Zygmunt Bauman Lives

by Holly A. Case


Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

The first and last time I saw Zygmunt Bauman was in October 2011. The Polish sociologist had come to Jena where he was one of the star participants, along with the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, at a workshop on "Approaches to Postmodernity from the East." As the organizers of the conference repeatedly emphasized, Bauman and Heller did not merely write about modern European history, they were modern European history. They were invited to reflect on their mid-century experiences—of the Holocaust, Stalinism, dissidence—in light of what they (we) know now. The conceit seemed straightforward enough, but as the German historian Reinhart Koselleck wrote, "modernity only became recognizable as a new time once expectations distanced themselves ever more from all previous experiences." In other words, nothing ever turns out like you expect.

Although at the time I had not read Bauman's work, the particular tragicomic trajectory of the workshop left a deep impression on me. I reported on it at length to a German acquaintance in a series of emails, and even wrote a poem about Bauman's role. (Historians are not, in general, renowned for their poetry; it will soon become clear why.) When I saw the announcement of Bauman's death last week, it brought to mind that October five years ago. The following are excerpts from my letters (translated from the mediocre German) and the poem, along with passages from Bauman's own writings. The "exchange" that emerges is meant not as an in memoriam, but as a sign of life and a continuation of thought, an attempt to follow his example.


October 21, 2011: …At the moment there's a workshop here in which Ágnes Heller and Zygmunt Bauman are participating. There's a lot of talk about democracy…how it's actually always threatened by people and parties who want to do away with it, either entirely or in part, and who also sometimes come to power democratically (as in Germany in 1933, or in Hungary now). And one must simply live with this danger. Bauman and Heller say that democracy is therefore the best that we can expect. On the one hand, as a political being, one must forever exist in fear and apprehension, which can easily lead to cynicism. One could start to think that it makes no sense to support democracy as such, because it always contains the seed of its own destruction. But it is precisely these thoughts that should arouse fear and distress insofar as they show why fear and despair should not drive politics. And there we are back at Hitler again…

"Liberal democracy, in other words, aspires to square one of the most notorious of the notoriously unsquarable circles—to preserve the liberty to act of, simultaneously, the state, individuals and their associations, while making the liberty of each a condition of the freedom of the others." (Bauman, In Search of Politics, p. 155)

October 22, 2011: Today I've seen something extraordinary. It was the last day of this conference I wrote to you about. The two intellectuals, Bauman and Heller, were somehow separated from all the other participants and audience members, firstly because they are 86 and 82 years old respectively, and both have hearing trouble. Almost none of the many questions they were asked received an answer; maybe they didn't even hear the questions, and so spoke about something else entirely. Secondly, people were always trying to ask them questions—for example about the relationship between their life-experiences and their thought—that didn't seem to interest them. Bauman in particular simply didn't want to answer those questions. Meanwhile there were ever more determined attempts to insist that they speak about such things.

Twice today Bauman tried to break through by explaining why he had no answer to biographical questions (about the Holocaust and Stalinism and dissidence and emigration, etc.). The first time he said that it's not his task to do so because he can't be objective. He spoke instead about ideas; social structures, forms of statecraft, resistance, democracy,…sometimes he made some attempt, for the sake of the organizers, to say a word or two about his own experiences—about his father, for example, whom he had watched being ordered by a German soldier during the war to clean the street with only his hands—but almost nobody heard it, because he very nearly mumbled and always had some kind of problem with the microphone. Sometimes he absentmindedly stroked the microphone so that all one could hear was a loud scratching sound. The audience giggled as he talked on. Then the organizers put a headset on him, but it kept slipping off, and as he tried to put it back in place it came to hang from one of his gigantic ears and bobbed along with his head movements in an incredibly comical way. More giggling and whispering. And when he had his second break-through moment, at the very end, he said that he didn't want to talk about himself and could not understand why people were so keen on that. He had, he said, made many notes in preparation for this workshop, and had something to say, but hadn't as yet managed to get it out. He said he finds his own life history a deadly bore and wants to hear nothing about it…then he spoke again about his ideas, although no one had asked about them.

"The distinctive feature of the stories told in our times is that they articulate individual lives in a way that excludes or suppresses (prevents from articulation) the possibility of tracking down the links connecting individual fate to the ways and means by which society as a whole operates; more to the point, it precludes the questioning of such ways and means by relegating them to the unexamined background of individual life pursuits and casting them as ‘brute facts' which the story-tellers can neither challenge nor negotiate, whether singly, severally or collectively." (Bauman, The Individualized Society, p. 9)

But the organizers meant no harm by any of this; they're very nice and only wanted the best. Really. But as I saw the way Bauman resisted, still striving to think something as a living scholar, again and again, but wasn't taken seriously in that striving… Those gathered saw a life before them and wanted to grasp it in its entirety. But one can only grasp a life in its entirety when that life is over. Bauman was still alive, and therefore he was not the one we wanted to analyze and understand.

"And there is no good solution to the dilemma, because it is precisely the fact of having risen above nature that opens our finitude to scrutiny and makes it visible, unforgettable and painful…Since we are not allowed to forget our nature, we can (and must) go on challenging it." (Bauman, The Individualized Society, p. 1)

Later by chance I came across him on the street near my apartment, alone, smoking a pipe. I approached him with a question. Earlier he had spoken of how he had gone to witness the Occupy protests in Spain. He said the young people who were demonstrating had no idea against what or whom they were fighting, and therefore also didn't know by what means they should fight and where the enemy is. One can't change the banking system with feelings. Everything will be forgotten once the feelings have subsided. I asked him: How should they then go about it if not in the way they are now? He said he didn't know and is pessimistic, that he'd seen so many hopes run aground in his 86 years, and doesn't really believe anymore that anything can change. But without hope we'll do nothing, I said. One should never give up hope, he said, even when it changes nothing. Then he excused himself and walked on.

