<meta http-equiv=" content-type"=""> Baumanimmy
Notes on: Bauman, Z.  (1992) Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies.  Oxford: Polity Press

Dave Harris

There is a constant presence of death in normal social rituals.  Death is considered to be an absolute other, something unimaginable and therefore it often appears in metaphors.  Death is seen as the nothingness opposing active perceptions (2).  My death is not knowable because it is unimaginable without a me.  There is no consolation to be found in reason because we cannot unknow that we die.  Culture is produced by a desire for the suppression of this knowledge, it transcends and is permanent.  Anomic suicide arises when culture ceases to work.

Culture makes death meaningful, a route for survival and immortality.  Death raises and mocks the meaning of life but leaves this space for culture.  Mortality makes us create, and it appears everywhere [this is partly a denial of the sufficiency of the usual sociological studies of death].  What we need is some effort to excavate, to do a psychoanalysis of the collective unconscious, to see social institutions as the sediments of processes set in motion by the need to cope with mortality and repress the truth, to make it creative.  This is an example of how a biological fact can become a cultural artefact, a life strategy (9).  Life strategies promise a kind of immortality, but they can lead to conflict and stratification of their 'core content' (10): these represent core existential concerns, but they are also culturally specific and lead to social differences.

There are implications for attempts to define differences between modernity and post modernity.  In modernist societies, there is a tendency to deconstruct and familiarize the notion of mortality, while in post modern societies the same is done for immortality.   Life strategies are traceable from social configurations and they produce daily patterns in social life.  There is however a tendency to idealize: for that matter, the notions of modernity and post modernity are also idealizations.

Chapter one

We know that we know.  Knowledge is objectifiable, and it exists despite our will.  Death defies knowledge, it is unthinkable and therefore it threatens the power of thoughts.  It involves the humiliation of reason.  For this reason, death needs to be covered up by the irrational.  This sometimes takes the form of the disbelief in our own death.  This belief must have collective supports, because death produces social anxiety as well as social solutions.

We are aware that we are individuals in a system which predates us.  For Freud, death could be seen as a return to stasis.  There is a link between thanatos and eros in nature (22).  Culture operates within this boundary to resolve the 'pivotal absurdity of the human predicament' (23), but death remains as an essence, as one of the 'prime facts'.  We can analyze this both at the level of total culture and particular attitudes or practices [linked as is language and parole?].

For example there are some particular and expedient practices that: (a) exclude the dead, ghettoise them or hand them over to professionals; (b) deny the finality of death, by stressing the collective immortality of the species or being, seeing life is just a phase, understanding individual immortality through a social or economic framework; (c) offering various combinations of these approaches, for example when the Nazis combined a notion of volk with the worship of individual heroes, seeing death as a sacrifice—generally, collective ideologies like this are on the wane though; (d) pursue individualistic expressions of love, seeing individuals as repositories for some notion of a transcendental self.  The problem with the last one is that no one actual individual can represent the meaning of life like this, leading to an endless search for a true soulmate.  The actual soulmates are also clearly mortal and human as well.  Nevertheless we can find these traces in patterns of marriage, and sex also indicates the survival of the species even though individuals die [here and elsewhere there are some astonishing generalisations about the actual patterns of marriage or relationships, 29].  The focus on individuals offers a form of limited transcendence [the parallel is breaking records in athletics!]: the focus increases our capacity to live in the present, but they also zero in on the body.

Knowledge of death is the foundation of culture [sic] (31).  Our awareness of the ticking clock lends value to our precarious unique creations [a number of sources are cited including Borges' Labyrinths].  Our survival provides us with a constant game, necessarily involving others as well as self preservation—we need to outlive others, or kill be killed, expressed in various cultural guises.  This sense is sharpened by social settings and socially managed, as in the familial constraints on the struggle for autonomy in Oedipus.  The body is the final enemy and limit though, both as an object and as a means of carrying on the struggle.  There also some paradoxes such as survivor guilt, where I live but lose meaning if you die (37).  As with all other ambivalences, such guilt becomes the target of culture and a number of social differentiations—between us and them for example

We need to survive for others in our inner circle.  Levinas (41 F) argues that this 'being for' is the basis of all moral order, since it is always present.  It is the very basis of subjectivity which contains notions of ethics and responsibility.  It pre-exists the self.  It is pre-logical.  An ethical impulse is what grounds me [sounds like a philosophical version of 'hailing', 44].  Consciousness of the other develops later.  Objectification can break these bonds of responsibility, and we can lose the other and ourselves and become open to contingency again.  Once we question this relationship it begins to cool and lose its sacred force.  It is already lost or threatened by modern thought, but the impulse is still detectable at the heart of basic solidarity which spontaneously arises here and there: this is the real basis of society not a contract or the rule of law.

