#rp15 Speaker: Zygmunt Bauman

We’re living in troubled times. Grandmaster sociologist Zygmunt Bauman applies his reflections on the control society to modern-day technology.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if the bureaucratic control rationality that Max Weber so glumly forecasted were really still controlling; if it was merely the terror of consumerism and humanism terrorizing us, as Adorno and Foucault predicted. Wouldn’t it be nice if untampered systems could be maintained just by appealing to “autopoiesis”; if it was indeed only a crisis of modernity that might be placated with liturgical slogans: More markets, more technology, more functional differentiation, more rational choice, more growth, more arms, more drones, more computers, more Internet, and so on.”

These are the words of the late Ulrich Beck, renowned sociologist who held the laudatory speech at the “Lifetime Achievement” award presentation of the German Sociological Association, for the equally renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

Zygmunt Bauman’s thinking combines social science and social history with theories of modernity: Under the heading of the “Interregnum”, he has analyzed how existing social and political orders can collapse, even while a new order is yet unforeseeable. One of the central questions for Bauman is the relationship between continuity and discontinuity, or sense and senselessness, for this kind of historical witnessing that is becoming increasingly rare. Born in Poznan in 1925, Bauman started teaching sociology at the University of Warsaw in 1954. He left Poland to move to Israel in 1968, and in 1971, he was appointed a chair of sociology at the University of Leeds, where he would remain until 1990. Bauman has been awarded the 1989 Amalfi Prize, and the Theodor W. Adorno Award in 1998.

Even before the NSA spying scandal, Zygmunt Bauman studied the contemporary surveillance society in collaboration with sociologist David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre. In the digital age, no one could ever be sure they weren’t being monitored – leading to a kind of social conformity that is increasingly deliberate and voluntary, or so they concluded (the re:publica, and also Edward Snowden, have come to similar conclusions, by the way). This is a challenge not only for politics, but also for sociology. In a conversation between Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, documented in their 2013 textbook “Liquid Suveillance”, they try to reconcile Michel Foucault’s concept of the “Panopticon”, and Gilles Deleuze’s ideas on the “Control Society” with modern-day technology.

Most users of novel technologies, however, are younger than 45, and take a rather affirmative stance towards their gadgets. Dealing with these new tendencies, headed for a panoptic or even “post-panoptic” society, comparing and delimiting them, is a huge social challenge. We are happy to provide a stage for this and are very much looking forward to welcoming this eminent thinker from Leeds at re:publica.

The Bauman Institute

photo credit: Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny/M. Oliva Soto "Zygmunt Bauman" Fischer (CC BY-SA 2.0)