It’s hard not to be in awe of the remarkable changes taking place across our world. Every day we seem to encounter new and exciting changes across science, technology, and society. What’s new today is old tomorrow, and global movements—from finance to culture—immerse us in a dizzying array of both uncertainty and excitement. There’s little time to rest and take it all in. Thus, it often feels as if the entire world is shifting around us, carrying us to-and-fro, here-and-there, in an endless repeating wave of movement and transition. It’s like we’re floating in a chaotic sea of confusion and fear.
For the most part there’s little to help prepare us for the many unknowns that bombard us every day. Indeed, life’s numerous technological, scientific, and cultural shifts leave us little time to catch our breath before we’re whisked away across a turbulent sea of uncertainty. Surely, it feels like we’re witnessing changes that aren’t just incidental or inconsequential, but fundamental to the way we act, work, and live in our world. Thus, whether we like it or not, we’re changing along with a world that’s changing around us. For despite our supposed rigidity, some changes inevitably push us adrift (often unwillingly) into a chaotic and precarious ocean. For example, computers, the internet, smartphones, and social media redefined our perceptions about sociability, relationship, connection, and information (to name a few). Moreover, such aggressive technological changes have fueled enormous cultural and political shifts in ways that are both unequivocally positive (an expansion of political rights for many disenfranchised groups and a better overall cultural awareness) and fearfully negative (renewed rise of hate groups, nationalism, partisanship, sectarianism, and so on). Scientific discoveries continue to challenge many (if not most) of our deeply held beliefs and views about the universe, our place in it, and the meaning of it all. We’re hard pressed to find anything (cultural, political, religious, and so on) untouched and unaffected by the crashing waves of change, waves that continually threaten to sweep us away into unknowable waters.
In truth, there’s never been a time immune from transition. Every age has carried some degree of instability and indeterminacy. Yet there’s something about the current contemporary climate that provokes an ever-increasing sense of uneasiness and dread, which is remarkable given all the astonishing scientific and technological achievements we enjoy, and perhaps even take for granted. Indeed, one would expect a more positive outlook. But because of the real and potential disasters we face—climate change, nuclear war, the resurgence of fascism and nationalism, the disintegration of Europe, and economic volatility (to name a few)—it would be hard not to be fearful and pessimistic about the future. Again, history is full of periods that border on the apocalyptic. And yet, this transitional moment marks us in ways that we’ve yet to identify. Perhaps it’s a collective loss of confidence in the future—a feeling that things will only get worse, not better. Thus, what marks this time isn’t a fear of the unknown (we’ve always had to face an inevitable march toward uncertainty), but a loss in our sense of progress. A feeling that we’re drifting along an endless sea to nowhere.
Few writers capture this sense of change and turbulence better than Polish philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017). Bauman wrote extensively on many social topics including postmodernity, culture, and consumerism. For Bauman, today’s culture isn’t all that different from previous eras. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a clear divide (if any) between modernity and postmodernity—a term still hotly contested by many. As Bauman describes it, the world of the 21st century, whatever we’re calling it (postmodern, post-postmodern, hypermodern, and so on), is in many ways remarkably like the last century. Bauman writes that like the previous century, we’re “unable to stop and even less able to stand still. We move and are bound to keep moving . . . because of the impossibility of ever being gratified: the horizon of satisfaction, the finishing line of effort and the moment of restful self-congratulation move faster than the fastest of runners” [i]. Our age, as previous ones, carries a sense of restlessness and an irresistible urge to move forward. We live in a constant state of transition and tension, which continually drives us forward to both alleviate our own uncomfortability with being still and fulfill our desire for accomplishment.
