Some notes on Zygmunt Bauman’s lecture, ‘What makes a hero?’

poznanThose more familiar with Zygmunt Bauman’s work may have recognised Wednesday’s lecture at the Howard Assembly Room as a very slight variation on a theme developed in the second chapter of Liquid Life (2005), entitled ‘From Martyr to Hero, and From Hero to Celebrity’. This should probably not come as too much of a surprise. As Bauman (2012: 3) has recently confessed, “a new topic for scrutiny … is no longer on my cards.” However, this in no way denigrates the content of the lecture itself, which provided an opportunity for both new readers of Bauman, and those who have been reading his work for many years, to hear him lecture on a topic which seldom makes its way into the critical commentaries: heroism. In fact, due to Bauman’s immense output (over thirty books since his retirement in 1990, and even more articles and interviews), even for those long-term readers it must no doubt have been refreshing to be reminded of aspects of his thought that had either been entirely forgotten, or quite simply passed over.

The question which ostensibly structured the night’s proceedings was: ‘what makes a hero?’ Yet, the general character of the lecture lent itself to a slightly different question, and one which is perhaps more provocative. This is: “what made a hero?’ As Jacques Rancière (2011) has stated, the seemingly innocuous expression “times have changed” indicates that certain things that were once part of the structure of the everyday have become impossible. For Bauman it would seem that among those present impossibilities can be added the figure of the martyr (the one who dies as a witness to the injustice of the oppressor, and whose death is intimately bound up with the time of religion) and that of the hero (the one who dies so that the nation or the race can live on, or who blazes a trail, sets off on a journey that had hitherto been seen as containing obstacles that were impossible to pass, and emerged in the time of ‘solid’ modernity). As the aforementioned chapter from Liquid Life makes clear, the latter has usurped the former, and both have been wiped out by the emergence of the ‘extraordinary’, or extraordinarily expendable, ‘liquid modern’ celebrity.

As such, for Bauman, the fact that we live in a time which celebrates the mere fact of being famous, which revels in the perpetual joy of consumption, the cult of instantaneity, the eternal present of newness and novelty, means that no longer do we believe in a cause which is beyond ourselves and to which we would be ready to commit our lives. No longer do we revere those who died for, or who killed for, a truth. No longer can we bring ourselves to believe in the immortality of the Idea, or even of the possibility of a future without ‘me’. Yet if ‘we’ – and the actual position of the first person plural is always in Bauman incredibly unstable – no longer believe in these heroes (beyond the TV series of the same name, or the superheroes of comic books), or would neither wish to revere nor emulate their actions, does this mean that what we might call the ‘rational kernel’ of the hero and the martyr – the concern for that which is in excess of my life – has also become impossible? In Wednesday’s lecture, Bauman was remarkably silent on this issue. However, in the final pages of the postscript to Immortality, Mortality and Other Life Strategies entitled ‘‘To die for…’, or Death and Morality’ we can find the beginnings of a possible response:

“Heroes and moral people are both called to sacrifice their lives; to die for a cause which is nobler, loftier, more worthy than their own self-preservation. For a moral person, however, that cause is the life or well-being or dignity of another human being. For a hero, that cause is the continuation or triumph of an idea: that of a nation, of a race, of a class, of progress, of a ‘way of life’, of God, sometimes of ‘man as such’. There is a moral abyss stretching between the two causes” (1992: 209).

This paragraph introduces a fourth category which was not discussed at the lecture – the modestly dubbed ‘moral person’ – and presents a qualitatively distinct relation to ‘my’ life from that of the martyr, the hero and the celebrity. As Bauman continues, the hero justifies the death of the other through an appeal to the ‘greater good’; the moral person, on the other hand, cannot justify any death other than that of his or her own. To die for the other therefore becomes the truly heroic action, even if it is not contained within the traditional definition of the ‘hero’ (it might even have more in common with the ‘meaninglessness’ of the martyr’s death). As Emmanuel Lévinas, Bauman’s ethical teacher, puts it:

“The priority of the other over the I, by which the human being-there is chosen and unique, is precisely the latter’s response to the nakedness of the face and its mortality. It is there that the concern for the other’s death is realised, and that ‘dying for him’, ‘dying his death’ takes priority over ‘authentic’ death” (2006:188).

Can such a position provide an alternative vision of the heroic? Are we even operating within the same contours of the hero (or even the martyr), or is this something entirely different? One question which was raised at the end of the lecture concerned the relationship between the hero, the martyr, death and the future. As Bauman’s more utopian moments make clear, and which were almost entirely absent from Wednesday’s lecture, the possibility of making change in the world first of all relies on the hope that something else is possible, that there is an alternative to the current state of affairs, and that my death is not synonymous with the death of the world. The age of celebrity, which for Bauman fosters egocentrism and responsibility for self over the other, would therefore need to be combated with a renewed emphasis on that which is in excess of my life (perhaps the Other as future, if we were to make this arguably highly problematic Lévinasian move?), and which resists the attempt to reduce utopia to consumer society, but also articulates a concept of the heroic which is irreducible to the army, the State, the nation, the race, God etc. This is a task which might have something in common with Alain Badiou’s (2007) ‘Heroic Figure’, formulated along the following lines:

“Humanity is never completely realized, is never something natural. Humanity is an infinite victory over its immanent element of inhumanity. To accept, to support, this experience of the inhuman element of ourselves, we must, all of us, human animals, use some imaginary means. We must create a symbolic representation of this humanity which exists beyond itself, in the fearsome and fertile element of the inhuman. I call that sort of representation an heroic figure. “Figure”, because the action of a figure is a symbolic one. “Heroic”, because heroism is properly the act of the infinite in human actions. “Heroism” is the clear appearance, in a concrete situation, of something which assumes its humanity beyond the natural limits of the human animal”.

A number of questions arise at this point, but I’ll leave it there for now! I hope I have raised enough questions to encourage a critical debate around the concept of the ‘heroic’, or at least a renewed focus on the utopian elements of Bauman’s thought beyond his often derisory and sociologically questionable comments on consumerism and celebrity.


Badiou, Alain. (2007). ‘The contemporary figure of the solider in politics and poetry’. UCLA, January, 2007.

Bauman, Zygmunt. (1992). Immortality, Mortality and Other Life Strategies. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity.

Bauman, Zygmunt. (2012). This is Not a Diary. Cambridge: Polity.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. (2006). ‘Dying For…’ in Entre Nous. London, New York: Continuum. pp. 179-188.

Ranciere, Jacques. (2011). ‘In What Time Do We Live?’ Lecture given at the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in Venice, 1 June 2011.