Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017)

Mark Davis

Zygmunt Bauman.

What does the name mean to you?

Chances are the name means ‘inspiration’, ‘imagination’, perhaps ‘perspiration’, such is the prodigious output of books for which he is known. You will, and quite rightly, now read that he was a giant of sociology – and a truly public intellectual.

From his home on the edge of Leeds, Bauman diagnosed the crises of social democracy and warned of a ‘liquid modern’ world that put consumption before compassion. He urged us to resist the easy temptations of populism, where the poor were cast aside as nothing but a worry and a nuisance. It was our collective duty to identify with them.

If you are from the world of sociology, which he always declared to be his home, chances are that the name Zygmunt Bauman may also mean ‘theorisation’, ‘generalisation’, perhaps ‘frustration’.

He was, in Dennis Smith’s words, a ‘successful outsider’, more concerned with speaking for the whole of humanity and its shared concerns than with the particularism of academic twists and turns. For a sociologist most fêted around the world for emphasising the terror of modernity’s will-to-order – understood as that restless desire to put all of life’s rich diversity life into neatly-labelled little boxes, a place for everything and everything in its place – the irony was never lost on him.

Across seven decades of publishing, most notably following his formal retirement from the University of Leeds in 1990, here was someone who dedicated his life to sociology as a vocation and did more than most to profess its value for academic and existential questions of life alike.

His academic career began in Warsaw with a concern for a growing conservative inertia amongst Polish youth in the 1950s – where huge injustices and inequities were tolerated because of a perceived minor stake in a corrupt social system that operated only in the interest of elites (plus ça change…).  It carried on in his deeply held conviction that socialism was the only true way of showing collective compassion to, and jointly taking care of, everyone in society.

But it was his 1989 masterpiece Modernity and the Holocaust that saw him established as one of the giants of our time – a truly world-historical book, honoured with numerous prizes across his lifetime.  Sparked and shaped by the experience of his late and deeply beloved wife Janina, the book gave us a stark warning of the horrors of genocide latent within every modern bureaucratic society that would privilege process, order and efficiency over morals, responsibility, and care for the other.

For me, first encountering his work as an undergraduate student (thank you, Les Gofton), it was his passionate commitment to the outsiders, the strangers, the downtrodden and excluded, that stood me still and captured my curiosity. In the hedonism of the late 1990s, amidst all the abundance of global consumer culture, where was the moral concern for those who were not permitted to take part? Always on their side, he urged us to view the world through the eyes of society’s weakest members – and then tell anyone honestly that our society was good, civilized, advanced and free. De omnibus dubitandum (all must be doubted), Marx’s favourite motto.

And yet he remained an awkward presence for those who would always demand still more of him, who would hold him to a still higher standard. Why had he yet again overlooked this topic, that community, this methodological problem? Why had he repeated this observation in this and that book? Why did everything, in the end, always have to be ‘liquid’?  Many gave up, seeing only repetition and lack of novelty. Perhaps the consistency of our shared human plight demanded the consistency of message.

Zygmunt Bauman.

The name means something else to me.

I have written elsewhere about the many forking paths of his sociology and the value I see in his work. Formal obituaries will follow; some are emerging even now, here and here. But tonight feels like a time for other, more human reflections. So intertwined is he with my own biography, perhaps this is an indulgence (it’s certainly true that, if he knew I was taking time out from ‘my work’ to write even this, he would playfully admonish me in the strictest possible terms!).

Refusing to succumb to my immediate feelings of loss and sadness, to me the name Zygmunt Bauman means ‘curiosity’, ‘generosity’, and yes ‘vivacity’. To be in his company was to be animated by life, its joys and sorrows, its complexities, and always the dark humour of its tragic absurdity.

He cut quite a figure in his later life, his many moments of hearty enthusiasm expressed fully through the movement of both his words and his waves – all long, angular limbs and wisps of wild, white hair. If Quentin Blake drew sociologists… Reading Bauman was one of the most inspiring experiences of my adult life; to be in his company, one of the most enormous privileges.

And so the name Zygmunt Bauman also means friendship. Many knew him far longer and far better than I. But from my privileged personal perspective, to be invited so warmly into his later life first as a young and naive post-doctoral student, trembling at the threshold of his home on that very first visit to discuss my thesis on his work – “why don’t we look each other in the eyes?” his email had read – we fell into a regular routine. Handshake. Pastries. Pipe. Argument.

Youthful enthusiasm meant I was often full of world-changing ambition and so heedless to his many roguish warnings that more institution-building would beget only more institutional meetings. He was right. And his impish smile will stay fondly with me forever. As will the endless mocking of my always hurried life at his old university in Leeds, and my reluctance to abandon the car and embrace the best solution known to humankind: hard liquor to relax the mind and ease the body, at 8.30am.

It is his mischievous wit that I shall perhaps miss the most. On a trip together to the International School in Geneva in November 2013, Zygmunt generously filled everyone’s wine glass over lunch, except mine – “Ah, I assumed you had the car here in Switzerland too!” he teased. More regularly, “why don’t you retire, dearest Mark, and set yourself free?”. At his last public lecture at Leeds, he deliberately switched his hearing aid to cause me discomfort and him amusement as I attempted to relay audience questions. There are countless others that will stay just for me.

Beyond my own reminiscences, there is also his friendship with many millions around the world expressed through both his published work and an illimitable willingness to travel great distances in order to speak with, and to learn from, people’s multifarious experiences, even in his ninetieth year.  (It is curious that, for someone oft-charged for lacking ‘a proper method’, the chances are that he perhaps interviewed far more people around the world than even the most inquisitive and dedicated qualitative researcher).

That he found himself better known, and indeed far better read, the further he travelled away from Leeds is a further sign of his status as a truly global sociologist. Never shy, especially in his later writing, of blending sociological reflection with biographical experience (see the opening entry to his 2012 book, This is Not A Diary, where he writes directly to Janina only days after her passing), it is odd that at a time where the ‘authenticity of experience’ is so fervently privileged by sociologists, Bauman’s own insights could be so hastily disregarded. A victim of the Nazis; then the Communists. A refugee. A migrant. A socialist. Bauman lived the twentieth-century.

His work continued to be offered to all as part of an on-going polyvocal dialogue as a modest contribution to a wider set of enduring civil society debates.  Into his ‘little books’ he would synthesise what he learned from the art of a life engaged in studying the world he encountered. He remained a supportive presence to the work we were all doing in the School at Leeds.  He was a background presence advising the nascent Bauman Institutethis is your ship, dear Mark and who am I to thrust in my mouldy oar?!” – but he was always far more curious to know what the students were discussing: what animated them, what confused, worried, excited them? What could they teach him?

In his final publications in late-2016 (though unpublished material will soon follow posthumously), he was still trying to make sense of the moral, political, social and – I regularly insisted – economic stages upon which we are fortunate enough to act out our lives. Pipe. Argument.

Zygmunt Bauman is no longer acting on our stage.

He passed away during the early-afternoon on 9th January 2017. Although I write this late at night and in the context of my own sadness, I can’t help but also think that for all that we have just lost, could we have hoped to gain more?

With his countless books, articles and public lectures, gifted to the whole world across those seven generous decades of sociological vocation, to say nothing of his personal kindnesses to millions across the globe, what else might we have reasonably expected? I cannot help but feel eternally and boundlessly grateful for all that he has given to us.

Zygmunt Bauman.

What does the name mean to you?


Mark Davis, Leeds, 9 January 2017


Mark Davis is associate professor of sociology and founding director of the Bauman Institute at the University of Leeds.