Peter Beilharz, Intimacy in Postmodern Times: A Friendship with Zygmunt Bauman (Manchester University Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Christopher G. Robbins (Eastern Michigan University)
(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)
Intimacy in Postmodern Times is not a love song, though it could be. And, this is not a review, though some may read it as such. Written by Beilharz (2020) to serve a process of self-clarification after Zygmunt Bauman died on 9 January 2017, Intimacy in Postmodern Times tells an elegantly layered story about “love, death, and friendship—mainly friendship” between Bauman and him (p.xi). Much needs to be considered, disentangled and organized, particularly when dealing with such categories and the ways two thinkers like Bauman and Beilharz went about the work of love, of friendship, and of their vocation that spanned decades, disciplines, distinct biographies and cultures, institutional (dis)locations and rearrangements, and thousands of miles. Love and friendship, love and vocation, friendship and biography, intimacy and masculinity, vocation and (dis)location —any one of these combinations on their own could easily fill a volume, and both of this story’s characters can handily fill volumes. Somehow, Beilharz threads and pulls the threads of these and other categories in this nimble set of recollections that range from breezy to reflective and suggestive to substantive. He provides insight to the complex tapestry of their commitment to each other, to their projects and purposes and, in this reader’s opinion, to us, in the form of a guidebook to the outlines of their formidable legacies of thought and ways of thinking with others about the overlapping worlds and contrapuntal forces we experience at various levels of society. Movement, not stasis. It’s a frustrating and frustrated mess, these (post)modern times, when one cares to understand how we got into it and how we might get through, out of, or beyond it. Yet, real joy and possibility remain with others, as with Beilharz with Bauman.
Understanding why Beilharz undertook this project is easy, even if the palpable sadness from the loss of his dear friend Z. is difficult throughout, as it should be. He needed to settle accounts (and, pleasantly, a score or two), he notes, while achieving a type of closure on his relationship with Bauman. Yet, I am not sure that closure of this kind can be so cut and dry, or that the openings made in the writing of such a work can help one sweep the floors, close the workshop, and lock the doors for the night, much less for good. Work brought them together. Work (and respect, trust, humor and humility, generosity, food, drink, writing/thinking, modernity/socialism, labour, postmodernity, utopia, culture and much else) sustained them. Maybe work about—or working out his memories of—their relationship would show him the way forward, moving backward (movement marks Beilharz and his thought), while keeping Bauman present in his absence and helping Beilharz be present again as he came to terms with Bauman’s absence. As Beilharz says with a concision as charmingly haunting as it is hopeful, “Our ghosts never finally leave us, not until we leave them” (p.112).
Beilharz asks early in the story, “why” should a reader “read this book about sociology and sociologists, in this case Bauman and [him]” (p.3)? A question more pertinent: Why and how in the world would I attempt to assay such a beautiful work? I won’t, at least not as much as I will interact with the impressions that Beilharz’s story made on me. Intimacy in Postmodern Times, after all, chronicles and probes Beilharz and Bauman’s relationship, and their relationships with others, as much as it tracks their projects while they responded to the wider world in which they did their work. The latter can be objectified, the former less so without doing violence to it, or them. Self-effacing and other- and outward-oriented, Beilharz typically puts himself to the side, though he is one of the main characters. Imagine: a story or play wherein the main character plays a supporting, rather than leading or agonistic, role. Goffman, or maybe Levon Helm or Charlie Watts, might have to help crack that nut. Similarly, Beilharz has an abiding capacity to understand and present social things in relation and in their many active processes of relating, in movement. He exercises the same skill throughout Intimacy: the focus is not on “him,” so much as on his relationship and relating with/to Bauman, and yet others. Bonding, not unbinding. Opening out, not closing in or off. Throughout Intimacy, Beilharz makes friendship seem, probably as it should, like a verb: structure as action as much as, or before, it can be form, and action again when we—with others—give names to, make meaning of, and invest power in it. Maybe friendship names the activities by and form through which we exercise our primary freedom. By law or decree, slaves in all places and times were forbidden to have friends. Friendship as activity and practice of freedom, anyhow, comes to this reader’s mind when thinking of how Beilharz and Bauman related to each other as chronicled in Intimacy.
