In Memoriam (1925-2017)
Zygmunt Bauman was one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th Century. He was also a guiding inspiration and supporting academic patron to the histories of violence project, until his death in 2017. He contributed to several of our projects and was ever supportive of the intellectual ambitions of the initiative. We had already been in contact about his involvement in the next State of Disappearance idea, when sadly he left us, though thankfully with a formidable legacy we can draw upon.
The author on some 50 books, Bauman was undoubtedly one of the most important critical voices of our generation. More importantly, he was a kind and generous human being. His eloquent and incisive writings were not the product of Ivory Tower privilege. Bauman’s work talked to the present having personally seen, intimately known, and lived through the worst excesses of 20th Century totalitarianism. His warnings for contemporary generations should been heeded then, precisely because he understood all too well the ability for mass violence to regenerate in novel forms that nevertheless reveal historical traces.
Throughout his life, Bauman continually showed remarkable sensitivity and courage when dealing with the question of violence. In "Modernity and Ambivalence", he offered an account of the different approaches modern society adopts toward the stranger. He argued that, on the one hand, in a consumer-oriented economy the strange and the unfamiliar is always enticing; in different styles of food, different fashions and in tourism it is possible to experience the allure of what is unfamiliar. Yet this strange-ness also has a more negative side. The stranger, because he cannot be controlled and ordered, is always the object of fear; he is the potential mugger, the person outside of society's borders who is constantly threatening.
In Bauman's most famous book, "Modernity and the Holocaust", he gave us a fuller account of the dangers of these kinds of fears. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno's books on totalitarianism and the Enlightenment, Bauman argued the Holocaust should not simply be considered to be an event in Jewish history, nor a regression to some form of pre-modern barbarism. Rather, he argued, the Holocaust should be seen as deeply connected to modernity and its order-making efforts. The metaphor of the "Gardening State" was invoked here in particular to address the violence of modernist regimes that can rationalize the most abhorrent acts for the most progressive ends and calculated reasons. This has come to define a particular novelty of the modern period.
Such warnings permeate Bauman’s extensive intellectual corpus. As he noted in Modernity and the Holocaust, ‘The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust (and more than contingently related to the overwhelming desire not to look the memory in its face) is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilised society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilisation and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for’. As an historic event it was ‘fully in keeping with everything we know about civilisation, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world – and of the proper way to pursue human happiness together with a perfect society’.
Hence, the violence was revealing of the ‘characteristically modern zeal for order-making, the kind of posture which casts the extant human reality as a perpetually unfinished project, in need of critical scrutiny, constant revision and improvement. When confronted with that stance, nothing has the right to exist because of the fact that it happens to be around’.
Such reasoning would be later carried through in remarkable texts such as "Wasted Lives" that highlighted with real purchase the modern compulsion to render things disposable - life included; while his later works on liquid modernity such as "Society Under Siege" and "Liquid Fear" dealt more specifically with new forms of violence which societies witnessed as they lost hold of their traditional sovereign moorings. With considerable foresight, in fact, Bauman understood all too well what it meant to live in a condition that appears like a "planetary frontierland" wherein all sense of space and time have been radically transformed to the death of the so-called Westphalia Peace and conventional ideas on security and cohabitation. Bauman explained this in the most striking of terms to be the fundamental separation between power and politics.
Bauman’s work continually forces us to consider how the production of “disposable lives” at a systematic level is entirely in fitting with contemporary societies. Liberal modernity, in fact, merely proved to be yet another chapter in the story of the production of “disposable humans”, or what he termed elsewhere “collateral casualties”, retaining the two defining and notably modern preoccupations: order building and technological progress. If we still rely on notions of order-building to set out those lives which simply don’t belong to the perceived order of societies as a result of their fixed identities; the incessant drive to technologically driven progress continually casts aside those who are deemed to have no productive value or qualities worth extracting.
Significantly, for Bauman, not only was it precisely the continued production of disposable lives that defined all modern projects regardless of their ideological emblem. In a world where ideas of technological progress shape the prevailing order of things, the ability to cast aside entire populations has arguably become easier than ever.
In the very last conversation I had with Zygmunt, we returned to the very first lecture he recorded for us in 2010, which was titled “A Natural History of Evil”. Why do good people commit atrocious acts, he considers? I would encourage you all to watch the video and then ask the same question.
Bauman knew that to deal with violence, there was a need to confront the intolerable. This included dealing with our own shameful compromises with power, along with the vilification and scapegoating of Others, especially when we absolutely believe history is on our side. And to do any form of ethical justice to this we cannot simply condemn the actions of those wilfully perpetrating violence. We need to ask deeper questions of ourselves, including the moral and progressive violence we bring to the world.
During our final discussion, I asked Zygmunt about the interplay between systems of oppression which can dispose of human life in the most arbitrary ways, and how this connected to the question of responsibility when addressing the evil that so perturbed him. He was instant that both needed to be accounted for and we must try to make sense of the way they bleed into one another. This brought us onto the question of disappearance. Attentive as ever, Zygmunt suggested that one way he might contribute was to look at the "contradiction" (which wasn't one he insisted) in the contemporary moment - a time when seemingly have access to the world, yet things can be disposed of and vanish without a trace in ways novel, normal and extreme.
Bauman's work stands against those forces that would seek to obliterate a life. He stands with the refugees of history in sure defiance of a violence that stands to order and commits to reason. And his memory still echoes out of the darkness in ethical defiance of those who reason to destroy a life.
There are no 20th Century solutions to 21st Century problems.