I recently began correspondence over research matters with a professor from a distant city whom I have never met but with whom I have a number of shared interests. In the course of establishing a rapport I was rather surprised to find that, based on my recent blogs and other writings, she got the impression that I harbored a resentment towards academia as such and towards postmodern theory in particular. Given that among my teaching colleagues over the past decade and some I’ve been frequently labelled as the most abstractly academically theoretical and postmodern thinkers in the school, it’s one of those ironic situations where I don’t know if I should laugh or cry –– and when in doubt I always go with the former.
But regardless of that fact, given that I have managed to give at least one highly intelligent person such an impression, it is more than possible that others might have come to similar misconceptions about me, and therefore I should take the trouble to further unpack my perspectives on some of the more abstract aspects of humanities theory within academia that I have been writing about here lately.
To start with let me make a somewhat obvious observation: it is factually untrue and thus a gross mis-characterization to refer to those who are lost in their own theoretical abstractions as “tucked away in their ivory towers.” University towers are not made of ivory, and I doubt that they ever have been. In concrete terms university towers (to the extent that universities have any use for towers these days) are made of… concrete. Some older university buildings made of wood, brick or field stone are still rather heavily used, but those materials don’t provide a particularly distinctive image of academia as such. Newer university buildings made of steel and glass are becoming more common, but steel and glass structures are more emblematic of venture/vulture capitalists than of academics per se. Professors can’t really be said to be looking down from their steel and glass towers, literally or figuratively. In practice these days we’d have to say that those professors who suffer from a lack of contact with the non-academic world are seeing that world through the tiny windows of their concrete cubicles, literally and figuratively.
For those in the humanities, concreteness is a rather uncomfortable image to relate to. In one sense many of them would much rather be out in the world of Platonic ideals rather than stuck in the hard, cold material reality in which we all find ourselves; thus they try to avoid speaking in concrete terms in general. In another sense they would like to believe that their work has more flexibility to it than do the crude forms of man-made stone in which they find themselves encased. In yet another sense they would like to believe that their work has some sort of inherent nobility and superiority, relating to some more refined substance, like silver or marble or… ivory. In still another sense they want to fantasize that their work is both highly reflective and transparent, like glass or crystal, only without being so fragile. Yet they do not want their work to take on the image of something so pedestrian and practical as Plexiglas.
So with the ivory tower fantasy shot, if they are to establish an alternative image to that of looking at the world from behind their concrete walls, what image are they to use? Given all of these contradictory symbolic elements they are trying to project in their self-images these days, one image that younger professors have started turning to as emblematic of their professional identity is… water. Beyond representing aspects of potential refinement, reflectiveness, transparency and naturalness that professors like to associate with their work, the image of water involves aspects of flow and vitality that every academic would like to believe characterizes her/his work. Images of drinking from pristine bubbling brooks spring to mind, or those of daring young athletes riding wild rapid currents through uncharted territory. Why not? Academics are also entitled to their fantasies.
The water analogy also provides a functional excuse for their separation/alienation from more practical concerns of everyday life: some would like to think of their theories as being like fresh springs, gushing out a cool, clear stream of life-supporting liquidity, which must be fenced off to keep crude animals from tromping through them and/or pissing in them. Those who can respectfully and responsibly protect and direct the flow of this precious liquid can in turn appropriately channel it down the line to make it available to other users, but at its source they must, for the good of all, painstakingly protect its purity –– or so the fantasy picture goes.
The irony is in how far this image is from the thought of the current father figure of “liquid modernity” theory, Zygmunt Bauman. In his discussion of the “liquid modern,” the liquid in question is not a pure, clear stream poetically flowing across and cutting through solid stone with its life-giving power; it is more a tsunami of sludge plowing its way across traditional landscapes, taking out whatever farms and temples and government installations stand in its way, leaving anarchy and mayhem in its wake. Some of the structures this tsunami takes out are indeed prisons and oppressive fortifications, but its destructive power is not focused against these systems of oppression. The liquid modern is also destroying traditional means by which life has been protected, order has been maintained and personal meaning has been established. The name of this tsunami which Bauman has been trying to caution people against is consumerism, and his recommendation is that education, rather than riding this wave, should be positioning itself as our last, best hope of somehow limiting the senseless destruction it is wreaking on our societies. Rather than becoming part of the liquid in question, education should establish certain concrete channels, dams, breakwaters and levies; not to overcome the force of this flood, but to direct it in less destructive, more functional directions. The problems I have a with academics are with those who don’t get what Bauman is saying here.
The essence of postmodern theory in this regard –– a la French speaking post-Marxist-Hegelians such as Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and Lyotard –– is heralding the collapse of metanarratives of human cultural evolution and the grand march forward from ignorance and superstition towards enlightened self-interest and social harmony. In various ways and from various perspectives, over the past half-century or so French, English and German-speaking theorists, in roughly that order, have been calling “masculine bovine excrement” on the remains of this enlightenment dream. We are not becoming one big happy family, and we probably shouldn’t even try to be. We need to recognize that much of what was done in the name of enlightenment and “progress” was a matter of morally questionable power interests stomping out any form of difference and dissent which got in their way. Over the course of the twentieth century colonialism gave way to international capitalism as the dynamic by which this took place, but for those on the receiving end this makes little difference. Corporations, rather than nation states, have forced their will onto semi-cooperative populaces around the world, proclaiming their benevolent intent, yet crudely stomping out any resistance to their dominance and their control of natural and human resources. But rather than proclaiming a Marxist revolution as the solution to this problem, which has been exposed as just one more means of international power-brokering under false claims of benevolent intent, the postmodernists have promoted “deconstruction,” to use Derrida’s term on the matter. Rather than reinforcing the power of any of the particular elite forces in government or business, the intelligentsia should be pointing out the moral and rational flaws inherent in all of the competing parties’ thinking, encouraging a diversified social order in which no one can claim absolute hegemony.
