re:member: On the Death of Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman

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Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2016)

Zygmunt Bauman was the oldest speaker that we have ever had the pleasure of welcoming to one of our stages. In 2015, he held a brilliant talk discussing the time/space collapse, community and networks and the cocoon-effect of the online experience. Armed with an alert perception gleaned from nearly a century (Born in 1925) of intellectual understanding and analysis of contemporary times, he drew up the historical arc of those forms of thinking which do not pause to contemplate, but which exist to resist. He died on Monday in Leeds, at the age of 91. 

This year’s rp speaker Professor Felix Stalder found precisely the right words to address Bauman’s passing when, on Tuesday morning, he wrote: “Zygmunt Bauman’s humanist vision was deep, dark and uncompromising, never offering any easy solutions on the horizon.” And it was exactly this approach that made his voice one that was clearly heard. Bauman was an important theoretical reference within public and intellectual discourse, including and especially in our field. Bauman was shaped by his own experiences – first during the terror of Nazi-occupied Poland then followed by life under Communist rule – he placed his focus on how people can create a dignified life through ethical decisions. “There is beauty and there are the humiliated”, Albert Camus wrote and Zygmunt Bauman, who placed the quote centrally in his work, experienced both: the beauty of life and thought and the humiliation through those in power.

His works span pieces on the impermanence of identity within modernity, the Holocaust as a consequence of modernity and the critique of consumption and globalization. As an outspoken critic of the consumer society he became one of the most-quoted sociologists of our time and was always an influence on sociopolitical debates. Despite his age he engaged astutely with the progressing digitalization within the context of the so-called “society of control”. He would, quite naturally, answer his own emails, which would feature the same ambiguous humor one experienced him deploy during debates. He saw through the two-faced nature of the new technologies and mercilessly exposed them against the backdrop of historical models: in this way, he criticized the surveillance state, drafted a critique of drones as mechanized death squadrons and devoted his last monograph, “Strangers at our Door”, to the topic of migration as it arrived on Europe’s doorstep.

For Bauman, who drew on Kant, migration was, first and foremost, a moral and ethical challenge. He demanded a rethinking of the political approach. This challenge that we are now facing with the “strangers” standing at Europe’s door, has only just begun. They are the heralds of a crisis that must be solved globally. The moment that a society accepts that there is a "rest" that does not, or should not, belong, is the moment it breaks with Christian and moral principles. It represents yet another situation defined by the confrontation with ambiguity and the question of how a modern state can deal with ambivalence. The handling of new tendencies towards a panoptic or post-panoptic society through demarcation is one of the big societal projects facing us today.

The Bauman Institute in Leeds carries on his concepts. Founded in recognition of the vein of critical sociology in 2010, various disciplines such as sociology, social policy, political science, heterodox economics, as well as media and cultural studies are brought together so as to develop and create new critical and empirical perspectives for contemporary social, economic and political life. Bauman countered social fragmentation with the conviction that a society of individuals could only defend their freedom collectively, as it was in their “own best interest” to strive for the freedom of all. Zygmunt Bauman will remain unforgotten, not least thanks to the extensive body of video and audio recordings: “Everything in human life counts precisely because humans are mortal and know it”: 

Zygmunt Bauman on death

Zygmunt Bauman on instability

Image credit: Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny/Oliva Soto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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