Review of Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia
(Polity Press, 2017), 179 pages, $13.99
Publishers’ website: http://politybooks.com/bookdetail/?isbn=9781509515318
Reviewed by Zeger Polhuijs
This review discusses Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘Retrotopia’, published shortly after the renowned sociologists’ death, in the light of his engagement with the thought of Pope Francis during the last years of his life. It traces some of the main themes of this engagement, and addresses its role and importance in the context of the book as well as in the aims of Bauman’s sociology as a whole. As the insecurities and anxieties of liquid modernity in our increasingly violent world lead many to give up on the effort of building a better future and turn towards the ‘retrotopia’ of an ideal past, a crucial sign of hope is found in the words of Pope Francis. In his efforts as a sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman seeks to redirect our gaze to the future and to engage in dialogue, understood as the art of living together.
Zygmunt Bauman, sociology, dialogue, Pope Francis, politics, inequality, modernity
A few weeks before his death on January 9, 2017, the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman sent a short text to Italian journalist Francesco Antonioli as a contribution to an edited book on Pope Francis. In the text, published as ‘il dono’ (‘the gift’), the secular Bauman of Jewish background described Pope Francis as ‘the most precious gift offered by the Roman Catholic Church to our world’ (2017a). In today’s world, the sociologist of liquid modernity wrote, of all the people in the limelight and justly carrying world-wide authority, only Jorge Mario Bergoglio has understood and defined clearly which priorities to face (Bauman, 2017a). Bauman defined these priorities as: 1. the art of dialogue (as a way of developing a modus convivendi among people for our time), 2. inequality (attention for poverty and suffering caused by a social and economic inequality empowered by widespread indifference), and 3. school curricula (the need to resurrect the lost moral standards and restore spiritual values in the young; the spiritual values to resist the erosion of values caused by materialism, consumerism and profiteering). ‘The gift called Pope Francis’, Bauman concluded, ‘offers the world a purpose and our life its meaning. Would we prove being capable, and willing, to accept that offer and act on it?’ (2017a: 27).
This reference to Pope Francis is not at all unusual in the work of Bauman; during the last years of his life he frequently cited and referred to the Argentinian pontiff. In his book ‘Retrotopia’, published just a weeks after his death, in which Bauman discussed the growing tendency away from constructing a better future towards returning to an ideal past, he referred to Pope Francis’ speech on the future of Europe at the occasion of receiving the Charlemagne Prize in April 2016. Bauman quotes from this speech the paragraph on the capacity for dialogue, as ‘the most convincing response to this seminal, live-or-die question for humanity’ (2017b: 164). In this way, Bauman tried to offer a recognizable point of reference as part of his project to offer an alternative to the great challenge of our time described in Retrotopia: the current inclination of many people and whole countries to react to a world of violence and insecurity by closing themselves into tribes and erect barriers and walls. As one of the world’s most famous contemporary sociologists, Bauman’s reflections on insecurity, liquid modernity, and the risk of increasing separation and solitude among people are well known. How did he, though, come to see the Argentinian Pope Jorge Maria Bergoglio as a key point of reference in his vision for the future of liquid modern society, which ever more acquires the characteristics of a ‘retrotopia’?
Already in his classic work ‘Liquid Modernity’, Zygmunt Bauman raised alarm over the feature of fluid modern society to favour the colonization of public space, and thus the sense of sharing a common good and the capacity of working towards it together, by the private sphere of personal life-politics (2000). Already in this work, he talked of the importance of ‘civility’, which he explained as ‘the ability to interact with strangers’, ‘the ability to live with differences’ and ‘the art of negotiating common interests and shared destiny’ as well as ‘the art of dialogue and negotiation’ (Bauman, 2000: 104; 106; 109). He saw the task of sociology, and his task as a sociologist, in this light: to offer explanations that promote understanding, and which disclose the possibility of living together (Bauman, 2000: 214-215). Later in his life he would increasingly elaborate on this vision under the unifying concept of ‘dialogue’, seen as the skill which is the life-force of democracy and cohabitation, and which can actually make the difference ‘between surviving together or perishing together’ (Bauman and Mauro, 2016: 139-140).
