Bauman in the wilderness: sociology in the dry state of modernity
Dabbling in a ludicrous study, Sociology at prayer: utterances in the wilderness, generates the need to attend to fellow sociological travellers, not as rivals but as sources of support from those who also hazard into unknown territory, and for me Bauman is a notable companion. This is not to imperialise Bauman to some sort of Catholic hegemony but rather to pay respects to the theological prospects he wrests from his sociology, all the more original for emerging from an agnostic Jewish sociologist. Bauman stands singularly in English sociology, not merely in his accomplishments but also in terms of his decent references to Catholicism. His comments on John Paul II are warm, and this response is more than one Pole giving respect to another.
In these openings one finds an unexpected source of sociological solidarity, one especially needed in the present deeply secularised culture where the mass media seems to have re-invented the implicit religion of English society: anti-Catholicism. The possibility of a dialogue, as between Pope Benedict XVI and Habermas on post-secularity and the place of religion in modernity would be inconceivable here, so entrenched are secular prejudices. It takes intellectuals of stature with European sensibilities to see these possibilities and in that context Bauman can be appreciatively appraised.
An indication of his status and significance as a European intellectual and sociologist is well indicated by inspection of the reverse of the title page of Modernity and the Holocaust. It is difficult to think of one living sociologist, whose print history for one book runs to four lines, the study being repeatedly re-printed, and of late twice in one year. That study is one of an amazingly productive writing career, one that has yielded over twenty books and encouraging for many, one that blossomed in retirement. It is by his concepts and insights that Bauman has made mark a remarkably career of self-reflection and adjustment to the times.
In itself, Bauman’s long career of addressing the switching frontiers of sociology’s uneasy relationship with modernity is worthy of comment. But he has done much more than this. While not his term, Bauman’s sociology is characterised by a reflexivity that returns to the concerns of Weber and Simmel, being marked by a concern with the moral quality of a culture of modernity as it matures into post and liquid versions. For those of my generation, the song by the Byrds, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn (based on the Book of Ecclesiastes) provides resonances. It seems to denote properties of the hermeneutic circles that mark sociology’s own turnings of late, so that having turned to culture in the 1990s, the present turn is into religion. Yet, this carries an illusory property, as if religion had gone away but only awaited sociology’s re-discovery of its return.
Reluctantly, as if opening a closet to find a ghost, sociology keeps finding religion has returned. One thinks of Daniel Bell’s ‘Return of the Sacred’ in 1977; the realisation that Adorno and Benjamin had theological form; and the emergence of cults and sects as the rate busters on secularisation. Perhaps the rise of Islam in the West and 9/11 has forced sociology to make another turn to religion. These matters unsettle those wishing to keep sociology unsullied by any religious considerations, as if these were profoundly unsociological. For some strange reason, the border guards of sociology seem to have become lax in the inspection of passports at the frontiers of the discipline. Somehow, theology has slipped in behind religion and on to the territory of sociology. The unsettlements so generated seem to reflect a point of Taylor, in A Secular Age, that the victory of secularisation is pyrrhic. But if the war against religion was won and Comte’s hopes were fulfilled, is sociology up to the mark of fleshing out its own Religion of Humanity? What is to be thought after secularity?