Modern societies see these primal obligations as oppressive (49) compared to free choice.  But what free choice now promises is meaninglessness and the void.  All relationships become provisional.  It all ends with the lonely self and an eventual lonely and unsharable death.

Chapter two

I see my death in the eyes of others and this means I need to project immortality at others.  This should produce a collective annulment of the individual's demise, and is the basis of funeral rites or collective remembrances.  Participating in these rituals guarantees that you will be remembered as well.  Rituals deny social death (52-53).

This collective and social dimension require social management.  Rituals display social inequality.  This has led some people to want to control their future memory, in cases where 'a structuration capacity…  extends beyond death' (54).  This requires the selective retrieval of the past, through stressing a lineage, for example, or by reinventing a past.

The processes are like the ability to define things as durable/transient/rubbish.  'Durable' conveys immortality, but also depends on the role of brokers, or institutions which grade performances.  Values are also important, especially eternal ones.  'Professional immortality brokers' (59) like scribes or intellectuals are required to attempt to bind future generations to these values. Their efforts turn on prolonging conversations beyond the death of individuals—discourse tames time. 

The case is like Plato claiming that his essences were timeless as opposed to mere opinions: philosophy generally then becomes a question of dealing with the immortal.  Obviously, only a few intellectuals and philosophers can do this and there is a struggle over the right to rule.  This helps explain the subsequent development of modern intellectuals.  But Plato originated the metanarrative which establishes all the other narratives (64) which are all devoted to the attempt to bind knowledge to immortality to power.  The ability to contemplate these matters is founded in earthly privilege and still depends on it.

Bourdieu makes this point in defining the high aesthetic in opposition to the popular, but there is concern for immortality as well.  Barthes has made the same point, that intellectual distinctions are never neutral, but rather express a value, always dealing with rules and exceptions (66).  Intellectuals gain their individuality at the expense of others, focus on essences at the expense of the impure, make a thought immortal rather than simply located in the present.  The same lies behind the denial of the mundane when discussing art, or the fear of objectification which will produce the new mundane.  There is also a constant tension present in works and traditions with the existing political order.  We can see in Adorno and Horkheimer a concern to avoid incorporation, at the expense of practical involvement: ideas would have to be compromised to survive in the present and therefore lose their immortality (70).  [Rancière detects the same interest in Marx's concerns to make Capital a work of art].

There is currently no way to be sure that thinkers have got the balance right.  The strategy of the avant-garde is to seek immortality by inverting the values of the present (73).  Agreement with the bourgeoisie is to be feared, even though the market triumphed in the end anyway.  Philosophical withdrawal from the world is a similar process, and this includes deconstruction and the eclipse of individual subjectivity so there can be no individual (im)mortality.  This is the 'postmodern nirvana' (77).

Are there no intellectuals any more like those who once nobly sought to leave behind the world in order to find the Absolute?  There is just no demand for them these days [!] The modern mind is too 'departmentalized' [a phrase of Adorno's in Minima Moralia], there is too much penetration of commercialism and of the notion of contract.  Escape looks like posturing.  Universal intellectuals are in decline and have been replaced with professionals and experts (80).  Localized expertise can survive only in local bureaucracies.  Some intellectuals still try to claim a general authority, for example by seeking notoriety, or the kind of immortality offered by screens or books.  This is recognized to be a temporary solution, but it helps assuage fear [and here the discussion turns towards themes of the origin of the spectacle, the market for instant ideas and retorts, rhetorical games and the role of the mass media—all of which affect intellectuals].

