Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Everything solid melts into air..."

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" (Wallace 2005)


In the social theory of Zygmunt Bauman, the solid world we once navigated has melted into a liquid modern world. In the solid modern world there were enduring social institutions that could be used in designing the trajectory of one’s life project. Yet the liquid modern world is plagued by endemic uncertainty. We can no longer expect stability from social forms, “structures that limit and organize individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routine, and patterns of acceptable behavior” (Bauman 2007 : 1). Liquid modernity demands that individuals do for themselves the heavy lifting once performed by these social forms. Before, one could employ social forms to develop long-term life projects. Now, social forms are not cohesive or consistent enough to serve as the frame of reference from which to set a permanent life trajectory.

Bauman identifies two different orientations towards the pursuit of happiness that are presented to citizens of the liquid modern world. Humans can either choose a centrifugal or a centripedal orientation towards their pursuit.

The centripedal orientation is that which Bauman warns us against. The centripedal orientation emerges forcefully from the individualistic, disordered logic of liquidity. In the old solid modern world, selfishness was frowned upon. “Individual interests were once understood to be petty, futile, abominably short—lived, vagrant when juxtaposed with the interests of the social whole: the nation, the state, the cause (Bauman 2008 : 32).” Yet in the liquid modern world, selfishness loses its old stigma. Now, an ideology of privitization instructs individuals to go it alone. Care for one’s own well being is considered the top priority. Responsibility is turned inward, and our highest responsibilities emerge as responsibilities towards ourselves (Bauman 2008 : 88).

The centrifugal orientation is epitomized by Emmanual Levinas (Bauman 2008 : 104). This model is based on obligation towards the well-being of others. Instead of turning away from our communities and towards selfishness, we embrace the pursuit of happiness as an outward looking project. The centrifugal orientation understands “the other as the trigger, the target, and the yardstick of a responsibility to be accepted, assumed, and acted upon…. This centrifugal orientation has all but disappeared from [today’s] view… elbowed out by the actor’s own self” (Bauman 2008 : 107). The centrifugal orientation that Bauman recommends to us embodies the idea that I cannot be well off if my neighbor is poor, because we are all bound up together in “one garment of destiny” (King 1963).

In some ways, the centrifugal orientation is less a normative plea than an easily overlooked empirical observation. In the long-term, our well-being is often inseperable from the other. In today’s interconnected, liquid modern world, “no well-being for one… is innocent of the misery of another” (Bauman 2007 : 3). Like it or not, our well-being is increasingly interdependent with that of even the most remote Others.

The dominant ideology of privitization individualizes both successes and failures. “Individuals are expected, pushed, and pulled to find individual solutions to socially created problems” (Bauman 2008 : 88). “Communally endorsed insurance policies against individual misfortunes… now being… withdrawn” Bauman 2007 : 13). Community-wide solidarity is dismissed as futile. The privatizers deride the centrifugal principles of individual and collective responsibility for the well-being of its members. Ideology dismisses other-oriented ethics as fostering dependency and the infantilizing tendencies of the welfare/nanny state.

The liquid modern world divides people between winners and losers, sinkers and swimmers. “Privitization ideology divides humanity and its own believers into winners and losers… It enables some and disables others” (Bauman 2008 : 92). Humanity becomes divided into winners and losers (Bauman 2008 : 116). Some will flourish if they are equipped, mentally and materially, to practice the art of life. Those who are not properly equipped will sink to the bottom of the liquid modern world, becoming servants to the swimmers. Capitalism’s global triumph makes an increasing portion of the population redundant. “Modern capitalism is choking on its own waste products which it can neither reassimilate nor annihilate” (Bauman 2007 : 29). In a world of Nietzschean Supermen, the weak are offered little more than an apology and a servile position in the new liquid order.

To use Bauman’s metaphor, ours is increasingly a world of hunters and not a world of gardeners (Bauman 2008 : 113). We cannot set up residency on some solid surface and man the grounds long enough to reap what we sow. Instead, we must always be on the move, searching for a shifting body of dangerous and exotic game that eludes capture. Now, there is a bliss to being a hunter among hunters (Bauman 2007 : 110). For those natural swimmers in the liquid modern world, the pursuit is enjoyable and rewarding. However, given the diversity of humanity, some are predisposed to misery in this world. For factors often quite outside an individual’s control, the liquid modern world can offer either feast or famine. The liquid modern world is brutally Darwinian. Those who fail are expected to be the sole absorber of their failure. The weak are, at best, offered an apology from the strong. Where once the weak found strength in numbers, the logic of liquid modernity wilts their former solidarity.

