Tag Archives: Zygmunt Bauman

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Individualised Society (Part Three: The Way We Act)

Zygmunt Bauman – The Individualised Society – Part Three: The Way We Act

Thirteen – Does Love Need Reason?

Love and Reason will forever fail to communicate… for three reasons.

Reason is about use, love is about value. The world as seen by love is a collection of values, as seen by reason, a collection of useful objects – Value is the quality of a thing, usefuleness an attribute of the things’ user. The usefuleness of an object stems from a sense of lack in the user – to use something to fulfil that lack. Usefuleness, and the use of reason to get what we want, is about using up the other, it is about gratifying ourselves. Love on the other hand is about valuing the other for the sake of the other.

Use is about annihilating the other for the sake of the self, love is about bolstering the other in one’s otherness and protecting them. Love means self-denial.

Secondly, reason has boundaries – it is about closing off the realm of possibilities, limiting, while love is boundless – it is forever open ended and has no limits.

Reason cuts infinity to the level of the finite self, love extends the self to the infinite.

Finally, reason prompts loyalty to the self while love prompts loyalty to the other. Reason tells us how to manipulate the other to fit around my desires, love encourages us to bend to the will of the other.

There is more to love than this – it is like signing a blank cheque – giving oneself to the forever changing uncertainty of what the other might be like in the future.

For Levinas ethics precedes ontology – ethics is better than what is – the starting point is that I put them first – my neighbour – this is the starting point, and from this point forwards there are no rules. Talking, engaging in dialogue, figuring out what is right and what should be the ‘is’ moves on from here. But care for the other should be the starting point!

Also following Logstrup – Together these propose ‘responsibility for the weakness of the other’ as the fundamental human condition – always making the effort to put the other first, and figuring out what this means is the basis of human social life – not just obeying commands and deferring to authority. This means a state of uncertainty.

To love means to be in a state of perpetual uncertainty, but people still need to get by – and reason is necessary for this – And to make things easier we often defer to authorities. However, authorities themselves use reason in the wrong way – take their attitude to the welfare state for example– they put reason first – the starting point is that we cannot afford it and so how can we reduce it – it should be the other way around – how can change society so that we can afford it?

Authorities use reason without love. It is up to us to love first (he doesn’t say this here, but he does elswhere)

Bauman seems to be casting an individual or a society which premisis reason as a fundamentally selfish person or society – I’m no philopsher, but I think he’s talking more about cost-benefit analysis than ‘pure reason’ – or instrumental rationality – Whatever, I don’t want to get lost in semantics – I get his point – the society or person which puts the question of ‘how do I use this to ahcieve my goals’ first is selfish – because the logic of use will always end up using the other – bending them to my will.

The logic of what Bauman calls love is the opposite – putting the well-being of the other first. (NB Bauman does mention that there is a danger of becoming a patsy to the other – and all of the above is assuming you don’t yourself end up being manipulated by them….which is something we need to be on our toes about.)

I guess the principle of the welfare state is the first ever in world history where we’ve had this on such a large level. It is interesting to think how little we focus on how many lives have been saved or turned around by the welfare state, while instead we focus on the very few ‘welfare scroungers’. My suspicion is that the reality of welfare is the former, not the later, something I need to look into for sure!

I also like the question rephrasing in this – everyone should get a minimum level of care – how do we change society to make sure this happens? This is what labour should be focusing on in the election, fat chance of course!

Chapter Fourteen – Private Morality, Immoral World

For Levinas, his starting point is the moral party of two – where we are both for the other. This is morality. This is the primal scene in which both are unconditionally responsible for the other. However, when a third party comes into being (society), this necessary and sufficient condition of the moral party does not suffice any more.

Here in society I am confronted with many others and their companions – and the concepts of difference, number, knowledge, time, space, truth and falsity – my intuitive reality is not enough to cope with this anymore. In order to deal with this third other, I must leave my primal realm, and here I encounter social order and justice.

In society, with the third party, we lose our primal connection with the other as a face – and we become individuals who have roles and are governed by laws. To interact with society (following Simmel) is to engage with people who wear masks, engage in fraud, and we must learn the appropriate rituals for dealing with these people. This is far, far removed from original duality.

