A conversation with Zygmunt Bauman

Hannah Macaulay discusses liquid modernity, Brexit and hope with sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

On one of the coldest, rainiest, windiest days in recent British history I find myself on the number 1 bus on my way to Headingley. I check the time on my phone. It’s 4.20P.M. and I am meeting Zygmunt Bauman, Emeritus professor at Leeds and one of the most influential sociologists in modern history, for a conversation at 4.30. As a Sociology student who is passionate about her subject, this is a big deal. Ask any person with a slight relation to the field, and they will tell you that Zygmunt Bauman can be described as nothing less than the Polish Mick Jagger of contemporary Sociology.

We’re stuck in a queue on Otley Road. I am approximately 15 minutes away from Zygmunt Bauman’s address, and I start to worry. What if I’m stuck on the bus for the next hour? I decide that if worst comes to worst I’ll just have to get off the bus and run. I wait patiently for another 10 minutes and suddenly, the bus starts speeding up. It’s driving fast now, really fast. It’s 4.35 when I see my end-destination near the Leeds ring road. I hit the ‘’stop’’ button with fierce determination, say thank you to the bus driver and start powerwalking towards the Bauman residency.

When I reach the big Headingley villa, the gate is open as a welcoming invitation onto the property. As I walk down a narrow path, I see that the door to the house is open too. A woman, who I discover to be the sociologist Aleksandra Kania, comes running towards me. “Hello, hello!” I say as she shakes my hand and invites me inside the house. She points at my shoes, and asks me if I would like to take them off. “They’re quite wet, but…” I don’t even finish my sentence before she hands me a pair of slippers that I can wear. I look at my surroundings. The hallway is filled with old photographs; there are a couple of paintings, some with stamps from Poland on them. There is a little piece of furniture with various sorts of clay jugs on it. It feels like I’m visiting a relative, the house is warm and I feel very comfortable. I normally only wear slippers in my own home or my grandparents’. I don’t know if it is the contrast to the horrid weather outside or the slippers, but I feel relaxed in the settings of the Bauman house. “Come with me,” Aleksandra says, and we emerge into the living room where Zygmunt Bauman is sitting and waiting in a big chair.

As I sit down next to him, I notice the arrangements in front of me: there’s a glass of apple juice, a piece of cheesecake, some almonds and a small bowl of yoghurt with raspberries. I’ve never been treated this well at an interview before. “Eat, eat!” Zygmunt says, as he points at the food in front of me.

I get my notepad with questions out, and a pen to write down answers. “Hannah Macaulay… Are you by any chance related to the famous historian Thomas Macaulay?” Zygmunt asks me, and the questions catches me so off guard, I don’t know what to answer. “No, I don’t think so. But my grandfather is a well-known linguist,” I reply. He nods, looks puzzled. “It’s just because Macaulay is such an unusual name…” he says. “It’s Scottish,” I reply and he asks me if it’s ok that he smokes. I tell him that I don’t mind, that most of my friends smoke. “But you don’t?” Zygmunt asks, and I say that I do not. Aleksandra points at the package of tobacco. “They constantly warn about how bad this stuff is for you!” she says, and smiles at me. I agree and add that we really do live in a risk society.

I look down on my piece of paper filled with countless questions for Zygmunt Bauman, and have no clue where to start. I suddenly feel overwhelmed by everything I want to ask him and all the knowledge I want to get from him in such a short amount of time. I start by asking the sociologist about his term ‘liquid modernity’. I ask him if he can summarize it short and precise, as I want to make it understandable to a student audience. I suddenly remember that this is something you should never expect from an intellectual, and certainly not a sociologist. “Liquid modernity is a metaphor. It describes a society that constantly changes its shape, a society that is constantly unpredictable.” He picks up my glass of apple juice, and demonstrates what he means by tilting it back and forth. “Like the juice in this glass constantly changes its shape and form when you move it, so does contemporary society. In our search for solidity we have ended up in a liquid world where the only predictable thing is unpredictable.” He looks at me with a serious face, and inhales smoke from his pipe. “Lets take an example like Brexit” he says. He is silent for a short moment, his eyes fixated on something behind me. It is clear that he is concentrating on what next to say, how to formulate the many thoughts and theories that are inevitably rushing through his brain. “Is Brexit a gain or loss? That is something we simply don’t know yet. The whole situation is in a state of uncertainty.”

I ask how this liquidity links to current issues that are seen as the roots of Brexit, for example the refugee crisis. To this Bauman replies: “my late friend Umberto Eco has some interesting points about this.” Bauman explains to me, how Eco conceptualizes the mistake we’ve made regarding immigration in modern society. “In the past, we relied on the labor force of immigrants to build up our countries. The people that came to our country were therefore controllable through a lawful process, and our governments wanted them. Now, however, we have a different situation. Many people have been forced to flee their countries (primarily due to wars or poverty), and mass-migration currently has the essence of a natural catastrophe. The problem is that we still attempt to control immigration in the same way as we did in the past. We try to use old solutions to solve new problems: we need to reinvent the way in which we treat migration.”

