Zygmunt Bauman, "LIQUID LIFE", Editori Laterza, Rome 2006
Abstract / Integration
"Liquid life", "Liquid society", "Liquid modernity" are all recently created expressions by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, to describe the traits of the world we live in.
"Liquid life" is a life where nothing is fixed; everything changes very quickly - too quickly.
We are still learning how to cope with a situation, when, in the meantime, reality has changed, the situation has changed, and the instruments we have are immediately inadequate or, as we say today, "obsolete".
Everything mixes together, whether we like it or not, and everything is different from what it was in the past. The "melting pot" is the saying created in the United States a couple of years ago to describe the mixing of the races, cultures, traditions and styles that banded together to create American society.
This, which is now called "fusion", is slowly expanding to the rest of the world. Fifty years ago, seeing a black person on the road in Italy was surprising, now this has become commonplace, we walk the streets of our cities along with Africans, Arabians, South Americans, Russians, Romanians, the Chinese and Japanese and many others who have slowly created a new urban fabric.
In some streets, the shops opened by immigrants have changed the atmosphere, the merchandise on display comes from far off places, you can smell different food cooking, and sometimes you can walk along the road and not hear a word of Italian spoken for quite a while.
Situation 1: Progress of Technology
The progress in technology has never been as fast as it is today. In the field of IT, we can be certain that what we buy today (hardware or software) will soon become old, if it's not already considered old at the moment of purchase. As far as computers are concerned, what is modern and updated is what is invented today in California or Japan. The latest release in Italy is already six months old, which is the time necessary to produce and distribute the product.
Situation 2: Social Contradictions and Globalization
Contradictions are absorbed without most people noticing: people who live in Europe, North America and Japan, with al the modern amenities, represent eight percent of the world population but have more than seventy percent of the economic and productive resources of the world.
It has been calculated that if everyone lived according to European or American standards, we would need three planets like Earth to produce the necessary resources.
For Americans, Europeans and the Japanese who can afford it, the world today offers the possibility to do things that were only dreamt of up to fifty years ago.
We can jump from one plane to the next, travel the world and see it at its best. We can ignore time and constantly follow summer, flying to the Tropics in December. We drive faster and more powerful cars, on roads with lower and lower speed limits.
Globalization puts food on our tables that comes from different continents. We listen to music from far off countries, read stories written by people living thousands and thousands of kilometers away. Internet has opened, for better or for worse, our front door to the entire world.
The Gate Keepers
Those earning from this world are not only those who produce or sell services or products. Those living in financial security often get bored and hungry for emotional experiences, they want to assume temporary identities. And so we enter the world of "gate keepers", meaning those who allow people to experience and try out these identities. Providers are part of this new job, allowing people access to the internet, satellite or cable TV, manage telephone lines to whoever uses any form of entertainment, from the theatre to the cinema, to travel agencies that send you to distant lands, where you can be someone else if you want...
Individual and Social Identity
Those who live in industrialized societies can create an identity by mixing different styles, like clothing, culture, food, music, and technology, ways of life imported from the entire planet.
The game will continue, for as long as poverty in the third world corresponds to our richness. Poverty for those who were not able to choose their way of life, whose destiny was assigned, to whom society has imposed the level of "rejects", in the world economic system of "free trade".
The Consumer Model
The model offered and presented is always and only that of consumerism, while advertising slogans repeat that our identity is connected to the goods we possess.
Home, car, clothes - according to this way of thinking, they reveal who we really are. If the clothes are brand name, I can feel better about myself. If we all kept what we had until it is truly used up, the world economy would collapse.
Evolution of Advertising
In the last ten years, advertising has changed deeply: it no longer says that this detergent "makes whites whiter"; it tells you that, if you use a certain product, you can be one with the young, beautiful, rich, powerful playboys or girls, or career women who appear on television or in radio commercials, magazines and billboards. Alternatively, there are those selling the image of a happy family, living on a wonderful farm with a windmill.
Besides this aspect, another important characteristic of the changes in advertising today is called "branding".
A "brand" is the trademark of a product.
What advertisers are trying to transmit in their advertisements is the certainty that a certain brand is the best there is, and that whoever wears or uses that brand will obtain personal prestige.
In this way, they try to emphasize the brand, in order to create "faithful" clients; clients who are willing to buy almost everything, as long as the name of the company they love is printed on it.