The first moment of convergence between the thought of Bauman and Pope Francis, who had been elected on 13 March 2013, can be seen in an interview with Bauman published in the Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, on 19 October 2013 (News.va, 2013; see also Lastampa.it, 2013; Santalessandro.org, 2017). In the interview, Bauman explained how the condition of liquid modernity has given people the drive to seek instant and short-lived gratifications, leading to the idea that happiness can be bought and which comes with serious consequences for our society and the environment. We need a radical change in our lives, argued Bauman, a change which Pope Francis would call ‘conversion’. He expressed to be ‘in awe at everything Francis is doing’, and that he believes ‘his pontificate gives not just the Catholic Church but the entire humanity a chance.’ (Lastampa.it, 2013). The specific moment in which Bauman seems to have taken notice of Pope Francis was the Pope’s visit to the island of Lampedusa in the context of the many refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and his discourse there on the ‘globalization of indifference’. Bauman mentions in the interview that ‘the current Pope has shown a fearless attitude: I’m thinking of what he did in Lampedusa and what he said about the outcasts of our globalized world’. Looking to the future, he expressed hope about this pontificate, specifically in the light of the need for authentic dialogue to find solutions to the challenges of our time. In this interview, the key topics of Bauman’s engagement with Pope Francis in the years afterwards can already clearly be seen.
In the four years between this interview and the writing of Retrotopia at the end of his life, Bauman would often elaborate on these themes in many of the books he wrote in this period. Beginning with his dialogue with the Polish theologian and former Jesuit Stanislaw Obirek, published as ‘Of God and Man’, he would expand on the notion of the ‘dialogical imperative’, in the context of their discussion of religion, the risk of fundamentalism, and the possibilities of interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence. They state how the awareness of the dialogical imperative has gained momentum with the public attention and personal influence of Pope Francis, who already as Argentinian bishop warned about the dangers of breakdown of communication and presented dialogue as ‘the royal road to peaceful and mutually beneficial human co-existence’ (Bauman & Obirek, 2015a: vii). In the continuation of their dialogue, which was then published as ‘On the World and Ourselves’, Bauman referred to the dialogue that Francis both talks about and practices himself as an extremely important factor, since ‘[f]or the future of humanity in an irrevocably multicultural and multi-centric world, consent to dialogue is a matter of life and death’ (Bauman and Obirek, 2015b: 126). In addition to his discussions with Obirek, Bauman would also continue with quoting Pope Francis in his discussion with Lithuanian professor of politics Leonidas Donski published as ‘Liquid Evil’, in which he discussed various passages of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (‘On the Joy of the Gospel’) on inequality, attention for the poor, violence, security, and economy (Bauman and Donskis, 2016).
In ‘Strangers at our door’ (2016), in which Bauman analyses the anxiety in Europe in response to the growing refugee crisis, Bauman reached back to Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa, about which he first spoke in the interview in the Osservatore Romano in 2013. Bauman sees the real crisis and concrete danger in Europe in the refusal of dialogue and the silence born of indifference – and he refers to the warnings on this very topic in the Lampedusa speech of Pope Francis, ‘one of the very few public figures to alert us to the dangers of following Pontius Pilate’s gesture by washing our hands of the consequences of the current trials and tribulations, of which we are all, simultaneously, to one degree or another, victims and culprits’ (Bauman, 2016: 20-21). Bauman then quotes the fragment of Francis’ speech in which he introduces the concept of the ‘globalization of indifference’, and repeats and takes up the question he poses: ‘Has anyone wept? Today has anyone wept in our world?’ (Bauman, 2016: 22).
With Retrotopia, Bauman returns to the utopian and dystopian strands in the dynamic of our present condition, first discussed extensively in Liquid Modernity. In these days, he states, the utopian aspiration is projected towards the return to an ideal past more than towards the construction of a better future, in response to a ‘Hobbesian’ world of growing insecurity and violence. With the contemporary instability of our increasingly complex world and the insecurities and anxieties of our profoundly fragmented and individualized liquid life, the return to a tribal attitude and an acceptance of indifference toward inequality seems increasingly ‘rational’. However, the tide can still be changed, and Bauman seeks to reorient the contemporary gaze toward the future. It is at this point that he inserts his reference to Pope Francis’ Charlemagne Prize speech on the future of Europe of 6 May 2016. Not only does the Argentinian leader of the Catholic Church pinpoint in the eyes of Bauman our present condition of inequality, insecurity, and indifference to the poor and the suffering with great clarity, he also is a rare voice of hope that points toward a common future. The answer which Bauman presents in the words of Pope Francis is reconstructing ‘the capacity for dialogue’, a culture and a fabric for society to rebuild, in which our children will be armed with the weapons of dialogue and ‘our people with the culture of dialogue and encounter’ (Bauman, 2017b: 164-165).
