Scott Lash remembers Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck (1944-2015). Wikimedia commons. Public domain.
Ulrich Beck (1944-2015). Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

I first encountered Ulrich Beck as a (superannuated) post-doc. I was a Humboldt Stipendiat in Berlin, in 1987, and heard at a Freie Universität driven colloquium, Helmut Berking give a paper on ‘Refexive Modernisierung’. I had already published a paper called ‘Postmodernity and Desire’ in the journal Theory and Society. And Beck’s reflexive modernization seemed to be an opening beyond the modern/postmodern impasse. In 2014 there is Foucault and now Deleuze and even ‘Lebenssoziologie’ in German intellectual life.  But in 1987 this kind of stuff was beyond the pale. Habermas and Enlightenment modernism ruled. And it should have ruled. It is largely down to Habermas that Germany now is a land based less on Blut-und-Boden than rooted in Verfassungspatriotismus. Beck’s foundational Risikogesellschaft however featured not the order of Habermas’s ‘ideal speech situation’ but was based on contingency and unintended consequences. But Beckian contingency was rooted in the Chernobyl disaster. So a contingency that was ‘poison’ was hardly to be celebrated. It was literally a poison or in German a ‘Gift’. Hence Beck’s subsequent book was entitled Gegengift or ‘Counter-poison’. It was subtitled Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit. Beck’s point was that institutions needed to be responsible for a politics of antidote in regard to the unintentional generation of environmental ‘bads’. This was a critique of systematic institutional irresponsibility or more literally ‘un-responsibility’ for ecological disaster. Habermas indeed was in attendance at Beck’s 60th birthday party in 2004. Habermas’s home was near Beck’s Bodensee abode, as he, some 15 years older, has outlived his junior colleague. Beck became more accepted and did move closer to Habermas over the years.  Yet themes of contingency and unintended consequences stayed central to Beck’s modernity and inspired a generation of scholars.

Beck’s influence has been compared by Joan Subirats in El Pais to that of Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennett.  Yet there is little in Bauman’s idea of liquidity to match the power of Beck’s reflexivity. Reflexivity was not just about Kant’s Aufklarung of ‘What can I know’?.  Reflexivity, though, indeed was based in a sociology of knowledge from Ulrich’s first book, in which the universal of the concept could never subsume the particular of the empirical and the data.  Yet this was still (in spite of ‘known’ and ‘unknown unknowns’) knowledge. It was not the impossibility of knowledge and inevitability of the irrational. It was contingent, yet it was and is knowledge. Reflexivity was just as much a question of Kantian ‘what should I do?’ and especially the ‘what can I hope?’. The above un-responsible institutions were still situated in what Beck referred to as ‘simple modernity’. They would need to deal with modernity’s ecological contingency in order to be reflexive. They would need to be aware of the unintended consequences, of what environmental economists and later the theory of cognitive capitalism would understand as ‘externalities’. Ulrich’s reflexivity as the ‘what can I hope’, his and today’s Prinzip Hoffnung extended to his later work on cosmopolitanism and Europe.  For him Europe is not an ordering of states, as atoms in which one is very much like the other. It is instead a collection of singularities. Hence his criticism of German Europe’s ‘Merkiavelli’-ism in treating Greece and the European South as if all were uniform Teutonic entities to come under the principle of ‘austerity’.

Though Beck has remained highly influential, Bruno Latour’s ‘actor-network’ theory has outstripped him in terms of popularity and in establishing a dominant paradigm among sociologists. Yet the instrumentalist assumptions of actor-network theory do not open up the ethical or the hope dimension of Beck’s work. Hartmut Rosa, one of the leaders of Germany’s 1960s-born generation of sociologists, has referred to today’s 1980s-born Latourians as a lost generation. Beck’s work has been a counter-poison, an antidote to the instrumentalism at the heart of today’s neo-liberal politics, in which our singularity has been eroded under the banner of a uniform and possessive individualism. The contingency at the heart of Beck’s work could never be a dominant paradigm.

reflexive modernization book

Richard’s Sennett’s 1974 Fall of Public Man was a great book. Sennett’s was in many ways an Arendtian and aesthetic rendition of Habermas’s public-sphere as described in the 1962-published Strukturwandel der Offentlichkeit. It was Beck’s ideas that clearly drove his, Giddens’s and my 1994-published Reflexive Modernization. Here I developed a notion of ‘aesthetic reflexivity’, in which we on the paradigm of Kant’s Third Critique have become radically subjective: in which subjectivity – escaping the universal of the cognitive categories – must find its own rules.  Though I am more a Foucault, Deleuze and perhaps Walter Benjamin guy, Beck’s ideas still today drive my own work. Thus we should extend Beckian reflexivity, to speak not just of individualization, but of reflexive community, whose necessity of risk-sharing must be at the heart of any contemporary politics of the commons.

The first word that Ulrich ever said to me on the phone after the initial above-mentioned 1987 Berlin colloquium was ‘reflexive Modernisierung’. I was offered the post to be as Ulrich’s Nachfolger at Bamberg University when he moved to Munich in 1992, but in the end decided to stay in the UK.  Ulrich always emailed and spoke to me in German. Although I’ve become to a certain extent a cultural theorist, Ulrich always treated me as a sociologist. And he was right. Habermas was not at Ulrich’s 70th on the Bodensee in April 2014. But all of cultural Munich was there: from newspaper editors to museum directors. I regretted not going to his 60th and made sure I was at his 70th. I think I was the only non-German that was also not associated with Ulrich’s European Research Council grant of the some fifty who were there for the two-day celebration. Every February, when he was based at the London School of Economics, Ulrich and his wife Elisabeth would spend a Sunday afternoon with Celia Lury and me of Kaffee und Kuchen, of deli cheeses and hams, at our house in Finsbury Park/Highbury. No more than a fortnight before his death Ulrich emailed me about February 2015. I replied sadly that I would be in Asia and for the first time would miss this annual Sunday eating and walking. At his 70th birthday Ulrich was in rude health. I was honestly planning forward towards my visit on his eightieth. Now neither the Islington Sundays nor the eightieth will happen. It is sad.


Scott Lash

Hong Kong

10 January 2015

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