While we share, and even extend, the restlessness of the past, a notable difference exists between this age and past ones. It’s the lack of belief, “that there is an end to the road along which we proceed, an attainable telos of historical change” [ii]. Herein forms the basis of what Bauman describes as the liquid society—a society characterized by both its perpetual transition and unfulfillment. History loses its sense of progress, making life nihilistic and seemingly hopeless. According to Bauman,
‘Progress’, once the most extreme manifestation of radical optimism and a promise of universally shared and lasting happiness, has moved all the way to the opposite, dystopian and fatalistic pole of anticipation: it now stands for the threat of a relentless and inescapable change that instead of auguring peace and respite portends nothing but continuous crisis and strain and forbids a moment of rest. Progress has turned into a sort of endless and uninterrupted game of musical chairs in which a moment of inattention results in irreversible defeat and irrevocable exclusion. Instead of great expectations and sweet dreams, ‘progress’ evokes an insomnia full of nightmares of ‘being left behind’ – of missing the train, or falling out of the window of a fast accelerating vehicle. [iii]
Consequently, the liquid society is one that never rests or takes a moment to breathe. It’s incapable and unwilling to do so. Slowing down means reflecting on where we might be going, and such reflection is just too painful to bear. Moreover, progress itself might lead us toward having a kind of “self-confidence of the present” [iv] that’s both wishful thinking and downright deceiving. This self-confidence, or might I say self-righteousness, leads us on a chase after a utopia, which we believe is right around the corner. We’re led to-and-fro, blindly asserting our own righteousness as we “chase after utopias, rather than their realization [v].” Even worse, Bauman explains,
The movement called ‘progress’ was more an effort to run away from failed utopias than an effort to catch up with utopias not yet experienced; a run away from the ‘not as good as expected’, rather than a run from the ‘good’ to the ‘better’; an effort spurred by past frustrations rather than by future bliss. [vi]
After a number of failed attempts at “utopia,” it’s no wonder that we choose to march forward without a telos. And being without a telos means we march blindly into a present without a future. In one fell swoop, historical progress is erased and replaced by indeterminacy. Progress itself appears to be untrustworthy. Thus, the liquid society is one that changes for the sake of change. You might ask, “Change into what?” Well, that’s anyone’s guess, but the sentiment is that it’s likely not any better than the present. In fact, it may very well be worse. It’s no wonder than that the “foundation in progress is nowadays prominent mostly for its cracks, fissures and chronic fissiparousness [def. tending to break or split up into parts]. The most solid and least questionable of its elements are fast losing their compactness together with their sovereignty, credibility and trustworthiness” [vii].
In a liquid world, the only lasting value seems to be change itself. With little to keep us grounded, and even less to hold onto, fear is often our immediate reaction. There’s a fear of what we’re moving toward. Progress, if anyone can call it that, looks bleak at best. Then there’s a general existential fear of the future. An unknown and indeterminate future is just as bad, if not worse, than those old promises of “utopia.” For at least there was a future one could prepare for. Today, a extremely high degree of uncertainty makes even the possibility of a future laughable at best. And herein lies our greatest dilemma. We’re called to invest our influence, time, and money (our social capital) in a future that (if we’re honest) we no longer believe in. Even worse, most don’t even have the means to invest in a future that grows more hypothetical with each passing day. We’re just trying to survive, to hold on and stay afloat in the present. Bauman states,
The sole novelty here is that it is now the individual’s hold on his or her own present which matters. And for many, perhaps most, contemporary people their individual hold on the present is at best shaky and more often than not blatantly absent . . . Safe ports for trust are few and far between, and most of the time trust floats unanchored vainly seeking storm-protected havens. [viii]
Therefore, the present becomes a matter of survival. As such, our own spheres of influence continue to grow smaller and smaller. To compensate, Bauman writes, “We focus on things we can, or believe we can, or are assured that we can influence: we try to calculate and minimize the risk that we personally, or those nearest and dearest to us at that moment, might fall victim to the uncounted and uncountable dangers which the opaque world and its uncertain future are suspected to hold in store for us” [ix]. Meaning that as uncertainty grows, our own personal spheres in-turn grow smaller. The matters we actually have control over end up being very small. We find our own hold on the present boils down to a handful of choices about television and entertainment, personal health, and preferences in food (and some have almost no choices in even these things). And as our spheres of influence increasingly become private, it leaves the public sphere “increasingly empty of public issues” [x]. But privatization and individualism aren’t the causes of this phenomenon, they’re the result of waning mass power and an eroding trust in the traditional places of power. It’s not that people aren’t interested in the public sphere, they just don’t have any say in what goes on in it. Even worse, they don’t trust those who’re supposedly in charge of it. As a result, we live more independent lives, both from those institutions and from one another [xi]. Our lives are ones that are increasingly separate, disjointed, and fearful.
