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Challenging the Crisis of Legitimacy in Western Academic Disciplines

The Individualized Society by Zygmunt Bauman. Pub: Polity Press, Cambridge, UK / Polity Press, Malden, MA, USA, 2001. Pp. 259. Pbk: £14.99 / $24.95
By Rahhalah Haqq
Academic disciplines in the West are increasingly facing a crisis of legitimacy. Traditional approaches to knowledge-construction and maintenance in the Western academy, rooted in 19th-century intellectual and institutional norms, are increasingly being seen by many observers as outdated and irrelevant to contemporary concerns. Several factors have contributed to this crisis, including increased privatisation of academic institutions, wider availability of academic information on the internet, and the global media emerging as a transnational guiding and legitimizing force above and beyond institutions of higher education.
Careful observers will recognize that this is not the first time Western academia has faced a crisis of legitimacy. During the nineteenth-century, Western natural and social scientists had the world figured out according to a paradigm rooted in white supremacy and essentialism, seeing Europe as the epitome of human civilization and ranking other societies and cultures on a descending scale. But when Europe exploded into a horrific frenzy of death and mayhem during world war one, killing millions of its own people in the most barbarous and savage ways imaginable on a scale never before witnessed in human history, the nineteenth-century model crumbled, leaving many intellectuals to lament "the decline of the West."
Between the western ‘world wars’, a new paradigm emerged, and made an effort to avoid the hierarchical moralizing of the 19th century. Scientists of every hue began to indulge in ‘relativism’: all natural and social phenomena are relative to the time and place in which they occur. This distinctive twentieth century paradigm became a haven for academics and intellectuals, who found in it a new sense of legitimacy. But when Europe descended into another orgy of death and destruction, absolute relativism began to lose its appeal. Many observers pointed out that relativism is amoral, and called for more proactive stances. As the debate between essentialism and relativism became increasingly convoluted and self-centered, academics on both sides lost track of developments in the world.
By the turn of the millennium, a generation or more of non-Western peoples had already been seeking Western academic knowledges. But now that the West is in the middle of yet another crisis of academic legitimacy, it seems prudent for all involved (especially for non-Western peoples) to examine closely the debates and impending paradigm shift. This seems necessary for non-Western peoples who still insist on seeking Western knowledge, despite the west’s colonial legacy, and careful reflection on the current academic crisis may pave the way to rejuvenate more indigenous ways of knowing. One way to do this is to seek out and learn from Western intellectual mavericks.
Zygmunt Bauman’s life spans most of the twentieth century, and his career as a sociologist has weathered several paradigm-shifts and shows no sign of waning. From Warsaw to Leeds, with stints in most major Western academic centres, Bauman seems ideally situated to evaluate the current crisis. Fully conversant with social theories from modernists such as Weber and Parsons to postmodernists such as Foucault and Baudrillard, Bauman nevertheless seems able to see through the distractions to formulate a clear picture of the current academic crisis. He has set about this task in several books, such as Globalization: The Human Consequences (1999), Liquid Modernity (2000), and most recently The Individualized Society.
As a collection of essays, speeches and addresses, The Individualized Society brings together some of Bauman’s most vibrant thinking on a variety of topics ranging from politics and morality to education. The collection is divided into three overlapping sections: "They Way We Are," "The Way We Think" and "The Way We Act." His writing style, at times serious and at others flippant, is always engaging and accessible, and he has a distinct ability to cut through the distractions and provide a clear, optimistic and forward-thinking critique of social systems. The essays are bound together by several broad questions, such as: Why do people shift their attention away from their real problems and take refuge in distractions? How do supposedly rational beings divert the energy of their life’s anxieties away from their causes? What are the reasons for not reaching beyond the ‘subjective self’?
In a chapter entitled "Local Orders, Global Chaos," Bauman tracks the emergence of a new global ruling elite whose power is derived from mobility. In the nineteenth century, power was defined by stability, with the powerful building vast edifices to themselves and their nations, investing capital, labour and intellect in long-term projects, industries and governing structures. Subordinates to this system, whether they were factory-workers, students or colonial functionaries, were bound to the same system as their overlords, all parties combined in elaborate regimes of law, regulation and inspection. But power in the age of "liquid modernity" has eschewed the solidity of the past and now seeks to be utterly free of stability.
