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Individual salvation from shared troubles

May 9, 2013

Concluding his book, Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Zygmunt Bauman writes:

Insecurity affects us all, immersed as we all are in a fluid and unpredictable world of deregulation, flexibility, competitiveness and endemic uncertainty, but each one of us suffers anxiety on our own, as a private problem, an outcome of personal failings and a challenge to our private savoir-faire and agility. We are called, as Ulrich Beck has acidly observed, to seek biographical solutions to systemic contraditions; we look for individual salvation from shared troubles. That strategy is unlikely to bring the results we are after, since it leaves the roots of insecurity intact; moreover, it is precisely this falling back on our individual wits and resources that injects the world with the insecurity we wish to escape.” (p.144)

Bauman goes on to observe that, because we are our own reference point and the steadiest feature of what we see in the world (if that’s a fair way of summing up his ever-opaque writing), “whenever you look for certainty, investing in self-preservation seems to be the wisest bet. And so you tend to seek a remedy for the discomforts of insecurity in a care for safety, that is for the integrity of your body with all its extensions and frontline trenches – your home, your possessions, your neighbourhood. As you do so, you grow suspicious of the others around you, and particularly of the strangers among them, those carriers and embodiments of the unpredicted and unpredictable. Strangers are unsafety incarnate and so they embody by proxy that insecurity which haunts your life. In a bizarre yet perverse way their presence is comforting, even reassuring: the diffuse and scattered fears, difficult to pinpoint and name, now have a tangible target to focus on, you know where the dangers reside and you need no longer take the blows of fate placidly. At long last, there is something you can do.
“It is difficult (and in the end demeaning) to worry about threats you cannot name, let alone fight against. The sources of insecurity are hidden from view and do not appear on the maps the newsagents stock, so you can neither locate them precisely nor try to plug them. However, the causes of unsafety, those strange substances you put in your mouth, or the strange humans who enter, uninvited, the familiar streets you walk, are all too visible. They are all, so to speak, within your reach, and you may think that it is in your power to push them back or ‘detoxicate’.” (p.145)

“No wonder, therefore, that except for the writers of scholarly books and a few politicians (as a rule politicians not currently in power), you hear little about ‘existential insecurity’ or ‘ontological uncertainty’. Instead, you hear a lot and from everywhere about the threats to the safety of streets, homes and bodies, and what you hear about them seems to chime well with your own daily experience, with the things you see with your own eyes. The demand to cleanse the food we eat from harmful and potentially lethal ingredients and the demand to clear the streets we walk of inscrutable and potentially lethal strangers are  the ones most commonly heard when the ways to improve our lives are talked about, and also the ones that feel more credible, indeed self-evident, than any other. Acting in a way that contradicts these demands is what we are most eager to classify as crime and want to be punished, the more severely the better.” (p.146)

Antoine Garapon, a French legal scholar, has observed that while the wicked deeds committed ‘at the top’, inside the offices of big supranational corporations, stay as a rule out of sight – and if they appear, fleetingly, in public view are poorly comprehended and paid little attention – public wrath is as its most vicious and vengeful when it comes to harm done to human bodies. Tabagisme (the French name for tobacco addiction), sexual offences and speeding, the three offences most eagerly condemned by public opinion and for which tougher punishment is demanded, are united by nothing other than the fears about bodily safety. Philippe Cohen, in his widely acclaimed challenge to political elites in a book appropriately title Protéger ou disparaître (Protect or go away), names ‘urban violence’ among the three major causes of anxiety and unhappiness (alongside unemployment and unsecured old age). As far as public perception is concerned, the belief that urban life is fraught with dangers and that cleansing the streets [-p.147] of obtrusive and peril-auguring strangers is the most urgent of the measures aimed at restoring the missing security appears as a self-evident truth that needs no proof and admits no argument.” (pp.146-147)

In his powerful inquiry into the meaning of ‘living together’ in the contemporary city, Henning Bech points out that since the cities in which most of us live nowadays are ‘large, dense and permanent clusters of heterogeneous human beings in circulation’, places in which one is bound to mill in an ‘everchanging large crowd of varied strangers moving among one another’, we tend to ‘become surfaces to each other – for the simple reason that this is the only thing a person can notice in the urban space of lots of strangers’. What we see ‘on the surface’ is the sole available measure by which to evaluate a stranger. What we see may promise pleasure, but it may also portend danger; when it is but surfaces that meet (and always ‘in passing’), there is little chance of negotiating and finding out which is which. And the art of living in a crowd of strangers prevents such a chance from materializing – stopping the encounter short of soaking beneath the surface is its most common strategem.” (p.147)

“In our civilized times we do without branding, badges of infamy or dunces’ hats to warn us when and from whom to keep our distance, but we have a lot of substitutes to do just that. Surfaces are spattered with them all over – there are too many of them to make sure that we can read them all. As the urban crowd becomes ever more variegated, the chances of coming across modern equivalents of burned-in brands grow accordingly; and the suspicion grows as well that we may be too slow or inept to read out the messages the unfamiliar sights may contain. So we have reasons to be afraid, and then it is only one small step that needs to be made to project our fears on to the strangers that triggered them, and to blame city [-p.148] life for being dangerous: being dangerous because of its variety.” (pp.147-148)

“If only the city could be cleansed of the variety that is too rich and extensive to assimilate and feel safe in, while leaving enough variety intact to keep city life as exhilarating and as full of pleasant adventures as it has been – to save some of that spice of life which we, the moderns, would hardly be able to do without … Like the desire to have a cake and eat it, these two wishes are at cross-purposes. And yet the most popular (and most seductive) varieties of communitarian projects promise to fulfil both in one go.” (p.148)

“We are all interdependent in this fast globalizing world of ours, and due to this interdependence none of us can be the master of our fate on our own.” (p.149)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Zygmunt Bauman (c2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK; Oxford, UK; Malden, MA

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