of the 20th century and, more recently, the consequences of capitalist modernity for the values of its populations.

Both are implacable opponents of consumerism as a Lebensform, but while Adorno's pessimism and cultural conservatism detached him from much of the culture being formed around him in postwar America and Europe, Bauman has faced his world head-on. In the torrents of this liquid world, Zygmunt Bauman swims and surfs towards the future.

THE AUTHOR

Zygmunt Bauman is emeritus professor at the University of Leeds and is lauded as one of today's most influential sociologists. After retiring from academia in 1990, Professor Bauman has kept up an astonishing rate of publishing, with at least one book a year since that time.

Now based in the UK, he was born in Poland in 1925, and fled with his family to the Soviet Union in 1939 when Poland was invaded by German forces. He became a committed communist and served in the Internal Security Corps after the war, when he studied sociology at the Warsaw Academy of Social Sciences and went on to study philosophy at the University of Warsaw.

Exiled from Poland after the 1968 political crisis, which resulted in an anti-Semitic purge of the Jewish population, he went to Israel to teach at Tel Aviv University before accepting his chair at Leeds.

44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World

By Zygmunt Bauman

Polity Press, 208pp £45.00 and £12.99

ISBN 9780745650562 and 50579

Published 28 May 2010

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