Modernity's Inner Demons

By Bauman, Zygmunt | Tikkun, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Modernity's Inner Demons


Bauman, Zygmunt, Tikkun


In the history of mankind, cruelty is not a novelty; neither is the mass cruelty of a genocide, not even of genocide of the "us versus them" type, the cruelest of them all. The Holocaust's novelty was its "new and improved" us-versus-them genocide, made possible thanks to modern technology, modern organization of labor, modern concentration of coercive power, modern ambitions to make the world pure and flawless.

Much as the generals go on fighting the last victorious war, the victims go on sniffing out their latest persecutor and the signals of the latest persecution. This is the generals' and the victims' undoing, but not only their bad luck. Wars seldom repeat, and each suffering is unique, with its own shape and reason. Wars and persecutions hardly ever come from the quarters one would, judging by past experience, expect them to come from. This is why the cause of safety is not best helped by the voices of the generals and the victims alike.

In the effigy of Jews and Gypsies, the "inner demons" of modernity were burned. These demons, like all other inner demons, were the gravest doubts and the most harrowing suspicions which the daily bustle tried hard, yet in vain, to suppress. In the case of modernity, bent on the establishment of the Kingdom of Reason, the demons were contingency, ambivalence, uncertainty, the chaos just an inch or two beneath the order--which the Jews and the Gypsies--the non-territorials among territorial nations, people "in" but not "of" any place they stayed--epitomized all too well.

In our "late modern" (Giddens), "reflexive modern" (Beck), "surmodern" (Balandier), or as I prefer, "postmodern" times, the inner demons have changed their spots. Universal, rock-hard order is our nightmare rather than our dream. Unencumbered freedom, deregulation, choice, and flexibility comprise the promise of our times. Our dreams are broader in space ("I need space") yet shorter in time ("I need it now"); that means rising speed. The inner demons born at the underside of this kind of dream are a suffocating doubt about whether happiness awaits at the end of the road, and the gnawing suspicion that we are less free in our choices and less flexible in remaking the choices made than we would need to think to live the way we do. …

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