Liquid Times — Postmodernity

My new favorite author at the moment is Zygmunt Bauman, and not only because he has a super-cool name. I got 7 of his books recently, and have begun reading a couple of them. He is a sociologist who was born in Poland but has lived in Brittain much of his life as a scholar and teacher. In recent years he has written about “liquid modernity” which he uses as a term instead of postmodernity. We live in uncertain times, a time of fear and unknowing, and thats what makes the time “liquid” or without permanent form. We have a difficult time pursuing anything with persistence because things change so quickly that it is difficult to ‘mature’ or ‘complete’ prior to things shifting and altering our goals, purpose, vision. I will quote a few of the passages from the introduction of “Liquid Times” just to give you a taste of where he is going:

“At least in the ‘developed’ part of the planet, a few seminal and closely interconnected departures have happened, or are happening currently, that create a new and indeed unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, raising a series of challenges never before encountered.” We can think here of the internet, of cellphone proliferation and global communication, of the rise of multinational corporations, the loss of faith in institutions and ideologies, the multiplication of localized centers of power rather than unified structures.”   

 There will not be another Beatles, or U2 because today music is posted on utube by local bands with a camera and internet connection. Traditional TV stations are dying, newspapers are more irrelevant, marriage and traditional families are the minority.

Zygmunt explains what he means by liquid:
“First of all, the passage from the ‘solid’ to a ‘liquid; phase of modernity: that is, into a condition in which social forms (*structures that limit individual choicies, instituions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable behavior) can not longer (and are not expected) to keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast the, and once they ar ecast for them to set. Forms, whether already present or only adumbrated, are unlikely to be given enough time to solidigy, and connot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life strategies because of their short life expectation: indeed, a life expectation shorter than the time it takes to develop a cohesive and consistent strategy, and still shorter than the fulfilment of an individual ‘life project’ requires.”

Of course this is just two paragraphs into the intro to Zygmunt’s book, but already we feel the earth give way beneath our feet. The very notion of a stable ‘life project’, he is saying, is somewhat out of date. He goes on to say that community as a goal has been undermined:

“the gradual yet consistent withdrawal or curtailing of communal , state-endorsed insurance against individual failure and ill fortune deprives collective action of much of its past attraction and saps the social foundations of social solidarity; ‘community’, as a way of referring to the totality of the population inhabiting the sovereign territory of the state, sounds increasingly hollow. Interhuman bonds, once woven into a security net worthy of a large and continuous investment of time and effor, and worth the sacrifice of immediate individual interests…become increasingly frail and admitted to be temporary. Individual exposure to the vagaries of commodity-and-labour markets inspires and promotes division, not unity; it puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboraion and team work tothe rank of remporary stratagems that need to be suspended or terminated the moment their benefits have been used up. “Society’ is increasingly viewed and treated as a ‘network’ rather than a ‘structure’ (let alond a solid ‘totality’): it is perceived and treated as a matrix of random connections and diconnections and of an essentially infinite volume of possible permutations.”

In this world devoid of community, the individual is more and more isolated, and this cycle of self dependence leading to less solidarity eventually leads to a disipation of society.

Another point from Zygmunt is that in the current time, long term planning becomes senseless, because things change so quickly that its actually more important to forget the past and adjust than to remember the past and stay on course:

“the collapse of long-term thinking, planning and acting, and the disappearance or weakening of social structures in which thinking, planning and acting could be inscribed for a long time to come, leads to a splicing of bothe political history and individual lives into a series of short-term projects and episodes which are in principle infinite, and do not combine into the kinds of sequences to which concepts like ‘development’, ‘maturation’, ‘career’ or ‘progress’ (all suggesting a preordained oreder of succession) could be meaningfully applied. A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a differentr set of skills and a different arrangement of assets. Past successes do not necessarily increase the probability of future victories, let alone guarantee them;…A swift and through forgetting of outdated information and fast ageing habits can be more important for the next success than the memorization of past moves and the buidling of strategies on a foundation laid by previous learning”

It is strange to live in a time when it is an assett to not be held back by the past, an age in which ignorance of the past can be an assett to help one move forward towards future successes. In such a world, it seems that there will necessarily be a dehumanization of life, a loss of selfhood, or societal identity, of common shared interests and values, of tradition, beliefs, mores, and social expectations. Such a world will lack legitimate responses, rationality, or order, and so is a world without boudaries– likely perhaps to lead to a depressive and impotence-inducing lethargy towards a life which seems to have no point.