In order to do this, commercial hammering that repeatedly demonstrates the same equation is used: brand = quality = distinction = prestige.
What's more, "events" are organized sponsored by the brands: formal evenings, openings, competitions, awards, sports competitions, team or athlete sponsors, even charitable actions through "charity marathons".
At these "events", the presence of famous celebrities reinforces the brand image and identifies it with winning and famous people.
Multinational Companies and Globalization
All of this, if it is well managed, allows companies to ride the globalization tiger. If my brand is strong, I can stop producing with my company, for example in Italy, where costs are higher compared to the Third World, China and Eastern Europe.
Naomi Klein observed that: "Many, among the more famous companies, don't worry as much about producing their merchandise as much as buying it and adding their logo to it."
For Bauman: "It's the bag, with its visible logo on it, that gives the purchased product meaning. A product's logo, doesn't add value to that product, but is the value of the product. Its market value is therefore the only value that matters."
The Message of TV
Even TV has changed, and it is more and more "self-referencing", that is, it refers to itself. It creates an event, a character, a story, and then, in other programs, it comments these events, characters and stories and widens the audience. And then it comments the commenters and so forth. In other words, it creates its own world.
If those living in developing countries are oppressed by necessary needs, cannot choose their own identity but can only do their best to survive, those living in comfort are continuously living a dilemma with the double message they continue to receive.
On the one hand, the invitation to "be yourself", complete with courses and ready-made psychological manuals to learn how; on the other hand, the fact that the only "individual" behavior that society tolerates is that of conformism: being the same as the others, and distinguishing oneself through the objects owned.
Liberty Vs. Security
Another dilemma is that between liberty and security: the more one increases the more the other decreases and vice versa.
"Liquid Society" has lost past values, ancestral traditions, and the principles guiding previous generations.
In the unsettling picture described by Zygmunt Bauman, we are travelling without reference points towards a destination we don't know, without even knowing how long the trip will be.
Martyrs and Heroes
Today's western society is opposed to sacrificing today's satisfactions, for remote finalities.
It gives consumerism the immediate satisfaction for the needs of each individual, who can only reach their goals privately.
"Instant gratification" and "personal happiness", obtained through consumerism, have debased the ideals of "long periods" and of "totality". Values for which you can sacrifice yourself and work hard on no longer exist; there is no more need for martyrs and heroes.
Heroes, the protagonists of pre-Christian civilizations, based their glory on the number of enemies killed.
Martyrs, from the early Christians onward, were ready for sacrifice to defend an idea, to prove that the stronger side is not always right and that force does not guarantee justice.
The myths that have grown from both of them, in sixteenth century Europe, fuelled the birth of the Nation-State.
At the beginning of the modern period, Europe was still divided among the dynastic states, in a mixture of ethnic and linguistic groups.
The Nation-State, in order to begin and grow, needed consensus and patriotism.
Martyrs, war heroes, the unknown soldier who died for his country and the monuments dedicated to him, elevated the idea of nation to that of a god.
All of this, for us Europeans, belongs to the past now, and the Nation-State, which, with its sovereignty could guarantee the safety of its citizens, is beginning to crack under the pressure of globalization, while it undergoes decisions on macro economy, commerce and market, made somewhere else.
Refugees and Undesirables
Another new characteristic regards the treatment of "undesirables". Criminals of the past, condemned by the courts, were locked (within the country) in forts and prisons.
Today's refugees, condemned by hunger, are thrown back at the border (outside the country): someone else can take care of them.
Something similar to what was happening in Europe near the end of the Middle Ages. The "crazy ship" is not only a literary creation, but a reality, especially in Germany, where the burgomasters of the various cities used to give the crazy people to the sailors and merchants travelling the land on river barges so that they could dump them in another city, preferably far away, or leave them, also far away, in some deserted area of the countryside.
Today's wars are always controlled by international organizations, the UN, who tries to mediate between the parties; we have abandoned the old use of vendettas and we have transformed it into economic fines for damages, maybe even paid by insurance. Every injury has a price tag.
Identity Through Terrorism
For all of these reasons, for us Westerners, who have substituted the use of good and rapid satisfaction for all the ideals of the past, it is very difficult for us to understand that today, there are still some people ready and willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause. Islamic "suicide bombers" are, on our part, placed in the category of religious fanatics and ignorant people, who were conditioned from the day they were born.
