Modernity and the Holocaust, thirty years on

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A symposium at the University of Leeds

Please see the Call for Papers if you wish to take part in this symposium

August 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of Zygmunt Bauman’s monumental book Modernity and the Holocaust. The Holocaust, the late sociologist famously argued, was not the polar opposite of modernity or a pathological deviation from modernisation processes. Rather, it was a possibility of modernity, ‘born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of human cultural achievement and for this reason … a problem of that society, civilization and culture’ (Bauman, 2000:x). Referred to as the keystone of ‘sociology after Auschwitz’ (Joas, 1999), the book contained critical messages – concerning the limitations of sociology, the condition of modernity and the consequences for morality – that challenged central foundations of the social sciences and humanities. For this, it was awarded the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and Social Sciences. These core messages of Modernity and the Holocaust, however, continue to be of great relevance today, and not only to scholars in the social sciences and humanities. Indeed, in the context of what Zygmunt Bauman referred to as our contemporary ‘crisis of humanity’ (Bauman, 2016), they remain ‘of the utmost importance not just for the perpetrators, victims and witnesses of the crime, but for all those who are alive today and hope to be alive tomorrow’ (2000:viii).

To mark the anniversary of the book, and to evaluate its legacy, a full-day symposium will be held on Tuesday 10th September at the University of Leeds, where Bauman held a chair in sociology until retirement in 1990. The aim of the symposium is to discuss the continuing importance of Modernity and the Holocaust in the context of the present ‘crisis of humanity’. As well as considering its enduring relevance for the discipline of sociology, the event will also incorporate reflections on the book’s significant transdisciplinary appeal and will provide a space for critical dialogical extensions of the work to theoretical traditions outside of its scope, such as to feminist theory and gender studies, and to postcolonial/decolonial criticism.  Moreover, it will consider how the more specific arguments developed in the book speak to contemporary debates and concerns related to ethnic relations, racism and anti-Semitism; about how the Holocaust ought to be understood vis-à-vis other instances of genocide and mass violence; and about what Zygmunt Bauman later termed ‘moral blindness’ or ‘liquid evil’ (Bauman & Donskis, 2013, 2016). The event will also recognise the profound influence of Janina Bauman on Modernity and the Holocaust and will provide a space for honouring her own writings on the Holocaust, testimony and on gypsies.