Yet, no matter how much Beilharz points the reader to those around him and highlights their works, their thinking, the challenges of our common global world, one still gets ample sense that he has let the reader in on something that is, well, personal. And, for that matter, he didn’t have to do so. He extends a generosity (and trust) that, in this regard, is too uncommon in the ratings and rankings race that has been made of or passes as much intellectual work. What’s more, he could have written a different story, and he has…many, in fact. This isn’t Beilharz on the error of Trotskyism, Beilharz on labour and utopias, Beilharz on modernity, Beilharz on postmodern socialism, Beilharz on the Antipodes, Beilharz on Smith, even Beilharz (2000) on Bauman, or Beilharz on… This is Beilharz with his memories of his dear friend Bauman.And, after Beilharz has invited me into his (or Bauman’s) living room in this book, what gives me any right, much less authority, to kick back and kick over his drum kit and then rest my dirty shoes on his coffee table? This, again, is not a review.
Why, then, should one read this work? I have an uncharacteristically direct answer. Because Bauman and Beilharz produced, separately and in conversation with each other, two of the late 20th and, to date, 21st centuries’ most prolific, penetrating, wide-ranging and kaleidoscopic and, thus, challenging bodies of works on modernity, socialism, postmodernity, culture, art, politics, and much else. I came to it honestly: Familiar with their bodies of work, I was curious how my distant and unwitting teachers did what they did. Beilharz satiated much of this curiosity, while provoking others. He is an educator. More critically, Intimacy provides a guide to each of their expansive fields of work, while bringing the reader to the cartographers’ drafting tables to glimpse at how they mapped some of their territories. In the process, Beilharz provides keys for how to be wide-awake, sensitive and open, to the other, to the world. Tangoing requires two, like intimacy requires respect and mutualism, when one opens up to be impressed upon as much as (or more than) s/he/they impress, or impress upon. Cognitive and affective movement is movement and, perhaps, movement sometimes has to matter in this manner before any other kind of movement can matter, much less persist in any resilient and dynamic way.
What’s more, sociology and cultural work itself is a challenge, for those who do it (and they never do it alone), and for those whose power occasionally falls under sociology’s bright light. Doing professional work of this sort is also challenged by institutional conditions that are organized in the interests of fast thinking (apologies for the oxymoron), in those instances when the institutions aren’t producing fast forgetting, an even faster buck, a fast grip on or fast release of faculty, and the violence all of this inheres and normalizes. Esteemed and accomplished? Unequivocally, but not in bean counting, knee capping, or fast fixes. Both Beilharz and Bauman still know the low blows of the business side of the higher learning, like the fast, unceremonious release. All the same, sociology holds a promise, as Mills and Bauman said in their own ways: to expose and challenge power, reduce suffering, and expand freedom. Bauman and Beilharz, separately and together, took (and, in Beilharz’s case, still takes) this promise seriously, though Beilharz strikes me throughout Intimacy as one allergic to the self-centeredness or self-confidence required to say so about himself. (Bauman strikes me much the same throughout his writings.) To brag as chanticleer would waste time and energy for Beilharz, it seems. He has work to do, questions to ask, archives to visit and places to see, projects to develop, matches to make, journals and centers to lead, students from and with whom to learn, drums to play, a Duane Allman deep cut to put in his ear (probably Allman with John Hammond or Allman backing Aretha, I would imagine).
Why, again, should one read this book about sociology and these sociologists? To learn how people, the giants included, get on and get along, even—or especially—in troubled times and places. And, ours obviously became both more troubled and more troubling at the time Beilharz’s ink dried on this book. Sociologists, both professional and organic, but perhaps particularly the professional, would be served well by recalling that this vexing facet of the human experience—how to get along so that we can get beyond a world gone wrong—is their purview and the promise of their vocation, not that of the economists, marketers, Newscorp, or weapons specialists. One could do worse than understand the friendship modelled by these exemplars. There’s a crash on the levee, and you’re gonna have to find yourself a best friend (or a few) somehow. Friendship, in Beilharz’s locution, makes “so much possible, even thinkable” (p.xi).
Bauman was and continues to be Beilharz’s teacher, as he was his friend. And, both teachers and students figure conspicuously throughout this story as much for Beilharz as for me the reader, since his account settling cannot but encourage readers to balance the ledger and recall the large shoulders on which they ride. Beilharz expresses deep gratitude, even affection, for those involved in his formation (actually for anyone intimately involved in his life, it remarkably appears): his year 12 teacher Saffin who instigated his fascination with archives (Beilharz appreciates good collections); the Gramscian scholar Alastair Davidson who shepherded his dissertation; Agnes Heller (both his teacher and subsequent colleague); and, later in life, the art historian and cultural theorist Bernard Smith. This is my short list, not Beilharz’s. Beilharz holds students in similarly high regard. One gets the sense that Beilharz has merely extended his role as student as much as he has performed his role as “teacher.” And, maybe that’s part of the lesson in the background of this homage Beilharz pays to Bauman (and his other teachers and colleagues, local and global): Some of the best teachers must themselves be relentless students. Beilharz’s affection and gratitude for his students seems as appreciable as that he has for his teachers because, I surmise, he likely sees himself as one of them, too, just further on up the road. Mutualism and respect prevail, as they must, in both thought and action. Movement. We always move in relation to… something or someone; Beilharz’s story shows the possibilities of moving in relation with.
