Since his death earlier this year, I have spent some time exploring Zygmunt Bauman’s remarkable contribution to sociology and beyond. His extensive work spans decades, illuminating numerous cavities of society and history. Although Bauman’s collection covers such an abundance of subjects, his material is woven together through the persisting themes of morality, modernity and postmodernity, globalisation and consumerism. His insightful comments on these absolutely stand the test of time; Bauman’s enlightening provocations seem to me to be seamlessly applicable to our current societal predicament. Below is a collection of some of Bauman’s ideas and comments that were particularly compelling for me, lifted from his 1989 Modernity and the Holocaust, a particularly revolutionary and revered publication of Bauman’s, that tackles the relationship between the transient production of an Other, community, and the human condition of morality. A consideration of the intersection of these have the potential to illuminate contemporary discussions about our current political and social crises.
Bauman’s comments on the widespread atrocities committed against Jews and other persecuted groups in the Second World War was a radical turn from existing literatures attempting to understand and explain it. Rather than the popular interpretation of the Holocaust as a uniquely German problem enabled by a psyche and psychology particular to the German nation, Bauman pioneered a discussion where he related the brutality and tragedy of Shoah to all humanity, and its sweeping ability to act inhumanely: that the Holocaust could tell us about us and now rather than them and there. This viewpoint that a sociological exploration of the events of WWII can provide an insight into the human condition of modernity in general rather than considering them as a distinguished historical catastrophe should be considered theoretically revolutionary and remains influential across multiple disciplines today. Instead of a shortsighted view of history as a series of events, Bauman introduced a much more expansive perspective where a phenomenon can speak to us about broader ‘society, civilisation and culture,’ and where these occurrences should inform our disciplines, rather than attempting to mould episodes and experiences into existing understanding.
With particular regards to the Holocaust, Bauman noted how it exposed modernity and civilisation as more than capable of generating and enabling barbarism. In fact, Nazism was inescapably modern, some sort of murderous rendition of Fordism. Bauman does not seek to impose the impression that modernity can explain the Holocaust, but simply that the industrial image of production and the bureaucratic model of rationality – as two definitive elements of modern civilization – laid the groundwork that made it possible. Modernism is a malleable condition, and it’s aspects and features can be put to any means, and serve any master. By rejecting existing dichotomies between pre-modern barbarism and civilised modernity, Bauman revealed that modernity is more than capable of generating barbarism and acting immorally – perhaps so in an even more dangerous way – and opened up crucial self-critical discussion that should be considered increasingly relevant today. We should look within at what cruelties our societies facilitate before simply pointing the finger at other corners of the world.
Bauman astutely recognises how the Jews in and around the second world war acted as ‘floating signifiers:’ a symbolic body to be labelled as anything and everything, with all kinds of crimes and disorders projected unto them. Their position was defined and then destroyed by the body politic, an important notion to recognise as it persuades us to consider the ways in which meanings are assigned and then attached to individuals, groups and events. There is immense power in the ability of authoritative bodies and figures to create and spread lasting identities – such as the brand of the ‘Other,’ as Jews were widely recognised. As Bauman notes, modernity and its inhabitants reinvent this embodied ‘Other’ over and over again, and recognising the construction of this category could aid in its deconstruction. While the Jewish community (amongst other targeted groups) embodied the enemy of the Germany state in fascist Nazi ideology, it is important for us to reflect on which groups are vilified today, and challenge how these stereotypes are constructed and then maintained in the mainstream. Interestingly, Bauman recognised the notion of reflexivity as a processual facet of learning about our society and its past. In order to tackle injustices that are contemporary and ongoing, it would be crucial to eliminate historical reflexivity as a necessary measure to study and learn from the past, as by then it is too late.
As much as Bauman’s work acknowledges that all humans are capable of descending into inhumanity – the capacity of evil lies within each of us – it is not entirely damning. A worthy point of his that stood out to me was that there is also hope amidst all of the despair, and in fact insight into the holocaust also reveals resilience through extreme hardship. Humans are not only be capable of utter violence and cowardice, but also of enlightening compassion and sacrifice. Zygmunt refers to his wife Janina Bauman’s powerful memoirs, penned in her harrowing but eerily beautiful account of surviving the Warsaw Ghetto, as testament to the bravery and humanity that is unearthed amongst such tremendous tragedy. In fact, taking the Baumans’ narratives together, as a partnership between Janina’s heart wrenching autobiographical history and Zygmunt’s more detached sociological exploration provides unprecedented insight into the human experience of a historical phenomena that I am yet to have gleaned from any other account of the past.