In such a scheme, which Bauman sees as a key feature of the globalizing world, one finds the "devaluation of order as such" and that "order becomes the index of powerlessness and subordination." He describes what can be called "the revenge of the nomads," overturning orthodox sociological assumptions that sedentary peoples used to subjugate mobile peoples. It is now the mobile who rule, and the new global order (perhaps ‘disorder’ is more apt) can be seen as a way of eliminating all constraints of time and place to free the global ruling elite (with its intellect and capital) from all boundaries, conceptual as well as national. This new ‘cyber-elite’ consists of those who have developed the "confidence to dwell in disorder" and the ability to "flourish in the midst of dislocation." They have mastered the art of "positioning oneself in a network of possibilities rather than paralyzing oneself in one particular job," and their works are indicated by the "willingness to destroy what one has made" and then "to let go, if not to give."
"Identity in the globalizing world" is distinguished by a process of "individualization" that carries with it "the emancipation of the individual from the ascribed, inherited and inborn determination of his or her social character," says Bauman. He links this individualized freedom to create and re-create oneself with the emerging media-fed global consumer culture, in which "shopping" (for products, identities, moralities) becomes the defining feature. Such an individual has no need for lifelong commitment, whether commitments to religion, marriage or nation, and instead becomes part of a class of drifting "freeagents" continually in search of the latest fad or fashion, never settling anywhere for long.
Bauman develops his discussion of "violence, old and new" by looking at definitions of "violence," and related terms such as "terrorism," and showing that they are contested concepts. The power of the United States, for example, is in its self-proclaimed mandate to define what is violence and what is not: "The essence of all power is the right to define with authority, and the major stake of the power struggle is the appropriation or retaining of the right to define and, no less importantly, of the right to invalidate and ignore the definitions coming from the adversary camp." Thus, for instance, Palestinians are "terrorists" because America and its zionist surrogate, Israel, say that they are, and American power is defined by maintaining the ability to normalize and enforce such definitions on a global scale.
While in the ‘modernizing’ countries, universities "may still play the traditional role of factories supplying a heretofore missing educated elite," universities in the west need to "rethink their role in a world that has no use for their traditional services, sets new rules for the game of prestige and influence, and views with growing suspicion the values they stood for." Bauman suggests that universities have become slow to respond to a hyper-changing world, and that by the time graduates finish a course of study, the knowledge they gain may already be obsolete. And after the "scientifically assisted horrors" of the twentieth century, faith in the humanizing potential of science "seems laughably, perhaps even criminally, naive." While many nineteenth and twentieth century traditions that used to be coveted assets are becoming liabilities, Bauman sees that Western universities need to develop coherent but flexible responses to the emerging global (dis)order, in order to maintain their relevance into the twenty-first century.
Each essay in this collection is equally provocative, whether Bauman is talking about labor, security, progress, poverty, faith, love or democracy. In each case, he cites with ease fellow-travelers on the path of understanding the emerging paradigm shift in social understanding, but the work is not weighed down with alienating academic jargon or imposing lists of references. In a strange sort of way, what Bauman describes, which is basically limited to the West and its academic assumptions of social theory, begins to sound more and more like the ordinary lives of most of humanity, lives which are fraught with insecurity, instability and uncertainty. This is indeed a crisis of the West and ought to be seen as such.
The value of such a work to non-Western peoples is that it can help them to rethink the century-long obsession with mimicry of the West as the only solution to life’s problems and the only path to future prosperity. For those who are still committed to the mantra "West is best," books like this will be a rude awakening; they may also help to reconsider long-held allegiances to Western systems that are now being reconfigured from within. For those who have always been sceptical of the Western imposition of its thought and action on the world, such books ought to help the struggles for normative distinctions between what is right and what is best for the future of humanity. On both counts, it should prove to be a worthwhile read.

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