Liquid modernity by Zygmunt Bauman

Testi — December 6, 2011

“Liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready ( and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but ‘for a moment’ . In a sense, solids cancel time; for liquids, on the contrary, it is mostly time that matters. When describing solids, one may ignore time altogeter; in describing fluids, to leave time out of account would be a grievous mistake. Descriptions of fluids are all snapshots, and they need a date at the bottom of the picture. Fluids travel easily. They ‘flow’, ‘spill’, ‘run out’, ‘splash’, ‘pour over’, ‘leak’, ‘flood’, ‘spray’, ‘drip’, ‘seep’, ‘ooze’; unlike solids, they are not easily stopped – they pass around some obstacles, dissolve some others and bore or soak their way through others still. From the meeting with solids they emerge unscathed, while the solids they have met, if they stay solid, are changed – get moist or drenched. The extraordinary mobility of fluids is what associates them with the idea of ‘lightness’. There are liquids which, cubic inch for cubic inch, are heavier than many solids, but we are inclined nonetheless to visualize them all as lighter, less ‘weighty’ than everything solid. We associate ‘lightness’ or ‘weightlessness’ with mobility and inconstancy: we know from practice that the lighter we travel the easier and faster we move. These are reasons to consider ‘fluidity’ or ‘liquidity’ as fitting metaphors when we wish to grasp the nature of the present, in many ways novel, phase in the history of modernity.” p2

“we are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite.” p13

“The disintegration of the social network, the falling apart of effective agencies of collective action is often noted with a good deal of anxiety and bewailed as the unanticipated ‘side effect’ of the new lightness and fluidity of the increasingly mobile, slippery, shifty, evasive and fugitive power. But social disintegration is as much a condition as it is the outcome of the new technique of power, using disengagement and the art of escape as its major tools. For power to be free to flow, the world must be free of fences, barriers, fortified borders and checkpoints.” p14

“In Richard Sennett’s classic definition, a city is a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” p94

“There are only ‘moments’ – points without dimensions. But is such a time, time with the morphology of an aggregate of moments,is still time ‘as we know it’? The expression ‘moment of time’ seems, at least in certain vital respects, an oxymoron. Perhaps, having killed Time/Space as value, time has committed suicide? Was not space merely the first casualty in time’s frenzied rush to self-annihilation?” p118-119

“People who move and act faster, who come nearest to the momentariness of movement, are now the people who rule. And it is the people who cannot move as quickly, and more conspicuously yet the category of people who cannot and will leave their place at all, who are ruled. Domination consists in one’s own capacity to escape, to disengage, to ‘be elsewhere’, and the right to decide the speed with which all that is done – while simultaneously stripping the people on the dominated side of their ability to arrest or constrain their moves or slow them down. The contemporary battle of domination is waged between forces armed, respectively, with the weapons of acceleration and procrastination.” p119-120

“The title said it all: precariousness, instability, vulnerability is the most widespread (as well as the most painfully felt) feature of contemporary life conditions. The French theorists speak of precarité, the German of Unsicherheit and Risikogesellschaft, the Italians of incertezza and the English of insecurity – but all of them have in mind the same aspect of the human predicament, experienced in various forms and under different names all over the globe, but felt to be especially unnerving and depressing in the highly developed and affluent part of the planet – for the reason of being new and in many ways unprecedented. The phenomenon which all these concepts try to grasp and articulate is the combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood), of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability) and of unsafety (of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions: possessions, neighbourhood, community).” p161

Precarious economic and social conditions train men and women (or make them learn the hard way) to perceive the world as a container full of disposable objects, objects for one-off use; the whole world – including other human beings. In addition, the world seems to consist of ‘black boxes’, hermetically sealed, never to be opened by the users, tinkered with, let alone repaired once they go bust. Today’s car mechanics are not trained in repairing broken or damaged engines, only in easing out and throwing away the used-up or faulty parts and replacing them with other ready-made and sealed parts picked from the warehouse shelves. Of the inner structure of the ‘spare parts’(an expression that tells it all), of the mysterious ways in which they work, they have little or no inkling; they do not consider such understanding and the skills which accompany it to be their responsibility or to lie within their field of competence. As in the garage, so it is in life outside: every ‘part’ is ‘spare’ and replaceable, and had better be replaceable. Why would one waste time on labour-consuming repairs, if it takes but a few moments to dump the damaged part and put another in its place? In the world in which the future is at best dim and misty but more likely full of risks and dangers, setting distant goals, surrendering private interest in order to increase group power and sacrificing the present in the name of a future bliss does not seem an attractive, nor for that matter sensible, proposition. Any chance not taken here and now is a chance missed; not taking it is thus unforgivable and cannot be easily excused, let alone vindicated. Since the present-day commitments stand in the way of the nextday opportunities, the lighter and more superficial they are, the less is the likely damage. ‘Now’ is the keyword of life strategy, whatever that strategy applies to and whatever else it may suggest. In an insecure and unpredictable world, clever wanderers would do their best to imitate the happy globals who travel light; and they would not shed too many tears when getting rid of anything that cramped the moves. They seldom pause long enough to muse that human bonds are not like engine parts – that they hardly ever come ready-made, that they tend to rot and disintegrate fast if kept hermetically sealed and are not easily replaced once no longer of use.
And so the policy of deliberate ‘precarization’ conducted by the operators of labour markets finds itself to be aided and abetted (with its effects reinforced) by life policies, whether adopted deliberately or embraced by default. Both converge on the same result: the fading and wilting, falling apart and decomposing of human bonds, of communities and of partnerships. Commitments of ‘the ‘till death us do part’ type become contracts ‘until satisfaction lasts’, temporal and transient by definition, by design and by pragmatic impact – and so prone to be broken unilaterally, whenever one of the partners sniffs out more opportunity and better value in opting out of the partnership rather than trying to save it at any incalculable – cost.
In other words, bonds commitments of the ’till death us do part’ type become contracts ‘until satisfaction lasts’, temporal and transient by definition, by design and by pragmatic impact (…) In other words, bonds and partnership tend to be viewed and treated as things meant to be consumed, not produced, they are subject to the same criteria of evaluation as all other objects of consumption.” p163

“The passage from heavy to light capitalism and from solid to fluid or liquefied modernity constitutes the framework in which the history of the labour movement has been inscribed.” p167

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid modernity

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