Zygmunt Bauman, Concluding Remarks


The two entries below, from my philosophical journal for the dates indicated, conclude my remarks on Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust.

 It strikes me that Bauman’sremarks on responsibility, morality, shame, and self-preservation are well worth pondering especially today, a day after former Vice President Dick Chaney has once again defended his and the entire Bush administration’s reactions to “9/11” by appealing to the supposed demands of national security and self-preservation.   


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bauman, pp. 90-91:

Contemporary mass murder [that is, for him, “Stalin and Hitler”] is  distinguished by a virtual absence of all spontaneity on the one hand, and the prominence of rational, carefully articulated design on the other.  It is marked by an almost complete elimination of contingency and chance, and independence from group emotions and personal motives.  It is set apart by the merely sham or marginal–disguising or decorative–role of ideological mobilization.  But first an foremost, it stands out by its purpose. . .  Modern genocide is genocide with a purpose.  [It] is not an end in itself.  It is a means to an end:  . . . The end itself is a grand vision of a better, and radically different, society.  Modern genocide is an element of social engineering, meant to bring about a social order conforming to the design of the perfect society. 

Notice how well all this fits Bush’s response to–and use/abuse of–the trauma of 9/11.


P. 93:  “From the fact that the Holocaust is modern, it does not follow that modernity is a Holocaust.  The Holocaust is a by-product of the modern drive to a fully designed, fully controlled world once the drive is getting out of control and running wild.  Most of the time modernity is prevented [by circumstances, not internally,] from doing so.”

Yet, as he himself argues, there are aspects of modernity–distantiation and bureaucratization and “adiaphorizing of action,” to name the three major ones–that end up greatly increasing the probability that such a thing will happen.  What is more, as he himself argues (e.g., pp. 102-104), bureaucracy as such “dehumanizes”–which “is,” in a sense, already “the Holocaust.”


In the 6th chapter of his book,  “The Ethics of Obedience (Reading Millman),” Bauman takes Millman’s experimental results on how easy it is to shift responsibility in (p. 162) “anagentic state–i.e, a state in which [one] sees himself as carrying out another person’s [a person with “authority”‘s] wishes,” and asks (p. 163) “what the bureaucratic organization is likely to be once the responsibility shifting is occurring continuously, at all levels of its hierarchy.”  He answers: 

We may surmise that the overall effect of such a continuous and ubiquitous responsibility shifting would be a free-floating responsibility, a situation in which each and every member of the organization is convinced, and would say so if asked, that he has been at some[one] else’s beck and call, but the members pointed to by others as the bearers of responsibility would pass the buck to someone else again.  One can say that the organization as a whole is an instrument to  obliterate responsibility. . . . Collective perpetuation of cruel acts is made all the easier by the fact that responsibility is essentially “unpinnable”, while every participant of these acts is convinced that it does reside with some “proper authority”. . . . Free-floating responsibility means in practice that moral authority as such has been incapacitated without having been openly challenged or denied.

Fits not only the death camps but also my old example of “the telephone company.”


Monday, October 20, 2008

Bauman, p. 176 (a point I’ve already quoted in other passages from him above):  “The essence and historical tendency of modernity, the logic of the civilizing process”–which, he’s been arguing, tends to repress morality, if anything, rather than bring it about–, “the prospects and hindrances of progressive rationalization of social life are often discussed [in sociology] as if the Holocaust did not happen[my emphasis], as if it was not true and even worth serious consideration that the Holocaust ‘bears witness to the advance of  civilization’ [citing Richard L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History (New York, Harper, 1978), p. 324, for that phrase], or that ‘civilization now includes death camps and Musselmänneramong its material and spiritual products’ [citing Rubenstein and John Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz (San Francisco:  SCM Press, 1987), p. 91].”


Following Levinas, he insists on the pre-social origin of morality and concludes,  p. 183:  “Morality is not a product of society.  Morality is something society manipulates–exploits, re-directs, jams.”  He goes on, p. 184:

Responsibility, this building block of all moral behaviour, arises out of the proximity of the other. . . . Responsibility is silenced once proximity is eroded; it may eventually be replaced with ressentiment once the fellow human subject is transformed into an Other.  The process of transformation is one of social separation.  it was such a separation which made it possible  for thousands to kill, and for millions to watch the murder without protesting.  It was the technological and bureaucratic achievement of modern rational society which made such a separation possible.


P. 204:  “[A] moral person’s feeling of shame [in the face of the  Holocaust] . . . is an indispensable condition of victory over the slow-acting poison, the pernicious legacy of the Holocaust . . .”

P. 205: 

The issue is that only the liberating feeling of shame may help to recover the moral significance of the awesome historical experience and thus help to exorcise the spirit of the Holocaust, which to this day haunts human conscience and makes us neglect vigilance at present for the sake of living in peace with the past. . . . I am not  sure how I would react to a stranger knocking on my door and asking me to sacrifice myself and my family to save his life. . . . And yet I am sure . . . that were it not for the feeling of shame, my decision to  turn away the stranger would go on corrupting me till the end of my days.


P. 207, last paragraph of Bauman’s book:

[P]utting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way predetermined, inevitable and  inescapable.  One can be pressed to do it, but one cannot be forced to do  it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on those who exerted the pressure.  It does not matter how many people chose moral  duty over the rationality of self-preservation–what does matter is that some did.  Evil is not all-powerful.  It can be resisted.  The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the authority of the logic of self-preservation.  It shows it for what it is in the end–a choice.  One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated.  Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?

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