There are now even fashions in thought, offering a transient durability.  These are supported by an 'intensification of tribal - like allegiances' (85).  Rewards appear as fame or notoriety.  There is a role played by 'paid propagandists' or agents.  It is even possible to organize a fall or a disgrace as a publicity stunt.  However, everyone eventually slides into non existence.  Fame is a deconstructed [operationalized] immortality (87). 

Chapter three

Life is riddled with choices and uncertainties, and this can lead to a search for some master idea.  There are no natural guarantees for our wish to survive, leading to perpetual dissatisfaction, the chasing of happiness, the control of dissatisfaction, anger and futility.  We need social [and operationalized] goals and loyalties.  Once religion or philosophy played this role [Schopenhauer was particularly useful, Bauman thinks], but these have been undermined by restless modernity, and the questions about fundamentals have actually been prompted by social theorists (92).  As a result, meaning and identity are now to be accomplished, something profane rather than sacred, in the face of an 'avalanche of doubts' (93).  Even death now also involves pain and a descent into the ridiculous.

What was once unexpected is now normal, producing new levels of insecurity.  Life has become a game, contingent, and as a result, death has become terrifying and '"wild"'.  It was always feared as something random or illogical, something horrible lurking beneath the surface, or fate before which we were helpless.  But then death was unavoidable, accepted and well-known, unable to be manipulated and so it didn't really offer a [n existential] challenge [there were fewer signs of individualism in those days too].  With the rise of individualism, communal ties were seen as matters of error and constraint.

The state emerged as the new universal [with a massification thesis hinted at 99].  Rational action dominates, identities were to be administered through education and culture.  New forms of state power appeared through specialization and expertise, the 'dictatorship of the professoriate' (100).  Masses and elites resulted.  Durkheim was wrong to think that the new individualism would turn into a new form of solidarity.  The mass is now responsible for itself, urged to seek its own meanings, and this limits its possibilities to go for immortality.  We had to find a collective option in the idea that we belong to an immortal species [not very comforting?].

Foucault on Panopticon, Weber on legitimation, and Parsons on the central value system all help to establish the myth of society as having its own existence, with compliance to it as a functional necessity, for example in nationalism.  This can bind members, and the generation of conflicts always results in enemies and threats and therefore new forms of the sacred, such as 'the soil and the dead' (106).  This can provide a fixed point to be pursued by each individual, even a feeling of being chosen.  These are 'bonding affinities' rather than actual solidarities, however.  Nationalism is more active than the old ideas of race but is really 'a racism of the intellectuals.  Obversely, racism is the nationalism of the masses' (109).

Obviously, nationalism needs to be constructed and defended.  It has to have both sacred and profane elements.  Since it faces constant complexity, it must be a constant project.  In modernity it can take the form of a denial of the authority of the past, or a version of the future as unfulfilled emancipation.  This produces the idea of politics as a project of cancelling difference in the name of unity (111--12) but there are always new differences and divisions, new practices.  Constant vigilance is required, and the project is never actually fulfilled: indeed it is self defeating.  And yet it is needed, producing themes in popular education and socialization.  A monopoly of state power is required.  There are no 'unreflective self perpetuating communities of belonging' (115). 

National survival obviously takes place at the expense of the others.  National enemies are seen as enemies of universality, as when Aryans was seen as representatives of the universal.  There are obviously struggles over claims to universality, requiring rationalizations like theories of the untermensch, or in a more polite form, of underdevelopment.  Possessing a superior technology can be seen as representing superior values, something more universal.  Colonization or European globalization becomes the universalization of history.

We find the same processes operating on a smaller scale too, projects to rewrite history, denying voices—'claiming immortality in retrospect'(123).  Some [artistic or intellectual] individuals succeed in claiming universality despite their isolation in national systems, leading to the ' endemic mistrust of intellectuals' among national elites.  The masses can't follow this individual route, and are cemented into collective strategies: the appeal is to become a member of a mighty group if you can't be a mighty individual—hence the appeal of nationalism, common notions of self sacrifice, and the resentment of aliens (126).  Social groups can take on a life of their own, by reference to past sacrifices, for example, hence 'It is death that turns it into a symbol of the group's immortality' (127).  There are only group possibilities for most people, which only increases the modern fear of death as the absence of communion.  This permeates life itself and explains why, for example, war is  more meaningful than peace: death can be 'easier than life' (128).

