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In The Waste Land
With Mr. Zygmunt Bauman
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Often, certain terms built in particularly happy and figurative way, end up having a “success” that goes over the desire of whom has coined them, and end up, for a sort of trickle effect, to filter down from the essays of the researchers to the articles of the daily papers, up to the gossip magazines, losing big part of their meaning. It’s the risk that also race terms as “society of the uncertain” or “liquid life”. Would you want to clarify better to us the sense?
Risk? I would rather say ‘good luck’… After all, new concepts – tools of cognition – are coined by sociologists hoping to help people to grasp the changed and changing world in which they have been born, to find their place in that world, to anticipate the challenges they are likely to confront and the sensible ways to tackle them. If they ‘sink’ into public consciousness, are included in its toolbox and deployed in the perception of the world, interpretation of living experience and elaboration of life strategies – sociologist should rejoice: their mission accomplished…
But you are right – already Adorno and Horkheimer complained that the price for victory of an idea is its vulgarization; and they did not see a remedy, let alone a preventive medicine against the threat. The sole alternative is the ivory-tower jargon, that renders concepts immune to trivialization but also, as Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked sadly, ‘leaving everything as it was’ (that is, toothless and inconsequential) – but in case of sociological concepts such alternative defies and denies the purpose, indeed the raison d’être, of the whole effort!
But to ‘clarify’ of the intentional meaning of the two concepts you specifically ask about: Rather than ‘uncertainty’, I would speak of a ‘conceptual triad’ (uncertainty, i.e. unpredictability of the future, insecurity, i.e. ignorance about the solidity of one’s place in society and reasonability of choices made and life strategy pursued, and safety, i.e. security of one’s body and its extensions – possessions and habitat), which needs be employed to convey the meaning of Freud’s Unsicherheit as a crucial parameter of modern human condition. All three elements of the triad generate nowadays anxiety and fear – but, as Ulrich Beck indicated, in our Risikogesellschaft the nature and origins of risks is not made visible by individual human experience – and so the anxiety and fears can be ‘manipulated’ politically and commercially, ‘decoupled’ from their genuine source and attached to another, putative causes. They are indeed so manipulated (most commonly by shifting the anxiety from uncertainty and insecurity to the threat to safety), which makes the point-blank confrontation with the roots, not to mention their cutting, all the more difficult …
As to the concept of liquidity, I have chosen it because it carries the associations most relevant to the task which the concepts adequate to the kind of realities they are expected to ‘make sense of’ should fulfil: it points mind toward the image of a substance that can’t keep its shape for long and changes it under the influence of even minor shifts in the balance of forces. It focuses attention on the ‘fluidity’ of all current ‘givens’ and risks involved in all long-term anticipations; it warns that in the present state of the planet the gravity of effects is in principle disproportional to the gravity of causes; it alerts to the unreliability of extrapolating the future developments from the current ‘statistical trends’; it suggests the episodic, ‘until further notice’ character of all diagnoses and the practical steps they might suggest. In other words, it suggests where the roots of the overwhelming anxiety and diffuse fears are sunk and what form the remedy has to take if it is to be genuinely ‘radical’ (that means, ‘striking at the roots’…)

Reading Wasted lives, we realize how much movies like Lord of War of Andrew Niccol, concerning the relationships between the market of weapons and the most powerful states of the world, or essays as Gomorra, of the Italian Saviano concerning the organized crime and its interlacements with the legal enterprises, are real corollaries of your book. They are almost zooms on some of its aspects. How do you consider the fact that the cinema and the popularization deal with the same themes of which the social scientists are dealt?
From the point of view of the casino owners, some resources – those that they themselves allocate or circulate – are legal tender; all other resources, though, those beyond their control, are prohibited. The line dividing the fair from the unfair does not look the same, however, from the side of the players, particularly from the side of the would-be, aspiring players, and most particularly from the side of the incapacitated aspiring players, who do not have access to the legal tender. They may resort to the resources they do have, whether recognized as legal or declared illegal, or opt out of the game altogether. That latter move, however, has been made, by market seduction, all but impossible to contemplate. The disarming, disempowering and suppressing of unfulfilled players is therefore an indispensable supplement to integration-through-seduction in a market-led society of consumers. The impotent, indolent players are to be kept outside the game. They are the waste-product of the game, a waste product which the game cannot stop spitting out without grinding to a halt and calling in the receivers. The game would not benefit from halting the production of waste for another reason: those who stay in the game need to be shown the horrifying sight of the (sole and only, as they are told) alternative, in order to make them able and willing to endure the hardships and the tensions that their lives lived in the game gestate.
Given the nature of the game now played, the misery of those left out of it, once treated as a collectively caused blight which needed to be dealt with by collective means, can be only redefined as an individual crime.
The ‘dangerous classes’
* are thus redefined as categories of actual or potential criminals. And so the prisons fully and truly deputize now for the fading welfare institutions, and in all probability will have to do this to a growing extent as welfare provisions continue to taper. The growing incidence of behaviour classified as criminal is not an obstacle on the road to a fully-fledged and all-embracing consumerist society. On the contrary, it is its natural accompaniment and prerequisite. This is so, admittedly, for a number of reasons, but the main reason among them is perhaps the fact that those left out of the game – the unfulfilled consumers, whose resources do not measure up to their desires, and who have there- fore little or no chance of winning while playing the game by its official rules – are the living incarnation of the ‘inner demons’ specific to consumer life. Their ghettoization and criminalization, the severity of the sufferings administered to them and the overall cruelty of the fate visited upon them, are – metaphorically speaking – the ways of exorcizing such inner demons and burning them out in effigy. The criminalized margins serve as soi- disant tools of sanitation: the sewers into which the inevitable, but poisonous effluvia of consumerist seduction are disposed, so that the people who manage to stay in the game of consumerism need not worry about the state of their own health. If this is, however the prime stimulus of the present exuberance of what the great Norwegian criminologist Niels Christie called ‘the prison industry’, then the hope that the process can be slowed down, let alone halted or reversed in a thoroughly deregulated and privatized society animated and run by the consumer market, is – to say the least – slight.
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