According to Bauman, waves of turmoil eroded the areas that were once considered safe. Institutions (government, cultural, and religious) increasingly become more untrustworthy. We distrust the very institutions that once guaranteed stability (not that they’ve done much to earn that trust), meanwhile we run further away from one another. Life becomes “a matrix of random connections and disconnections and of an essentially infinite volume of possible permutations” [xii]. All the while, power moves further and further out of our reach. Power is liquid, it moves from the visible and traditional to the invisible and hidden. As Bauman explains, “[Our situation] is akin to that of the airline passengers who discover, high in the sky, that the pilot’s cabin is empty” [xiii]. Our own retreat from the public sphere means that power no longer needs to be public. Power moves beyond the reach of anyone. Thus, the present seems out of our control and we’re unsure what forces are driving it toward the future. In a liquid world there’s nothing to hold onto. We simply “go with the flow,” which is all well and good in calm waters. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible to prepare for the rough waters that may lie ahead. All we can do is “hold on” and hope we’re not swept away by powers and forces beyond our control. Bauman writes,
As to the power, it sails away from the street and the market-place, from assembly halls and parliaments, local and national governments, and beyond the reach of citizens’ control, into the exterritoriality of electronic networks. The favourite strategic principles of the powers-that-be are nowadays escape, avoidance and disengagement, and their ideal condition is invisibility. [xiv]
I see much correlation between liquid and liminal. Both concepts express a sense of transitional uncertainty, whereby we don’t have full control over our own destination and purpose. Furthermore, liquid and liminal share a lens of uncertainty. That is a kind of filter, an awareness of, the mysterious transient quality present in all of society and nature. In Bauman’s conception of a liquid world, few things in life are within our control. And even those things that are within our control feel like they’re slipping away from us. The rush of contemporary life is frequently too much to keep up with, let alone grasp. Unfortunately, Bauman doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, but he does helpfully picture the contemporary mood in a way that few other thinkers have been able to achieve. However, I also feel that the idea of a liquid world still doesn’t fully capture (if that’s even possible) the full picture.
However, I do believe that Bauman’s idea of liquid world can help usher us into liminality. The idea of a liquid world helps in erasing the fixed points of the past and future, progress and progression, so that we might instead move into a place of ambiguity and unknowability. Thus, liquidity brings us into a place we can only characterize as neither here-nor-there. It enables us to see the ritualistic quality of life—the moments and experiences that make life joyful, unique, as well as difficult. It helps us to see the ways that God brings us from one moment to the next. For without change, life would indeed feel hollow and trite, a sad caricature of existence. Even though life is chaotic and unpredictable, it’s these same qualities (liquid qualities) that makes our continual movement between life’s stages and unknown situations so rewarding. It’s these movements, as we move from one situation to the next, that reflect the beauty of a much greater phenomenon—the beauty of existence itself.
A liquid world isn’t the whole story. I believe that there’s more to it than change for the sake of change. This liquid world is bringing us somewhere, a liminal space marking the wonder of life as the ultimate transitional ritual. Meaning that this liquid-to-liminal space will, I hope and pray, lead us toward the threshold of a better understanding of ourselves and our world. That as we move through this liquid liminality, we’d emerge better people than before. Perhaps not in the sense of moral perfection, but with a better understanding and empathy for those currently enduring the trials and sufferings of our liquid world. And more importantly, that we, like Christ, would be more willing to dive into the chaotic mess of our liquid world. That we’d offer a hand to those struggling to stay afloat.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” [xv]
[i] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 28.
[ii] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 29.
[iii] Bauman, Liquid Times (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), 11.
[iv] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 132. Italics in the original.
[v] Bauman, Liquid Times, 96. Italics in the original.
[vi] Bauman, Liquid Times, 96.
[vii] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 133.
[viii] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 136.
[ix] Bauman, Liquid Times, 11.
[x] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 40.
[xi] See several Pew Research Studies, Young Americans are less trusting of other people – and key institutions – than their elders; Key findings about Americans’ declining trust in government and each other; Trust and Distrust in America; Many Across the Globe Are Dissatisfied With How Democracy Is Working.
[xii] Bauman, Liquid Times, 3.
[xiii] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 133.
[xiv] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, 40.
[xv] Matthew 14: 26-30 (ESV)
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