Zygmunt Bauman captures the reality of this new existential situation which is rooted not just in the nature of the radical newness of the contemporary predicament, but rather in the constantly changing multiplexed and multilayered complex diasporic errupting of multiplicity and noncongruent diversity which is emblematic of our age (and the very notion of ages expects an order and progression whose reality Zygmunt would certainly question)

Christians in this age are forced to decide what they will do– stand by the old rugged cross and maintain the ages-old formula of Christian salvation to humanity through the work of Christ Son of God, or leave this unified history as a relic of the past stilted perspective.

There is no doubt that we do live in a period of rapid multifaceted change, and this is a blessing and a curse, of course. How much tradition do we hold onto, as we adjust to the present? How much counterculturalism should be promote, and what are our motiviations for that type of decision?

But there may also be room for a modified embracing of this unknowing.  We do walk by faith, not by sight.  How to maintain Christian commitment in a meanignful way while also acknowledging human frailty, finitude, and lack of perfection has always been difficult, but is especially relevant today, in the face of many heavy  criticisms sometimes levelled at the church, especially in light of the perspective offered by Zygmunt Bauman.

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One response to “Liquid Times — Postmodernity

  1. Here’s my thoughts,

    I think Zygmunt (did I really just type that may consonants in one word?) ‘s critique is insightful and probably accurate, it’s frightening to hear someone articulate this change in human history. I believe that his solution to ‘change’ along with, what seems to be a move towards the total decomposition of human society, is potentially very much ‘unChristian’ though. Sure, the church has had a history of adapting in certain ways to the society or governmental structures surrounding it, the way Christianity grew from it’s beginnings in Rome is a good example, but it seems that the creeds of Christianity have always called for certain values to be upheld by Christians.

    Our new testament tells of Christians living in community, sharing things in common, serving the poor and needy. This sort of activity seems to be directly opposed to the changing climate of Zygmunt’s ‘liquid state’ and his call to adapt to the loss of these values would require denying some very specific mentions in scripture.

    Also, scripture tells us repeatedly to study scripture and if our goal as Christians is to follow Christ (who fulfilled the ‘law’ not abolished it) and to preach “Christ crucified”, then this would mean remembering this piece of human history and preserving the teachings of our Lord. Once again, a preservation of old truth (eternal truth might be better) which is not a quality of the ‘liquid modern’ age, or even part of Zygmunt Bauman’s suggested behavior for surviving it! Once again it would seem that Christian teaching is opposed.

    I agree that Christians need to (I hate using this word) remain ‘relevant’ to this modern culture, but in what way? Technology isn’t destroying community, people without self control (which isn’t taught admittedly, again part of the problem) using technology/social networking/etc.. maybe, but I don’t think it’s technology per se. While I will agree modern society and the technology and opportunities for isolation that it supplies is treacherous for an honest Christian (or any honest human really) and that it will probably become increasingly difficult to uphold the ‘old rugged cross’ and all that that entails, while remaining close enough to the lost so as to demonstrate the hope that we live by (I don’t plan on deleting my facebook anytime soon), it would seem that this is exactly the struggle we are called to in these strange days. Although I am of the mind that if being ‘connented’ through modern means ever distracts us from our true purpose, or ‘disconnects’ us from the people God has placed in our life, than it’s probably we can’t handle these new means (technology, internets, television?) and should abandon them sooner than our bibles 😉

    Great article Andy!

    p.s. What would Thomas Reid say?

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