Modernity, Solidity and Agency

Modernity, Solidity and Agency: Liquidity Reconsidered
Raymond L.M. Lee

University of Malaya, Malaysia
Sociology 45(4) 650–664 © The Author(s) 2011 Reprints and permission: sagepub. DOI: 10.1177/0038038511406582
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Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphor of liquid modernity addresses the juxtaposition of increased freedom and mobility with accelerated anxiety in an era of deregulated consumption. His proposal that this emergent condition represents a transition from solid to liquid modernity requires closer scrutiny. If solid modernity concerns new forms of engagement consequent to the breakup of old ones, does liquidity necessarily suggest a process of disembedding without any prospect for re- embedding? This question raises the need to address the plausibility of liquidity as an irreversible process. To treat changes in contemporary society as liquid radicalizes fluidity but it fails to provide recognition for the possibility of re-solidification. Data from some recent studies of race, class and religion suggest such a possibility and the need to re-evaluate the notion of liquidity.
agency, Bauman, liquidity, modernity, solidity
Liquid modernity is Zygmunt Bauman’s metaphor of aqueous angst. In several books (Bauman, 2000, 2001a, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007a), there is a distinct attempt on his part to identify contemporary society as pitching ambivalence and contingency to levels not seen before. Aside from describing a sensate culture of unprecedented excess, he is also arguing that we have transited from a more structured society to one where individuality dominates. The personal experiences of living in contemporary society under the impact of globalization may support, to a certain extent, Bauman’s wide-ranging observations of modern fluidity. But his abstract and inductive style has made him susceptible to the criticism that his body of arguments is closer to ‘sociology as art’ than it is to ‘sociology as science’ (Davis, 2008a: 1238).1 Yet his choice of methodology has not made his work any less attractive. For that reason, the depiction of his work as nebulous but influential (Turner, 2010: 2) makes it all the more necessary to ask whether his paradigm of a world swimming in its own excesses holds water.
Corresponding author:
Raymond L.M. Lee, University of Malaya, Pantai Valley, Kuala Lumpur 50603, Malaysia. Email:
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To what extent is liquid modernity an effective metaphor for describing contemporary society? Some of Bauman’s interpreters would want to locate his use of the metaphor within the corpus of his prodigious writings. They may only consider liquid modernity as relevant to the various themes that define his oeuvre. It means that liquid modernity has to be read in conjunction with his treatment of globalization, individualization, mar- ginalization, poverty and consumerism. There are now many works dealing with his oeuvre (Beilharz, 2000; Blackshaw, 2005; Davis, 2008b; Elliott, 2007; Jacobsen and Poder, 2008; Smith, 1999; Tester, 2004) which attempt to bring together these themes in relation to his theoretical phases and specific concerns. It is not my intention to ponder these works or attempt a reassessment of his oeuvre. Rather, my concern focuses on his argument that solid modernity has given way to a liquid phase. Principally, Bauman has summarized his observations of contemporary society as ‘the era of disembedding with- out re-embedding’ (Bauman and Tester, 2001: 89). This is clearly a statement that emphasizes the irreversibility of liquidity. Disembeddedness would imply a more focused concern with shifting relations than with ties that bind. To a certain extent, Bauman has identified new forms of alienation that are consistent with the effects of globalization and rampant consumerism. It would be difficult to dispute with him on this point but does this mean that there are no prospects for re-embedding? His emphasis on liquidity as an irreversible condition seems plausible when we consider borderlessness as having become a norm and itinerancy a feature of social life everywhere. Yet if we construe disembedding as occurring within a context of continuing impermanence, then the liquidity resulting from it cannot be seen as continuing indefinitely but be subjected as well to the ongoing flux. Ultimately, liquidity itself can be considered an impermanent process and therefore its limits can be identified. What then are these limits and can they account for the possible re-solidification of social ties? Addressing this question would present a challenge to the view determined only by the parameters of liquidity.
My reservation is that the liquid metaphor may seduce us into thinking that the notion of solidity has become passĂ©. It may give us the impression that the progression from solid to liquid modernity is irreversible. I will attempt to demonstrate that Bauman’s use of this metaphor neglects the possibility of re-solidification across a wide spectrum of social and political conditions. To address this neglect, I first outline the thematic meanings of liquid- ity and argue that they form a basis for supporting a particular trajectory of modernity. This trajectory denies the reappearance of solidity because it reaffirms the Marxian notion of melting solids and diminishes the scope of agency in the study of social change.
