Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's guide to life

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's guide to life

Words Jude Rogers

Photographs James McNaught

In one of his last ever interviews, the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman muses on the importance of work well done, the problem with Facebook and why it’s good to embrace crisis…

Just off a busy ring road north of Leeds city centre, there is a peculiarly peaceful, small, leafy cul-de-sac. The house on the corner, between the quietness and loudness, is beautifully wild with trees, plants and flowers.

An old man shuffles in through the front door, a pipe smoking away in his mouth, leading into a house full of books, notebooks and papers; the fruits of his labours. It is the home of a man who still gets up every day at 4am to work, and has just returned from lecture trips to Spain and the US. ‘I need a seat,’ he says, his Polish accent still heavy despite the roll of the years. ‘Getting old is the price you pay for living long.’

Zygmunt Bauman is one of the world’s most venerated contemporary philosophers. Born to non-practising Jewish parents in Poznán, Poland, in 1925, his family fled the Nazis to the Soviet Union when he was 14. Bauman eventually worked in military intelligence (he had a desk job, which he later admitted was a mistake) before becoming a politics lecturer; he arrived at Leeds in 1969, where he has lived ever since. In that time, he has written about socialism, consumerism, the Holocaust and, more latterly, the idea of ‘liquid modernity’ – put in very simple terms, about how our virtual, global lives have changed the way we are. He values human connections, dialogue, and also the pleasures of workmanship in his work: relationships with meaning.

His reflections are not often rooted in his personal past, but in his knowledge of patterns that have emerged and re-emerged in his life. He has ‘no answers’, he says, smiling through wisps of heady smoke, but he has fascinating things to say about how people are, and how they can be…

Throughout your recent work, one topic keeps recurring: the idea of humanity being in crisis in a new way. How have you seen this happen in your life?
It is important first to know what crisis means. Crisis is not about collapse, but a moment of decision, when the direction of the future could tip one way or another. So it is good that humanity is always in crisis – I never hear about rabbits or cockroaches being in crisis! And I don’t mean crises like earthquakes or tsunamis, because we have very little influence on these, and even the warming of the planet in some little part depends on what sort of fuel we use. The biggest crisis is something I took on from Ulrich Beck, the great sociologist of the passage from the 20th to the 21st century, who started from quite a simple idea, really, a statement of fact: that we are all interdependent on each other. The distances between these dependencies have been vastly reduced, though, and everything is so quickly and intensely connected with everything else, around the globe, but we haven’t started to develop awareness of how to deal with this.

Back in 1922, William Fielding Ogburn also published a book in which he developed the idea of cultural lag – about how culture can lag behind our situational realities. He developed it to speak about ‘the savages’ – he was writing in 1922, so you still spoke about people outside Europe as barbarians, or savages, or wild – about how some ethnic groups lag behind in terms of cultural change, and don’t catch up with the change in direction. Nearly a century after William Fielding Ogburn, we can say that we, here, in Britain – in this room as well – are in cultural lag. Because we already have a situation very drastically different from what was in the world before, even 60, 70 years ago, we didn’t have this level – this volume – of globalisation that we have now, but behave as if nothing has happened. This is our crisis.

What can we, as individuals, do about this?
Your very question is wrongly put. These days, people hire counsellors – they pay them – to hear how the world ‘all depends on you’, the individual. ‘You’ have to be more industrious, more skilful, go jogging more, eat more vegetables, learn how to make waves, how to influence people, add 500 people to your network of friends on Facebook. That doesn’t solve things. The long-term objective that we have to face up to is this: we have to develop models of collective action that work with the globality of our situation.

How do we learn how to work together?
[Smiles] I don’t have any answers, but I do have some ideas. In a very primitive way: cosmopolitanism begins at home. Instead of looking at the world as a series of conflicts, start looking at relationships between neighbours. [Pointing outside] I am using very often this window as an example. I have been living 45 years in this house, and there on the ring road, there is a secondary school. And children, when they finish school, go through this street to get home. So [gesturing outside warmly] I can see them. Children virtually never go on the street alone: they are always in groups, and when we first settled here, the groups of children – practically without exception – were of one colour of skin. Now, they are not. At that level of life, people are not classified before you start talking to them, as belonging to this or that civilisation.

People naturally connect. But also these days, if you go to work, if you have a desk in an office, or a bench in a factory, then around you are people belonging to all sorts of civilisations, who you classify as friends or adversaries, as competitors or co-operators, on normal terms. From this level, the future doesn’t look so disastrous. People get to know each other, talk to each other, spend time together, confide their very intimate feelings: they have dialogue. And dialogue is not just talking, chatting – particularly not chatting on Facebook, because on Facebook you chat only with people who applaud you. Dialogue is conversation with people who don’t think like you do, who have different convictions, different beliefs, different faiths, different criteria of good and bad and so on. You are engaging in dialogue, in these circumstances, not in order to win the game, but in order to understand. Essentially, we are capable of understanding each other at this level and that is what we should remember – only we also build obstacles preventing engagement in dialogue.

Do you feel that the virtual world creates obstacles?
Absolutely. Most of us welcomed the arrival of the internet, because it opened the world to our eyes. Suddenly you could see everything, you could hear everything, and we could know everything that is available to knowledge – and we assumed that all people would take this opportunity seriously. People will understand each other, then we will really know what it has been to belong here, belong there – because human beings are curious by nature. They will engage in learning.

It didn’t happen.

We are living at a crazy and creative moment in social and digital life. Read an article on the internet, and you will see that after every statement of some gravity, there’s a long, long list of responses, and while some people are engaged, many people are on the battlefield, preparing barricades. Their intention is not to understand the other’s standpoint. People don’t want to convert adversaries. They want to prove one thing: that the other is beyond redemption, that no good will can help improve them.

The tremendous popularity of Facebook also makes it absolutely easy – childishly easy – to cut yourself off from contacts which you don’t desire. This is something you can’t accomplish strolling on the city street, or when you send your children to school: you can’t switch off the surroundings, they’re there – they are real. We need to live in the real.

You are someone who values human connections, but you also speak of the value in the connections between humans and their work…
I am. In the early 20th century, the American philosopher Thorstein Veblen coined the concept of ‘instinct of workmanship’ and I think this still matters: about the joy, the happiness, the feeling of life which you derive from work well done. Unfortunately, work well done by you is something you can’t buy in a shop, so the society of consumers is denied this very important source of happiness. But there is happiness in that connection, that engagement, that relationship. It makes me think of a positive reading of Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: how he carved in ivory a woman so beautiful that no living woman could compare. This was the master falling in love with his own product – with the factory, the machinery, with the transportation – but also looking in his own workmanship for his happiness.

Narcissus fell in love with the reflection of his own face in the river, and that is where we are now. Instead of having a centrifugal culture, giving away to the world, we are now in centripetal one, taking in, detracting from the cultures of the world. We need to look out.

Looking out is what makes us.


Zygmunt Bauman’s 2016 publications, Strangers At Our Door, Babel and Liquid Evil, are published by Polity.


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