A Throwaway Biography:
The Brief Life of Zygmunt Bauman
Zygmunt Bauman is the greatest of the sociologists writing in English today – so says The Bauman Reader (Beilharz 2001, 1). He’s not just any old academic, but Professor Emeritus at two universities. At Leeds he was Chair of Sociology until 1990. He was a young academic at Warsaw. Bauman is from Poland; born into a Jewish family in Poznan in 1925.
He left with his family for the Soviet Union when war began in 1939. One friend was Stefan Morawski, subsequently another Professor Emeritus at Warsaw. Morawski’s memory is of Bauman’s enthusiasm for communism: “He was indoctrinated – and not against his will” (Morawski 1998, 30). Bauman joined the Polish Army in Russia in 1943, and served in Warsaw after the war.
Meanwhile he studied at the university and met Janina Lewinson. Nine days later he proposed. The second of Janina’s two autobiographies is subtitled: My Years in Postwar Poland. ‘Konrad’ (Zygmunt) saw her at a lecture and was besotted – with revolutionary socialism: “ Konrad’s eyes beamed with pride as he said he was a Communist and a member of the Polish Workers’ Party” (J. Bauman 1988, 45).
He didn’t mention that he was Jewish. Yet anti-Semitic purges were his nemesis as a soldier in 1953 and in his second career as an academic in 1968. He went with Janina to Israel, but they left in 1971: “It was a nationalistic country, and we had just run away from nationalism. We didn’t want to go from being the victims of one nationalism to being the perpetrators of another” (J. Bauman cited in Bunting 2003). Fortunately they were invited to Leeds by the University Vice-Chancellor. Their original house there is still theirs; this is significant. Zygmunt has rejected Yale, Oxbridge and the LSE. He and Janina have wanted to stay put.
So Zygmunt has held tight at home in retirement, but with loose lips: One recent book is Liquid Love. Here commitments are provisional. Power is ability to make the desired commitments and un-make commitments as desired. Liquid moderns are mercurial characters:
“Having no bonds that are unbreakable and attached once and for all, the hero of this book – the denizen of our liquid modern society – and his successors today must tie together whatever bonds they want to use as a link to engage with the rest of the human world… Anyway, they need to be only loosely tied, so that they can be untied again, with little delay, when the settings change – as in liquid modernity they surely will, over and over again” (Z. Bauman 200, vii).
So commitments are capricious: “In a liquid modern setting of life, relationships are perhaps the most common, acute deeply felt and troublesome incarnations of ambivalence” (Z. Bauman 2003, viii). This ‘ambivalence’ isn’t mixed feelings. It’s a problem of classifying the things that we articulate – including ourselves: “Ambivalence, the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category, is a language-specific disorder: a failure of the naming (segregating) function that language is meant to perform” (Z. Bauman 1991, 1). This is significant in Bauman’s worldview; his post-modern perspective on our lives: “[A]s far as Bauman is concerned… [a] postmodern consciousness of modernity realises that the modern aspiration to impose a systematic grid of watertight categories upon the complexities of human existence is doomed to failure” (Smith 1999, 130). This realisation is a rejection of the modern quest for order.
Bauman’s realisation was a rejection of the old enthusiasm. In 1992 his Intimations of Postmodernity were auspicious with a new enthusiasm:
“Like socialism (and all other staunch believers in the modern values of technological progress, the transformation of nature and a society of plenty), communism was thoroughly modern in its passionate conviction that a good society can only be a carefully designed, rationally managed and thoroughly industrialised society. … The postmodern challenge proved to be highly effective in speeding up the collapse of communism and assuring the triumph of anti-communist revolution in its supremely important, yet preliminary, political stage” (Z. Bauman 1992, 166, 171).
Communist socialism was like National Socialism. Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust had been published in 1989, and prompted by his reading of his wife’s first autobiography: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto. He had read the Holocaust as a quest for order; not by Nazis on Jews but by social planners on misfits – misfits like him? “…Bauman is very much a loner and something of an intellectual maverick. ‘I’ve never dreamt of belonging,’ he says with sudden fierceness” (Bunting 2003). The Intimations were of liberation.
Yet they were short-lived – so says a Bauman expert: “He … saw the collapse of communism as a great opportunity, but as the nineties wore on he became increasingly depressed that these ethical issues were not being addressed and, instead, consumer values were more entrenched than ever” (Ian Varcoe cited in Bunting 2003).
Bauman is now ambivalent – with mixed feelings. We’re released from the socialist strategy of setting up a continuous order, but imprisoned by our consumerist tactics of continual re-ordering and throwing away. We’re no longer being willed by others to be dedicated, but no longer able to dedicate ourselves.
Bauman, Janina. 1988. A Dream of Belonging: My Years in Postwar Poland. London: Virago.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity.
———. 1992. “Communism: A Postmortem.” In his Intimations of Postmodernity. London: Routledge.
———. 2003. Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity.
Beilharz, Peter. 2001. “Introduction by Peter Beilharz: Reading Zygmunt Bauman.” In The Bauman Reader, edited by Peter Beilharz. Oxford: Blackwell.
Bunting, Madeleine. 2003. “Passion and Pessimism (profile on Zygmunt Bauman).” The Guardian (London), 5 April.
Morawski, Stefan. 1998. “Bauman’s Ways of Seeing the World.” Theory, Culture and Society 15, no. 1: 29-38.
Smith, Dennis. 1999. Zygmunt Bauman: Prophet of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Joseph Maslen (1982-) was born and brought up in Nottingham, England. He graduated at the University of Manchester in 2003 with a BA Hons History (I), and in 2004 with an MA in History (Distinction). Since 2004 he has been studying for a PhD at the University.