I hope it will have been clear from my last post that a specific concentration of resources by a national government can distract the attention of its citizens from their own collusive involvement in supporting the dehumanization of segments of the population, and thus bringing about their marginalization, if not their destruction.
The previous post thus essentially used the arguments presented by Zygmunt Bauman in Modernity and the Holocaust, (subsequently to be referred to as MATH) and accepted them as a major element in affecting a more egalitarian future. Bauman was clearly not totally finished with the issues raised in MATH, however, as was shown by his successive afterwords. Fortunately, however, in the art of life (the lower-case typography was deliberate), published in 2008, he returned to the Holocaust theme in a more all-inclusive manner, and what now follows is an all-too-brief attempt to come to terms with the thinking in that second superb book. Unfortunately, even in the art of life, however, in spite of its overall brilliance, Bauman seems to go every which way towards the end, as he thinks of even more metaphors for his main message, and thus distracts from that message. That message, ostensibly intended to show the superiority of Emmanuel Lévinas' stance to that of Nietzsche, is weakened, I think, and comes across as somewhat passive, in that it leaves the power of decision about our joint future firmly with each individual person in every face-to-face encounter. Bauman was ultra cautious (and for good reason) about any over-arching scheme for resolving human problems that could quickly become dystopic, as Marxism clearly did. It made him cautious about any consciously planned group schema for improving the human situation.
In this, as in so many parts of his writing, however, he gets distracted by his own metaphors from the extraordinary deeper implications of the abiity of human beings to create symbolic representations of the reality we inhabit. Nowhere is Bauman shy of demonstrating how we
ourselves contribute to the collusive processes that we tend to blame on circumstances beyond our control. Indeed, major sections of the art of life are devoted to those very processes. The nub of the book, however, is the very careful comparison of the difference between the fundamental attitudes of Nietzsche and Lévinas. That protracted discussion occurs in a section labelled "The Choice", and I must forgo any attempt to summarize or simplify its arguments. What I can do, however, is make some suggestions as to the direction of the logic involved in looking at the obverse side of the Holocaust experience . . .that is the personal, rather than the national processes remarked upon in great detail by Bauman in MATH. There is in fact much that can be said about the facilitation by human symbolic ability to conceive of and carry out actions that encourage the positive interpersonal processes described by Lévinas. There is much that can be done, for example, to truly allow human beings to meet one another. It is indeed now amply possible, particularly for affluent people in the G8 countries, to foster interpersonal international exchanges, for example, in reciprocal visits between schools and school children in different countries.but also in creating personal opportunities for truly experiencing, if only necessarily briefly, the lives of others, and thereby, necessarily, exposing oneself to their world views.
Education, spread as widely as possible, is an obvious further facilitation of the possibilities of truly meeting, but it is not a panacea, since increased symbolic acumen opens up ever new possibilities of self-and-other deception. This is a major aspect of our human problem: the very ability that allows us to be aware of our problems also provides us with the means of avoiding feeling responsible for doing anything about them. Bauman is excellent on all of this in the art of life, but in, it must be said, a somewhat fatalistic mode. The very end of his lovely book seems to offer the reflection that we'll all simply have to wait to see where our interactional processes lead us. As I've tried to show above, I think there is a truly viable alternative available to us; one that does not presume inevitable dystopic consequences to concerted action, since it committs itself to a process rather than an envisaged end. (My own book is very informative, I think, on the importance of that distinction. Indeed, as I suspect I have said elsewhere, it is our commitment to that distinction that will determine whether we shall indeed survive.)
Please read the art of life if you possibly can. Polity Press, 2008. ISBN 978-07456-4326-7 (pb)
write a comment