–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Between Postmodern and Modern: Zygmunt Bauman’s Sociology of Ambivalence

by | Feb 21, 2023


Stasis; change. Rest; motion. Solid; liquid. These are all contrasting metaphors where one side – stasis, rest, solid – refer to a constant, and the other – change, motion, liquid – refer to movement. Each needs the other. If everything moved all the time, we could never plan or be secure in anything. If everything stayed the same, there would be no growth and we’d be stifled. Solids can be grasped with the hand but can’t easily change form. Liquid slips through our fingers but can adapt its form to different surroundings. 

This video is about Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist who noticed this type of ambivalence in our present world. Human beings, he argued, have a simultaneous need for both stasis and change, a feeling both of solidity and liquidity. His work is about the transition from a modern to a postmodern era and the tension we all feel between the former’s quest for order and system and the latter’s gift of disorder and fragmentation. 

We might call Zygmunt Bauman the theorist of cultural ambivalence, because he realized as much as anyone that our current human condition is a state of being between these two eras, one indulging our need for orderly security and the other, our need for pluralistic liberty. Can we have both? Will there always be, as Bauman thinks, an ambivalent trade-off between one and the other? Let’s take a look. 

We can illustrate this ambivalence this way: in our liberal consumer society, there are a ton of ways you can live your life all competing for your attention. There are many religions you can choose, diets you can have, places you could work, online and offline groups you can join, etc. If you’re like most, you feel some need to give order to your life and therefore, some pressure to pick from these options and commit to your choice. But you probably also like having a range of options, and maybe you worry that committing to one way of life means limiting your freedom. 

Or, again if you are like most people, you probably have a simultaneous desire for community or belonging – which is a type of order – and individuality. You want to be your unique self rather than what others want you to be, but you also really want to be in the company of people who are like you. You want the belonging of the group, but the freedom not to be bound by a group. 

Bauman attributes this ambiguity to our living at an interesting time, caught between the modern era of the past and the postmodern era being ushered in, what he would later call solid and liquid modernity. Bauman lived from 1925 to 2017, so he lived through much of the 20th and some of the 21st century. He was born in a very modernist world, in Poland, and experienced some of what Poland was like under the communist Soviet regime, with its all-encompassing and centralized bureaucratic order. He moved around a bit in his life but settled mostly in England, a more liberal and decentralized country. So, he experienced very different ways of life. 

The way Bauman tells it, the pre-modern world before what we call the Enlightenment was a world whose technologies did not allow for large systems to develop. Your way of life and what you were exposed to was largely confined to your small geographic area. You might not have even been aware, or only dimly so, that there are other ways of life than the inherited one you saw around you. 

With the Enlightenment and the modern era, technology got better at freeing us: travel and movement got easier, and industrialization created more work and consumer options. Modernism discovered the value of standardization, that we could create systems that scale over larger and larger territories. Through use of reason, modernity promised to find universal truths about the best way to do things and standardize those ways. Larger city states, education systems, travel and finance systems, standardized systems of measurement for everything from time to distance.  “We can say,” writes Bauman, “that existence is modern in as far as it is effected and sustained by design, manipulation, management, engineering. The existence is modern in as far as it is administered by resourceful (that is, possessing knowledge, skill and technology), sovereign agencies” For all the good that this produced – and Bauman never downplays it – modernity was fraught with ambivalence and potential for danger. First, you can impose so much order on the world before elements of the world resist your attempts. Anyone who has ever tried to manage a large structure – from a large classroom to an office to a government – will recognize this. There’s a certain amount of contingency, diversity, and disorder built into the world, and therefore, the modern quest for order can only go so far and requires continual effort to maintain.

Bauman also notes that this quest for order can be – has been – used for some bad purposes. His book Modernity and the Holocaust points out the ways the Nazi’s rise in Germany relied on modernism: in how it bureaucratized and systematized its rule, how it spoke the language of science in its racial classifications, how it was able to territorially manage the Jewish people. We’d misunderstand Bauman if we thought he was reducing modernism to Naziism. His point is that for all the good that modernity produced, its quest for order and system gave the possibility for evil to become orderly and systematic.  

