Zymunt Bauman, Modernity, and the Holocaust


Today and in my next post, I will be sharing entries from my philosophical journal that pertain to sociologist’s Zygmund Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust.  The entries were first written on the dates indicated below.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, New York:  Cornell University Press, 1992), “Appendix:  Social Manipulation of Morality, Moralizing Actors, and Adiaphorizing Action” (originally a lecture given in 1990), [gives a good, succinct statement concerning Emmanuel Levinas’s moral/ethical philosophy on] p. 214:

Moral behavior, as . . . Levinas tells us, is triggered off by the mere presence of the Other as a face, that is, as an authority without force.  The Other demands without threatening to punish or promising reward; his demand is without sanction.  The Other cannot do anything; it is precisely his weakness that exposes my strength, my ability to act, as responsibility.  Moral action is whatever follows that responsibility.  Unlike the action triggered off by fear of sanctions or promise of rewards, it  does not bring success or help survival.  As, purposeless, it  escapes all possibility of heteronomous legislation or rational arguments, it . . . elides the judgment of “rational interest” and advice of calculated self-preservation, those twin bridges of the world of . . . dependence and heteronomy.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Bauman, back to main text, “Preface,” p. xii:

The overall effect [of standard scholarly accounts of the Holocaust in terms of its causes, and making it either a uniquely “Jewish” or a uniquely “German” affair] is, paradoxically, pulling the sting out of the Holocaust memory.  The message which the Holocaust contains about how we live today–about the quality of the institutions on which we rely for  our safety, about the validity of the criteria with which we measure the propriety of our own conduct and the patterns of interaction we accept and consider normal–is silenced, not listened to, and remains undelivered.  If unravelled by the specialists and discussed inside the conference circuit, it is  hardly ever heard elsewhere and remains a mystery for all outsiders.  It has not entered as yet (at any rate in a serious way) contemporary consciousness.  Worse still, it has not as yet affected contemporary practice.

Like 9/11, the Holocaust never happened–at least not yet.  But, also like 9/11, it will happen?

Has the Christian Crucifixion happened yet?  The Resurrection?

Aren’t the same issues involved in all these cases?

Might the example of ongoing Christian conversion and liturgical time/community provide a clue here?


Bauman, pp. 6ff, articulates the idea that the Holocaust is neither an aberration of modernity, nor its “truth,” but is, rather, a definitive aspect or potentiality within modernity, one that can be actualized–and will be actualized–under certain circumstances (just as, under pressure of calamity, both the worst and the best in individuals can be actualized–the one in one, the other in the other–and where it cannot be predicted which will be which in advance).


Pp. 17-18, Bauman: 

This is not to suggest that the incidence of the Holocaust was determined by modern bureaucracy or the culture of instrumental rationality it epitomizes; much less till, that modern bureaucracy must result in Holocaust-style phenomena.  I do suggest, however, that the rules of instrumental rationality are singularly incapable of preventing such phenomena; that there is nothing in those rules which disqualifies the Holocaust-style methods of “social engineering” as improper or, indeed, the actions they served as irrational.  I suggest, further, that the bureaucratic culture which prompts us to view society as an object of administration, as a collection of so many problems to be solved, as “nature” to be “controlled,” “mastered” and “improved” or “remade,” as a legitimate target for “social engineering”, and in general a garden to be designed and kept in the planned shape by force (the gardening posture divides vegetation into “cultured plants” to be taken care of, and weeds to be exterminated), was the very atmosphere in which the idea of the Holocaust could be conceived, slowly yet consistently developed, and brought to its conclusion.  And I also suggest that it was the spirit of instrumental rationality, and its modern, bureaucratic form of institutionalization, which had made the Holocaust-style solutions not only possible, but eminently “reasonable”–and increased the probability of their choice.


In Le Monde on-line this morning, there was a piece by [Alain] Badiou on the current global finance/credit crisis.  Basically, his argument was that the “real” is nothing of the market, but is, rather, the misery of the excluded masses, excluded by the “barbarity” that is capitalism, as Marx already saw 160 years ago.  The only real solution/response to the present crisis of “capitalism-parliamentarism” (and “democracy”) is,  in effect, the parallel, autonomous coming together of the excluded themselves.  Therein lies an altogether new politics–or, rather, the point of breakthrough for the genuinely political as such, no longer reducible to, or peripheral to, the economy.

