Zygmunt Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman is the author of a number of other books including the extremely successful Modernity and the Holocaust (Polity, 1989) which won the 1989 European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Theory, and Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity, 1991). He was also awarded the Theodor W. Adorno prize for 1998.
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With the advent of liquid modernity, the society of producers istransformed into a society of consumers. In this new consumersociety, individuals become simultaneously the promoters ofcommodities and the commodities they promote. They are, at one andthe same time, the merchandise and the marketer, the goods and thetravelling salespeople. They all inhabit the same social space thatis customarily described by the term the market.

The test they need to pass in order to acquire the social prizesthey covet requires them to recast themselves as products capableof drawing attention to themselves. This subtle and pervasivetransformation of consumers into commodities is the most importantfeature of the society of consumers. It is the hidden truth, thedeepest and most closely guarded secret, of the consumer society inwhich we now live.

In this new book Zygmunt Bauman examines the impact ofconsumerist attitudes and patterns of conduct on various apparentlyunconnected aspects of social life politics and democracy, socialdivisions and stratification, communities and partnerships,identity building, the production and use of knowledge, and valuepreferences.

The invasion and colonization of the web of human relations bythe worldviews and behavioural patterns inspired and shaped bycommodity markets, and the sources of resentment, dissent andoccasional resistance to the occupying forces, are the centralthemes of this brilliant new book by one of the worlds mostoriginal and insightful social thinkers.

The production of 'human waste' - or more precisely, wasted lives,the 'superfluous' populations of migrants, refugees and otheroutcasts - is an inevitable outcome of modernization. It is anunavoidable side-effect of economic progress and the quest fororder which is characteristic of modernity.

As long as large parts of the world remained wholly or partlyunaffected by modernization, they were treated by modernizingsocieties as lands that were able to absorb the excess ofpopulation in the 'developed countries'. Global solutions weresought, and temporarily found, to locally produced overpopulationproblems. But as modernization has reached the furthest lands ofthe planet, 'redundant population' is produced everywhere and alllocalities have to bear the consequences of modernity's globaltriumph. They are now confronted with the need to seek - in vain,it seems - local solutions to globally produced problems. Theglobal spread of the modernity has given rise to growing quantitiesof human beings who are deprived of adequate means of survival, butthe planet is fast running out of places to put them. Hence the newanxieties about 'immigrants' and 'asylum seekers' and the growingrole played by diffuse 'security fears' on the contemporarypolitical agenda.

With characteristic brilliance, this new book by Zygmunt Baumanunravels the impact of this transformation on our contemporaryculture and politics and shows that the problem of coping with'human waste' provides a key for understanding some otherwisebaffling features of our shared life, from the strategies of globaldomination to the most intimate aspects of human relationships.
Evil is not confined to war or to circumstances in which peopleare acting under extreme duress. Today it more frequently revealsitself in the everyday insensitivity to the suffering of others, inthe inability or refusal to understand them and in the casualturning away of one’s ethical gaze. Evil and moral blindnesslurk in what we take as normality and in the triviality andbanality of everyday life, and not just in the abnormal andexceptional cases.

The distinctive kind of moral blindness that characterizes oursocieties is brilliantly analysed by Zygmunt Bauman and LeonidasDonskis through the concept of adiaphora: the placing of certainacts or categories of human beings outside of the universe of moralobligations and evaluations. Adiaphora implies an attitude ofindifference to what is happening in the world – a moralnumbness.  In a life where rhythms are dictated by ratingswars and box-office returns, where people are preoccupied with thelatest gadgets and forms of gossip, in our ‘hurriedlife’ where attention rarely has time to settle on any issueof importance, we are at serious risk of losing our sensitivity tothe plight of the other. Only celebrities or media stars can expectto be noticed in a society stuffed with sensational, valuelessinformation.

This probing inquiry into the fate of our moral sensibilities willbe of great interest to anyone concerned with the most profoundchanges that are silently shaping the lives of everyone in ourcontemporary liquid-modern world.
We have long since lost our faith in the idea that human beings could achieve human happiness in some future ideal state—a state that Thomas More, writing five centuries ago, tied to a topos, a fixed place, a land, an island, a sovereign state under a wise and benevolent ruler. But while we have lost our faith in utopias of all hues, the human aspiration that made this vision so compelling has not died. Instead it is re-emerging today as a vision focused not on the future but on the past, not on a future-to-be-created but on an abandoned and undead past that we could call retrotopia.

The emergence of retrotopia is interwoven with the deepening gulf between power and politics that is a defining feature of our contemporary liquid-modern world—the gulf between the ability to get things done and the capability of deciding what things need to be done, a capability once vested with the territorially sovereign state. This deepening gulf has rendered nation-states unable to deliver on their promises, giving rise to a widespread disenchantment with the idea that the future will improve the human condition and a mistrust in the ability of nation-states to make this happen. True to the utopian spirit, retrotopia derives its stimulus from the urge to rectify the failings of the present human condition—though now by resurrecting the failed and forgotten potentials of the past. Imagined aspects of the past, genuine or putative, serve as the main landmarks today in drawing the road-map to a better world. Having lost all faith in the idea of building an alternative society of the future, many turn instead to the grand ideas of the past, buried but not yet dead. Such is retrotopia, the contours of which are examined by Zygmunt Bauman in this sharp dissection of our contemporary romance with the past.
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