Modernism/Modernity 9.2 (2002) 354-356
[Access article in PDF]
Liquid Modernity. Zygmunt Bauman. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2000. Pp. vi + 228. $66.95 (cloth); $26.95 (paper).
Because Bauman's latest book on contemporary modernity covers so much ground, it is necessary to relate his central argument in abridged form. In premodernity, categories of time and space existed inseparably from living practice in countless local variations. The threshold of the modern was a social process (which Bauman does not describe) through which time and space became objectifiable categories on a translocal scale, "distinct and mutually independent categories of strategy and action" whose newly discovered lability was subject to modern projects of control (8). In this early phase of modernity, Bauman continues, time was engineered in the name of the conquest of space. Time was "the principal tool of power and domination," the force responsible for the constitution and mastery of modern space and for the control of humans in that space (9). Early modernity therefore depended foundationally on the intensification of temporal control (experienced as a form of velocity, e.g., "progress") and was oriented toward a particular politics of materiality. Domination was asserted by controlling space: by distributing commodities and soldiers, immobilizing workers in factories, and so on. The entire ecology of this modernity was heavy and solid, to use his metaphor; it was focused on the distribution and comportment of material things and bodies. According to Bauman, the recent transformation that is commonly interpreted as the radical disjuncture of the "post"-modern is in fact a second stage of modernity, one that has come gradually into being as "the long effort to accelerate the speed of movement has presently reached its 'natural limit'" (10). In our contemporary era of jet travel and electronic prosthesis, the deployment of power is now instantaneous, or as close to instantaneous as we will ever get. Power's interest in space has eroded to the point that anchorage in materiality is actually counterproductive to the deployment and circulation of [End Page 354] power. To use one of Bauman's military analogies, the surgical efficiency of lightning-strikes are now preferred to immobilizing and inefficient territorial occupations. The new ecology of modernity reflects above all the lightspeed temporality of power; it is light and liquid, focused increasingly on mobility, flexibility, and desocialized individuality.
The book explores these distinctions of solidity/liquidity and lightness/heaviness as they are utilized to probe contemporary transformations in five domains of human experience: "Emancipation," "Individuality," "Time/Space," "Work," and "Community." There are many important and original insights in these chapters. For example, the discussion of shopping as a liquid modern rite for exorcising uncertainty, or the suggestion that the new role of critical theory should be repopulating the agora in a society of would-be "individuals" (80, 41). Yet there are other conclusions, such as the "new irrelevance of space" or "the disengagement of and loosening of ties linking capital and labor," that are schematic and exaggerated (117, 149). Bauman's tendency toward sweeping judgments reinforces his inclination to reify the distinction between solidity and liquidity by placing phenomena into either one or the other category. In one example, a discourse on "health" becomes the biopolitics of solid modernity, whereas the discourse on "fitness" indicates the new liquidity (77f). Bauman's schema is valuable: "fitness" is an ideal of ever-ready-to-deploy corporeal energy appropriate to flexible postindustrial work rhythms, just as "health" calibrated the human body to more stable and predictable industrial rhythms. But he is often too quick to ascribe such phenomena to "Society" as a whole. Is fitness really an ideal that all of "us" share? Or is this a class-specific discourse that describes how certain elite social strata are experiencing postindustrial transformations?
Bauman writes routinely of the liquid transformations "we" are experiencing and of "our" changing, lightening consciousness, but I find this embracing deixis unpersuasive. Is it the case that liquid modernity is equally the social experience of Wall Street financiers, transnational academics, the service sector proletariat, and the rural poor? The field of interlocutors Bauman's text...