#16: empathizing with violence

Bauman struggles to define the ‘us’ that Wozzak calls upon to bear witness to his everyday experience of misery. The assumption throughout is that the ‘us’ is the poor, lonely, multitudes commonly identified by their class, race, ethnicity, faith or nationality in lived social life, “groups that think of themselves as… united– by their shared joys and many sorrows, few stokes of luck and many misfortunes,” in other words, the group known as ‘human beings’ (153). From Bauman’s perspective there is always a distinction between the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ because in the social, political and economic domains, each individual is visibly identified, valued and judged by their material possessions, affiliations and social orientations. The most obvious and egregious duality from Bauman’s perspective is suffered by those without material wealth, power or influence at the hands of those with excess. Without knowing specifics, it may be safe to say that a Professor Emeritus with over sixty published books in the last fifty years is not lacking in capital or material wealth. It follows that with such great economic freedom comes an equally great burden of responsibility as an active intellectual. This burden of material wealth, power and epistemological privilege that weighs heavy of Bauman’s thought is mediated by the rhetorical device of the leitmotif of individuals common inability to transcend their situation. He uses this leitmotif to analyze Alban Berg’s 1922 opera based on Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1836 drama Wozzeck. The chapter ‘Wir arme Leut’…’, like most of Collateral Damage began as a lecture delivered to an audience of academics during 2010-11, and as Bauman admits, is wanting of some overarching coherence, synthesis or general theory (8). Bauman’s implied audience then is not a lonely poor person, but an individual who has paid for the privilege of higher education, and who is likely familiar with the work (or at least the names) of Wittgenstein and Socrates. Bauman uses Wozzeck to mediate his anger at the “demeaning, blood-curdling” reality of the status quo situation suffered by the lonely, poor multitudes at the “mysterious forces, commonly called ‘globalization’” (159).

The contemporary, systemic unequal distributions of wealth and power in the material world, both near Bauman’s hometown and abroad, and the pain and suffering it causes those who do not live with economic or financial stability, allow Bauman to sling his rhetorical arrows at no one in particular, and to hit the reader squarely in the heart. As one of those poor, lonely multitudes upon whose unsolicited behalf Bauman righteously advocates, respectfully, I have to say that my experience of life is not nearly as terrifying, grim or ominous as it is portrayed, but as in life, things are not so black and white. Everything Bauman knows and argues in this chapter is done from a perspective that is limited by reading print, following outmoded laws, and most offensive in my reading, by equating well-being to a more equal distribution of wealth. Contrary to Bauman’s assumption, those of us who have “been exiled to the margins of the attention… [by] the authorities who were declaring the pursuit of happiness to be a universal human right” are not in fact limited to pursuing happiness solely by pursuing a “survival of the fittest” mentality (7). I know that I am invisible to many modern authorities; political, juridical, academic and economic, all I need to do is open my wallet and look at the various identification numbers and barcodes mandating my access to a fair use of the law, the government, the bank or the university systems.

And yet I don’t feel like a victim because of my individual invisibility and I don’t feel intimidated by the ‘toxicity of the dangers’ ascribed to me be those authorities that are barely able to acknowledge my existence.  In fact, from my perspective, my invisibility is a superpower that with the help of open, unlimited and compassionate access to current communications technology and other people, this superpower has helped me (and legions of lonely, invisible individuals like me) to happily evade the forces and powers of the aforementioned authorities. It is because of my happy existence in day to day life that I tend to read the shame, self-hatred and humiliation suffered and described by Zygmunt Bauman, the 87 year old professor Emeritus from Leeds University, as symptomatic of a lifetime of work, being subject to all those authorities, their assumptions and limitations, by a wise and sensitive man who has devoted his life to generating new knowledge to benefit others, but one who, despite his litany of accolades, publications and lectures, still feels somehow ineffectual. I empathize with Bauman’s outrage at the status quo. His legitimate life experiences and his life’s work are essential reading for anyone in the coming years to make sense of the overwhelmingly difficult, global economic, ecological, juridical and political crises that undoubtedly loom on the horizon–or for that matter, to even attempt to generate that elusive general theory he mentions in his Introduction.

But all is not lost, human beings are still breathing and our situation is changing faster than history may be able to comprehend. It is by individuals around the world who are learning to live amid the constant violence, chaos and uncertainty–both in theory and practice­­–in the anonymous mode online, that real world changes are already being made. As Internet use steadily increases across the world, a practical new approach to critique from an anonymous perspective, one familiar with the evolving and strange new implications made possible due to the Internet. The vast majority of traditional critical frameworks (even the most powerful Western ones that Bauman draws from) are alone insufficient to interrogate the boundless experiences and phenomena encountered in the digital environment and globalized world because they were conceived, written and experienced by individuals limited to print perspective modes of analysis (logic, methodology, structural, etc.).

In our increasingly digital world, the rules of what a text, author or reader can do and how they can do them are becoming fundamentally and fearlessly reconfigured without regard to any such limitations. By networking elements of various frameworks like Bauman’s and those he cites, such modes of analysis may be freed them from their traditional objects and allowed to roam across domains (academic, public, private, material, digital) by paying attention to the way they affect users (online and in the world), in real time, all the time. Online the traditional dissonances between theory and practice,  ‘us’ and ‘them’ resonate in harmony, by embracing this melodious and sometimes dissonant aspect, people will become increasingly able to understand and experience the new potentials of learning, thinking, acting and doing in previously inconceivable ways.

Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011. Print.

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