Liquid modern socities are pulled towards privitzation not just by charismatic leaders but by the very logic of liquid modernity. Our individualistic society is not animated by a shared way of life. The liberal order “offers no official guidance on how people are to conduct their lives in a meaningful direction” (Beiner 1995). Liberalism offers an agnostic or neutral sponge to soak up the liquid modern social forms. Liberal societies in the liquid modern world threaten to leave the individual’s interior life as a world without furniture. As Robert Beiner puts it, “we purge our dwelling places of furniture because its presence would derogate from the moral imperative to create every bit of spiritual furniture from out of ourselves. The liberal impulse is an adventure in spiritual self-creation, and it transfers what the greatest poets and artists have been able to accomplish onto the shoulders of ‘Everyman’” (Beiner 1995).

Bauman’s liquid modern theory suggests that this interior decorating dilemma is not unique to liberalism. The social forms that once provided for people, top-down, moral and spiritual furniture, are no longer up to the task. Beiner says that liberalism transfers the burdens of great artists onto the shoulders of Everyman, but in The Art of Life, Bauman argues that it is the liquifying, “mind boggling pace of change” (Bauman 2007 : 11) that imposes the role of artist onto every modern individual.

The threat remains the same though for both Beiner and Bauman. Our interior lives face a crushing poverty given the lack of guidance and spiritual furniture, once available from the old solid social forms. Both see that to demand from everyman the accomplishments of the greatest poets and artists is unrealistic given the resources, material and inborn, that such feats demand.

The liquid modern world is marked by perpetual uncertainty. Violent currents of change can come from any direction as “bolts out of the blue” that leave our life strategies blown to smithereens (Bauman 2007 : 94). These circumstances encourage a method of navigation that is “bland, calculating, petty and unheroic” (Beiner 1995). We risk losing all that makes humanity awesome and heroic with the collapse of long-term thinking, planning, and acting.

Morality is a matter of we-intentions. It involves the overlapping part of ourselves in which expectations are shared within communities. However, once the social forms that structure this type of morality are disintegrated, what is left of our moral personalities beyond a hollow shell? Can substantive morality exist without substantive communites?

Emerson said that, “our chief want in this world is for somebody to make us do what we can” (Ruppert 2003). In the liquid modern world, we are left without the people or institutions that make us do what we can. In the liquid modern world, if little is substantiviely expected of us, and if the expectors are increasingly ghosts of their solid selves, mankind’s accomplishments are likely to become increasinly bland, petty and unheroic.

Without community and the Levinas-style call to sacrifice, we cannot comprehend duty. Without duty, life is boneless and hollow. When we fail to look outward in our pursuit of happiness, our lives take on a perverse inward trajectory, like “a snake eating its own tail” (Bauman 1995 : 33). The cold utilitarian calculation of liquid modernity erodes principles and turns all of life’s focus towards ends and away from means. As the great gonzologist Hunter S. Thompson once put it: “…where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only… sin is stupidity” (Thompson 2003).

Calculation and risk-management surrender the part of ourselves that is informed by emotion and sacrifice. The logic of liquid modernity tells us to achieve security by enclosing ourselves in “defense capsules” of solitude (Bauman 2007 : 11). However, in this risk-averse insulation, we lose the pleasures and possibilities of attachment. Attachment and community offer up the possibility of being heroic and fully human in a way we cannot do from within our anomic defense capsules.

Works Cited:

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Times. Polity Press: Malden, Mass. 2007.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Life in Fragments. Blackwell: Cambridge, 1995.

Bauman, Zygmunt. The Art of Life. Polity Press: Malden, Mass. 2008

Beiner, Robert. “Liberalism: What’s Missing?” Society. Vol. 11, Number 5. July 1995.

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail. April, 1963.

Ruppert, Jack. One of Us: Officers of Marines – Their Training, Tradition, and Values. Praeger Press: Quantico, 2003.

Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2003.

Wallace, David Foster. Commencement Speech at Kenyon College, Ohio. May 21, 2005.