The Travails of Liquidity
One way of elucidating Bauman’s approach to liquidity is to look at some of his works that do not deal explicitly with liquid modernity. For instance, in his account of globali- zation (Bauman, 1998a: 65), he portrays the world as being affected by the new porous nature of national economies that has resulted in the economic hegemony of global financial markets. These markets suggest an uninhibited flow of capital that sets out to ‘destroy systematically everything which could ... limit market liberty’ and eventually bring about worldwide re-stratification (Bauman, 1998a: 68, 70). The canvas on which this picture is painted is post-Orwellian in that it replaces naked totalitarianism with
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‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance’ as techniques of power (Bauman, 2000: 11). At the same time, these techniques are based on free-flowing capital that is reproducing class divisions and coinciding with the popularly negative view of globalization as the source of new forms of exploitation. Bauman (1998b, 2004) describes the victims of globalization in terms of the new poor and wasted lives. From this depiction of the world as sunken in relational slipperiness comes the melancholic view of community fragmen- tation. The systematic destruction wrought by market liberty is seen not to have spared the once robust bonds of community (Bauman, 2001b: 47).
These views of globalization and community inform the theme of eroding social bonds. Once taken as givens, these bonds are now construed as having been wrenched apart by forces antithetical to the symbols of belonging. The breakdown of these symbols is seen to constitute the very nature of a liquid world swirling in mobile capital, atomized rela- tionships and individualistic expectations. There is, of course, an underlying suggestion of cultural decline but Bauman refrains from putting it as such. Instead he articulates the condition as liquid times (Bauman, 2007a). In a sense, this theme of declining social cohe- sion may be seen as postulating the transformation by liquefaction of social bonds passing from the pre-modern and early modern phases to the late modern phase. The current phase represents intensive liquefaction where disembedding produces a corrosive individualism that thrives on fleeting relationships and in situations where ‘the rules of the game change in the middle of the game without warning or legible pattern’ (Bauman, 2001b: 48).
The disembedded, free-floating phase of modernity is principally addressed in Liquid Modernity (2000). In this phase, all brakes on individual freedom seem to have been released and the resulting condition is lightness, fluidity, choice and disengagement. But this freedom is contingent on the way global powers construe the means for expanding or maintaining their influence. These powers and their corporate offshoots are the sources of liquid modernity because they hold the trump cards in defining the scope of individual participation in the global economy. For Bauman (2000: 14), the individual’s sense of liquidity is shaped by the presence of these powers that are global in reach and bent on dismantling any tight network of social bonds. In particular, he extrapolated the collapse of economic and political barriers after the Cold War to the dissolution of symbolic com- munity boundaries. The post-Cold War era provided a milieu for vast economic growth as well as the release of hedonistic forces. These forces form the basis of a rapidly expanding consumer culture that appears to be elevating the spending individual above the shared emotional bonds of community members. Just as the militarized Arpanet became the mul- tipurpose Internet after the end of the Cold War, so fun-filled theme parks and shopping malls replaced missile silos. This is the context in which individuality has become its own raison d’ĂȘtre. Without physical and symbolic walls signalling a state of siege, everyone is free to choose and become whom he or she wants to be. In Bauman’s (2000: 62) words:
Everything, so to speak, is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best – that is, to the greatest conceivable satisfaction.
The theme of freedom is therefore premised on the view that increasing sources of social stimulation exist for personal satisfaction. Only in a world of expanding opportunities
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can this view be supported. This is precisely what Bauman (2000: 62) means when he describes such a world as offering exhilarating experiences: ‘In such a world, little is predetermined, even less irrevocable ... For the possibilities to remain infinite, none may be allowed to petrify into everlasting reality.’ It is in this unendingly fluid world that the individual is transformed into a consummate consumer. Blackshaw (2005: 120) summa- rizes Bauman’s understanding of this world to imply that ‘private consumption replaces work as the backbone of the reward system in a sociality which is underpatterned rather than patterned, disorganized rather than ordered’. Consequently, social class divisions come to suggest a relationship between those who possess the means to consume and those who do not but aspire to be unrestrained consumers. The nodal activity in consump- tion is shopping and it affects the way people perceive and organize their identities. Hence, Bauman (2000: 84) proposes that identity ‘can be carved only in the substance everyone buys and can get hold of only through shopping’. The thinking subject in the Cartesian Cogito becomes subverted by shopping: ‘I shop therefore I am’ (Bauman, 2007b: 17). In shopping, people become beholden to the rapid turnover of commodities. As Bauman (2000: 89) puts it, ‘They may as easily discard the possessions which they no longer want as they could obtain those which they once desired. They are insured against rapid ageing and the in-built obsolescence of desires and their transient satisfactions.’
