Posted by Zygmunt Bauman on July 28, 2009 at 6:30 pm.


Zygmunt Bauman is one of the most prolific and important sociologists today, having published approximately thirty books and over one hundred articles. His foci of interest include, amongst others, globalization, modernity/ post-modernity, consumerism and morality. “Culture in a Globalised City” is his kind contribution to the present issue of Occupied London.

Cities, and particularly mega-cities like London, are the dustbins into which problems produced by globalization are dumped. They are also laboratories in which the art of living with those problems (though not of resolving them) is experimented with, put to the test, and (hopefully, hopefully…) developed. Most seminal impacts of globalization (above all, the divorce of power from politics, and the shifting of functions once undertaken by political authorities sideways, to the markets, and downward, to individual life-politics) have been by now thoroughly investigated and descibed in great detail. I will confine myself therefore to one aspect of the globalization process – too seldom considered in connection with the paradigmatic change in the study and theory of culture: namely, the changing patterns of global migration.

There were three different phases in the history of modern-era migration. The first wave of migration followed the logic of the tri-partite syndrome: territoriality of sovereignty, ‘rooted’ identity, gardening posture (subsequently referred to, for the sake of brevity, as TRG). That was the emigration from the ‘modernized’ centre (read: the site of order-building and economic-progress – the two main industries turning out, and off, the growing numbers of ‘wasted humans’), partly exportation and partly eviction of up to 60 million people, a huge amount by nineteenth century standards, to ‘empty lands’ (read: lands whose native population could be struck off the ‘modernized’ calculations; be literally uncounted and unaccounted for, presumed either non-existent or irrelevant). Native residues still alive after massive slaughters and massive epidemics, have been proclaimed by the settlers the objects of ‘white man’s civilizing mission’.

The second wave of migration could be best modelled as an ‘Empire emigrates back’ case. With dismantling of colonial empires, a number of indigenous people in various stages of their ‘cultural advancement’ followed their colonial superiors to the metropolis. Upon arrival, they were cast in the only worldview-strategic mould available: one constructed and practiced earlier in the nation-building era to deal with the categories earmarked for ‘assimilation’ – a process aimed at the annihilation of cultural difference, casting the ‘minorities’ at the receiving end of crusades, Kulturkämpfe and proselytizing missions (currently renamed, in the name of ‘political correctness’, as ‘citizenship education’ aimed at ‘integration’). This story is not yet finished: time and again, its echoes reverberate in the declarations of intent of the politicians who notoriously tend to follow the habits of Minerva’s Owl known to spread its wings by the end of the day. As the first phase of migration, the drama of the ‘empire migrating back’ is tried, though in vain, to be squeezed into the frame of the now outdated TRG syndrome.

The third wave of modern migration, now in full force and still gathering momentum, leads into the age of diasporas: a world-wide archipelago of ethnic/ religious/ linguistic settlements – oblivious to the trails blazed and paved by the imperialist-colonial episode and following instead the globalization-induced logic of the planetary redistribution of life resources. Diasporas are scattered, diffused, extend over many nominally sovereign territories, ignore territorial claims to the supremacy of local demands and obligation, are locked in the double (or multiple) bind of ‘dual (or multiple) nationality’ and dual (or multiple) loyalty. The present-day migration differs from the two previous phases by moving both ways (virtually all countries, including Britain, are nowadays both ‘immigrant’ or ‘emigrant’), and privileging no routes (routes are no longer determined by the imperial/colonial links of the past). It differs also in exploding the old TRG syndrome and replacing it with a EAH one (extraterritoriality, ‘anchors’ displacing the ‘roots’ as primary tools of identification, hunting strategy).

The new migration casts a question mark upon the bond between identity and citizenship, individual and place, neighbourhood and belonging. Jonathan Rutherford, acute and insightful observer of the fast changing frames of human togetherness, notes that the residents of the London street on which he lives form a neighbourhood of different communities, some with networks extending only to the next street, others which stretch across the world. It is a neighbourhood of porous boundaries in which it is difficult to identify who belongs and who is an outsider. What is it we belong to in this locality? What is it that each of us calls home and, when we think back and remember how we arrived here, what stories do we share?

Living like the rest of us (or most of that rest) in a diaspora (how far stretching, and in what direction(s)?) among diasporas (how far stretching and in what direction(s)?) has for the first time forced on the agenda the issue of ‘art of living with a difference’ – which may appear on the agenda only once the difference is no longer seen as a merely temporary irritant, and so unlike in the past urgently requiring arts, skills, teaching and learning. The idea of ‘human rights’, promoted in the EAH setting to replace/complement the TRG institution of territorially determined citizenship, translates today as the ‘right to remain different’. By fits and starts, that new rendition of the human-rights idea sediments, at best, tolerance; it has as yet to start in earnest to sediment solidarity. And it is a moot question whether it is fit to conceive group solidarity in any other form than that of the fickle and fray, predominantly virtual ‘networks’, galvanized and continually re-modelled by the interplay of individual connecting and disconnecting, making calls and declining to reply them.

