The renowned Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman died this week in Leeds. Speaking last year with Peter Haffner, here is Bauman speaking about our new hesitance to love, the internet, and more. Read the full interview, full of gems, via 032c here.
Zygmunt Bauman is without question one of Europe’s most influential sociologists. His oeuvre, read on all continents, encompasses some sixty books, which he has continued to publish at a daunting pace since his 1990 retirement from the University of Leeds in England.
Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity,” which refers to the present state of our society and its transformation of all aspects of life at an unprecedented rate – love, work, society, politics, and power. He has covered a wide spectrum of topics from intimacy to globalization, reality television to the Holocaust, and consumerism to community, extending far beyond his core area of expertise into the fields of philosophy and psychology.
Bauman was born in 1925 into a poor Jewish family in Poznan, Poland, who managed to catch the last train to Soviet Russia and thus saved themselves from a terrible fate. He became a Marxist and fought in the Red Army. After his return to Poland, he served as a political officer in the security corps, fighting against opponents of the regime, and then as an employee in the military’s secret service until 1953. Disillusioned with Soviet communism, he left the Communist Party of Poland. Following a vicious anti-Semitic campaign, he lost his position at the University of Warsaw in 1968 and moved to Israel, where he taught at the University of Tel Aviv for two years before migrating to England.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the Greek poet Archilochus once said. In this famous categorization of writers and thinkers elaborated by Isaiah Berlin, Bauman is both a “hedgehog” and “fox.” He is not a man of details, statistics, surveys, facts, and extrapolations. He paints with a broad brush on a large canvas, provoking debates and injecting discussions with new hypotheses. Yet there is very little in the humanities and social sciences that would leave him with nothing to say. “My life is spent recycling information,” Bauman once said.
At the age of 89, the sociologist has lost none of his trademark passion for criticism and righteous fury toward the prevailing state of affairs. He still astonishes visitors with a mischievous humor that is not found in the bleak vision of the future in his books. Eastern European to the core, he insists that his guests help themselves to the strawberry tarts, cookies, and grapes laid out before him on the coffee table, surrounded by towering stacks of books. Seated on a worn-out wingback chair with pipe in hand, Bauman takes plenty of time to answer our questions. And this is very much needed, because we want to know: What is life?
Peter Haffner: Professor Bauman, let’s start with the most important thing: love. You say that we are forgetting how to love. What brings you to that conclusion?
Zygmunt Bauman: The trend of finding a partner on the Internet goes hand in hand with the trend of online shopping. I personally don’t like going to shops and buy most things online – books, films, clothing. If you want a new jacket, the virtual store’s website will show you a catalog. If you want a partner, the dating website will also present you with a catalog. The pattern of relationships between customers and commodities defines the patterns of relationships between individuals.
How does it differ from earlier times when future partners met at village fairs or town balls?
Online dating involves an attempt to define the features of a potential partner that best reflect one’s own longings and desires. Candidates are chosen based on hair or skin color, height, figure, bust size, age, interests and hobbies, preferences and dislikes. The underlying idea is that an object of love can be assembled from a number of measurable physical and social characteristics. In the process, the most decisive factor gets forgotten: the human person.
But even when such an ideal profile is defined, everything changes once you get to know the person. They are much more than the sum of all these external attributes.
The danger is that the pattern of relationships is coming to resemble the way we relate to mundane objects of utility. We would never pledge our devotion to a chair. Why would I vow to remain on this chair until my dying day? If I no longer like it, I’ll simply buy a new one. It’s not a conscious process but it’s the way we learn to see the world and other human beings.
You mean that couples separate prematurely.
We enter relationships because they promise satisfaction. When we get the feeling that a different partner would be more satisfying, we break off the old relationship to begin a new one. Starting a relationship takes the consent of two people. Ending it only takes one. As a result, both partners live in constant fear of being abandoned by the other, of being tossed aside like a jacket that’s gone out of fashion.
*Image of Bauman via El Plais