Movement pervades this story in ways that are both interesting and evocative, productively perplexing in moments. Perhaps memoir, having to do foundationally with memory or its reconstruction, can do few other things than evoke for the reader and writer alike a dynamic interplay between momentary clarity and the struggle to clarify details, moments, or emotions that are interlaced with other details, moments, and emotions. Akin to Sisyphus but without having asked for the responsibility we must assume in carrying and caring for memories, we try to put in place, at least for a moment, things that are bound to move and, when they move or are moved, unsettle other things along the away. Our memories do not typically appear as separate movie stills, but as the interplay of image chains made of verifiable facts and fleeting and fickle emotions, with our need to remember somethings in one moment dancing with our want to recall or to push away others—the needs and wants sometimes reversing from moment to moment in response to what set the image chains into motion in the first place. Sometimes, in this regard, the catalyst is our memories themselves choosing us, compelling us, in turn, to choose what we do with them and how we respond to them when they appear. This is because, as explained by Ricoeur (2004), memory is “tied to an ambition, a claim—to be faithful to the past” (21). Beilharz’s body of work shows a scrupulous fidelity to and unremitting rigor in looking at the past, and the same holds true in Intimacy, only Beilharz needs to confront memory, too, as he applies his historian sensibilities. To reconcile these competing demands, impossible as such a task seems to this reader but clearly not to Beilharz, necessitates some structure, form, order to make sense of it all.
Beilharz imposes order in the first section by way of temporal boxes of decades filled with the verifiables—plane tickets, travel itineraries, personal notes, correspondences, family travel, professional appointments, choice cuts left for some inexplicable reason on the studio floor or on a piece of paper stuffed in a book, etc. The looking back thereafter becomes a challenge to make sense, to give some coherent shape—and meaning—to it all, to be faithful to the past, his and Bauman’s past together. Consequently, Beilharz’s order becomes theme rather than strict chronology in the second and third movements of the story, and some memories reappear, looking a bit different, even prismatic and occasionally wistful, as Beilharz looks differently at them. More interpretation, less certainty. Certain things, however, cannot be remembered mistakenly, whatever the cause of their appearance, like when Beilharz chipped his tooth on buckshot that remained in game that Bauman fed him, or the palpable malaise of busyness that hovered over the later years of the relationship. While Beilharz balanced dizzying productivity with the painful experience of the university morphing into a managerial machine, Bauman hit an intensively brisk stride, too, or, more incredibly, intensified his already brisk clip—after 80! The managerial machine’s malaise appears to this reader, in these moments of Beilharz’s reflections, hovering like a noxious cloud in the background of a double-edged longing, the longing communicating possibly more truth about the deleterious effects of these strange institutions like universities on the most personal of relationships than a proper study could. Beilharz missed his friend, and he seems to realize that he also, in fact, previously missed him but, unlike in the writing of this story, cannot any longer do anything about the past longing. One cannot mistakenly remember some things, even if they cannot present concrete datum, and the asking for hard proof of some things might violate the truth that ties all of the data together. “What else was going on there? With the evidence I can put my fingers or eyes on, can I be certain that A is not B or that A might have been B, too?” So it is with Beilharz’s memories as it is with his work: movement, relation, meaning-making, until he, a series of memories or something else moves again, and then the process begins anew. A rolling stone doesn’t gather moss. That’s Muddy Waters and also The Temptations, and Joe Hill even before them, before The Rolling Stones, Dylan, Beilharz.