Those who have money, and live in the Western world, can build their personal identity through consumer objects that they buy (from clothes to cars).
Those who do not have these possibilities often cling to faith, which is free; they go back in time and become religious martyrs, gaining therefore, a very strong identity. So strong, that it often kills them.
The World of Fame
"Liquid Society" has therefore abandoned the cult of martyrs and heroes, and has substituted it with the admiration for "celebrities", which is much less work.
For Bauman, the main characteristics of celebrities are continuous visibility in the media, constant presence of image, frequency with which that person's name is mentioned. Movie actors and especially television actors, singers, musicians, sportsmen, champions, politicians, various experts, fall into this category of "people known by notoriety" (D.J.Boorstin, 1961).
If I admire a hero or martyr, religious or civil, it means that I follow his ideas and faith, and that I belong to a group of people who also believe in that ideal.
If I'm a "fan" of a certain celebrity, I can delude myself of being part of a worldwide group of people united by their admiration for that person, I'm not asked to make an effort, and I can stop whenever I want and start to admire someone else. I can also be a fan of more than one celebrity at a time, and no one will criticize me for that.
In this context, even art, it meaning and value undergo changes in front of the global market. The old battle, which had "artists" on one side and "managers" on the other, has simple become "sibling rivalry".
One group needs the other and vice versa. Art "managers" need art to sell; artists need someone to sell their art.
If they fight amongst themselves, it's only to decide who commands. Art today is treated by galleries like any other product, it needs to have certain characteristics to be put on the market and be successful.
The gallery does a market study to find any future clients. It wants the artist, whom it has put under contract, to be consistent in his style, recognizable, and to create small pieces, to have made around a hundred works of art and have them ready to satisfy any sudden future market demand.
It asks, therefore, a logo and distribution, like with clothing.
"Good" art is famous art, because it is displayed in prestigious galleries, presented in shows, commented on in specialized magazines; "bad" art or "non art", meaning art with no market, is what a gallery has refused, because it cannot be sold. No other criteria exist today to distinguish the "value of art". Today's art is no longer "revolutionary"; the world economy is no longer afraid of artists; it tolerates that there is an area, ART, controlled and fenced in, in which subversive, rebellious and critical ideas can be expressed "artistically".
Eternity of Art?
Another change regards how long art lasts through time.
One of the main elements that, up to now, characterized art was its permanence through time, its "eternal immortality".
As Hannah Arendt said: "The cultural object resists through time", and:
"An object is cultural, when it outlives whatever usefulness it may have had upon its creation."
No longer; the economic system pushes quickly, and even art must be admired, used, sold quickly and them substituted with other artwork. Or else the market stops.
If we look at the various artistic tendencies from this angle, we can see just how precarious and short-lived they are.
Let's take, for example, all the "installation pieces" we see at shows today, the "art videos" that concentrate the artist's whole world into a few minutes and disappear just as quickly; the use of "poor" materials, degradable, breakable, perishable, like cardboard, rags, paper that cannot resist the passage of time; work with nature, maybe created just so that an aerial picture can be taken, painting made with non-resistant paint, images that disappear on computers...
The Masters of Agriculture
If, from art, we go on to consider agriculture, we can note how, with technology and agricultural machines, brought on by globalization, today's agriculture produces more and more food, using fewer and fewer people. And the profit does not fall on the territory.
As a consequence, most of the agricultural population, that have lost their jobs and have no other specialty, go to build shantytowns around big cities.
Out there in the shelters a large number of inhabitants are living without any income.
In the city, people react to this situation by concentrating on their own personal and home security.
The Security Nightmare
High-tech security systems are installed in homes, with cameras, alarms and motion sensors.
Private security is paid, or people live in "gated communities", residential areas protected by a high wall with controlled access points and neighbourhood police patrolling the neighbourhood 24-7.
In this situation, there are those who go to martial arts lessons, the shooting range and who wear protective clothing, like protective boots.
If they go out with the car, afraid of others, then the largest, heaviest, most powerful, air-conditioned, armored, security enabled SUV must be chosen. And if this is a gas-guzzler and pollutes, who cares.
In front of the fear of unstoppable and unforeseeable social change, and the search for something stable, following what Freud called a "displacement phenomenon", battles are fought against smoking, obesity, condom use, sun exposure, and cholesterol...
