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The Meaning Of Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman, author of the 'liquid modernity' concept (Screenshot from The Guardian)

One of the most useful concepts for understanding the world today is the late Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s brainchild “liquid modernity.” I used it in The Benedict Option, and continue to find that it is a really insightful way to frame the contemporary world.

The basics can be understood in Bauman’s 2012 book titled Liquid Modernity. I bought the Kindle version because it’s easier to use Kindle books for research. I highlighted these passages to share with you:

Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’. Being always, at any stage and at all times, ‘post-something’ is also an undetachable feature of modernity. As time flows on, ‘modernity’ changes its forms in the manner of the legendary Proteus … What was some time ago dubbed (erroneously) ‘post-modernity’, and what I’ve chosen to call, more to the point, ‘liquid modernity’, is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.

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The modern mind was after perfection – and the state of perfection it hoped to reach meant in the last account an end to strain and hard work, as all further change could only be a change for the worse. Early on, change was viewed as a preliminary and interim measure, which it was hoped would lead to an age of stability and tranquillity – and so also to comfort and leisure. It was seen as a necessity confined to the time of transition from the old, rusty, partly rotten, crumbling and fissiparous, and otherwise unreliable and altogether inferior structures, frames and arrangements, to their made-to-order and ultimate, because perfect, replacements – windproof, waterproof, and indeed history-proof …

Change was, so to speak, a movement towards the splendid vision on the horizon: the vision of an order, or (to recall Talcott Parsons’s crowning synthesis of modern pursuits) a ‘self-equilibrating system’, able to emerge victorious from every imaginable disturbance, stubbornly and irrevocably returning back to its settled state: an order resulting from a thorough and irrevocable ‘skewing of probabilities’ (maximizing the probability of some events, minimizing the likelihood of others). In the same way as accidents, contingencies, melting pots, ambiguity, ambivalence, fluidity and other banes and nightmares of order-builders, change was seen (and tackled) as a temporary irritant – and most certainly not undertaken for its own sake (it is the other way round nowadays: as Richard Sennett observed, perfectly viable organizations are now gutted just to prove their modernization then was a road with an a priori fixed, preordained finishing line; a movement destined to work itself out of a job.

It still took some time to discover or to decree that modernity without compulsive and obsessive modernization is no less an oxymoron than a wind that does not blow, or a river that does not flow …

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To put it bluntly, under conditions of ‘liquidity’ everything could happen yet nothing can be done with confidence and certainty. Uncertainty results, combining feelings of ignorance (meaning the impossibility of knowing what is going to happen), impotence (meaning the impossibility of stopping it from happening) and an elusive and diffuse, poorly specified and difficult to locate fear; fear without an anchor and desperately seeking one. Living under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be. On a globalized planet, that condition is universal – no one is exempt and no one is insured against its consequences. Locally caused explosions reverberate throughout the planet. Much needs to be done to find an exit from this situation, but remarrying power and politics, after the divorce, is undoubtedly a condition sine qua non of what one is inclined nowadays to think of as a ‘resolidification’.

I think he is quite wrong about the source of our problems being the separation of power from politics, though that is what you would expect a Marxist to say. Still, his description of the disorder of contemporary life is spot on. Is there any wonder that people today are so anxious? About a decade ago, I read a psychology paper — I can’t find it online now — in which researchers compared people who lived under conditions of oppression, but within stability, to those who lived without oppression, but in a highly unstable environment. It turned out that the people living in a more stable world were psychologically healthier than those living under instability — this, despite the fact of oppression. We humans want liberty, understood as freedom from outside control, but we actually thrive when that freedom is limited, and the society in which we live is more predictable.

This is not an argument for oppression, certainly. Too much oppression and too little liberty also deforms people. You don’t have to convince Americans of this fact. But you do have to convince many of us that too much liberty leads to instability, which leads to psychological suffering. And that suffering has consequences politically, socially, and otherwise.

Let me quote again Bauman:

…‘liquid modernity’, is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.

As I explain in The Benedict Option, the current crisis of Christianity in the West is not something you can blame on “the Sixties” — though events in that decade certainly accelerated it — or on any other specific event. It goes back to the origins of modernity itself. The Reformation is the signal event, as I explain, but the Reformation didn’t come from nowhere. It became psychologically possible to break the unity of the Church in the 16th century because of theological and social changes that began in the 14th century. As the literary critic Erich Auerbach has written in his great book Dante: Poet Of The Secular World, only forty years separated Dante and Petrarch, but in that time, the Western world began to turn its back on Scholasticism and toward Humanism, with its celebration of the individual, and his power to dominate the material world. Auerbach says humanism arose from Christianity, and ultimately defeated it.