The new rendition of the human-rights idea disassembles hierarchies and tears apart the imagery of upward (‘progressive’) ‘cultural evolution’. Forms of life float, meet, clash, crash, catch hold of each other, merge and hive off with (to paraphrase Georg Simmel) equal specific gravity. Steady and stolid hierarchies and evolutionary lines are replaced with interminable and endemically inconclusive battles of recognition; at the utmost, with eminently re-negotiable pecking orders. Imitating Archimedes, reputed to insist (probably with a kind of desperation which only an utter nebulousness of the project might cause) that he would turn the world upside down if only given a solid enough fulcrum, we may say that we would tell who is to assimilate to whom, whose dissimilarity/idiosyncrasy is destined for a chop and whose is to emerge on top, if we only were given a hierarchy of cultures. Well, we are not given it, and unlikely to be given soon.

We may say that culture is in its liquid-modern phase made to the measure of (willingly pursued, or endured as obligatory) individual freedom of choice. And that it is meant to service such freedom. And that it is meant to see to it that the choice remains unavoidable: a life necessity, and a duty. And that responsibility, the inalienable companion of free choice, stays where liquid-modern condition forced it: on the shoulders of the individual, now appointed the sole manager of ‘life politics’.

Today’s culture consists of offerings, not norms. As already noted by Pierre Bourdieu, culture lives by seduction, not normative regulation; PR, not policing; creating new needs/desires/wants, not coercion. This society of ours is a society of consumers, and just as the rest of the world as-seen-and-lived by consumers, culture turns into a warehouse of meant-for-consumption products – each vying for the shifting/drifting attention of prospective consumers in the hope to attract it and hold for a bit longer than a fleeting moment. Abandoning stiff standards, indulging indiscrimination, serving all tastes while privileging none, encouraging fitfulness and ‘flexibility’ (politically correct name of spinelessness) and romanticizing unsteadiness and inconsistency is therefore the ‘right’ (the only reasonable?) strategy to follow; fastidiousness, raising brows, stiffenning upper lips are not recommended. The TV reviewer/critic of a pattern-and-style setting daily praised the New Year’s Eve 2007/8 broadcast for promising ‘to provide an array of musical entertainment guaranteed to sate everyone’s appetite’. ‘The good thing’ about it, he explained, ‘is that its universal appeal means you can dip in and out of the show depending on your preferences’. A commendable and indeed a seemly quality in a society in which networks replace structures, whereas the attachment/detachment game and an unending procession of connections and disconnections replace ‘determining’ and ‘fixing’.

The current phase of the graduated transformation of the idea of ‘culture’ from its original Enlightenment-inspired form to its liquid-modern reincarnation is prompted and operated by the same forces that promote emancipation of the markets from the remaining constraints of non-economic nature – the social, political, and ethical constraints among them. In pursuing its own emancipation, liquid-modern consumer-focused economy relies on the excess of offers, their accelerated ageing, and quick dissipation of their seductive power – which, by the way, makes it an economy of profligacy and waste. Since there is no knowing in advance which of the offers may prove tempting enough to stimulate consuming desire, the only way to find out leads through trials and costly errors. Continuous supply of new offers, and a constantly growing volume of goods on offer, are also necessary to keep circulation of goods rapid and the desire to replace them with ‘new and improved’ goods constantly refreshed – as well as to prevent the consumer dissatisfaction with individual products from condensing into the general disaffection with consumerist mode of life as such.

Culture is turning now into one of the departments in the ‘all you need and might dream off’ department store in which the world inhabited by consumers has turned. Like in other departments of that store, the shelves are tightly packed with daily restocked commodities, while the counters are adorned with the commercials of latest offers destined to disappear soon together with the attractions they advertise. Commodities and commercials alike are calculated to arouse desires and trigger wishes (as George Steiner famously put it – ‘for maximum impact and instant obsolescence’). Their merchants and copywriters count on the wedding of the seductive power of offers with the ingrained ‘oneupmanship’ and ‘getting an edge’ urges of their prospective customers.

Liquid-modern culture, unlike the culture of the nation-building era, has no ‘people’ to ‘cultivate’. It has instead the clients to seduce. And unlike its ‘solid modern’ predecessor, it no longer wishes to work itself, eventually but the sooner the better, out of job. Its job is now to render its own survival permanent – through temporalizing all aspects of life of its former wards, now reborn as its clients.

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