Global Village and Public Space
The "global village" hypothesized by Marshall McLuhan, has not yet happened. In exchange, the world's cities are becoming globalized and are becoming more and more similar.
Space and public design of the cities are "collateral damage" of globalization and undergo limitations due to other people's fears: in many US parks, the benches are round, so the homeless cannot sleep on them: or, after the park has closed, water sprinklers are activated to spray the benches so that they cannot be used.
In 1990 Richard Rogers, one of the most famous British architects wrote: "If we propose a project to an investor, the first thing he'll ask us is: "What are the trees for and why are there porticos?". Investors are only interested in the space destined for office or home use. If we can't guarantee that the building will be paying itself back within ten years, there's no point in even making a proposal."
Public space, like in the Ancient Greek square (agorà), where the social life of the city took place, risks becoming, as the South African architect Jonathan Manning said, "unused space between private space". In cities like these, "interaction between public and private spheres are made up only by shop windows or by complex defense mechanisms used to keep others at a distance: doormen, walls, barbed wire, electric fences."
Fear and Inequality
We therefore live in a fearful society, which proposes consumption as an ideal. In this context, new needs are constantly created and desires that can be temporarily satisfied through consumer goods are also created.
Current consumerism, writes Bauman, "is an economy based on trickery, exaggeration and waste, which are not signs that that economy is not functioning, but guarantees its good health, the only regime in which consumer society can ensure its survival."
And: "Today's society talks to those who make it up only as consumers. The consumer syndrome is based on speed, excess and waste." Buy and toss; final destination for my purchases: the trash.
If everything is uncertain and temporary, managing a relationship has become arduous. The seventh year crisis in married life, now belongs to the past. In the United States the peak of separations eighteen months - two years from the wedding. This society doesn't teach the patience, sacrifice, mediation, and constructive efforts necessary. Of course, getting rid of your partner is much more difficult than getting rid of your PC or changing your car, but the mentality is "I want it all and I want it now", over and over again.
Even friendships require constancy and effort: in times like these, having friends is more and more precious. But, in a liquid society, where everything changes quickly and work forces people to move often and quickly, keeping a friendship alive becomes very difficult, sometimes impossible.
Taking care of the Body
To distract themselves from these and other sufferance, many people dedicate themselves to their bodies, more so now than in Ancient Greece. The increase in hot springs, spas, wellness centers, gyms, saunas, massage centers, and the volumes of products dedicated to the body and beauty are proof of this.
Bauman observes: "In consumer society, fitness is to the consumer as health was to the producer in a production society."
Health and fitness, however, are not goals that can be reached once and for all, but they represent a lifelong effort that produces, in a lot of people, anxiety meaning that they cannot stop, unless it is temporary.
These fears are what the advertisers and marketing experts play off of, they try to guide the anxiety of today's men and women, of the body as if it were something that could be resolved, with a Turkish bath in a luxury spa perhaps.
Those Who Have Too Much...
At this point, attention moves on to food.
The "fat or thin" question is closely connected to the promotion of the consumer's body, as a central objective of marketing.
Anorexia and bulimia, in this context, can be seen as characteristics of consumer society.
The percentage of obesity in the United States does not show signs of decreasing. The New York Times recently defined the war against obesity as "the cultural war of the new century."
Having a Child Today
In this permanent transformation, in opulent and liquid Western society, even the concept of maternity and the desire to have children undergoes changes.
The death of the "maternity myth" is confirmed, and the constant, tiring effort that weighs on the shoulders of caretakers is put to light.
The working woman, the "career woman", today has little time and is very distant from the past images of "queen of the household", "angel of the homestead", more or less "(desperate) housewife".
Having a child and taking care of it is a long-term job, very different from the immediate satisfaction of certain desires, as advertising reminds us. Bauman compares it to signing a blank cheque or taking responsibility for things that are unknown and unforeseeable.
At a financial level, having a child almost always means losing income, associated with a huge increase in family expenses.
Children: Future Consumers
Once, children, considered "the future of our nation", were taught to love the country that they were living in. They had to become responsible citizens, participate in the productive process or defend their nation by fighting in the military.
The destiny of today's children is to become young consumers.
The marketing activity aimed at children, tends to turn them into "informed decision-makers", armed with knowledge about products, and who can pilot their parents in their purchases.
Temporary Work and Lifelong Education
If we consider, now, the world of work in liquid society, we can see in this field as well continuous changes produced by globalization of the consumer market.