Chapter four

Elias has developed an argument about civilization as involving an increased sense of shame, producing sanctions such as punishment or embarrassment.  Death is also a social exit, but it is a private and meaningless one.  It is the end of coping, something abnormal and certain.  It represents the failure of resourcefulness and therefore is a matter of shame.  Death is now deconstructed but it has not been abolished, just made meaningless (131), a matter of garbage or waste.

Modernity promised mastery over nature, a drive towards emancipation.  It was always arrogant and contradictory and death offered its first major scandal and eventually a final challenge.  Death appears as the last relic of unregulated fate.  In modernist societies there is shame and silence about it, or sometimes fantasies about it as in horror comics (134-5).  We feel inadequate in the face of it, leading to 'public callousness and private squeamishness' (136).  We refuse the spectacle of death, we hospitalize those who are polluting us by dying.  We console ourselves with analytic deconstruction, seeing death as something personally passive, or the result of something beyond our control that kills.  It involves personal guilt.  It is a sign of impotence.  We construct myths of contingency or avoidability of deaths, or promise ourselves to avoid death in the future.  We are constantly fighting against these contingencies producing a daily nightmare, as in the moral panics over cigarettes.  We look for technical solutions to metaphysical problems.  We live in a 'continuous present', worrying about our health, maintaining a constant vigilance and accepting our own responsibility for our death.

Yet even science and rationality cannot avoid death: as a result, we wrap it in magic and irrationality [maybe this is what medical science actually does for us].  As medical care is costly, it is stratified, as is the social treatment of death [Sudnow's study is cited,144].  We are disappointed at the failure to remedy this, and tend to think it was ever thus [similar anxieties were around in 1909, apparently, 147, seeing urban degeneration as responsible].  This coincides with the medicalization of our worries, specially when we compare medical practice to the 'savagery'of native peoples (149).  We see matters of health and death as metaphors for the body politic.  Our own degeneration, indicated through various floating signifiers, is increasingly pinned on others, or objectified, and we think this makes it subject to action.

We are able to rationalize death in various ways (152) as an attempt to restore rational action.  The attempt to rationalize death is the heart of rationalization more generally, as a 'sine qua non accompaniment of modernity' (154).  We attempt to exclusively categorize all threats to minimise our anxiety, leading to an interest in 'races', the growth of hygiene, with increasing hysteria at the realization of failure, moves to kill the diseased as a pro-life activity, various symbolic moral panics such as the outrage at boundary crossings, conspiracy theories, or notions of threats within.  These can take on cultural or tribal forms as in campaigns against immigrants.  They must always be accompanied by hysterical talk ups [plausible, but ruined by daft assertions such as 'It is the specifically modern project of deconstructing mortality which…  infuses modern society with its…  Genocidal drive that lurks just beneath the surface' (160)].

Chapter five

Modernity can be seen as a war against constraints, hoping that reason will triumph and problems solved, taking an instrumental stance to nature, as in Lyotard's metanarratives .  The future is seen as something perfect, and the present is to be sacrificed for the future.  Future bliss is decomposed in terms of particular gains.  The whole project is now 'liquidized' in Lyotard's terms, both dissolved and merged with only symbolic gains as in the achievements of science.  Perhaps the future has arrived and can be found in the hedonistic present?  We do have many more satisfactions available, but they are ephemeral—'Immortality is here—but not here to stay' (164).  The original modernist project meant things were connected at the collective and individual level, that all paths lead upwards (the 'connexity' principle, 165).

Now, postmodern nomads wander to unconnected places.  The self remains the task, as the moderns thought, but not as a project or a pilgrimage.  We only have momentary identities.  In this, we see a resemblance to the archaic world and Buddhism (168), especially in terms of notions of the continuous present—and postmodernists and Buddhists claim to be equally capable of comprehending the eternal as well.  As a results, the old anxieties about immortality are now redundant, or at least seen as a displaced project.  Nothing can be done forever, nor does it need to be done, knowledge will soon be redundant, the notion of a career will vanish, possessions will be an embarrassment, and lifelong partners will leave.