To return to original morality, if we can, we need to get back to connection with the other with all forms of social status dropped. We need to be reduced to the level of bare humanity given to us at our birth.

Kindness and charity are the two basic human characteristics – naturally, in the moral universe of two, they overflow…brcause we recognise our common humanity. However in society, the concept of violence is introduced through making comparisons – differentiation and then the liberal state wades in to put limits on charity – and justifies these limits through reason.

The basic problem is that there is a gap between micro and macro ethics – because I cannot be limitlessly for many others – it is impossible, so the state, that vehicle which Levinas thought would translate ethics into the social realm, can never be as ethically pure as the original two-person ethical ideal.

Following Jonas, the gap between micro and macro ethics has really come to the fore in the age of globalisation – technology and capitalism have altered the world massively, and not everyone benefits, and it seems that we have a decreasing capacity to know and predict the consequences of our actions. In fact the growing knowledge of the dangers ahead goes hand in hand with our incapacity to deal with them.

Jonas suggests that ethics (normative regulation) needs to catch up with Capitalism and technology – what we need is a sort of categorical imperative mark 2.

Bauman rounds off by pointing out that ethics are under siege mainly because of Free Market Forces being freed from the control of the nation state (and repeats what he’s written elswhere) This process basically polarises.
Can intellectuals provide moral guidance?

A weird end to the section – He basically seems to argue that the current knowledge class by delcaring the end of ideology have effectively become the organic intellectuals of the post-modern era —- They provide no ethical guidance to us. However, it may be immoral to simply lurch from one crisis to the next thinking that there are no better ways to live.


In short, I agree with the end points, but not the ‘hypothetical ontology’ the end point rests on.

So in a hypothetical situation in which I am just with one other person (as a face) I cannot help but feel compassion (this is what he is talking about) for that other person, and I am naturally for him.

This sounds like it’s got something in common with the Buddhist concept of one’s true nature that ‘just is’ – Intuitive, overflowing with compassion, but in Levinas’ view this requires a dualism, an other, just one other, to bring all of this out. I’m inclined to say this is utter nonsense – It such a state of overflowing compassion exists it is self-less, and universal, beyond the self, not dependent on one (hypothetical?) other.

I think an ontological flaw (because it’s coming from a hypothetical idea generated by the intellect maybe) is that ‘my’ ability to be a moral being (basically limitless compassion) is dependent on there only being one discrete object – ONE OTHER (which, for clarity presumes that morality depends on a subject (me) and an object (ONE other) – Of course if this is the premise, then universal morality to more than one other is impossible.

There is no necessary reason why the ability to be moral requires one other in particular. I prefer the idea of morality defined around a pure-motive to do good for others which stems from self-transcendence, thus the basis of morality is not self-self it is non-self.

I am aware btw that I may be talking utter nonsense.

However, I do agree that it is much harder to be limitlessly for a range of others rather than one specific other, what I don’t agree with is the necessity of the other as the basis for morality. And the idea of the state as providing normative regulation because of the complexity of this makes sense – although obviously this is a very idealised conception of the state.

I also agree that there is a difference with dealing with ‘people stripped down’ as human beings, compared to dealing with people in society, because in society people take on roles and wear masks, this is something we do need to get over if we are to be more compassionate.

Finally, I also agree with the idea of using ethics to tame Capitalism. I also agree that to abandon ethics to relativism is to provide sustenance to the forces of Capital.

Chapter Fifteen – Democracy on Two Battle Fronts

Democracy requires an active agora, which in turn requires autonomous individuals and an autonomous society – a society in which people are free to form their own opinions and in which agreement around those opinions becomes law.

Democracy is under threat in the sense that the public body finds it more and more difficult to enact what is good and more and more people retreat from the agora.

The professional politicians no longer visit the agora, and for the citizens taking part in it seems increasingly like a waste of time and effort.

But the public space has been filled with private concerns.

Thus we have a Gordian knot that will be difficult to untie.


This is basically a repetition of what’s already been said in previous chapters.

Chapter Sixteen – Violence Old and New

Terrorism is a form of violence, but it is more than the acts themselves which attract the label – it is only those who lack power who get defined as terrorists by the powerful.

