Jack Palmer on ‘The Making and Unmaking of Strangers’

This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40

by Jack Palmer

Two Children on a Road (c.1939) Chaim Soutine

I revisit this piece of Bauman’s in the final month of a three-year research fellowship, ‘Bauman and the West’. During this time, I’ve read as much of his work as has been possible and have helped to organise the masses of personal documents, correspondence, research notebooks, drafts and unpublished manuscripts which constitute the archive of Janina and Zygmunt Bauman now accessible in Leeds, the Northern English city in which they lived in exile. It is difficult, in other words, to disentangle this piece both from my own preoccupations and from the mass of material which contextualises it.

I first read ‘The Making and Unmaking of Strangers’ where it is republished in Postmodernity and its Discontents, a collection of wide-ranging and loosely connected essays. A form typical of this stage of his work. Some of them are transcripts from lectures delivered at invited and esteemed lectures (the Manchester Annual Peace Lecture, for instance), reflecting perhaps a new-found fame and notoriety. Thesis Eleven was clearly a testing ground, it seems, a collection of the like-minded, alongside Telos, Theory, Culture & Society and The Jewish Quarterly.

The writing is diffuse and the focus extraterritorial: he is concerned with subterranean trends reached for and grasped metaphorically, rather than with their surface manifestations in specific times and places as documented empirically. It is an essayistic, story-telling sociology: at times, it can be frustrating in its non-specificity but it is exactly this non-specificity that opens it up as an interpretive frame towards contexts and cases which proceed it (as Cynthia Ozick once said, this openness distinguishes the essay form from the article).

This is, to evoke the late John Urry, a sociology beyond a (nation-state) society. As much is insinuated in the first line: ‘all societies produce strangers; but each kind of society produces its own kind of strangers, and produces them in its own inimitable way’ (p. 1). The article picks up on longstanding anthropological themes in Bauman’s cultural sociology, a refinement of certain arguments in the recently published Sketches in the Theory of Culture, the final chapter of Culture as Praxis and, of course, the historical-sociological account of Jewish modernity in Modernity and Ambivalence. Strangers are an inevitable product of cultural praxis, born at the margins of the structures imposed on the chaos of the world in the course of human activity. As marginal figures, they are a harbinger of that chaos, indeterminacy, groundlessness, and lightning rods for the anxiety, fear and disquiet that such a condition generates.

Bauman looks back on modernity from the vantage point of the novel condition of postmodernity, modernity aware of itself. The greatest crimes of modernity were rooted in visions of order, certainty and clarity which set upon the pure from the impure, the clean from the dirty, the known from the unknown. He speaks about assimilation and exclusion as, respectively, the anthropophagic (consuming) and the anthropoemic (vomiting) expressions of dealing with strangers. The most common expression of the tension between assimilationist and exclusionary forms of dealing with strangers were between the ‘liberal and the nationalist/racist versions of the modern project’ (p. 2). People are different, the liberal version implied, but since these differences have a cultural basis, people can be remade in the image of the same. The nationalist/racist version accepted the principle of difference, but emphatically not the premise that people can be converted since these differences were not simply cultural but were hereditary and biological. In both cases, the stranger was an obstacle in the pursuit of order.

But the essay also looks forward, anticipating liquidity. Here, now, was ‘a condition of uncertainty which is permanent and irreducible’ (p. 5). There is no longer any ‘stable ground to cast the anchor’ in which to fix ‘the floating and distant self’ (p. 4). Reading this text today one gets the uncanny sense that it was written as a response to the discontents of the contemporary period. Prefiguring the argument presented in Retrotopia, he continues: ‘in our postmodern times, the boundaries which tend to be simultaneously most strongly desired and most acutely missed are those of identity: of a rightful and secure position in the society, of a space unquestionably one’s own, where one can plan one’s life with a minimum of interference, play one’s role in a game in which the rules do not change overnight and without notice, act reasonably and hope for the better’ (p. 8).

The condition of postmodernity – inaugurated by the ‘new world disorder’, the ‘universal deregulation’, the degradation of traditional safety nets, and the ‘essential indeterminacy and malleability of the world’ (p. 5-7)  – changed the position of the stranger. Without order-building projects, the stranger is cast in a new social role. Bauman draws on Sartre’s analysis of les visquex here, the slimy, the substance which changes form, at once (for some) light and beautiful in which to swim and (for others) sticks to the body and weighs one down. For some residents of the contemporary global city, the stranger is light and beautiful, an object of pleasure and a reservoir of experience to be safely consumed in privatised and unthreatening spaces. For others without such privilege, the stranger is a reminder of their own powerlessness, the symbol of an insecure world: ‘The benign patriotism of the first rebounds as the racism of the second’ (p. 11). And Bauman writes of how this is exploited politically: ‘One needs … only to take a bus to refill the empty tank of nationalism with racist fuel’ (p. 12). How apt to read this in Britain – where Bauman wrote it all those years ago – at a time of shortages and fighting on fuel station forecourts, in no small part because antipathy towards strangers in our midst caused some of them to leave and take their HGVs with them.

Bauman was preoccupied with debates around communitarianism at this time, and in his work one finds a critique of the ‘differentialist racism’ shared by left and right alike. Difference is inevitable, and it is an unalloyed good in postmodern times, but this breeds its own kind of ‘ethnic absolutism’ to use Paul Gilroy’s terms. The message is ‘thou shalt not tie together what cultures, in their wisdom, have set apart. Let us, rather, help cultures – any culture – to go their own separate and, better still, inimitable way’ (p. 13). This is the message of the far-right fantasies of the great replacement and white genocide. Truly ‘doctrines of decay’ in Hannah Arendt’s words. It is implicit in the right-populist idea that the deportation of ‘foreign criminals’ is a gesture of solidarity, whatever the ambiguity of the ‘foreignness’ and the extent of the ‘criminality’ of those deportees may in actuality have been. Many of those of the ‘Windrush’ generation, their children and grandchildren have had to deal with the traumatic realisation that they have become again – or never stopped being – strangers, somewhere where they thought themselves, however precariously, at home. This is the case also with EU citizens who overnight became ‘migrants’.

All of the above examples develop on the yearning for ‘re-embedding what has been disembedded’ (p. 14), for a secure community splintered by the excessive freeing of the individual from the fetters of statist protection and universalising national culture:

The old racism turned its back on the emancipatory chance entailed in the modern project. I propose that, true to its nature, it turns its back now on the emancipatory chance which the changed, postmodern context of life holds. Only now, for the reason of curious amnesia or myopia, it is not alone in doing so. It sings in chorus with the lyrical voices of a growing number of social scientists and moral philosophers, who extol the warmth of the communal home and bewail the trials and tribulations of the unencumbered, homeless self (p. 14)

And one notes that these social sciences and philosophers, and social commentators, are prominent in British intellectual life, today railing against ‘wokeness’ and ‘virtue-signalling’. It is worth reminding ourselves that, even in the undeniable gloom of its ‘late style’, Bauman never took this way out, never moralised or yearned for the fragmented community to be made whole again.

Zygmunt Bauman’s article, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Strangers’ is free to download from the Sage website for a limited time as a part of the Thesis Eleven ‘Top 40’ special.

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