Jacek Wojciechowski, expert in university teaching, in 2004, observed: "Once, a degree used to be a pass to practicing a profession, until the day of retirement: but this is now history. Nowadays, knowledge must be continuously renewed, and even professions have to change."
The need to constantly acquire new knowledge, in order to survive in the world of work, together with the rapid aging of yesterday's techniques, produce ignorance, and feed the market for various "professional courses" or "updates".
The concept of "lifelong education" is created by this situation and tends to become a necessity for many job categories.
The constant risk that comes of it is that of being "excluded" and "tossed aside", of losing jobs, both as an individual and as a company. All of this increases anxiety in life.
If we consider this phenomenon on a worldwide level, we can see that it is on this basis that the difference between the Third World and the Western World is founded.
The more knowledge, especially technical knowledge, will be necessary to cope with the world of work, the more the gap between these two worlds will increase, creating and increasing social injustices, with all the possible, devastating side effects.
Public vs. Private Education
The topic becomes political and is concentrated on the choice of managing education at a national level or leaving it to the "private and free" market. The latter is represented by professional and specialization schools, managed like businesses, without any "social" mission.
In the United States, only 19 % of those belonging to the poorer social classes, are able to complete their studies and obtain a diploma. If we observe the higher income social classes, this percentage rises to 80 %.
If the "teaching market" is given to paid private schools, and the State does not intervene, we will see an increase in social injustices and all the tension deriving from them.
To counteract this phenomenon of ignorance, in 2001,the EU Commission, repeated the necessity to create in the different countries, and under the direction of the various Ministries of Education, space dedicated to learning and updating. The effort of the single countries was to be coordinated by the European Community, which will keep it among its priority objectives.
Public management of education, created in a democratic European context, produces so-called "enablement" or "empowerment".
According to Bauman, "authentic empowerment, means that people not only acquire the abilities necessary, to successfully play in a game projected by others, but also the power necessary to influence the objectives, the stakes and the rules of the game: not only personal ability but social power.
(...) Empowerment is the reconstruction of public space which has been progressively abandoned, in which men and women can work in a continuing translation between that which is personal and that which is common among interests, duties and rights, private and public."
For Bauman, if the public and social spheres must be reborn in the Western world, besides the technical abilities, we seriously need "capacity for interaction with others – for dialogue, negotiation, reaching reciprocal comprehension and management or resolution of conflicts, inevitable in any situation of collective living." Therefore, we have to acquire the necessary competences as active citizens.
The Consumer is the Enemy of the Citizen
But Bauman observed: "The consumer is the enemy of the citizen (...) and, everywhere, in the opulent and developed part of the planet, the symptoms of distance between people and politics multiply, from the increase in apathy and the lack of interest for the function of the political apparatus."
"The world wants to be tricked", wrote Theodor W. Adorno, but democracy is in danger if the citizens aren't able to translate their anxieties and personal difficulties into democratic collective actions and worries at a political and public level.
Paraphrasing a sentence by Pierre Bordieu, he who does not understand the present, can't even imagine he can control the future. We have to learn to think differently from what we have been used to doing up till now.
The capital and goods markets have been transferred to "a new space, socially extra-territorial", much stronger than the space of a single Nation-State, and in order to face this new situation newer and different instruments from those used in the past are needed.
Otherwise, for a large part of humanity, globalization will mean a net and progressive deterioration of living conditions, accompanied by continuing insecurity and existential anxiety.
The necessary conditions for survival of humanity are no longer divisible and manageable on a local and national level. If our difficulties originated in planetary problems, then planetary solutions are needed.
The public space on of the Nation-State has been widened to the whole world: as Bauman observes, "the contemporary drama is as vast as humanity, clamorously and decisively global".
"Planetary responsibility" can oppose this situation, which means, for Bauman "the recognition of the fact that all of us who live on this planet depend on each other for our present and our future; that nothing that we do or don't do, can be indifferent to someone else's destiny; and that none of us can try and find a private shelter from the storms that can begin in any part of the world".
It is therefore indispensable to create a new type of "global frame", which impedes economic initiatives, in any part of the Earth, to follow only profits, ignoring the damage and side effects and ignoring the social impact and the cost-result balance.
How will this new way of thinking be? According to Bauman "we cannot know the shape that this will take. However we can be certain that it will not look familiar. It will be different from anything we've ever known".