Bauman takes one more drag of his pipe, and then continues his thoughts on the refugee crisis. “Refugees bring a state of panic to a country. Panic that provokes the fear of instability. Suddenly we, in our comfortable, ‘safe world’, realize that nothing is certain. In 2016 refugees are no longer the poor: they are well-educated, middle-class people that never predicted themselves to be in the situation they’re in. People see that refugees have nothing, but realize that they once had everything. They bring the awfulness of life’s instability to our consciousness. They make us realize that we, as well, cannot be certain of our safety. And that is why we act so hostile towards them as a society.”

After the many bleak analyses of our current world, I ask Bauman for solutions. What can we do about the feeling of fear that many people seem to have ingrained in them? “There is a Chinese proverb by Confucius that can offer resolution. It goes like this: If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant a tree; if in terms of 100 years, educate people. Educating people is the most important factor in order to create change. Simultaneously, you can’t just expect quick fixes.” I ask Bauman if he thinks that these expectations of quick fixes dictate our current society. To that he answers that “people expect quick solutions all the . We want change, but we want it NOW. We can’t wait. This desperation for change can be seen in the way America voted in the presidential election. Donald Trump offered a quick solution, quick change and thereby won against Hillary Clinton. To think that change can happen fast is a big mistake. Changing the world takes at least 100 years.” I find myself questioning if this ‘fast-pace mentality’ is somehow reinforced by social media.

I then, rather naively, ask what Bauman’s prediction is for the future. He pauses, looks at Aleksandra, then looks at me and smiles. “Hannah, you are still very young. You must understand, that we can’t and shouldn’t ever try to predict the future. The world is a place of uncertainty, the future of humanity unpredictable. In sociology you will never learn any research method or theory that will allow you to prophesize. Because we, as the only species, have language, we can of course speak and think in the future tense. But you must always remember: we can predict many things, but never the actions of human beings.” At first I am disheartened by his response. I had hoped to hear some reassuring words about how our current world will inevitably change for the better. But I know that Bauman is right: the future cannot be controlled, and nothing can be predicted. For a “child of globalization” like me, who is additionally a control freak, it is a scary and daunting realization. But looking into the future is impossible, even for the most qualified people.

When I ask Bauman about how current issues have occurred, he comes with the example of David Cameron, who was ironically a man who thought he could prophesize. Cameron wanted to stay in power by promising a referendum: an outcome he thought was a calculated risk, an outcome he thought he could predict. What he didn’t realize was that people were given a different choice through a referendum than at a usual parliamentary vote. Normally, people have limited choice between few parties that are a part of the establishment. Having the opportunity for an in/out vote against the EU, however, meant a unique voting opportunity that people could use to fight the establishment. You see similar traits in the path to Trump’s victory. People no longer trust the political system. We are, in the words of Bauman, once again liquefying the institutions in the hope of solidifying them.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Zygmunt about my generation, the so-called ‘millennials’. Here Aleksandra steps in to assist in answering the question. “Your generation is the first generation post World War II that doesn’t know what you’ll be doing in the future. You may have dreams and goals, but these are all based on how the world looks in this present moment. In reality the world is so ever-changing that you can’t predict anything. Young people today can’t expect to do better than their parents, in contrast to the generation before them. You can just hope to hold onto the position that you currently have in society. You are pressured by the idea of the unknown future: that raises the winds of fear, and that leads to a bleak sense of hopefulness.” When Aleksandra brings up hope I ask her and Zygmunt, fairly optimistically, if there is any reason to feel hopeful for the future. ‘’I guess there is still hope,” Aleksandra says. “Zygmunt and I both lived through World War II and we still regained hope after that.”

“How long is this article supposed to be? Isn’t it a 1000 word limit?” Zygmunt takes a puff of his pipe, and I realize that my time is up. I thank him greatly for his good company and shake his hand as a final goodbye. “Good luck in the future with Sociology. I have been studying it for 70 years now, and I have never been bored once, not even for a second.” As I get up to leave the Bauman residence, I am showed a quick glance of Aleksandra’s office. It is filled with endless stacks of books, a desk with piles of scribbled notepads and pictures of Zygmunt. I tell her that my father once told me to never trust people that don’t have books in their home. Aleksandra responds by stating that most of the books are in Zygmunt’s office upstairs.

I leave the villa and enter the outside world: it looks almost apocalyptic with its flooded pavements and heavy rain. I step in a puddle by mistake, and recognize that liquid life has caught up with me in more ways than one. In no time at all my shoes are, once again, completely soaked. Despite everything, I, for the first time in a while, feel surprisingly cheerful. In a time filled with Trumps, Le Pens and Farages, I am reminded that there are also Baumans and Kanias. This can easily be forgotten, but it’s crucial to remember. ‘Maybe it’s not so bad after all’ I think to myself, as I let go of my longing for prediction and replace it with something much simpler: hope.

Hannah Macaulay

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