As noble as these ideas may sound, the de facto anarchy of eliminating all existing structures while replacing them with nothing in particular is highly problematic to say at the least. The hopes of the postmodern theorists were not in fact to pursue a cultural “nuclear alternative” of “mutually assured destruction” of all aspects of culture as such, even though few of them put much effort into coherently stating were the new levies should be built. Bauman, in part due to what he sees as the sheer accident of his extremely long life, has gone further than most of his former contemporaries in the field in contemplating this problem. His basic conclusions, like those of his former fellow postmodernists, are stated in terms that are intended to defy simplification, but I will give it a shot anyway.
One thing that must be accepted as a given here is that people are as lazy as they dare to be. No one likes to do tedious and painful routine tasks that they are told they have to do if things remain pretty much the same whether they do them or not. The old cultural and economic status quo was based on social discipline reinforced by scarcity: People were kept from being lazy because struggle for survival was a natural state of affairs. We sometimes forget how difficult life was just a couple of generations ago –– and how difficult it still is for the poorest 2 billion people on this planet these days. A century ago for families to lose a child or two to some form of disease was more the rule than the exception. When it happens these days it is a rare event, caused by someone out there being the sort of person that cannot be described in polite language. There are plenty of remaining problems in today’s post-industrial societies but there are in fact plenty of resources to keep everyone fed, housed, medically cared for and educated even. The problems have to do with extremely morally deficient individuals preventing these resources from being used to meet these basic needs. Which in turn presents the question, how do we motivate people to work together and to overcome their natural laziness in a situation where they can easily tell that the threat of shortage is quite artificial?
This leads to the instant gratification problem of the liquid consumer society. Rather than delaying gratification and disciplining themselves to work hard and produce before consuming, the current expectation is to get a few credit cards, experience whatever you (are told that you) want instantly, and sell yourself into slavery to the system to keep up with the consumer addiction you have entered into. You thus become a cog in the machine feeding the snowballing greed epidemic is endangering the future of the whole planet. If you happen to be one of the less important cogs in this machine you can easily find yourself in the sort of de facto slavery where if you (and your spouse) work less than 60 hours per week (each) for whatever wage you can get, you are likely to lose your family through not being able to afford housing, food, health care and the basic status symbol products that are seen as needed to prevent their children from becoming socially marginalized –– not being seen as a good enough provider. If you happen to be one of the more important cogs in this machine you are expected to be available to the needs of the production system 24/7 as befits your position, so to compensate for your consequent absence from your loved ones’ lives you are expected to provide them with a continuous flow of mass-produced, disposable forms of entertainment and means of superficial human contact. Children raised within these systems, meanwhile, have less and less of a sense of any human relationships, social traditions or status symbol items having a lasting value. They have a vague sense that all of this could lead to oblivion, but for the moment all they feel they can do is go with the absurd flow of things, hoping to eventually find some form of love and meaning in life along the way… whatever those things are.
Bauman is by no means suggesting a nostalgic return to the “good old days”. What we don’t want is to go back to the old system of shortage-driven desperation and authoritarian discipline for its own sake –– even if that is one of the places that the consumerist tsunami is likely to leave us when it ebbs back out again. What we want is to be left with a sense of what and who makes our lives important, and to feel a firm sense of connection with those principles and people –– preferably of our own choosing, and not vulnerable to be taken from us by those who see things differently. Whether we will succeed in finding ways of so anchoring ourselves under the current tsunami conditions remains to be seen, but from Bauman’s perspective our best hope in this matter lies in the development of suitable concrete structures within the education systems of so-called developed countries.
This isn’t a matter of clinging to some pre-modern cultural monuments for the sake of faithfulness to the monuments, nor is it a matter of pretending to have some sort of fixed reference point while being swept along with the tide (a “Janus-faced” approach, as some have tried to call it). It is a matter of getting to know ourselves and learning to care for ourselves through our contact with others –– “Ubuntu” as it is called in many parts of Africa –– without letting the madness of the mob mentality sweep us away in the process. If we can teach young people to seriously look for this sort of beauty within themselves and within the world around them, there is still a chance that we can save the world from ourselves.
Closing disclaimers: This is an amateur essay (in the sense that there ain’t no one paying me to write it) based on my perceptions of the writings of Zygmunt Bauman and company from my recent reading. I can claim with reasonable certainty that I’ve got Bauman’s message right, but unless Bauman himself endorses this essay it remains just my voice among all of his friends and admirers and scholars of his work. Some may dispute my interpretation, but it’s currently not worth my time to take the effort to prove them wrong further than this. Thus please take this for what it’s worth as passing academic perspective, personal advice to fellow educators and a statement of hope for our world. Meanwhile, please don’t anyone else subject me to any further BS about your role in promoting the virtues of liquid modernity as though you were advancing Bauman’s perspective in the matter. And please don’t attempt to label me as anti-academic or anti-postmodern for saying so.