Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sense and senselessness

Happy 90th birthday, Zygmunt Bauman. Born in Poland, but domiciled in Britain since the early 1970s, Bauman has become one of the world’s most influential sociologists, publishing prolifically across the spectrum of sociology and social theory. Not known as a diarist, he has, however, recently published a work provocatively called, This is Not a Diary, with entries dated as if it were a diary - each one being a mini-essay on whatever sociology-related subject happened to come to mind that day. The first dated entry is titled, On the sense and senselessness of diary-keeping. Another - On the friends you have and the friends you think you have - is about the evolutionary anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, under whom I, personally, studied many years ago.

Bauman was born to Jewish parents in Poznań, Poland, on 19 November 1925. When the Nazis invaded, in 1939, his family fled to the Soviet Union where he enlisted in the Polish division of the Red Army, working as a political education instructor. He was involved in the battles of Kolberg and Berlin, and in May 1945 was awarded the Military Cross of Valour. In the early post-war years, he served as a political officer in the Internal Security Corps (KBW) formed to combat Ukrainian and Polish insurgents, and as an informer for military intelligence. In parallel, he studied philosophy at the University of Warsaw. In 1948, he married Janina Lewinson, and they had three daughters.

Having risen to the rank of major, Bauman was dishonourably discharged from the KBW, in 1953, when his father - a Zionist - sought permission to emigrate to Israel, even though he, himself, held anti-Zionist views. The following year he became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. A visit to the London School of Economics led to his first major book, in 1959, on the British socialist movement, some years later translated into English. Other books followed, notably the popular Socjologia na co dzień in 1964, later forming the basis for his English-language text-book Thinking Sociologically in 1990.

By the late 1960s, an orchestrated anti-semitic campaign was leading many Poles of Jewish descent, not least the intellectuals, to emigrate. At the same time, 
Bauman’s politics had fallen out of line with that of the communist government; so, in 1968, he gave up his Polish citizenship in order to be allowed to leave the country. He went first to Tel Aviv University, but, by 1972, he had taken up a chair in sociology at Leeds University. He retired in 1990, but since then has published over 40 books, on subjects such as globalisation, modernity and postmodernism, consumerism and morality. His wife, Janina, who also wrote a few books on her wartime memories, died in 2009. The following year, the University of Leeds launched The Bauman Institute in Bauman’s honour. There is further biographical information at Wikipedia, University of Leeds, The Guardian, The Culture Society, and The American Task Force on Palestine. The photo was found at

There is no obvious evidence that Bauman has kept a diary through his long life - although he might have done. However, in 2010 and 2011 he took it into his head to keep a kind of journal, with dated entries, but with all the entries more like mini-essays on current issues of interest or concern to him. Some of these were clearly inspired by things he had read, in the news or elsewhere, and so the dates do have some occasional relevance. The collection of mini-essays were published by Polity Press in 2012, and somewhere along the publishing road acquired the playful title: This is Not a Diary. A few pages can be read at Amazon.

Each dated entry starts with its own title, such as On the quandries of believing, On hurting flies and killing people, On glocalisation coming of age, On immoral axes and moral axemen, etc. Each entry is too long to quote in full, and, unfortunately, given the essay structure, any cutting back reduces, in every sense, Bauman’s little essays. Nevertheless, here are extracts from two sections. I’ve chosen the opening entry, partly because it is the first, and partly because it is, ostensibly, about diary keeping (though more about writing in general). I’ve chosen the second because it’s about a Robin Dunbar theory, and Robin was my tutor, some decades ago (when I was preparing an MSc biological anthropology thesis - on paternal care in primates; see my own diaries - November 1989).

3 September 2010
‘On the sense and senselessness of diary-keeping. I confess: as I am starting to write (it is 5 a.m.), I haven’t the slightest idea what, if anything, will follow, how long it will go on and how long I’ll need, feel the urge and wish to keep it going. And the intention, let alone the purpose, is anything but clear. The question ‘what for’ can hardly be answered. At the moment when I sat down at the computer, there was no new burning issue waiting to be chewed over and digested, no new book to be written or old stuff to be revised, recycled or updated, no new interviewer’s curiosity to be satiated, no new lecture to be sketched out in writing before being spoken - no request, commission or deadline . . . In short, there was neither a frame nailed together waiting to be filled, nor a plateful of podgy work in search of a mould and a form.

I guess the question ‘because of what’ is more in order in this case than the question ‘what for’. Causes to write are abundant, a crowd of volunteers line up to be noted, picked and chosen. The decision to start writing is, so to speak, ‘overdetermined’.

To begin with, I’ve failed to learn any other form of life except writing. A day without scribbling feels like a day wasted or criminally aborted, a duty neglected, a calling betrayed.

To go on, the game of words is for me the most heavenly of pleasures. I enjoy that game enormously - and the enjoyment reaches its peak when, after another reshuffle of the cards, the hand I get happens to be poor and I need to strain my brains and struggle hard to make up for the blanks and bypass the traps. Forget the destination; it is being on the move, and jumping over or kicking away the hurdles, that gives life its flavour. [. . .]

What, after all, is the difference between living and reporting life? We can do worse than take a hint from José Saramago, my lately discovered fount of inspiration. On his own quasi-diary he reflects: ‘I believe that all the words we speak, all the movements and gestures we make . . . can each and every one of them be understood as stray pieces of unintended autobiography, which, however involuntary, perhaps precisely because it is involuntary, is no less sincere or truthful than the most detailed account of life put into writing and onto paper.’ Exactly.’

27 December 2010
On the friends you have and the friends you think you have. Professor Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist in Oxford, insists that ‘our minds are not designed [by evolution] to allow us to have more than a very limited number of people in our social world’. Dunbar has actually calculated that number; he found that ‘most of us can maintain only around 150 meaningful relationships’. Not unexpectedly, he’s called that limit, imposed by (biological) evolution, the ‘Dunbar number’. This hundred and a half is, we may comment, the number reached through biological evolution by our remote ancestors, and where it stopped, leaving the field to its much nimbler, more agile and dexterous, and above all more resourceful and less patient successor - called ‘cultural evolution’ (that is, triggered, shaped and driven by humans themselves, and deploying the teaching and learning process rather than changing the arrangement of genes). [. . .]

Electronic sustained ‘networks of friendship’ promised to break through recalcitrant, intrepid limitations to sociability set by our genetically transmitted equipment. Well, says Dunbar, they didn’t and will not: the promise can’t but be broken. ‘Yes.’ says Dunbar in his opinion piece for the New York Times of 25 December, ‘you can “friend” 500, 1,000, even 5,000 people with your Facebook page, but all save the core 150 are mere voyeurs looking into your daily life.’ Among those thousands of Facebook friends, ‘meaningful relationships’, whether serviced electronically or lived off-line, are confined as before within the impassable limits of the ‘Dunbar number’. [. . .]

Dunbar is right that the electronic substitutes for face-to-face communication have brought the Stone Age inheritance up to date, adapting and adjusting the ways and means of human togetherness to the requirements of our nouvel age. What he seems to neglect, however, is that in the course of that adaptation those ways and means have also been considerably altered, and that as a result ‘meaningful relationships’ have also changed their meaning. And so must the content of the ‘Dunbar number’ concept have done. Unless it is precisely the number, and only the number, that exhausts its content. . .’

NB: As usual in Diary Review articles, trailing dots enclosed by square brackets (i.e. [. . .] ) indicate text I have left out from the source published text. Trailing dots not enclosed by square brackets are as found in the original text.

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