In liquid modernity, needs are regarded as too cumbersome for the expression of per- sonal identity. Thus desires come to exert a more forceful presence as the vehicle of self- meaning. But Bauman (2000: 75–6) argues that desire has now outlived its usefulness because ‘having brought consumer addiction to its present state, it can no more set the pace’. Instead, the wish has become more powerful as it has the capacity to completely purge the reality principle in favour of the pleasure principle. Wishes bring to ultimate fruition what desires merely stimulate in one’s imagination. Hence, in the liquid world of consumption the wish offers immediate gratification, unlike the world of production where delayed gratification underlay the durability of the work effort (Bauman, 2000: 159). The society of the wish, therefore, makes it imperative that shopping is never ter- minated through its cycles of advertising, promotional sales and planned glitter. As such, the attainment of happiness must be preceded by the presence of wishes that seek fulfil- ment in consumption, ultimately becoming the ingrained drive for realizing the ‘art of life’ that promotes chameleon selves (Bauman, 2008). Such selves work well in casual relationships and in aesthetic communities where social bonds are described as superfi- cial, perfunctory and transient (Bauman, 2001b: 71).
These three themes concerning fragility of bonds, individualistic freedom and wish fulfilment constitute the basis for Bauman to propose that the convergence of consump- tion and self-identity has not necessarily increased existential security. In Bauman’s (2000: 160) view, ‘precariousness, instability, vulnerability is the most widespread (as well as the most painfully felt) feature of contemporary life conditions’. He lists the insecurity of livelihood, the uncertainty of one’s future and the lack of safety of one’s body and self as not only enhancing the sense of wanting immediate gratification, but also chronically overloading personal worries to the extent of veiling the sources of anxi- ety (Bauman, 2000: 181). In other words, liquid modernity creates paradoxical condi- tions that simultaneously support the illusion of freedom and a frantic psychology. Nowhere is this paradox more evident than in the freedom to pursue the ideal of fitness. As Bauman (2000: 78) notes:
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The pursuit of fitness is a chase after a quarry which one cannot describe until it is reached; however, one has no means to decide that the quarry has indeed been reached, but every reason to suspect that it has not. Life organized around the pursuit of fitness promises a lot of victorious skirmishes, but never the final triumph.
Hence, Bauman conceives of liquid freedom as an illusory condition with no resolution and his critique leaves little or no room for the proposal of panaceas (Davis, 2008b: 167–8).
With these three themes, Bauman is able to present liquid modernity as self-fluidity in a world of excess without ultimate satisfaction. He wants to show the vice in which deni- zens of this world are caught, as they oscillate between delirium and desperation. Such a world is distinctly reminiscent of American cultural life in the 1970s described by Lasch (1979) as narcissistic.2 This culture upheld consumption as a palliative and at the same time produced new forms of personal insecurity and anxiety. Lasch viewed this culture as a way of life that was dying but nevertheless carried the logic of individualism to its extreme. On the other hand, Bauman’s writings do not seem to convey this sense of clo- sure because he is suggesting that, in the new millennium, Britain, alongside other west- ern countries, has become an ‘empire of colony consumers’ (Blackshaw, 2005: 113). By portraying liquid life as endemic to British and other western societies, he is implying that such fluid conditions may have no expiry date and may even diffuse to other parts of the world. Yet, if contemporary Britain is to be regarded as the principal model to which liquid modernity has direct correspondence, does that necessarily suggest that British society constitutes the central framework for understanding the cultural dynamics of consumption and confusion in other countries around the world? The answer to this question would have to begin with an inquiry into the universal applicability of the three themes underlying liquid modernity. That is to say, unless these themes are taken to be equally relevant to the transformation of many societies around the world, they will only be considered specific to Britain3 and some western countries. This limitation would mean that the idea of modernity becoming liquid might not have wide-ranging applica- tion because the sense of solidity in many modernizing societies has not yet been shown to be on the decline. Bauman’s writings do not take this question into account. Rather, his thematic concerns appear to be taken as representing worldwide changes that are argua- bly pushing modernity into a liquid phase. They are used implicitly to support a model of change that treats liquidity as a later stage of modernity. To ask if such a model is plausible requires that we first examine Bauman’s comparison of solid and liquid moder- nity and then review the possibility of re-solidification under the condition of liquidity.
Whither Solidity?
By imagining that modernity has become liquid, Bauman presumes an earlier phase characterized by solidity. For him, solid modernity represents an era of mutual engage- ment whereas its liquid phase is simply ‘the epoch of disengagement’ (Bauman, 2000: 120). He presents this contrast as a way of showing significant transformations in polity, economy and morality. It is also a way of implying a linear epistemology that addresses social change serially, unlike his earlier allusion to ambivalence (Bauman, 1991), to sug- gest liquid modernity as replacing solid modernity. To trace the outline of this argument,
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we need to refer to the meaning of solid modernity as it appears in his earlier study of the Holocaust. In that work, Bauman (1989: 106) identified bureaucracy as ‘intrinsically capable of genocidal action’, thus addressing the state structures responsible for generat- ing suffering as a way of understanding the solid face of mutual engagement in genocide. Identifying modern bureaucracy as an instrument of mass genocide underpinned his metaphor of the ‘gardening state’ as a rational order bent on weeding out unwanted ele- ments in the body politic (Bauman, 1989: 70, 92). It foreshadowed post-Cold War attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a demonstration of state power in solidifying territorial and symbolic boundaries. Rationalization of state power went hand in hand with heavy industrialization where ‘capital was as much fixed to the ground as were the labourers it engaged’ (Bauman, 2000: 58). The economy was seen as solid because its bulkiness and impenetrability made it a bastion of immobile capital and labour. Within this bastion, morality became a function of proximity where distancing made possible the social sepa- ration that preceded the act of genocide. Citing Levinas on morality as inter-subjective responsibility, Bauman (1989: 183) clarified the quest for ‘a duty towards the other’ as a challenge to the solidity of modern structures that normalized genocide.
