Skip to content

Zygmunt Bauman on community: shared troubles

January 20, 2015

Okay… once again, I hope I’m not removing these quotes too much from their original context. I do find Bauman’s lengthy sentences and mixing of metaphors hard on the brain sometimes, so I need to pull out the bits of his argument that speak to me. They may seem disjointed to others:

“Building modern industry boiled down to the challenge of replanting producers from the traditional, community-bound routine into [-p.127] another, designed and administered by the factory owners and their hired supervisors. Building the modern state consisted in replacing the old loyalties to the parish, to the neighbourhood community or to the artisan guild by new citizen-style loyalties to the abstract and distant totality of the nation and the laws of the land. The new loyalties, unlike the old and obsolete ones, could not rely on spontaneous and matter-of-factly followed mechanisms of self-reproduction; they had to be carefully designed and painstakingly instilled in a process of organized mass education. The constructing and servicing of the modern order required managers and teachers. The era of state-and-nation-building had to be, and was, a time of direct engagement between the rulers and the ruled.
This is no longer the case; at least it is ever less the case. Ours are times of disengagement. The panoptical model of domination which used surveillance and hour-by-hour monitoring and correcting of the conduct of the dominated as its main strategy is fast being dismantled and is giving way to self-surveillance and self-monitoring by the dominated, as effective in eliciting the ‘right’ (system-functional) type of behaviour as the old method of domination – only considerably less costly. Instead of marching columns, swarms.” (pp.126-127)

“In a society of producers, excess was equivalent to waste and for that reason resented and preached against; but it was born as a disease of life-towards-norm (a terminal disease, as it transpired). In a world devoid of norms, excess had turned from poison into medicine for life illnesses; perhaps the sole life support available. Excess, that sworn enemy of the norm, has itself become the norm; perhaps the only norm there is.” (p.131)

“‘Multiculturalism’ is the most common answer given these days by the learned and opinion-making classes to the world’s uncertainty about the kinds of values that deserve to be cherished and cultivated, and the directions that should be pursued with rugged determination.” (p.124)

“In a world of ‘multiculturalism’, cultures may coexist but it is hard for them to benefit from a shared life. [Fred] Constant asks: is cultural pluralism a value in its own right, or does its value derive from the suggestion (and hope) that it may improve the quality of shared existence? It is not immediately clear which of the two answers the multiculturalist programme prefers; the question is far from being rhetorical, and the choice between answers would need more to be said about what is meant by the ‘right to difference’.” (p.135)

“…recognition of cultural variety is …but a starting point for a long and perhaps tortuous, but in the end beneficial, political process.
A true political process, consisting of dialogue and negotiation and aiming at an agreed resolution, would be preempted and made all but unfeasible if from the start the superiority of some contenders and the inferiority of others were to be assumed. But it would also grind to a halt before it had begun if the second interpretation of cultural plurality were to win the day: namely, if it is assumed (as the ‘multiculturalist’ programme in its most common version does, overtly or tacitly) that each extant difference is worthy of perpetuation just for being a difference.” (p.136)

Amin Maalouf, the Franco-Lebanese writer settled in France, on the subject of the reactions of the ‘ethnic minorities’ or immigrants to the criss-crossing cultural pressures to which they are exposed in the country of arrival. Maalouf’s conclusion is that the more the immigrants feel that their original cultural lore is respected in their new home, and the less they feel that because of their different identity they are resented, pushed out, threatened or discriminated against – the more willingly they open up to the cultural offerings of the new country and the less convulsively they hold on to their own separate ways. For the prospects of cross-cultural dialogue, this is a crucial insight. It points once more to what we have often sensed before: to the close relation between the degree of security on the one hand, and the ‘defusing’ of the issue of cultural plurality, with an overcoming of cultural separation and a willingness to participate in the search for common humanity, on the other.
Insecurity (among the immigrant as much as among the native population) tends to transform multiculturality into ‘multicommunitarianism’. Profound or trifling, salient or hardly noticeable cultural differences are used as building materials in the frenzied construction of defensive walls and missile launching pads.” (p.141)

“Security is the enemy of walled-up and fenced-off community. Feeling secure makes the fearsome ocean separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ seem more like an inviting swimming pool. …Security is a necessary condition of dialogue between cultures. Without it, there is little chance that communities will open up to each other and engage in a conversation which may enrich them all and enhance the humanity of their togetherness. With it, the prospects for humanity look bright.
The security in question is, however, a wider problem than most advocates of multiculturalism, in tacit (or inadvertent) collusion with the preachers of communal separation, are willing to admit. narrowing the issue of endemic insecurity to genuine or putative threats to communally sustained uniqueness is a mistake which draws attention away from its true sources. Nowadays, community is sought as a shelter from the gathering tides of global turbulence – tides originating as a rule in faraway places which no locality can control on its own.” (p.142)

We miss community because we miss security, a quality crucial to a happy life, but one which the world we inhabit is ever less able to offer and ever more reluctant to promise.” (p.144)

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 contradictions; we look for individual salvation from shared troubles.” (p.144)

“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.146] 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.” (pp.145-146)

“Philippe Cohen, in his widely acclaimed challenge to political elites in a book appropriately titled 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 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.
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.” (pp.146-147)

“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.
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.” (pp.147-148)

“If there is to be a community in the world of individuals, it can only be [-p.150] (and it needs to be) a community woven together from sharing and mutual care; a community of concern and responsibility for the equal right to be human and the equal ability to act on that right.” (pp.149-150)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Zygmunt Bauman (2001) Community: seeking safety in an insecure world. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK / Blackwell Publishers, Malden, MA


Comments are closed.