Thinking in Dark Times with Zygmunt Bauman
Issue 156, February 2020
Guest editors: Griselda Pollock and Mark Davis
Thinking in dark times: Assessing the transdisciplinary legacies of Zygmunt Bauman
Griselda Pollock, Mark Davis
In 2018, the Bauman Institute and the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory & History (CentreCATH), both based at the University of Leeds (UK), initiated a transdisciplinary programme to assess the legacies of Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017), whose prolific writings we felt to be profoundly relevant to the multiple challenges of the 21st century. In this special issue of Thesis Eleven, we are marking just over three years since the death of Zygmunt Bauman by bringing together some of the contributions to that programme in order to revisit, elaborate, and crucially to extend his intellectual archive. Taking Bauman’s revision of contemporary social realities as a point of departure, each of the participants in this special issue re-examine – critically but also generously – the many questions Bauman asked, tried to answer, and imbued on the way with new and sometimes shocking insights. This paper surveys those contributions by way of introducing the special issue.
Liquid culture, the art of life and dancing with Tracey Emin: A feminist art historian/cultural analyst’s perspective on Bauman’s missing cultural hermeneutics
In this article I chart an indirect if not oblique path through my own theoretical formation as a social and feminist art historian, informed by Marxist cultural studies but deeply engaged with issues of difference and gender, to the response Zygmunt Bauman made to a book I gave him that I had reason to believe would resonate with his work. It did not. Indeed, my kind of theoretically informed visual and cultural analysis was indecipherable despite the influence of his writing after 1989 on my work. Gender was not a topic for Bauman. Feminist theory remained an impenetrable territory. Art (as opposed to culture) was not to be theorized. Yet, in his later work on liquid modernity, Bauman incorporated the idea that we are all now artists of life. Here I recognized an oblique and unjustified if not misdirected dismissal of the working-class British artist Tracey Emin. My article concludes with my reading of her video work, Why I Never Became a Dancer, which poignantly and defiantly exposes the social violence and violations of class, race and gender in British society which she experienced. I seek to demonstrate how Bauman’s acute, but often academically devalued, attentiveness to the vernacular and quotidian forms of cultural experience and its ability to register and reveal changing social forms and forces should have enabled him to see Emin’s work as equally acute and culturally significant.
Hermeneutics contra fundamentalism: Zygmunt Bauman’s method for thinking in dark times
Faced with a rise of populism seemingly in all corners of the globe, the need to facilitate meaningful communication between different world-views and to resist the closing down of dialogue is pressing. In this paper, I argue that Zygmunt Bauman’s sociological method has always been concerned with this problem and that a better appreciation of his writings on hermeneutics provides us with a vital strategy for resisting fundamentalist thinking in today’s dark times. To begin, I briefly explore the relationship between hermeneutics and fundamentalism before moving on to elaborate Bauman’s method of sociological hermeneutics. In the final section of the paper, I assess the implications that Bauman’s method has for the discipline of sociology at a time when the certainty of things is the most avid of dreams dreamed by people harassed and oppressed by the uncertainty of liquid modern life, apparently whatever the human consequences.
Liquid uncertainty, chaos and complexity: The gig economy and the open source movement
The gig economy has become a hot topic. The term itself derives from the world of entertainment, particularly live music, where performers striving for recognition hope to get a few ‘gigs’ – i.e. short-term and sporadic opportunities for paid employment, with the understanding that such engagements are limited and without any future obligation on either party – employer or employee. This seemingly gives both parties significant autonomy, albeit not in equal measure. Indeed, the terms ‘employer’ and ‘employee’, with respective connotations of extended and enduring responsibility, and mutual (if unequal) obligation, are hotly disputed. Are they self-employed contractors or employees of the company? In what follows, I show how key aspects of Zygmunt Bauman’s work prepare us for an understanding and appreciation of the gig economy, and other more extensive ramifications; particularly those exemplified in the success of the Open Source model, and its potential – or not – to provide the basis for new institutional forms appropriate and acceptable for our current context.
Zygmunt Bauman’s window: From Jews to strangers and back again
Legislators and Interpreters (1987), Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) and Modernity and Ambivalence (1991) are the foundational trilogy on which Zygmunt Bauman developed much of his later work (from postmodernity to liquid modernity and from “the Jew” to “the Stranger”). This article is a unique engagement with the trilogy and with the metaphorical thinking which relates the trilogy to Bauman’s later work in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The article is divided into three parts focusing broadly on Warsaw, Leeds, and Jerusalem as contextual “windows” for Bauman’s Jewishness under the sign of totalitarianism, exile, and globalism. This is the first account of Bauman’s Jewishness in relation to his extraordinary life and work and includes, for the first time, his little known “Jewish” essays which are placed next to his more general theories of modernity.
The war against forgetfulness: Sociological lessons from Bauman’s writings on European Jewry
This paper argues against assigning Zygmunt Bauman to the category of a ‘white’, ‘European’ theorist and the tendency to speak of an undifferentiated ‘Eurocentrism’. To argue this, I return to a set of articles by Bauman which reflected on the history of European Jewry. These encourage us to place Bauman in a historical and social context in which he is best identified as emerging from the racialized and classed politics of East European Jewry. Bauman traces how this group were made the outsiders of the assimilatory project of West European Jewry then, as Jewish socialists, were victims of the political anti-Semitism of communist regimes. Not only does this encourages us to be critical of the claims that he spoke from an elite ‘white European’ position, it also has further lessons for sociology which, in its own ‘war against forgetfulness’, has tended to impose simplistic racialized and political categories onto theorists.
Bauman as a refugee: We should not call refugees ‘migrants’
This paper claims that Bauman’s personal experiences deeply shaped his work. In the first part, I draw upon my own research, combining archive documents and interviews data, as well as – for the very first time – details taken from Zygmunt Bauman’s own unpublished autobiography, accessed courtesy of the Zygmunt and Janina Bauman Archive project at the University of Leeds. The second part of the paper draws upon my wider ethnographical study into the lived experiences of asylum seekers, conducted between 2017 and 2019 in Southern Europe. I focus here upon their experience of escape and their present life conditions in order to highlight important parallels with Bauman’s own experiences as a refugee. The conclusion draws both cases together in order to understand a less overt aspect of Bauman’s sociology and to claim that the term ‘migrant’ is both discriminatory and, in academic terms, incorrect. I argue that this diagnosis is reinforced further by the voices of intellectuals who themselves experienced the status of refugees: namely, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt.
Sixty-three years of thinking sociologically: Compiling the bibliography of Zygmunt Bauman
Jack Palmer, Dariusz Brzeziński, Tom Campbell
The article has two aims: firstly, it provides a holistic account of Zygmunt Bauman’s oeuvre, and secondly, it presents an extensive up-to-date and multilingual bibliography of his published writings. The authors discuss Bauman’s prolificacy, as well as the stylistic, formal and substantive heterogeneity of his work. Taking this into account, they reflect on the curious reception of his oeuvre in the wider disciplinary field of sociology. The bibliography attached to the paper provides the most complete account of Bauman’s writings. Building on previous bibliographies, and drawing on archival research in the Janina and Zygmunt Bauman Papers at the University of Leeds, the bibliography spans 63 years from his first publication to his most recent. Many of these papers – both in English and Polish – are presented for the first time in the list of his works.