The essence of violence lies in coercing people into doing things they would not otherwise do, it lies in restricting their freedom.

The essence of all power struggles is the right to define with authority and to deny the right of others to define fields of action.

P209 – In all order building enterprises legitimacy (the right to define) is key – in other words the right to coerce, and in such enterprises, fighting (violence) means getting rid of anyone else who might contest your right to categorise….. your right to limit other peoples’ freedoms – thus the fight against violence in such a way is unwinnable.

Modernity has enlisted the fight against violence as one of its major concerns, yet it cannot document much progress – firstly because it is impossible to measure the actual amount of violence suffered by individuals and secondly because the very concept of order building rests on there being enemies to defeat.

However now that our institutional frame is crumbling, coercion is no longer working – people have more power to assert themselves, and violence is one way through which we can push boundaries… hence things like sexism.

At the level of the nation state – for those new nations, ethnic cleansing seems to be the way forwards. This, and making countries accommodate capitalism – both forms of violence.

17 – On Postmodern Uses of Sex

Sex, Eroticism and Love are linked yet separate. They could hardly exist without each other but each exists in an ongoing war for independence, and their boundaries are well-known for being contested.

Sex is simply the biological urge to reproduce – It hasn’t changed much, but eroticisms is cultural experimentation around sex – and lord knows there is enough surplus sexual energy to be inventive with.

In the past society dealt with this surplus sexual energy (the tendency towards eroticism) by either chaining it to sex for reproduction or to love – either people were encouraged to just have sex for reproduction and then any aspect of eroticism was hidden (either repressed or dealt with via porn, prostitution and affairs) OR it was linked to the romantic ideal of love.

Nowadays, however, eroticism is free floating – Why>? It isn’t just market forces manipulating it – There are two main underlying reasons.

Firstly the end of the ‘panoptic model’ of securing social order – which was necessary to turn masses of men into an army of industrial labourers.

However, today, the vast majority of people are integrated through seduction rather than policing, advertising rather than indoctrination, need creation rather than normative regulation. Most of us are trained as sensation seekers and gatherers rather than as producers and soldiers. We have a constant need for every deeper experiences, more intense than the ones before – this is the basis of a society based on seduction. It is not health but fitness which describes this society – being prepared to always be on the move!

There are three problems with the sensation gathering life-strategy in general…

Firstly, Fitness is always on the horizon, and is shot through with anxiety – you can always be fitter!

Second because fitness is solely about the Erlebniss, about sensations, it can never be intersubjectively reported or compared in any meaningful way – sensations remain entirely subjective – thus it breeds loneliness.

Finally – in fitness one is both the subject and the commander – you have to split yourself into two in order to drive yourself on – fitness requires total immersion, yet you also have to stand back and evaluate yourself – this is an impossible task for one person to accomplish.

All three of these lead to uncertainty, an unfocused free-floating anxiety.

Eroticism which ultimately focuses on the most extreme form of pleasure – organism has all of the above features – and thus eroticism is always a project – never complete, rarely fully satisfying.

Secondly sex is the material substratum of the cultural production of immortality and the supreme metaphor for the effort to transcend individual mortality and stretch human existence beyond the lifespan of individual humans. When sex is linked to reproduction or love then it reflects the efforts of humans to make themselves immortal, when it is detached from these then it loses this (?)

PM eroticism is perfect for constructing those PM identities which require Maximal impact and instant obsolescence.

Identities are now free floating, part of this is plastic sexuality – it has nothing to do with gender norms anymore. Parental control over child sexuality used to be regulatory – now we are suspicious of parents – child abuse etc. so we keep our distance. In short – all bonds of identity are being eroded.. This encourages us to rethink everything……

The problem for postmodern sexuality is that it is contradictory! Full of ambivalence!

18 – Is there life after immortality? This is a very obscure final chapter, quite an irritant to read.

Following Heidegger we know that our life means living towards death, and we know that our life is short.

Life appears to us (NB this is merely an assertion) as the only window of opportunity we have to transcend death, and culture is what we have (laughingly) built up to make our existence more permanent, less transient. (NB he’s getting all of this from Ernst Becker).

