Book Review: Two For the Road

Zygmunt Bauman, Making the Familiar Unfamiliar A Conversation with Peter Haffner (Polity, 2020)

Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity, 2020)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version will appear in Thesis Eleven Journal, available soon on the T11 Sage website)

Polity Press has the social theory market in the West covered. They have a line of very big books, one of medium sized texts, and one of little books, for bus or train. These two most recent are valuable additions to pocket or backpack, or to read and pass on to a student or friend.

Zygmunt Bauman gained a reputation for writing little books, making them a focal point of his activity for more than 20 years of his working life. Many of these little books are dialogues of fairly tight compass – a theme or two bounced around for a hundred pages, often in the company of a specialized interlocutor. The volume presently under review is different. It cannot be too highly recommended, because its scope and the focused intelligence of its conversations make it both a refresher, for the well read, and a fine introduction for those new to Bauman. Peter Haffner is a journalist, of the first order; so was Bauman, in a particular sense, in the tradition following on from Marx and Simmel. The result of their encounter is fascinating, as it combines a breadth of interest with a sense of comfort in dialogue that is satisfying. They connect. This suggests the kind of intimacy that may be achieved by strangers who share open horizons and broad interests. The themes of discussion are already familiar: love and gender, experience and memory, Jewishness and communism, through to utopia and history, present and future and happiness and morality. More: cooking and kitchen; smoking, and religion; Kołakowski and me (= ZB), the death of Stalin and the arrival of Gramsci; Warsaw and the LSE; father and mother, Poles and Jews; Zionism, of course; on being a Polish sociologist, which he is across the planet, but not in Poland. ‘You must eat!’, Bauman exhorts his interviewer, proceeding to discuss daily routines of work and recovery, and so on. This is the art of sociology as playing along.

So Bauman is dead; who will replace him? One possible candidate is Hartmut Rosa. After two major books on social acceleration and what he calls Resonance, we now have this little, Bauman-like book. It offers a useful introduction to his thinking, but likely interested readers will need to turn to the thicker tomes for the detail and nuance. For without raising the righteous indignation of postcolonial critique against the book, it needs to be said at the beginning that there is a keyword missing from the title. Its subject is the Western, or Northern world.

The critical sensibilities here are admirable. They work in the wake of the critique of modernity as rational mastery (Castoriadis) or the idea that the world has become a point of aggression (Frankfurt). This approach suggests that the World presents itself to us as unpredictable, uncontrollable, where resonance is the alternative, or antidote. For the rationalization of the world demands self-monitoring, self-development, counting our daily steps and joules and helicoptering our children and theirs. We are obsessed by fear, and by the promise of expanding our share of the world.

Step back, for a moment. Rosa’s addressee is German, here in English translation. Whose life world is this? It is not that of those who lack papers, or who count small change rather than joules. What percentage of the global population lives the everyday life of predictability, even in north or west, for example across the United States today? As Rosa claims, life comes down to bringing the world within reach; that, or the most elementary needs of food and shelter. Not all planetary citizens can afford the cost of Western neurosis.

Is this Bauman 2.0? Rosa’s text is incredibly clear and systematic, not always attributes we would associate with Bauman’s work. Do Bauman and Rosa then inhabit the same world? Neither by generation, a theme for Bauman here, nor by method or immediate moral orientation. And yet … Perhaps the arrival of these two messages in bottles together is merely accidental. Without prejudice, I would nevertheless recommend reading them together, however you as a reader might inhabit these or other worlds.  They are good to think with, whatever comes to follow.

One thought on “Book Review: Two For the Road

  1. Reblogged this on yellow in grey and commented:
    Bauman and Rosa were among the most important actors for me when I was writing about the commodification of time.. Thank you for your book review. (I also learned many things from Barbara Adam and Robert Hassan 🙂


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