Now everyone can make history and be recorded.  There is a proliferation of histories, a broadening of chances and opportunities, perhaps too much of a broadening.  Democratization and trivialization go together [Bauman's example is the popularity of the quiz].  Opportunities are still managed by brokers though, advertising men or promoters.  They manage the balance between anonymity and prominence, the postmodern versions of mortality and immortality.

It easy to get attention and come to prominence, but impossible to stay there, producing the need for constant stream of mini targets.  No loss is seen as irretrievable.  Even death itself is only temporary, a transition.  Culture shows themes of constant abandonment, recycling, montage or repetition.  What is on offer is a commercial version of immortality for all, where quality yields to quantity.  Modern music shows this, it is deliberately synthesized rather than recorded [what?].  Repetition as the key to immortality.  Computerization and the denial of authorship has produced a new kind of value.  Reason is threatened, especially that reason which aims to separate the real from the non real, the object for misrepresentation, and to attempt to pierce the opacity of signifiers.  Signifiers now float, making distinctions and separations like these impossible.  Dissimulation is also impossible if there is no real.  Meaning is no longer a matter of something hidden at the core of things, and things only represent themselves.  There is no outside of the text [first argued in 1916 by Man Ray, 184]

The present can be seen as an 'open space time'.  Everything takes on the qualities of a drama or performance indifferent to reality.  Laws are replaced by rules and these can be chosen.  However, everyone must play, since there is nothing outside, no finality, and so no mortality, nothing that determines 'a soft pliable game'.  The consolation is that there might be 'no security, but no impotence either' (187).

So we can see postmodernism as another kind of life strategy.  It dissolves the future in the present, slices time into moments and familiarizes us with mortality, as a kind of inoculation (188).  We chase novelty in consumption, but things disappear before death.  Allegiances to things like place are denied.  Nothing is for life, and durability is seen as boredom, age as obsolescence (189).  There are no metanarratives and no consequences.  Immortality has become deconstructed.

Of course the strategy stratifies too, just like all the others.  Now the issue is the quality of the present life.  Identity is seen as a prison, or constraint, or a restless nomadic and anxious chase.  Everyone has the right to choose an identity, but this leaves only to new dependencies, on advertising or on other things that reassure us.  Of course, these agents cannot pose as authorities, but need to seduce us, be alluring, within our trust.  And this is fickle, because there are cycles of trust dependency and autonomy.  There are also desperate attempts to construct new collectivities, imagined communities which will lend significance.  Authority now stems from current notoriety, showing the importance of public opinion, but this makes it exist as a phantom not reality.  We need to expand the moment and this leads to an orgy of community chasing (199) of football matches or concerts.  The result of our deconstructing immortality is that we are unable to construct life as reality.


It is the ultimate irrationality to die for others, yet this has become constitutive of subjectivity, individuality and humanness (200), because it breaks the monotony of equality of citizenship, everything which 'is shared, copied, nonunique' (201).  The ethical self is the only complete human, and only this can mitigate loneliness. Togetherness based on a concern for the other is very important, a necessary 'break in indifference', drawing on Levinas again.  This concern is what makes my life count and reduces my absurdity.  Such significance is unobtainable through egoism or contract.

Concern for the other is expressed in lots of mundane actions and reasons, expressed in maxims such as in Lukacs' recipe for love: 'try never to be proved right'(204), or the need to love and never even to ask for love in return, to make the other stop needing you, to make the other free, to die in order not to live frustrated, to die oneself rather than let the other live 'the shameful death of ignominy and rejection'(206), or even to die at the fullness of love.  Actions like this can seem to express the supreme moral stance, yet they also have undertones of possession and mastery.

It is possible to have a calm disinterested death for others beyond reason or calculation.  It requires an awakening from (very common) egotism in order to help realise true selfhood as something for-Other.  Such deaths did take place in the holocaust and the gulag.  They were heroic only because it is heroic to be human in an inhuman world.  Heroism is about causes and values and is sometimes an excuse for the death of others, but no normative claim is moral if it justifies the death of others, or implies that my respect for the other stops at the gift of my life (210).

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