One way in which culture has convinced us of our immortality is through life after death: in the idea that the soul lives on after the body. He argues that this has not been disproved. However, following Weber, and to Nietzsche – Modern society no longer believes in God – but only because his existence cannot be proved.

In the absence of God, we build two bridges to try to deny our own mortality – individual level bridges, through a legacy of posterity and memory, but these are for the few only that stand the test time, so for the rest of us there are public bridges – two stand out – the family and the nation, both efforts to achieve ‘collective immortality’. There are others, such as football clubs, but none of them are serious competitors compared to the previous two.

However, families and nations have now ceased to be about perpetual duration.

Nations are now powerless compared to capital, and (interestingly) one thing which testifies to this is the ease with which new statehood is granted – smaller nations are easier for TNCs to deal with. Similarly with the family in the age of cohabitation and confluent love, relationships are not expected to outlive the people who make them up.

Given the crumbling of institutions which link the individual to universal values, then for this first time in history counting days and making days count is irrational. The consequences are as follows:

Firstly, the routes to individual immortality become crowded and as a result fame as a strategy is replaced with notoriety – which is results in a situation of maximal impact and immediate obsolesce.

Secondly, because even fame is now no longer a guarantee of immortality, then there is more urgency to enjoy mortal life, hence the moment becomes more precious.

Thirdly, the body, as all we have left (rather than the soul I presume) becomes the focus of our attention.

Fourthly, because the body becomes our temple, but we cannot be sure what effects this or that product has on it, we exist in a state of anxiety.
Ours is the first culture in history to not value the durable, we live to cast off, we live our life in episodes.

We have not been here before – we live in a state of continuous transgression and we do not seem to mind, but it remains to be seen what ‘being here’ and its consequences are like.

Summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s The Indivdualised Society (preface)


It may sound odd doing a summary of a preface, but there is a lot of heavy stuff in here….

According to Bauman ‘Sociology can help us link our individual decisions and actions to the deeper cause of our troubles and fears – to the way we live, to the conditions under which we act, to the socially drawn limits of our ambition and imagination.’

This book just does this by exploring how Individualisation has become our fate, and by reminding us that if our anxieties are to be addressed, they must be addressed collectively, true to their social, not individual nature.

Lives Told and Stories Lived – An Overture

Bauman begins with Ernest Becker’s denial of death in which Becker suggests that society is ‘a living myth of the signficance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning’ and that ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny his grotesque fate’ (his eventual death).

He now goes back to Durkheim and argues that connecting oneself to society does not liberate the individual from nature, rather it liberates one from having to think about one’s nature and that genuine freedom comes from exorzing the spectre of mortality (which is ever present when close to nature) by linking oneself to (a more complex) society. It is through society that one tastes immortality – you become part of something which was there before you were born, and which will continue after you die.

(At the indivdual level) knowledge of mortality triggers the desire for transcendence – and this takes two forms – either the desire to leave something behind, a lasting trace of yourself, or the desire to live gloriously now. There is an energy (?) in this desire which society feeds off – it capitalises on this desire by providing credible objects of satisfaction which individuals then spend time pursuing.

The problem with the economy of death transcendence, as with all economies, is that the strategies on offer are scarce – and so there must be limits to how resources can be used. The main purpose of a life strategy (which involve the search for meaning) is to avoid the realisation of the truth of one’s own mortality, and given that all the various life- strategies fall short of this ultimate need-satisfaction it is impossible to call one strategy correct or incorrect.

Two consequences happen as a result.. Firstly, there is the continuus invention of new life-strategies – industries are forever coming up with new strategies for death-denial. Secondly some people are able to captalise on the energy of the quest of death-denial and this is where we get cultural capital and hierarchy from.

So to date Bauman seems to be suggesting that there is a pyschological need to escape facing up to our own mortality, and this is where society comes from. However because any life-strategy we adopt in the attempt to escape death is doomed to failure because all such strategies merely mask the truth of our own mortality which lurks in the background. Because of this, in truth, all such strategies are equally as valid (or equally as invalid) as each other. At the social level this then results in two things – a continues stream of new and improved life-strategies on offer to us from industry and secondly the emergence of cultural capital as those who are able to do so define their own life-strategies as superior which is where hierearchy comes from (and I guess this claiming of mythical superiority is also part and parcel of certain life-strategies of death-denial).