"Indeed, there seems to be little the individuals, singly or severally, can do to fight back, let alone defeat, the threats to the security of their social standing or to the certainty of their future prospects. The exact locations of those threats are elusive and difficult to chart; such locations as can be eventually guessed stay as a rule far beyond the reach of real or imagined individual powers. Attempts to find them, if undertaken at all, lead more often than not to a resigned or despaired conclusion of the ‘there is nothing I can do about it' type." (Bauman, In Search of Politics, p. 48)

October 22, 2011 (draft, unsent):

Zygmunt Bauman in Jena – Oct. 22, 2011

Here, a rare exotic bird
That trails into
A turtleneck;
A brain atop an
Absorbent ring
Of bunching cotton.
There's a corpse in there
And we mean to pluck it out
With question picks
And provocation pliers;
But the head just floats
On its cotton ring,
Until the day
When the picks insist
And the pliers reapply,
Intent on answers
To a bloated why.

But the headset with
The microphone
Has fallen, and, in
Pushing it back,
It's turned around
And upside-down
And hanging from an
Enormous ear
To bob, and there
Is just the sound
Of the microphone on
The cotton ring:
Is he answering?
Another microphone
Placed in his paper hands,
But all we hear
Is the disappointing
Of continuous thinking
As the head
Resists the invitation
To preen
For the obituary

And how we want
To be able, too,
And feel as you,
To throw it all
On a single wager,
To believe as one
In the truest win,
To know in advance
And together,
Loving and feeling
And not knowing
How it all must end.

But we know better
(And so do you)
How wrong you were
How right we have become
Born into rightness
Laying therefore
Only half-wagers
Of reasonable sums,
Knowing, too,
That tomorrow always,
But always comes,
And is never quite
What you or I would
Precisely have or like.
And so we reserve
And save what we have,
Parcel out the
One big dream
We all get at the start
In modest change,
Breaking it up,
And above all
Hedging our bets
To increase our chances
Of a modest win
To see us through
To a fitting end.

And there are you,
Facelet on a ring,
Above it all
And with nothing left
To gamble on
Or gamble with.
You know at least
How not to die
When the picks would pick
And the pliers ply
And the green-hued
Youngsters will
Have their why.

Oh, why won't you,
Bobbing head,
Come out of there:
Stop playing live
When we know
Damn well
You must be dead.
For no one could
Survive the breaking
Of beautiful things
As you seem to have.

So come, Old Man,
And breathe your last
And use that breath
To comfort us
For all those things
That you have lost
That we have
Never had.

"Also the immortality of the individuals qua individuals has now been collectivized…it feeds itself on the death of the individual." (Bauman, Postmodernity and its Discontents, p. 162)

October 26, 2011: In the meantime I've been thinking some more about Bauman. I'm trying to understand why the organizers kept wanting to talk and ask about the biographies of the two thinkers. Maybe it was because those of us who were born after the Second World War have experienced relatively little in comparison to these people, and—although it may sound strange—it may be that we feel a kind of experience-envy with respect to those who consciously went through all of that. We might also have a belief-envy, because that generation believed so strongly in certain things in a way we never could. We've known from birth that a strong belief like that is a kind of insanity and therefore fear it.

"It is common nowadays to deplore the growing nihilism and cynicism of contemporary men and women, the short-sightedness or absence of their life-projects, the mundaneness and selfishness of their desires, their inclination to slice life into episodes, each to be squeezed to the last drop with concern for the consequences. All these charges have ample evidence to support them. What most moral preachers fulminating against moral decadence fail to mention, though, is that the reprehensible tendency they condemn draws its strength from the fact of being a rational response to the world in which one is compelled to treat the future as a threat, rather than as shelter or promised land." (Bauman, In Search of Politics, p. 173)

Our lives have not only been relatively peaceful, but also marked by a less variable political sensibility, which is to say that we've never had such great hopes, and also no such great disappointments as Bauman and Heller's generation (and here I'm speaking mainly of intellectuals and educated people, old leftists). In terms of a shift in worldview, 1968 in the West was nothing compared to 1936-1938 (Spain), 1939-1945, and 1956 (Hungary). That's why we want to know what it was like back then, when people still believed and felt and experienced things. Our reality is always lukewarm—it can't be burning, boiling hot, and it's no longer a matter of life and death, just a matter of being or not being wealthy, or of being somewhat-left or somewhat-right. Our pain is only ever private when compared to Bauman's; as a community we feel little or nothing at all. Even sympathy is everywhere and nowhere, always out of phase, like a correspondence. One tries to express something, to make oneself understood, but then writes a letter about the harvest that is read by someone who is only on the cusp of planting seeds.

"…we may have earned ourselves a world without wrinkles, but also without landscape, history, and purpose." (Bauman, Postmodernity and its Discontents, p. 162)

We've gotten very deep into autumn here. I can't see anything anymore. I wake up in darkness and come back home in darkness. I'm neither depressed nor euphoric. So don't write me a fantastic letter, because in my present state of mind I won't be able to appreciate it.

"The tighter are the shutters, the easier it is to miss the sunrise. Besides, the sun may not keep forever from setting on the most powerful empires, but it most certainly never sets on the human planet." (Bauman, In Search of Politics, p. 202)