However, he later began to argue that modernity could only present a solid front but could not deal effectively with its concomitant uncertainties. Modernity was seen as producing the conditions of its own unravelling through disruptions of perceived orderli- ness. This lack of orderliness or the ‘messiness’ of the life-world culminated in an ‘incon- clusive drive towards rational order free from contingency’ (Bauman, 1993: 211). Here the theoretical stage was set to puncture the inflated model of a solid modernity ensconced within the hubris of enlightenment and progress. First to go was the idea of the nation- state as an unassailable feature of the political landscape. Bauman (2000: 185) came to see the polity as mainly an arrangement of convenience between nation and state rather than a consecrated pact between the two. As for state politics, it was merely a show of territorial sovereignty defined by the terms of the new global powers. Against the back- drop of these new powers, the mutual engagement between capital and labour was seen to be over (Bauman, 2000: 58). Now software capitalism and peripatetic labour rede- fined the economic landscape. In the field of morality, responsibility was fully invested in the individual rather than attributed to being with the other (Bauman, 2000: 29–30). For liquid moderns, individualization was not only an achievement of the right to be dif- ferent but also an emphasis on self-performance to meet daily challenges. Consequently, the impression gained from this perspective is that now people live in a liquid world devoid of solid structures. In this world, liquid processes govern all lives and constitute a totalistic condition of inundating fluidity that has given rise to the Unsicherheit of the present era. The perception of this condition as intractably shallow resonates with the themes of fragility, individuality and craving outlined above. By reiterating these themes in almost all his recent works, Bauman seeks to define a new phase of modernity that denotes disengagement as the key to all social accomplishments.
Bauman’s view of this transition to liquid modernity may be construed as his attempt to affirm the Marxian vision of melting solids as inevitable and irreversible. It is no coin- cidence that his writings on liquidity mirror Marx’s prognosis of modernity. Where Marx had imagined ‘everlasting uncertainty and agitation’, which Berman (1983: 94–5) interpreted as an unqualified bourgeois demand for permanent change, Bauman (2000: 119–20)
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portrays this uncertainty as instantaneity that keeps today’s bourgeoisie on the move. But his trajectory is construed as an empowerment of the bourgeoisie who as ‘tree-jumping barons’ continue to lord it over the ‘ground-plodding serfs’. Unlike Marx’s anticipated Armageddon between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, Bauman treats his liquid world as filled by a bourgeoisie obsessed with alacrity and novelty.4 What has happened then to today’s proletariat?
On the one hand, Bauman’s recent work seems to underplay the solidity of class divi- sions and conflicts because of his refocused attention on light capital and disembodied labour. Gane (2001) and Atkinson (2008) have already criticized this neglect by noting that a perspective premised on global mobility and labour outsourcing actually reflects new forms of engagement that contribute to the consolidation of class differences. In attempting to portray a post-class world as liquid, Bauman inadvertently re-introduced the need to specify the possession of privileges in terms of the restructured positions of power. Liquid freedom may only suggest the privileges concomitant with the new-found wealth of the extraterritorial elites and their associates. The expression and consequences of this freedom may be regarded as peculiar to this class and any analysis of its prevailing powers and culture must be framed within the context of new class differences in globali- zation. On the other hand, Bauman’s recent work may be considered a critique of the lifestyles of the affluent classes. Who else can afford to extract meaning from the sensu- ality of flitting, shopping and touring but well-placed people whose outlook on life is not immediately affected by the urges of daily survival? If these lifestyles were regarded as a feature of liquid sociality, then it would be inappropriate to generalize the insecurity conditioned by their transitory ethos to other classes as well. Members of the less privi- leged classes may indeed feel insecure about their future but are they likely to frame it within the concerns of their affluent counterparts? This difference in speaking about insecurity does not imply that the poor and the exploited are unaffected by liquid social- ity. However, their presence suggests that ultimately any consideration of liquidity can- not dispense with the solid structures signifying inequalities of privileges as illustrated by Bonacich et al. (2008) in their investigation of racialized labour.