Movement figures prominently not only because of Beilharz’s theoretical-philosophical disposition and investments, but also because of reasons both more personal and historical for Bauman and him, which do not appear easily to an outsider or, more accurately, observer. Beilharz, Bauman and his wife, Janina (Bauman, 1986; 1988), and others have documented the Baumans’ experiences with being always on the outside on the inside or being denied the choice of being an insider or outsider when they were foisted to another inside, as readers moderately familiar with Bauman know: Holocaust. Gulag Archipelago. The party without dance, or humor (Kundera, 1993). Exile. Modernity at its most calculatingly and predictably brutal, and modernity at the end of one of its predictable paths (Bauman, 1989). Interestingly, seemingly to pre-empt the always-possible imposition or exclusion, Bauman later chose and recommended others to choose exile, intellectual or otherwise—to see it not as being without a home and set adrift, but as one voluntarily making oneself at home, with others, in many places (Bauman, 2000). Different but parallel dynamics, not the least being forced movement, characterize Beilharz’s family history, too. New to this reader, however, these details will remain as they exist: in Beilharz’s delicately touching and measured voicings and rhythms. I do not play drums, and I am not going to start doing so with his kit. Yet, being an outsider of some sort emerges throughout Beilharz’s movement between memories and their interlocking contexts as, perhaps, one of the strong links that couples Bauman and Beilharz. Being on the outside in one case and being far from the so-called center in the other informs not only the theoretical paths they followed, but also the ways they chose/choose to see and move along those paths, or choose a different path.
So it is that being Antipodean consciously informs Beilharz’s work (p.133), being in the south, simultaneously on the edge of the world and stuck in the middle of many of its crosscurrents or, in the long reach of the Colonialist pejorative, its backwaters. Structures may die, but their cognitive counterparts often stick around like a bad cough. Look out, kid! And, outward, as Beilharz does across his body of work and in this particular work. Beilharz takes this position and positioning very seriously, and not as a slight or disadvantage. To the contrary, the frisson and friction of being caught between different cultures, different histories, and different temporalities provide grist for Beilharz’s intellectual questions as much as for his curiosities about others in other places, and putting himself in other places and positions. In Beilharz’s inimitably taut prose, “creation issues from cultural traffic” (p.xiii), as it only can in the human-made world. Beilharz’s value of traffic informed the development of the wellspring of insight that is Thesis Eleven and later, under his leadership, its partner Centre. The Centre acts purposefully not as a mere entrepot, assembling and then distributing other people’s wares, but as a veritable point of production that others visit, and then depart, akin to Herbert’s hippopotamus, carrying the materials they gathered in those intellectual waters of Oz back to their own turf. This desire for traffic—movement—found Beilharz making as much traffic as that which he organized and directed, filling up an annual global itinerary that took him for years to the ASA conference, friends and cities and some archives stateside, and then onto Bauman’s house where he’d fill his head as much as his belly and some more archives. His reflections on these jaunts, along with the interplay of these reflections, read like one’s favorite liner notes. For me: Allen Ginsberg’s notes for Dylan’s Desire or Dylan’s own notes for The Times They Are A’Changin’, wherein one gets a sense of the orchestrated chaos, unbridled creativity, and the emotional infrastructure and labor that fuels, founds, and grounds the intellectual magic, the desire to challenge and be challenged, and to change and be changed.
As central as Beilharz’s memories of his annual visits with Zygmunt and Janina Bauman and their family are to this story, and he shares many warm ones, one cannot have those heartfelt moments without the distinctively intellectual ones. Intimacy is as much a backstage pass to the life of the mind as it is a memoir by any traditional measure. With these two thinkers, together, the head and the heart appear in the same place, same time, the head and the heart constantly negotiating which one or the other will take the lead. Both remain: the in relation with principle and movement principle, together. It is in these moments of the story that the depths of Beilharz’s and Bauman’s mutual respect and affection register deeply. Bauman’s (1998) scrupulous reading of Beilharz’s (1997) Thinking the Antipodes: Culture, Theory, and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith offers one such example of many, provided in its entirety by Beilharz in Intimacy. One sees the care and attention Bauman demonstrated in situating and extending upon Beilharz’s study while taking stock of Beilharz’s analysis on its own claims and the purposes he desired it to serve, much the same as Beilharz did with Bauman’s (1987) Legislators and Interpreters before they knew each other. This was serious work, not simply because this was serious material, but because they were also genuinely serious about the person who created the work and dignifying the central questions and concerns that animated each other’s thinking. Sometimes, it does mean that much to me to mean that much to you. Careerism be damned, or opposed. While friendship makes so much possible, writing obviously made much of this relationship possible, even thinkable. These are critical hermeneuts, after all. Writing was thinking for both of them, serving firstly their unrelenting desire to understand, themselves, others, their questions in relationship with others’ questions.