Despite its merits, Retrotopia has its limitations. Those familiar with other works of Bauman will find quite some repetition, and Bauman’s discussion of internet and social media in relation to loneliness and lack of social skills is in my opinion too simplistic and one-sided. But its worth is not so much in its details, but in the way in which it is the culmination of a path embarked upon years before. With Retrotopia, the recently deceased sociologist of the liquid modern condition has come full circle in his twofold project to offer insight into our fluid contemporary society as well as work out a way to a future of a truly public life and a rediscovery of the common good through the skill of ‘civility’, or as he later would call it: ‘dialogue’. In his quest to write a sociology that would contribute to a more just and equal society, a sociology that would show that there are alternatives, offering explanation and promoting living together, he found clarity and hope in the voice of an Argentinian who became head of the Catholic Church – whom during the last year of his life he personally got to meet during an interreligious peace encounter in Assisi organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio (see ANSA.it, 2017; Lastampa.it, 2017), of which this review’s author is a member. It seems that in addition to Gramsci, Camus, and Levinas (see Tester, 2002), Pope Francis can be added as one of the paths which have coalesced into the route that Bauman’s own work pursues. This book stands testimony to a path taken over the years by a scholar who did not only want to write about but also practice a sociology profoundly marked by the practical imperative of dialogue. This book is a must-read, not only for its academic usefulness or the insight it provides into the dynamics of contemporary society and politics, but also because of the perspective it offers as one of the last fruits of a life lived with academic passion and hope for the future in difficult times. It can first of all help us turn our gaze once more towards the future. But more so, it can also inspire us to renew a mode of scholarly work and life that encourages and allows others to undergo that ‘conversion’ (in the words, as Bauman reminds us, of Pope Francis) as well.
Bauman, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Policy Press.
Bauman, Z (2016) Strangers at our door. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z (2017a) Il dono. In: Antonioli, F (ed) (2017) Francesco e noi. Milano: Piemme, 25-27.
Bauman, Z (2017b) Retrotopia. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z and Obirek, S (2015a) Of God and Man. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z and Obirek, S (2015b) On the World and Ourselves. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z and Mauro, E (2016) Babel. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z and Donskis, L (2016) Liquid Evil. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Tester, K (2002) Paths in Zygmunt Bauman’s Social Thought, Thesis Eleven, 70: 55-71.
References – websites
ANSA.it (2017) Morto Bauman: al meeting di Assisi di settembre a pranzo con Papa Francesco. Available at: http://www.ansa.it/sito/notizie/cultura/2017/01/09/morto-bauman-al-meeting-di-assisi-di-settembre-a-pranzo-con-papa-francesco_2239f539-5357-4c71-8ae2-8fd6cb6d5350.html (accessed 14 May 2017).
Lastampa.it (2013) Bauman: “With Francis the Church and humanity have a chance”. Available at: http://www.lastampa.it/2013/10/20/vaticaninsider/eng/the-vatican/bauman-with-francis-the-church-and-humanity-have-a-chance-B35QVC3XkygwcB5OjICJ4I/pagina.html (accessed 8 May 2017).
Lastampa.it (2017) Quella cultura del dialogo che ha unito Francesco e Bauman. Available at: http://www.lastampa.it/2017/01/09/vaticaninsider/ita/documenti/quella-cultura-del-dialogo-che-ha-unito-francesco-e-bauman-TlTB8S3LYfxppggugmafFK/pagina.html (accessed 14 May 2017).
News.va (2013) L’illusione di una felicità solubile. Available at: http://www.news.va/it/news/lillusione-di-una-felicita-solubile (accessed 8 May 2017).
Santalessandro.org (2017) Addio a Zygmunt Bauman, teorico della “società liquida”. «La gente oggi cerca una religione à la carte». Available at: http://www.santalessandro.org/2017/01/bauman-fede-liquida/ (accessed 8 May 2017).
Zeger Polhuijs is a student of philosophy and theology at Antonianum University in Rome. He previously studied Social and Cultural Anthropology in Amsterdam and Christianity & Society in Tilburg. He is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is engaged in care for the poor and the organization of interreligious peace encounters, in which both Zygmunt Bauman and Pope Francis have participated.
Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers may also be interested in:
TCS issue 27, 6 with special section on Zygmunt Bauman: http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/tcsa/27/6