Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.
Bauman’s recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody’s life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today’s reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman’s lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.
In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman’s argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.
Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:
Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity “final” There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in “nonfinality,” the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.
The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman’s analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.
By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today’s world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:
The act of selecting a group as one’s site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: “I am P” always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that “most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on.” “Belonging” is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an “entity of belonging”-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community “integrates,” gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.
Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.
After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:
In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.
It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.