The postmodern era, begun in the late 20th century, would start to chip away at this emphasis on order. New technologies would make it even easier to travel, communicate with and be aware of diverse others, and customize our lives in various ways. The very economic systems that made manufacture and distribution of goods easier to scale now presented everyone with more consumer options, so that everyone could differentiate and individuate. We could customize our fashion, our lifestyles, the images we see, the media we consume. 

If modernity was about the quest for order, Bauman writes that “Postmodernity lives in a state of permanent pressure towards dismantling of all collective interference into individual fate, towards deregulation and privatization.” The more options technology gives us, the more we are all enabled to go our own way, and the less standardized or standardizable we become.

But just like modernity, postmodernity is not without its own tensions. Just as we can only impose so much order on the world, there is a limit to how much diversity or change we can tolerate before it becomes chaotic or threatening. Postmodernity offers us more choice over our lives, but it can make us feel rootless. Change can be exciting, but it can also exhaust us and leave us wanting more order and predictability. 

For Bauman, these tensions are part of our inherited condition, living in a transition period from the modern world and the postmodern one. The former created the large structures that give our lives order: national governments, corporations, systems of infrastructure that we all use in common. The later introduces heterogeneity into these structures: our increased ability to customize areas of our lives.

Take modern nations. To be a nation, you must have a people who are unified to at least some degree. They might share a common language, or religion, a basic moral sense of right and wrong, a common understanding of their nation’s history and direction, something. If you don’t share a common something – if everyone is not on the same proverbial page – it’s hard to be a nation. 

Modernism excelled at this unification. Nations created school systems where students were taught more or less in common, often regulated the media citizens had access to, and each nation’s people shared some common understanding of national identity. 

The postmodern era has thrown a wrench in all of this. New technologies mean different people increasingly consume different media, and not all of it is friendly to the powers that be. School systems have a hard time juggling conflicting demands from different populations who can now assert their power like never before. Standardized curriculum is increasingly seen as suspect and stifling. The more diverse a people become – and the more self-aware they are of this fact – the harder it is to keep a nation of people on the same page. 

Or think about media. The modern era created radio and television. TV stations like ABC, NBC, and CBS became national in scope; everyone watched the same few networks. There was choice, but it was limited. Enter the era of streaming. Companies like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube are large as companies in the modern era, but instead of showing everyone the same shows, now, everyone can customize what they watch to their own tastes. Its increasingly rare that everyone watches the same shows or movies. 

In these ways, we are in-between modernism and postmodernism. We have inherited and are building on the large structures built by modernism: large governments and their infrastructure, school systems, standardization. But the postmodern era acts in many ways as a counter. It offers us more choice, faster change, and an undermining of all attempts to monopolize a single, common, or unified social order. 

Bauman isn’t endorsing one or the other of these. In fact, he believes that both speak to different, and possibly conflicting, human drives. We like stability, but we also like adventure. We like predictability, but we also grow bored with it. We crave community but resent its inevitable demands for conformity. Bauman writes that “freedom without community means madness, while community without freedom means serfdom.” Elsewhere, he puts it as a matter of trade-offs: “There are no gains without losses, and the hope of a wondrous purification of gains from losses is as futile as the proverbial dream of a free lunch – but the gains and losses specific to any arrangement of human cohabitation need to be carefully counted, so that the optimal balance between the two can be sought…” 

Bauman seeks less to advocate than to explain. For those of us who feel the tension between the twin desires for stasis change, solidity and liquidity, Bauman aims to explain that feeling to us as a consequence of history and rupture. The best any of us – and all of us collectively – can do is strike some livable balance between these two drives. Bauman can’t show us where that balance is, but his sociology might help each of us think about where we might draw those lines.