Book Review: Culture and Art

Zygmunt Bauman,
Culture and Art: Selected Writings Vol.1 (Polity, 2020)

Editors Dariusz Brzeziński, Thomas C. Campbell, Mark E. Davis, Jack Palmer

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz, Sichuan University


(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

Bauman’s Iceberg

What do we know? How do we learn? Hegel somewhere observes that there is a risk in familiarity: what you have grown up with, you think you know very well. Maybe; maybe not. In the case of Bauman, there are well known signposts – Holocaust, Liquid Modern and so on. Those of more empirical bent or general curiosity will have noticed that Bauman wrote of many things. He was both hedgehog and fox, depending on the day. He wrote many studies of other things, both in English and earlier in Polish. This has been known for some time, at least since it was registered in early works of Bauman interpretation by Tester and myself. But the tendency to reduce, to condense has been overpowering. The temptation has been to present Bauman as A, or B, then perhaps to knock the straw person over. Liquid Modernity – bah!

Now that he is gone there are different and distinct responses to the Bauman-shaped hole on the set. Some want him off the stage, even his shadow. Others will continue to labour in the vineyard. Others again may excavate. The latter field and crew includes the workers at the Bauman Institute in Leeds, whose archival dig on Bauman is just beginning to break. Three volumes with Polity are promised. This, on Culture and Art, is the first.

Are there surprises here? Welcome to Bauman’s iceberg, or part thereof.

What is below the waterline? Fifteen essays, from 1966 to 2015. Culture and society; time; Marx and Culture, and so on. Differently, chapters on Borges; Thinking Photographically, including several images from his own portfolio; Einstein meets Magritte, Calder and Mondrian, Damien Hirst and his formaldehyde shark, all the way from South Australia; death, Jews and Poles, following in the footsteps of Barbara Skarga and another love, Kundera, who offers a way into his thinking about the morganatic liaison of theory and literature.

Some of this work is exploratory, or experimental, discussing love, sex and fear in 1967, culture from Kroeber to Levi-Strauss, back to his beloved classics in the Greeks, forward to the postmodern. There are continuous patterns of thinking, including the critique of professional academic police work. Some of it is dated, of course, indicative of the fields of discourse and key authorities that were vital to his own formation, and from which we have now moved on. Who today reads Kroeber? Who manages, on the other hand, to persist in avoiding Levi-Strauss, and his centrality to this project or that of the human sciences in general?

Let us dip just a little further, into the materials on Bauman and photography here. They are, as he liked to say, morsels, small but tasty and suggestive of more to come.

Those who knew Bauman, or watched more closely, will know that in the early eighties he had a serious period of engagement in photography, acquiring equipment, setting up a darkroom in his pantry, joining local clubs and exhibiting locally and abroad. He also wrote a little on photography, which is included in this volume. ‘My masters? Cartier-Bresson. And Kertesz. And Brandt.’ Images are included: pastoral; dirty realist, signs of the Thatcherist times; street life in Manhattan. The obvious questions emerge, of the relationship between photography and sociology in Bauman. Were they supplements, or alternatives? and so on.  Some of these questions will further be pursued in a separate volume in development by Janet Wolff and me, as the archives and the aperture open further.

So Bauman Studies enters a new phase, more fully archival, and yet more publically open, two further volumes of selected writings to come. Led here by Dariusz Brzezinski, Mark Davis, Jack Palmer and Tom Campbell, together with virtuoso translator Katarzyna Bartoszynska, the project carries a genuine air of enthusiasm for its subject and their shared project. This is also evident in the shared launch, which can be accessed on the Bauman Institute website. It follows also on the recent publication of the lost text Sketches in the Theory of Culture (1968/2018), discussed earlier in the pages of Thesis Eleven, and the great leap forward offered by Izabela Wagner’s 2020 biography, Bauman.

What is beneath the waterline, for Zygmunt Bauman, sociologist of Leeds? Polish literature, and literature more generally. Levi Strauss, and Gramsci, and all the usual suspects. Worlds of images, and representation, art and photography. A lost world, now before us; the intellectual, critic and scholar at work in the years before Liquid Modernity. We enter his laboratory, or his darkroom, and watch as the outlines emerge, the contours and shapes develop. For those who still have some curiosity about the field, this is fascinating reading. Bon appetit!

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