A term as strange as it is intruiging will likely be Zygmunt Bauman’s most lasting legacy: liquid modernity. The eminent Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman passed away on 9 January at the age of 91. His generation was the last to witness the monstrous ambiguity of the 20th century – its technological and scientific quantum leaps; the industrialisation of horror, terror, and war; the unleashing of the masses; and their subjection to hellish ideologies. The image of liquidity and its corresponding lack of structure, form, reliability, and predictability, which in Bauman’s view are so characteristic of modern humanity and history, were rooted in his own biographical experience.
Forced to flee the advancing German Wehrmacht in 1939, his Jewish parents, accompanied by 14-year-old Zygmunt, made it across the Soviet border. Bauman never denied that he was a leftist at heart and, during parts of his life, a communist by deed. While still in his teens, he joined the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organisation, and then the First Polish Army, the USSR-sponsored Polish formation, where he was a political instructor. He took part in two of the war’s bloodiest battles, of Kolberg and Berlin. In 1945 he joined the Polish Internal Security Corps (KBW) as a political officer. He rose to the rank of major, whilst working simultaneously with military intelligence, and studied sociology at the same time.
What looked like a promising communist army career quickly dissolved in 1953 when Bauman’s father, a strong adherent of Zionism, applied for a visa at the Israeli embassy. His son’s dismissal was an immediate consequence. However, Bauman was indeed a man of exceptions. One year later, upon finishing his M.A., he landed a job as a lecturer at Warsaw University, where he taught sociology for the next 14 years.
The other central theme of his intellectual work, in addition to liquid modernity, which he developed much later, was his scepticism regarding the “Janus-faced” nature of modernity itself. In contrast to most leftist thinkers, Bauman doubted that the horrors of fascism or Stalinism were simply regressions of pre-modern, pre-progress patterns of thought and behaviour. Could it be that intellect and reason – enlightened, free, and emancipated from former boundaries of tradition and faith – bore something other than morally spotless fruit?
His doubts and scepticism led Bauman to explore similar avenues of thought to the intellectuals, namely Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, of the so-called Frankfurt School of German Critical Theory. The central question: was the European Enlightenment – the liberation of reason and self, culminating in modernity – inherently “good”, implying progress towards a morally better world and a morally better humanity? Or did it not also contain an evil streak that in its final instance brought about industrialised murder in the German Nazi death camps and the Gulags of the USSR? In some ways Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) can be read as contrapuntal to the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the leading theoretical work of the Frankfurt School professors.
Bauman left Poland for Israel, and later moved to the UK, where from 1968 he slowly changed focus: consumer society; the postmodern individual; dissolving collective identities such as class, culture, and ethnicity; and ideas of strangeness and the stranger all came within his intellectual purview. He had the rare talent of absorbing the philosophical themes of a given era like a melody and composing variations in his own highly original language. Thus, without ever being a philosopher of deconstruction, like Deleuze or Derrida, his theory of liquid modernity strikingly resembles the work of the “French philosophers” towards the end of the last century.
Bauman’s unique demonstration of acumen was in not settling for a rigid theory but, instead, embracing the amorphous liquidity of any era as an invitation to shape and reshape the present with ideas so brillant that they inevitably enlightened the future. A reduction of lumen, the measure for the totalality of visible light, is what his death equates to in the intellectual world.