Their study concerned the exploitation of labour markets peopled by members of sub- ordinate racialized groups. These markets relied principally on young docile women of colour who typically received lower wages than their white western counterparts. What has made these markets attractive to employers was the disenfranchised status of racial- ized workers who crossed borders illegally or lacked proper protection in workplaces. The growth of these markets has not only shed new light on racialized labour systems but also addressed the need to situate these systems in a liquid world of rapid labour turnover. In other words, the liquid conditions generated by and for mobile capital had come to represent new ways of disembedding workers from their communities in order for them to participate in the emerging regimes of flexible servitude. In these regimes, liquidity was not just a metaphor for dealing with uncertainty and ephemerality but also a direct assault on workers’ self-identities, as in the case of outsourced Indian workers who had to construct fake biographies while working for American companies (Bonacich et al., 2008: 350–1). In the absence of policies or laws that uphold workers’ rights, liquidity could be seen as providing a screen of flexible employability to mask racialized hierar- chies. Indeed, the data from their study could be taken as supporting some of Bauman’s
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observations. However, their study also suggests emergent lines of re-solidification prompted by reactions to the exploitation of race and class, such as ongoing organization of solidarity campaigns. Here the conjunction of race and class provides an alternative parameter for reconsidering the possibility of re-embedding in the context of liquid capi- tal and labour. It would seem that disembedded workers might lead liquid lives but their survival could not be guaranteed without some form of re-embedding.5
The possibility of re-embedding in liquidity suggests that melting solids may re-solid- ify when structural reconfigurations occasioned by liquidity itself present new problems and challenges. Aside from the challenges faced by exploited racialized workers, the new role of religion in consolidating social ties and identity under liquid conditions has not been adequately researched. Bauman’s recent work hardly dwells on this particular issue. On the other hand, the study by Levitt (2007) on immigration and religion in the United States provides an example illustrating the solidity of religious structures in liquid social settings. In her interviews with 250 immigrants, she demonstrated that their transnational lives affirmed their original faith as well as their commitment to the USA. Even as they settled into a new home, the Hindu, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant migrants continued to maintain ties with their respective religious communities in their countries of origin. These migrants became transnational in managing working lives in the USA while remaining in touch with religious organizations back home. Connections to these organi- zations came to provide opportunities for setting up new religious venues in the USA. Without explicitly using Bauman’s terms, Levitt showed that it was not possible to understand the liquid lives of immigrants without embedding them in the solidity of religious structures. Yet it was also plausible to conceive these structures as being ame- nable to the liquefying influences that accompanied the experiences of transnational liv- ing. What she had demonstrated was that religious parameters provided an important measure of migrants’ adjustment to their new environment. These parameters might be considered critical for the alleviation of any sense of insecurity arising from the liquidity of transnational mobility. Maintenance of religious ties to the home country as well as participation in religious networks in the new environment suggest that the solidity of religious structures cannot be dismissed as having been dissolved by the liquid flows of migration. On the contrary, Levitt’s study demonstrates the necessity of locating liquid processes, such as the reorganizing and building of global religious networks, within the solidity of religious structures and differences in the world.
These two studies indicate that it is misleading to treat liquidity as if it were an inde- pendent variable. Results from these studies imply that the world is not unequivocally awash in liquid love or fear but bent on recalibrating the movement of people, goods and capital to the solidity of capitalist, racial and religious structures. They suggest that the liquid lives of itinerant people alone cannot account for the operations of these struc- tures. To understand these lives, it is necessary to pose specific questions that elucidate the intricate relationship between liquidity and solidity in a world that appears borderless but is still highly structured. However, it would not be judicious to argue that Bauman’s consistent addressing of liquidity represents a blanket denial of solidity since some of his recent writings attempt to deal with new forms of social differentiation (Bauman, 2004) or with the re-commoditization of capital and labour (Bauman, 2007b: 8–10). These attempts represent his effort to critique contemporary society, which under liquid
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modernity is purportedly leading to ‘unbearable human suffering and injustice’ (Abrahamson, 2004: 177). In a sense, Bauman may be implying that it is not the solidity of state structures that has been liquefied but the relationship between these structures and the general population. That is to say, the solid nature of the state and its policies reflect the power structures within pre-existing sociopolitical setups that are reproduced through ongoing actions, deliberations and struggles. These power structures are consid- ered solid to the extent that they can remain in place and reinvent themselves in terms of organization and function. What appear to be liquefied are the changes within these structures that can impact on policies leading to new forms of suffering. However, the danger in emphasizing these liquid processes is that it tends to attribute to suffering a life of its own that appears to be non-structural.