Pause for breath…. Bauman now goes on to say that…

However, just because all life-strategies are far from the truth of death-denial, this does not mean that all miss the targets by the same margin.

Some life-strategies on offer are the result of what Bauman calls ‘surplus manipulation’ of the desire to deny death.  These are at their most viscious when they are biograpical solutions to systemic contradictions (following Beck) and rest on the fake-premise that self-inadequacy is the root cause of one’s anxiety and that the individual needs to look to themselves to solve this.

The result of this is the denial of a collective solution to one’s problems and the lonely struggle with a task which many lack the resources to perform alone which in turn leads to The result is self-censure, self-disparagement, and violence and torture against one’s own body.

I think the logic at work here is (a) Society is an invention which helps us deny death, however (b) in the post-modern age society falls apart – we find it harder and/ or it is less-rational to forge the kind of lasting bonds which will help us collectively deny-death (or strive for immortality to put in a positive phraseology) this results in (c) anxious individuals who are then (d) told by certain people in society (the elite – see below) that they need to find biographical solutions towards immortality (this is the surplus manipulation bit) but in reality this is impossible and so (e) this results in them killing or harming their social selves or actual physical bodies.

Bauman seems to be saying that, in the post-modern age some people, free of society, are thrown back on themselves, their true nature, and can’t handle it, they cannot deny-death alone, and so they kill themselves.

Bauman then goes on to say….

If we look at the whole life-story’ most of are simply not able to practice agency (articulation) – we are not free to simply construct of one set of relations out of another or redefine the context in which life is created. We may be able to do this in the realm of fashion or culture more generally, but not so with all aspects of of our lives.

To rephrases Marx – ‘People make their lives but not under conditions of their choice.’ It may be that we are all story tellers today, we all exercise reflexivity, but life is a game in which the rules of the game, the content of the pack and the way they are shuffled is not examined, rarely talked about.

The problem is that the individualisation narrative seems to assume that everything we do in our whole life is a matter of the choices we have made. This is, in fact, a narrataive that only works for the elite who do have lots of choice – they have resources and are mobile and can use opportunities in today’s mobile age to their advantage.

This narrative, in fact, works for the elite, it is ideological – if everyone thinks everything is open to choice and their fate is their fault, this becomes a nice control mechanism – you don’t need panopticons when people are always trying trying trying and choosing choosing choosing.

Furthermore, what is often precluded in the individualised age are strategies which involve acting together to change the broader social conditions, which just further perpetuates the problem.

In other words if we wish to reduce human suffering and allow individuals the opportunity to get back to collectively denying their own death (or constructing their immortality) then people need to feel as if they can constitutue society, at the moment the ideology of the biographical narrative serves to prevent people from realising this.

This book seems to aim to be a contribution towards bringing about greater genuine articulation (so it’s a shame you need to be educated well beyond graduate level to appreciate it)…..

As Bauman says towards the end of the chapter… ‘Genuine articulation is a human right but perform the task and the exercise the right in full we need all the assistance we can get – and sociologists can help in this by recording and mapping the crucial parts of the web of interconnections and dependencies which are kept hidden or stay invisible from the point of individual experience. Sociology is itself a story – but the message of Sociology is that there are more ways of living a life than is suggested by the stories which each one of us tells.’

Overall Comment

Very interesting to see Bauman starting with Becker – although he doesn’t seem to go back to him at the end of the section, so I really think he’s pushing the boat out a bit too far in terms of how much he tries to include in this introductory paragraph. It doesn’t hold together that well, and you have to read things into it to an extent to complete it, maybe that’s the point?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that society denying-death is OK because it is rational, and that our goal should be to get back to a situation where individuals are free to construct society and thereby get back to affirming themselves and thus denying their own death. This just strikes me as the equivalent of papering over the cracks of a deeper human suffering which The Buddha realised 3000 years ago.

There’s probably an interesting Buddhist response to this – but I’ll post that up when it emerges, which isn’t now, unless someone else gets there first.