When did doubting start?

Postmodernity and its Discontents
May 9, 1997

Zygmunt Bauman is regarded as Britain's premier sociologist of postmodernity. Born in 1925, he has achieved this position only since his retirement as professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, by producing a series of books such as Legislators and Interpreters (1987), Intimations of Postmodernity (1992) and, above all, Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), that have made Bauman obligatory reading.

Postmodernity and its Discontents continues Bauman's concern with the character of the postmodern world. The title is a direct reminder of Sigmund Freud's classic work, Civilisation and its Discontents, first published in 1929. Freud's major theme was that civilisation required people's natural appetites to be constrained in the interests of social harmony, which unavoidably inhibited personal freedom. Indeed, in Freud's account there is an acute sense of human tragedy; his book leaves one with an abiding image of people repressing their deepest human impulses.

Bauman believes that Freud's account has been superseded by the emergence of postmodern society. Today, he says, freedom is the overriding priority and there is resistance to any attempt to inhibit individual desires. People are expected, constantly, to choose for themselves how they wish to behave. Collective moral restraints have been markedly reduced. The freedom to choose has become a hallmark of the postmodern world.

The downside - and Bauman has an alert eye for the ambiguities of the postmodern - is that the removal of constraints has generated a constant sense of insecurity. If one is not constrained by the national interest, nor even by the need to conform to the norms of one's neighbours, then how is one to live? The question cannot be answered by looking to any external reference point, be it religion, politics or even art.

Postmodernity and its Discontents comprises 14 essays, each of which addresses the dilemmas entailed by the prioritisation of individual liberty. They cover a lot of ground, but it has to be said that they are not an easy read. In part this is because Bauman occupies the borderland where philosophy and sociology meet, a rugged and inhospitable terrain in which Bauman debates with the likes of Richard Rorty and Emmanuel Levinas. Also, he makes few connections between the essays, so a developing argument is hard to discern.

But the real problem is that Bauman is not a good writer at all. His sentences are typically cluttered with conditional clauses and irritating parentheses, and confused by a habit of introducing obscure jargon. Moreover, while it is impressive that Bauman is familiar with thinkers from numerous countries, it is unacceptable that he quotes them without translation. A writer, even a writer on postmodernity, ought not to presuppose knowledge of both French and German (still less Latin and Greek, though mercifully Bauman does translate from the Polish), among English readers. This book has important things to say, but it cries out for a determined editor demanding (modernist) clarity of communication. The book's obscurity is ironic, given its homage to Freud, a learned man who always wrote lucidly and cogently.

To have to complain about the poor quality of the writing is especially disappointing, because some of the book's arguments are interesting and thought provoking. Bauman is angry about the criminalisation of those excluded from the postmodern game for lack of resources. He develops this view intermittently in the text but notably in chapter three, on the decline of the welfare state. The modernist faith that underpinned the latter - that the good society could be conceived, planned and implemented - having been destroyed, Bauman looks with horror on the resourceless who are brutalised by the market and with disdain on the "law and order" response that demonises those who fail to succeed under advanced capitalism.

Capitalism? Oops! I have used a hopelessly modernist term not much found in Bauman's lexicon. It is a word which sharply divides. To be sure, capitalism has won out worldwide, and the socialist alternative now appears fantastic - but why this fact should impel thinkers to proclaim the arrival of postmodernity beats me. How much more accurate to describe today's world as one of triumphant and turbocharged (but unstable) capitalism accompanied by a correspondingly unsettled culture.

Struggling with this book's reiteration, time and again, that we live in times of unprecedented change, uncertainty, doubt and anxiety, I became exasperated. For Bauman, this situation is a characteristic of postmodernity, signalling a decisive and irrevocable historical shift. I am unconvinced, not least because he fails to offer any systematic empirical evidence to support the claim that we have entered a postmodern world. A great deal of the current uncertainty and change seems to me to be explicable in terms of capitalism's onward and unchallenged march. It is not postmodernity that leads to job insecurity, but the machinations of the global market and the unpredictability of investment decisions by private capital (and anyway, job flexibility, presented here as a feature of postmodernity, is nothing new, as any historical analysis of 19th-century labour will demonstrate).

Moreover, why should proponents of postmodernism feel that radical doubt is a new characteristic, something to be contrasted with the naive certainties of our forebears? Bauman repetitively suggests that in former times people were sure of themselves and their surroundings. For instance, he asserts that those who built Leeds town hall were confident of themselves and of the direction of social progress, as manifested in the bricks and mortar of those magnificent municipal buildings.

Similarly, he evokes a fictional character, David Copperfield, to suggest a profound contrast with today's insecure self typified by the tourist who travels but never arrives, and is only at home in his or her homelessness. I am not persuaded. One could make much the same case for the striking skyline of San Francisco's business centre as for Leeds Town Hall; and in the oeuvre of Dickens, there are plenty of "postmodern" characters if one wishes to find them (Wilkens Micawber, from the same novel, is arguably the personification of postmodern man, one of life's tourists if ever there was one). Too much of Bauman's case rests on argumentation without systematic evidence.

Bauman's claims for postmodernity pivot on the notion that modernity's "certainties" can never be reclaimed. He considers this liberating, because such certainties lead to tyrannies imposed in the name of truth, such as the authoritarianism of, say, Nazi or Stalinist ideology. It follows that Bauman endorses postmodern pluralism, with its openness to alternative interpretations and modesty about its own positions. He is even bold enough to call this a "hard-won . . . postmodern wisdom".

This strikes me as a great oversimplification of modernist thought. Whoever imagined that modernity went hand in glove with certainty? Think of the great novelists of modernity, such as Balzac, Dostoyevsky and Eliot, and one finds certainty in none of them, indeed quite the contrary: there is doubt, questioning, scepticism and insecurity (as there is, too, in Shakespeare).

Moreover, while I do not doubt that we are living through radical change it scarcely compares with the upheavals and horrors of the second world war, or even with the 1914-18 debacle. A lot of people thought then, and with good reason, that the world was in unprecedented turmoil, but they did not feel it necessary to speak of "postmodernity" to describe what they were suffering. It seems to me a conceit to imagine that the fag end of the 20th century is historically singular.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Postmodernity and its Discontents

Author - Zygmunt Bauman
ISBN - 0 7456 1790 5 and 1791 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 221

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