Beilharz makes it clear that he is not the only one. Many others had their friendships and intellectual engagements with Bauman, though many of these were with Bauman after “Bauman.” Beilharz shares his story, and others can and likely will do the same; he has kept open, rather than closed, the opportunity for them to do so. An interesting and subtle tension, however, exists in Beilharz’s “Bauman before Bauman” and “Beilharz before Bauman” hook. One pole of this tension pertains to the fact that they both had and pursued singular projects, no matter the conceptual and theoretical overlap, before “Bauman” and Beilharz on Bauman. Bauman. Beilharz. Bauman is essential to understanding “Bauman,” and so is Beilharz (before Bauman) for understanding Beilharz with and after Bauman and what made their intellectual affinities possible, deep, and durable. Celebrity, as such, anchors the other pole. Beilharz registers a concern about the ways celebrity often elicits facile readings and distortions when less careful, which means less caring, people ignore the person and the vast body of work and its endless complexity—relevent data that get lost in the haze of celebrity, or the sparks from axes grinding. This is Beilharz being both friend and responsible intellectual. Bauman (and others) can and should be critiqued, and there is room for critique (see Jacobson and Poder, 2016, or Davis, 2016), but it should be done honestly with the first purpose being understanding and, if appropriate, to push us to do better—the standard Beilharz and Bauman held for and applied to themselves.
If Beilharz settled accounts and engaged in self-clarification, it is not for me to say. He doubtlessly clarified many questions for me, while creating new ones as, in my opinion, any worthwhile book or teacher will do. Similarly, whether or not Beilharz achieved the closure he needed is a question only he could answer and, honestly, answer only for and to himself. This is not a review, but there is room for an ever-slight critique, and hope. Beilharz left this reader with a sense that he actually opened, or at least left open, as much as he possibly closed with his relationship with Bauman. Maybe closure for such a friendship is the errand of a fool, not a friend, anyhow: “Our ghosts never finally leave us, until we leave them.” Judging by the already voluminous Bauman work published since Bauman passed in 2017 and the indications that there is more Bauman to come, there will be a Bauman after Bauman. There is a Bauman after Bauman, and there is comfort, great curiosity and possibility, and hope in that fact. If Intimacy is any indication, then there is also Beilharz after Bauman, as there was before Bauman, and Beilharz suffers not from a dearth of questions. Beilharz, consequently, achieved something of much wider significance than closure: He wrote his way (moved?) forward, or through his grief, with Bauman, after Bauman, and left a new map that shows us how and why we should continue thinking with Bauman, and others, after Bauman.
Bauman, J. (1988), A Dream of Belonging, London: Virago.
Bauman, J. (1986), Winter in the Morning, London: Virago.
Bauman, Z. (1998), ‘Imagining the Antipodes’, Thesis Eleven, 53.
Bauman, Z. (1999), In Search of Politics, Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bauman, Z. (1987), Legislators and interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, and Intellectuals, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Bauman, Z. (1989), Modernity and the Holocaust, Malden, MA: Polity.
Bauman, Z. (2000), ‘On Writing: On Writing Sociology,’ Theory, Culture & Society 17(1).
Beilharz, P. (1997), Imagining the Antipodes: Theory, Culture and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Beilharz, P. (2000), Zygmunt Bauman: Dialectic of Modernity, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Bernstein, R.J. (1976), The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Davies, B. and Petersen, E. (2005), ‘Neo-Liberal Discourse in the Academy: The Forestalling of (Collective) Resistance’, Language and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2(2).
Davis, M. (2016), Freedom and Consumerism: A Critique of Zygmunt Bauman’s Sociology, NY: Routledge.
Fields, K.E. and Fields B.J. (2014), Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Brooklyn, NY: Verso.
Giroux, H. (1983), Theory and Resistance in Education: Toward a Pedagogy for the Opposition, Westport, CT: Praeger.
Jacobson, M.H. and Poder P.(eds.). (2016), The Sociology of Zygmunt Bauman: Challenges and Critique, London: Routledge.
Kundera, M. (1993), The Joke, NY: Harper Perennial.
Ricoeur, P. (2004), Memory, History, and Forgetting (Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer), Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
 My mentor, the prolific and potent Henry Giroux, introduced me to both Bauman and Beilharz. On my first day working with him, he handed me three books: his classic Theory and Resistance in Education (Giroux, 1983), Bernstein’s (1976) The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory, and Bauman’s (1999) In Search of Politics and said, “You have to read this book, and then everything else by Bauman. No one is doing Critical Theory like this guy.” Beilharz’s (2000) Dialectic of Modernity also soon appeared on my desk, compliments of Henry replete with his high compliments of Beilharz’s DoM.
 For a field report on such managerial malaise and, interestingly, one done during the period considered by Beilharz in these particular reflections, see Davies and Petersen (2005).
 I take this notion of “what one cannot remember mistakenly” from a chillingly powerful meditation on historical work, memory, and sociological methodology in Fields and Fields’ (2014) penetrating and essential analysis of U.S. classism/racism and “the ideology of race.”