Interview with Zygmunt Bauman (Part I)

As I blogged here before, last year (May 29th) I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (the fanboy picture - sorry about that - was taken by professor Bauman's wife, Janina). Earlier I posted several quotes from the interview transcripts, for example on journalism, journalists, and "internauts". The full interview, complete with references and appropriate theoretical context, is published in the Summer 2007 issue of Journalism Studies. For purposes of open access, I am reproducing the Q&A part of our interview in three parts on this blog.

This is part I of my (MD) interview with Zygmunt Bauman (ZB) on 29 May 2006 in Leeds, UK.

ZB: "In history as you know there were two basic visions of time, one was cyclical, another linear. Most recent was the linear: darting or plodding forward while dismantling the bridges once crossed. There's no way back, you can't return, you can’t reverse (unless in a sci-fi film). Certainly ours is not cyclical time – nothing repeats now exactly as the last time, like in the annual cycle of farming: ‘last year’ means now ‘outdated’, and ‘the way things were done’ is the way they should be done no more…

People who are at the forefront of organizational progress are certainly afraid of sticking to experience, tradition, going by the pattern. None of the two models fit liquid modernity. Time is no longer cyclical [time], but not linear either because events and actions succeed each other randomly rather than in a straight line, and seem to change direction on their way…

Nowadays we are held together by short term projects, moving constantly from one project to another – what model of time can be derived from such experience? I suggest ‘pointillist’ time. Much like canvasses of Sisley, Seurat or Signac, which consist of points only, no broad brushstrokes and no continuities. That is, though, as far as the analogy goes, because in pointillist paintings you have pre-designed and in-built meaningful configurations. However, in liquid modern life configurations are not given beforehand. They are just randomly scattered points: episodes, fragments - but of what whole?

Living though the moment, one point in time, you can not be sure to what configuration you will eventually belong when scrutinized retrospectively […] Some points, though, are known to be ‘Big Bangs’. The original Big Bang, the birth of the universe. We know a lot about what happened in a fraction of a second after – but nothing whatsoever about before, There were no ways to predict that a universe will be born in the next fraction of a second. And so in liquid-modern life. Each ‘time point’ could be a big bang; could be, potentially, the ultimate experience, the great beginning, the moment of ‘being born again’ – but there is no way one can be sure in advance that this indeed will happen, and in this moment, not another.”

MD: Theorists of the network society such as Manuel Castells and Jan van Dijk would posit that our contemporary lived reality of moving between seemingly isolated points in time is in fact connected and patterned, but in different ways than the cyclical or linear schools of history would have it. Castells (2001) for example suggests the internet-enabled global surfacing of a “hypersociality” consisting of networked individualism, while Scott Lash (2002) talks about “communicational bonds” that keep otherwise disjointed people and experiences together. How would you set your analysis of pointillist time against such, perhaps more hopeful, views on an emerging different kind of cohesion or connectivity of lived experience?

ZB: “As to the influence on the nature of human bonds and sociality skills, I wrote profusely before and will be again writing in the study of internauts of the consumerist era. In my view, both Castells and Scott fall victims of internet fetishism fallacy. Network is not community and communication not integration - both safely equipped as they are with ‘disconnection on demand’ devices. By many academics internet and world-wide-web have been greeted as the wondrous alternative and replacement for the wilting and fading political democracy, with yet more enthusiasm and less criticism than the market.

Theorizing of internet as the new and improved form of politics, of world- wide-web surfing as a new and more effective form of political engagement, and of the accelerated connection to the internet and rising speed of surfing as advances in democracy, look suspiciously as so many glosses on the ever more common life practices of the knowledge-class, and above all on their keen concern with an honorable discharge from the ‘politics of the real’. All the more resounding for that reason is Jodi Dean’s blunt verdict that the present day communication technologies are profoundly depoliticizing, that communication functions fetishistically today, that the technological fetish is ‘political’. It lets us think that all we need is to universalize a particular technology and then we will have a democratic or reconciled social order.

Reality stands in stark opposition to its sanguine and cheerful portrait painted by the ‘communication fetishists’. The powerful flow of information is not a confluent of the river of democracy, but an insatiable intake intercepting its contents and channeling them away into magnificently huge, yet stale and stagnant artificial lakes. The more powerful that flow is, the greater the threat of the river bed drying up."

(Parts II and III of the interview follow).