Hence, the solidity of suffering requires continuing emphasis because without it the watery canvas on which Bauman has painted a picture of impermanence could come to obscure an understanding of the very structures that have increased the present levels of fluidity and anxiety. It is not the triumph of liquidity that needs to be addressed but the persistence of state and corporate structures as well as workers’ organizations that dem- onstrate the capacity for re-solidification. In speaking of re-solidification, I am arguing that liquidity is not irreversible because there is no strong empirical reason to suggest disembedding as a one-way process. The studies conducted by Bonacich and Levitt have shown itinerant workers who organized themselves to resist exploitation and immigrants who used pre-existing religious networks to re-anchor themselves in new environments as specific instances of re-embedding that could lead to new forms of bonding not found in ‘cloakroom communities’ (Bauman, 2000: 199). Exploited workers and immigrants may find it necessary to deepen their ties to pre-existing or new networks in order to ensure their survival in liquid conditions. Although disembedded from their original communities, they found ways to re-embed their lives in new organizations and networks that provided both the pragmatic and the symbolic means for re-engaging with the world.
Similarly, the argument on disembedding has yet to provide empirical demonstration on the refusal of state and corporate power in the means and ends of re-solidification. If such a refusal were a social reality, then Bauman’s paradigm would indeed become a powerful vision of the possible dissolution of state and corporate power. But such is not the case. Re-solidification at the state and corporate level occurs regularly to ensure political cohesion. Recent studies of elites and political change in the United States attest to re-solidification as a function of power maintenance. For instance, Domhoff (2009) showed that the connections between the upper class and the corporate sector have not been eroded by challenges arising from various liberal and labour movements. Instead, these connections have become re-embedded in corporate-financed non-profit organiza- tions that served to mediate conflict with their opponents and to maintain the current class structure. The implications of his study are clear: there is no evidence of disembed- ding in the upper strata of American society but of re-embedding in the form of non- profit organizations that perform multiple functions in maintaining the status quo. If there are indications of disembedding in American politics, they are likely to be illusory as suggested by Harris and Davidson (2009) in their study of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. They identified members of the new ruling bloc as old cor- porate liberals and former neoliberals who differed in ideology and policy from their
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neoconservative predecessors but sustained the neoliberalism of the previous administra- tion. Re-solidification of the neoliberal apparatus has occurred under a wave of demand for administrative changes.
Taken together, these studies of labour, migration, religious affiliation and power elites reaffirm the meaning of solidity in a world imagined as being immersed in liquid relations. Here, the limits of liquid modernity become apparent because these studies demonstrate the solid parameters that differentiate between exploiters and the exploited, migrants and indigenes, rulers and the ruled, and their interdependency as defined by opposing interests. The actions shaping the realization of these interests cannot be aque- ous if they are to be successful. Liquidity may only provide an impression of multiplicity and negotiability but mutual engagement in these cases depends on the solid terms of positional differences. Does this imply that the liquid metaphor cannot be considered a useful device for understanding the persistence of opposing interests as well as the proc- esses of re-solidification? Exploring this question brings into view the role of agency in setting the terms of opposing interests and the prospects for re-solidification. Agency generally refers to the motivations and intentional actions of social actors and constitutes a central issue in the current discourse on modernity. Comparing Bauman’s view on this issue with the positions taken by other theorists may provide some insight into his silence on re-solidification.
Modernity, Agency and Contingency
In his earlier writings on postmodernity, Bauman (1992: 138,187–8) took contingency to be an inalienable condition of modernity that paradoxically came to nullify or reverse all efforts to solidify structures. It was treated as something to be struggled against in the attempt to impose order but postmodern awareness increased the likelihood of its impact to undermine the forging of firm identities. In line with this thinking, Bauman (1992:193) came to conclude that ‘[f]or every agency, the habitat in which its action is inscribed ... appears as a space of chaos and chronic indeterminacy’. For him, agency was not just a question of the social actor’s purposive behaviour but its lack of guarantee in the deter- mination of identity. Ultimately, the motif of contingency supplanted all notions of root- edness so that there was no chance for agency to be seen as a cumulative or stabilizing process. Even though Bauman no longer writes about postmodernity, his scepticism of agency as driving structure remains evident in his representation of fragmentation, anxi- ety and disengagement in liquid society.
In place of agency, Bauman (2000: 31–2) now writes about individualization as an inherent feature of liquid society where self-performance rather than a given identity comes to constitute a person’s autonomy. Consequently, social responsibilities become privatized or unshackled from their traditional meanings to the extent that diminishing commitment places ethics under siege (Bauman, 2001a: 186). Individualized responsi- bilities suggest that the individuals of liquid modernity are less embedded and more mobile than their counterparts in solid modernity. Whereas the latter turned to various ways to re-solidify after being disembedded, the former have no means to re-embed in a world of shifting relations and definitions (Bauman, 2000: 33). In this world of intensive deregulation and consumption, individualization accentuates a process that turns sub- jects into rudderless agents with no solid structures for lasting reference.