Gender ideology is the ultimate expression of liquid modernity. It teaches that not even the human body is a stable construct, that it too can be brought under the control of human will. Read this story from earlier this year in the NYT Magazine about teenagers rejecting the gender binary — they are genderfluid (!) — and try to convince yourself that this is anything other than madness. Here’s a quote:

For anyone interested in nonbinary demographics, the surveys had another shortcoming. They excluded anyone under age 18, and according to clinicians who specialize in gender, it’s among the young that nonbinary identity is taking hold most rapidly. “It’s growing exponentially,” Linda Hawkins, co-director of the Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me about the number of kids and youth in her practice — from ages 6 to 21 — who identify as nonbinary. Hawkins, who was a clinical professor of Tate’s, has been working in the field for two decades. She talked about the importance, for young children, of recent picture books about fluidity, and of education programs for pediatricians, who are taught to respond with calm understanding when parents report that their children say they are “in the middle.” At least, she added with a rueful laugh, pediatricians are taught this in places like Philadelphia. For older kids, the internet has delivered “a surge of nonbinary information, of nuances in gender expression, in the last five years,” she said. “It has connected kids to supportive communities. Looking back, there were always nonbinary kids, but it’s only in the last few years that there has been the language — language to not feel alone, to have a flag.”

The culture of liquid modernity is catechizing young people into this. I have no doubt at all that many children and adolescents struggle to some degree with their masculinity or femininity. What has changed is that we have abandoned the customs that enable these young people to navigate the fraught pathways to growing into one’s sexual personhood, and left them to be preyed on by those who would disintegrate the human personality for the sake of ideological victory. Like this person:

Among the voices of the young, there are echoes and amplifications of Jacobs’s optimism, along with the stories of private struggle. “There are as many genders as there are people,” Emmy Johnson, a nonbinary employee at Jan Tate’s clinic, told me with earnest authority. Johnson was about to sign up for a new dating app that caters to the genderqueer. “Sex is different as a nonbinary person,” they said. “You’re free of gender roles, and the farther you can get from those scripts, the better sex is going to be.” Their tone was more triumphal: the better life is going to be. “The gender boxes are exploding,” they declared.

It’s going to be Paradise, if only you get rid of those “scripts.” Said the serpent.

Here’s something from the Times — which is the Pravda of the gender revolution — this past July:

For Jacob “Jayne” Gervich, an assistant film editor from South Slope, Brooklyn — who uses the pronouns they, them, and theirs — identity felt like an elusive concept. Gervich, who was assigned male at birth, went from small-town Midwest boy to a self-proclaimed nonbinary trans-femme film editor and homemaking spouse. And one description they hope to attain in the future: a loving parent.

“My wife and I are trying to start a family in the next few years, and we’re trying to do it the old-fashioned way,” said Gervich, whose wife, Allison, was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman. The two have been together for about a decade and were married two years ago at a farm in Hillsdale, N.Y.

“My wife would be ‘Mom,’” they said. “And I think what we settled on is that our child would call me ‘Baba.’”

Again: insanity. The important thing to understand is that this is a phenomenon of liquid modernity and therefore makes sense in this cultural context. If Bauman is correct that the modern condition is now one of constant change, with the total denial of fixed categories, then the Gerviches and all the rest really are representative of our time. They are normal. They are what you would expect in liquid modernity. You might regard all this as beyond weird, but you should understand that your children are growing up in a culture that is encouraging people to apply liquid modernity to their own bodies and psyches.

The fight is not simply with those advocating gender ideology. It’s with the spirit of the Age. It is a spirit that permeates everything. It certainly permeates religion. Classic modernity, in its most orthodox Enlightenment form, denied the existence of God. Postmodernity — liquid modernity — says it doesn’t matter whether or not God exists; if we choose for God to exist now, then God exists in whatever form seems desirable to us, until it no longer does, then we can change again. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the form religion takes in liquid modernity.

This week a friend texted me from a dinner in Washington to say he was overhearing people talking about the Benedict Option as “head for the hills.” He texted, “Did they even read your book?” No, probably not. I think this is a typical response, even though the book has been out for two and a half years. A related response: “Our kids need to be in public schools to be salt and light.” It’s well meaning, but completely blind to the reality that we Christians find ourselves in. The collapse of all standards around us is not an aberration.

If anything, the Ben Op book ought to have been more “head for the hills” than it is. I may have been too optimistic about the ability of Christian families and communities to withstand liquid modernity. The core point, though, is that the power of liquid modernity is such that trying to face it with ordinary Christianity is like going out into a hurricane with an umbrella and expecting to stay dry.

I understand why many conservative Christians don’t want to deal with the claims I make in my book. If I’m right, then the comfortable strategies they’re living by won’t work, and offer false hope. If I’m right, then they will have to change in ways they don’t want to change — including letting go of the bland optimism that says everything is bound to work out fine. So it’s easier to paint The Benedict Option as a neo-Amish tract, so it can be dismissed.

If the floodwaters are coming, you don’t want to drown because the forecast was too upsetting to take seriously. Read Bauman’s book about liquid modernity to understand the essence of our cultural condition: that the flood is already here, and we’re drowning in it. Last week’s polling data news from the Pew center on the collapse of Christianity in America is more evidence. Bauman was neither a Christian nor a conservative. He was a Marxist. But he understood something central to what it means to live in our time. We who are Christians had better take him seriously.

Here is an eight-minute interview Bauman did with The Guardian before his death. Worth watching, even though he’s wrong about the source of our problems being the separation of power from politics. If he’s right about that, then communist China is the answer to our problems:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73Nmv-4jvSc]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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