Saturday, April 14, 2007

The De Man Affair Part Deux?

A story appeared in yesterday's Irish Times newspaper claiming that the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (whose work on postmodernity, the holocaust and love I'm sure we all admire or have used) was not simply a member of the Communist party but also a political officer in the military branch of the Polish Secret Security Forces. Here's a snippet:

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman' s hidden stalinist past
"Last month, the biggest German daily, the 'Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung', published an article in which Bogdan Musial, a Polish historian, revealed renowned Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, one of the prophets of postmodernism and author of sociological bestsellers, once worked as an agent for the Stalinist military secret service", notes Andreas Hess, a senior lecturer in sociology. "It should not come as a surprise that Bauman's hidden past is so passionately debated in continental Europe. Despite their adversarial history, Germans and Poles are very critical when revelations come out about the fascist and communist pasts of their intellectuals.The public attitude in continental Europe differs considerably from countries such as Britain and Ireland which were never under the spell of either fascism or Stalinism. Here in Ireland, it is still possible to read the lamentations of an unreconstructed communist like the historian Eric Hobsbawm who celebrated the Stalinist line taken during the Spanish Civil War - and to let him get away with it." (13/04/2007)

I haven't seen the full article but the title "postmodernism made me do it" is indicative of the two potential sides that will be taken in response to this revelation: some will seek to defend Bauman's work and exonerate him of blame (which arguably is what Bauman's work seeks to do anyway: to exonerate himself) and others will say they were proved right all along that postmodernism is simply complicit with all the world's evils.


Karl Steel said...

the title "postmodernism made me do it" is indicative of the two potential sides

There's a third side, isn't there: can't we disarticulate the work and its value from the person? Since no thought system is entirely populated by angels or devils, I'm sure even a few of the fascists--to look at the other side--were guilty of peacibility from time to time.

Should I mention the Derrida thing here?

Michael O'Rourke said...

Of course I am asking for the third way (like what Ronell does with Heidegger and Derrida does with De Man) but is it very likely that the popular press and conservative academics will opt for it? I really don't think so.

A word about the Derrida incident. He was apparently very ill and in the throes of chemotherapy when Kujundzic importuned him to write to Irvine on his behalf.

Anonymous said...


Are you perhaps in danger of becoming an apologist for an apologist here?

Eileen Joy said...

The readers of this blog don't know this because, for whatever reason, I have never written about Bauman on this blog, but he happens to be part of a kind of triumvirate of scholars I invoke/quote/write about the most in my own scholarship [Levinas/Bauman/Certeau]. I'm so devastated by this news I hardly know what to think. I will now commence to think about it. What will Bauman himself say, I wonder? He is still alive, recently retired from Leeds [I believe], and living in Leeds, right? This is terrible news.

Eileen Joy said...

I think it's important to point out, though, vis-a-vis Michael O.'s question about whether or not one reaction to this news about Bauman will be to say that it is one further piece of evidence that postmodernism is complicit with evil, that Bauman's postmodernism was not very postmodern, in some respects: it was more communitarian and deeply ethical in a Levinasian manner. It was through Bauman's "Postmodern Ethics" that I first discovered Levinas, actually, over ten years ago. I think Bauman's "Liquid Modernity" is a work of genius, and it is, in some respects, a kind of ethical "check" on postmodern thought/socio-historical realities of the twentieth century. Maybe all of the apparently indefatigable writing that Bauman undertook, especially after he retired, was some kind of attempt at self-expiation? Who knows. I agree with Karl, though, that, ultimately, the work has to have some kind of value apart from the person who produced it. But writers are not automatons, either, nor can "the work" really "live" completely separately from its author; at least, I don't think so, especially when you consider the moralizing tone of much of Bauman's work.