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Bauman’s approach to agency differs from the positions taken by other contemporary theorists of modernity such as Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and Shmuel Eisenstadt. Giddens (1991: 176) drew attention to the self-monitoring activities of human subjects to restore the notion of intentionality in abstract systems. By reclaiming the meaning of agency in social action, Giddens (1990: 39) was able to proclaim that modernity was constituted in and through reflexively applied knowledge. In this sense, modernity was not just considered an era but a condition of consciousness that developed out of self- critical thoughts and actions. For Beck and his associates (2003, 2005), the growth of this consciousness has paved the way for rethinking modernity as radicalizing itself by trans- forming the very principles of society. In their view, this radicalization made possible the distinction between first and second modernity in which the foundations of the former were no longer considered a plausible reference for social action. More specifically, the ‘either/or’ principle for determining boundaries in first modernity has given way to a ‘both/and’ strategy for innovative action in second modernity (Beck and Lau, 2005: 527). Beck’s idea of a second modernity not only allowed him to consider reflexivity as central to the reconstitution of society but also to pose scenarios of collapsing boundaries that required new skills involving flexibility and negotiability.
The perspective offered by Giddens and Beck attempted to reclaim the role of agency principally in European social change. However, it neglected the meanings of modernity in other parts of the world. In the wake of non-western, postcolonial efforts to address the meanings of modernity outside Europe, the idea of an agency-driven modernity became susceptible to the criticism that reflexivity might suggest a hegemonic extension of European thought. This criticism was levelled at the reflexive subject as exclusively European and western. Consequently, the idea of multiple modernities was advanced as part of a strategy to challenge the asymmetrical meaning of agency. Eisenstadt (2000, 2002) introduced this idea to suggest that multiplicity constituted the cultural programme of modernity. For him, it was implausible to imagine modernity as having developed from only one source. His suggestion has led to an alternative approach that called for the open- ness of modernity as the ‘many-sided processes at work in the current history of moder- nity’ (Kaya, 2004: 46). By this was meant that agency should not be treated as if it belonged only to the West but as various forms of intentional actions convergent with, as well as divergent from, each other. Openness could be regarded as a conceptual tool for decentring the western notion of agency and engaging with modernizing forces throughout the world.
Unlike postmodernism that assumed subjects to be illusory, the new approaches to modernity have reinstated subjects as the central agents of change. The key to change was conceived as reflexivity, a rubric for flexible rationality in a world of new risks and diffused uncertainty. For the reflexive modernists, confronting this world must first begin with the self-confrontation of western modernity. Multiple modernists, on the other hand, challenged this view by making plural the sources of modernity and in the process came to render modernity as a tapestry of cultural exchanges and innovations. Common to these two paradigms is the devaluation of the linear timeframe underlying the classical model of modernity as progressive societal differentiation. To argue for reflexivity or multiplicity as the basis of change implies a consideration for the recursive effects of flexible rationality and cultural plurality. If the processes of differentiation were treated as solidifying modernity over time, then the recursiveness of reflexivity and multiplicity
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would only serve to undermine temporal linearity by confronting, challenging and reversing preceding developments. In other words, reflexivity and multiplicity are alter- native means for the melting of solids. This melting can be conceived as similar to de- differentiation, which Tiryakian (1992: 90–1) explained as ‘a regressive process that has as its consequence the undoing of rationalization and differentiation’. This undoing requires the mobilization of actors that is consistent with the notion of agency central to a renewed understanding of change through reflexivity and multiplicity. At the same time, this regressive process also produces a picture of fluidity and uncertainty because it involves a de-differentiation of social roles and social space. Thus the centrality of the subject is tinged with the contingency of counter-processes. It is here that Bauman’s idea of liquid modernity resonates with the reflexive modernists’ concern on the plethora of choices and risks growing out of de-differentiation. Similarly, Bauman’s critique of solid foundations converges with the multiple modernists’ scepticism of the attributed bounda- ries between western and non-western modernities. Bauman shares the reflexive and multiple modernists’ concern on the need to decipher the counter-processes inherent to de-differentiation. But whereas Bauman treats liquidity as irreversible, the reflexive and multiple modernists consider the breakdown of the differentiated order as possibly lead- ing to new forms of solidity. Beck, for instance, finds it preferable to speak of this break- down as attempts at re-structuration (i.e. re-embedding). In his words, ‘The goal is to decipher the new rules of the social game even as they are coming into existence’ (Beck et al., 2003: 3). These new rules presumably constitute the means for re-solidifying frag- mented associations and communities. More specifically, Beck et al. (2003: 16) contend that reflexive modernity can be regarded as an innovative experiment for trying out new imagined communities. For the multiple modernists, cultural plurality dispels the notion of a foundation of modernity. Rather, it focuses on the varieties of modernizing agency in relation to civilizational contexts (Kaya, 2004: 53). Taken in this way, modernity as a western enterprise is not only de-differentiated from its non-western counterparts but also seen to represent a distinct civilizational form that competes with others. To assume civilizations as shapers of modernities implies that pre-existing structural or cultural pat- terns cannot be easily dislodged or melted away.