[Naomi] Klein’s closing pages [in The Shock Doctrine–see my recent posts on her work] about disaster victims taking recovery in their own hands, despite and independent of government, points to the same conclusion.

So does my own thoughts on AA and the reply to addiction [it represents].

It is all  a matter of the dispelling of the illusion of the reality of the capitalist world–a waking from the dream, to dismiss the vanishing phantoms.

The irrelevance of the economy, and everything tied to it (e.g., “electoral politics”).


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bauman, p. 64: 

Heterophobia [which he wants sharply to distinguish from racism] seems to be a focused manifestation of a still wider phenomenon of anxiety aroused by the feeling that one has no control over the situation, and that thus one can neither influence its development, nor foresee the consequences of one’s action.  Heterophobia . . . is a fairly common phenomenon at all times and more common still in an age of modernity, when occasions for the “no control”experience become more frequent, and their interpretation in terms of the obtrusive interference by alien human groups becomes more plausible.

Borrowing the distinction [Gilles] Deleuze makes focal in his reading of Nietzsche, I’d say “heterophobia” is a reactive formation, which fits with Bauman’s characterization, in this part of his book, of ressentiment.  In contrast, I’d say addiction [for one] is an active formation in response to the same ” ‘no control’ experience.”

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This directly connects to conversations I’ve recently been having with a friend in two ways. The connection to the Holocaust as being understood as a singular event connected solely to the Jewish people, seems to exclude it from asking all of us to look at the practices and the life situation in which the Holocaust was allowed to happen (as is true of 9/11–I’m starting to better understand your comments that 9/11 never happened). Transforming the helpless feeling of the excluded, by uniting together, seems impossible, though.

    A question arises as to the connection of the “self-esteem” movement (everything you do is good and deserves reward regardless of earning it) and much of the entitlement seen in our economic crisis can in part be traced to this.

    If there is any truth to that then we have a crisis in virtues that begins as early as when we are en-culturated. I wonder if a clue to change here is connected in part to a shift from decisionist ethics to virtue ethics. In evaluating how we live in terms of what kind of people we are becoming, perhaps we might better see how we are in the world will determine the potentiality of the will be of the Holocaust (9/11). Also connecting an understanding that what “is” does not mean it “has” to or even “ought” to be (your reference to de-spelling the illusion of the capitalist mode–the “is”) has the potential for challenging the dangers of realism and a static notion of reality (which provides us with the illusion of control that we deeply hold to) that seems to be tied to this. As long as this is what is the case (economically, politically, ethically, etc), it is difficult to challenge underlying assumptions (stories) that shape us to become this way. Learning to accept the fundamental lack of control we have in the world-the changing and unpredictable “nature” of it-=(while holding on to our agency)–something that, for me, continues to be challenged by Buddhism, particularly Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh, seems to be an important practice for living in the world that your posts are challenging me to develop and to encourage my students to challenge. But it is specifically this assumption, that allows us to believe the reality can be changed and our agency, when interconnected with others, (Thich Nhat Hanh’s reminder that all is interbeing), can bring about powerful transformation.

    I appreciate your questions regarding the crucifixion and resurrection in this context. Chesterton says somewhere that Christianity hasn’t failed it just hasn’t been tried. While his meaning was most likely much different the sentiment seems the same.

  2. Regarding ‘a matter of the dispelling of the illusion of the reality of the capitalist world – a waking from the dream, to dismiss the vanishing phantoms’ and ‘[t]he irrelevance of the economy, and everything tied to it (e.g., “electoral politics”)’ – both of which are lucid statements of what can be done, Frank – there are refreshing alternatives and perspectives in the discourse of Douglas Rushkoff (rushkoff.com).

    He wrote DISINFORMATION (about capitalist propaganda) and most recently LIFE, INC (about the corporatization and monetization of the Real). Rushkoff seriously proposes such things as alternate currencies and barter systems in which actual value is rediscovered and exchanged between people who share a local community – in the very midst of a collapsing national currency and depression conditions. He has a robust website, is very engaged in the media and even does a weekly radio/webcast. Thanks Frank!

  3. […] Zymunt Bauman, Modernity, and the Holocaust May 2009 2 comments 3 […]

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