I do not wish to give the impression that this comparison places the reflexive and multiple modernists as the foremost theorists concerned with the innovative processes of re-embedding. Rather, it is meant to suggest that their approaches to modernity do not disregard the role of agency in all modernizing projects. Their re-conceptualization of modernity attempts to pose reflexivity and plurality as the conditions under which agency can make a difference to structure, thereby making it possible to re-imagine the role of the subject in political, economic and cultural reconstruction. Consequently, reflexive and multiple modernization may be understood as inter-subjective processes of change that do not rule out the possibility of reconstituted social and cultural bases.
On the other hand, Bauman’s approach to modernity depicts a liquid world drowning in consumerism and generating a false sense of freedom that conveys an impression of greater choice alongside declining security. In this world, solutions are hard to find since solid beds for re-anchoring social definitions have allegedly become unavailable and identities can be reconfigured without any reference to solid bases. By disposing of these beds, Bauman comes to present the notion of a world denuded of firm bases and to
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conclude that re-embedding is not a distinct possibility. Compared to the reflexive and multiple modernists, Bauman’s liquid metaphor appears to evade the implications per- taining to the possible empowerment of agency in re-structuring society.6 If individuali- zation has come to connote an unremitting narcissism, then agency might as well be considered otiose. Under the cover of contingency, social actors are once again relegated to the shadows of an irrational world. The postmodern roots of his metaphor enervate any attempt to restore solidity to this world. But unlike the postmodern celebration of this irrationality, liquidity delivers a sombre message of dim hope glossed over by deluded freedom and uncaring consumerism. Such a message can at best enjoin disdain for the cult of consumption but it cannot offer an effective analysis of opposing interests and re-solidification in contemporary society.
Within the context of the new approaches to modernity, Bauman’s portrayal of commu- nal breakdown, consumer mania and individualistic despair may come to be seen as a caricature rather than a nuanced description of complex social processes in late moder- nity. Whereas the reflexive and multiple modernists have revived the meaning of agency to confront a complex world of risks and cultural entanglements, Bauman defers agency to an individuality cast adrift in a sea of swirling goods and drowning in unfulfilled wishes with the expectation that the melted cannot re-solidify. Only by clinging to the motif of contingency can he justify this expectation. Yet the uncertainties encountered in new environments and power reconfigurations have a way of re-manifesting as patterned relationships. Data from various empirical studies suggest that re-embedding is possible in the midst of disembedding. By focusing on the possibility of re-solidification, these studies emphasize the need to address the role of agency in confronting the challenges posed by the processes of de-differentiation. Perhaps, this is what reflexive and multiple modernists hope to accomplish by introducing different ways of speaking about agency in order to construct new (and possibly non-linear) understandings of community and conflict in late modernity. On the contrary, Bauman’s liquid metaphor merely provides a poetic but partial sketch of desultory relations and despair without considering the likeli- hood of re-embedding as readily demonstrated by recent data from various research on race, class and religion. Only by confronting the implications of these data can Bauman break his silence on the question of re-solidification.
  1. 1  This is another way of saying that his empirical verification of liquidity could be considered less than rigorous. Bauman’s approach has been described as ‘poetic’ (Jacobsen and Marshman, 2008) and his methodology as dependent on ‘scraps of others’ research or anecdotes’ (Atkinson, 2008: 8). I am not concerned here with the robustness of his approach but his use of the liquid metaphor as only providing a partial description of social life in late modernity.
  2. 2  Lasch was voicing a critique of capitalist culture already made by other authors such as Fromm (1956), Marcuse (1964) and Bell (1976). Collectively, they were more concerned with the control effects of a post-industrial economy than with the dissolution of social bonding. Ulti- mately, the question of liquidity did not seem to be given priority since their focus was on the solid impact of technology, marketing and consumption in post-industrial society.
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  1. 3  Even in Britain, there may be resistance to liquid life as Best (2010) argues for the case of altruistic fundamentalism.
  2. 4  Brooks (2000) refers to this new class of bourgeoisie as Bobos or bourgeois bohemians whose worldviews are incongruously shaped by corporate and radical outlooks.
  3. 5  Re-embedding for survival may be construed as a form of strategic cohesion initiated by individuals who are economically, politically or culturally motivated. It can be treated as an instance of re-solidification but should not be taken as comparable to the metaphor of swarm (Bauman, 2002:7) that may only suggest a form of de-individuation often referred to by sociologists of collective behaviour.
  4. 6  Jay (2010) attributes Bauman’s particular sense of agency to his ‘Mercurian’ background.
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Raymond Lee has been researching the new theories of modernity and this work has appeared in Thesis Eleven (2005), European Journal of Social Theory (2006) and Social Science Information (2008). His current work focuses on re-enchantment (Journal of Contemporary Religion 2003, 2007; Social Compass 2008; Sociology 2008; Time & Society 2009, 2010). He previously taught at the University of Malaya.
Date submitted April 2010 Date accepted January 2011