Bauman, Zygmunt and Riccardo Mazzeo, In Praise of Literature

Zygmunt Bauman and Riccardo Mazzeo, In Praise of Literature (Cambridge: Polity 2016) 180pp.  £14.99 Pb., £50 Hb. ISBN: 9781509502684

Writing this review in April 2017, one ought to respectfully note the death of featured co-author Zygmunt Bauman in January of this year. This long-time sociology professor at the University of Leeds, who emigrated from Poland for political reasons in 1968 and since became a bona fide public intellectual of the near-household-name variety, had an incredible amount of publications under his belt (including several this year and last). Unavoidably, given its timing, In Praise of Literature therefore feels like something of a mildly reverential swan song.

This is especially true considering that the co-author, essayist Riccardo Mazzeo, appears to be interviewing Bauman throughout, teasing out nuances and details from the latter’s extensive oeuvre. Taken as a relatively relaxed, free-form, though insightful and considered conversation between a thinker with a significant intellectual hinterland and an avid disciple, In Praise of Literature has a number of things to recommend it. If, however, the imposition of an overall aim and a traditional chapter structure upon what amount to fairly variegated conversational threads suggests a cohesive, standalone work – or perhaps even just a gentle introduction to Bauman’s prolific output – prospective readers may end up disappointed.

It was this reviewer’s first proper contact with either author’s ideas, most prominent amongst which is Bauman’s admittedly fascinating attempt to sidestep the problematics of a seemingly never-settled transition from modernity to postmodernity; Bauman instead posits a recent move from ‘solid’ to ‘liquid’ modernity (and as other book titles attest – Liquid Love (2003), Liquid Surveillance (2012) and Liquid Evil (2016) – liquidity itself is a highly liquid notion). This useful metaphorical concept pops up throughout In Praise of Literature, but is never directly addressed in itself, and one gets the impression that prior knowledge of Bauman’s oeuvre is not only assumed but necessary for a true appreciation of this book’s somewhat scattered contents.

It is evident, then, that the supposed authorial status of the book is somewhat misleading. In fairness to Mazzeo, this is to ignore a co-authored Preface, which tantalizingly promises ‘a key to unpacking the pattern of the relation and mutual interdependence between two, artistic and scientific, cultures – as well as to estimating the degree to which each of the two business associates owes its progress to the incentive, enlightenment, spur and animus received from the other’ (xiii). The two cultures or ‘business associates’ (also referred to in the first chapter’s title as ‘The Two Sisters’) invoked in this instance are literature and sociology, and scholars of literature and science will no doubt hear echoes of many other such well-meaning promises, as well as some corresponding pyrrhic victories. Indeed, the overblown mixed metaphors of the above-quoted passage are typical of the whole volume and maybe offer a warning to manage one’s own readerly expectations.

Bauman and Mazzeo readily admit that the ‘subject-matter of our conversation-in-letters […] is the notoriously […] contested issue: the relation between literature (and arts in general) and sociology (or, more generally, a branch of the humanities that claim a scientific status)’ (vii). However, this sudden expansion of the ‘subject-matter’ seems way beyond the remit of a thin volume which otherwise claims, slightly more modestly and realistically, simply to exist ‘in praise of literature’.

Furthermore, one might be perfectly prepared to accept the conversational format of this book, but it is the ‘in-letters’ part which may grate: every chapter follows the same pattern – a short observation or even provocation offered by Mazzeo, often derived from Bauman’s work, to which Bauman responds, though equally often rejecting the overall theme of Mazzeo’s section (as well as the chapter title) and focusing on some subsidiary point which is then left hanging mid-thought before moving to the next chapter.

In itself, such digression and free-flowing exchange is not unappealing, but stated topics are sometimes not intelligibly covered, whilst other unheralded ones are mined ad infinitum. In one fantastically ironic instance, Chapter Nine ‘Risking Twitterature’ does not in any obvious way deal with its purported subject, but instead vaguely admonishes that ‘electronic technology supplies both the form and the contents of both thought and action’ (109). The irony lies in that Bauman and Mazzeo’s book is neither properly co-authored nor actually that conversational – it reads much more like a back and forth over email, a long-winded albeit scholarly internet correspondence, rather than an out-and-out socio-literary dialogue.

This is awkwardly evident, for example, when they cite and mention academics Dominique Schnapper and Anna Sfard (on pages 32 and 81 respectively) as the daughters of other (male) academics (in the latter case, Bauman’s own) – a trifling, innocent aside between two friends and scholars if taken as a personal discussion, perhaps, but otherwise a somewhat irrelevant detail, the inclusion of which is perplexing in the absence of a much-needed index and bibliography.

Still, one praiseworthy thing about In Praise of Literature is its relative conciseness – as previously mentioned, it is short and, so long as one is already acquainted with the authors’ previous conversations or writings, largely written in an accessible way. However, for readers lacking this kind of background, almost all chapters are actually too succinct. For instance, Chapter Three ‘The Pendulum and Calvino’s Empty Centre’ is incredibly intriguing, yet breaks off after only eight pages. The argument – that neither society nor self smoothly evolve along some linear path, but actually move like a pendulum, carrying past states into the future and summoning future states into the past – is itself unfortunately not allowed room to get into its swing.

This sense of a rather underdeveloped project is only corroborated by the centrepiece chapter ‘Metaphors of the Twenty-first Century’, which is tellingly longer than all the other chapters save the introductory and concluding pieces, and in which Bauman and Mazzeo fascinatingly discuss Stefano Tani’s proposal of three interlacing metaphors for contemporary selfhood: ‘Screens refer to looking at oneself, Alzheimer’s to emptying oneself, and Zombie to transforming oneself’ (83). A specific topic given a coherent and lengthy airing relevant to its title and to the book’s stated remit – this ought to have been the blueprint for the book overall.

Taking Bauman and Mazzeo at their word, that given their ‘perspective of mainly sociological interests and concerns, our conversations are not an exercise in the theory of literature’ (viii), their book’s title seems a little incongruous as well as overstated. This is equally true of Chapter Two, ‘Salvation through Literature’, in which Bauman concludes that literature may offer individual salvation, but when faced with a larger societal picture, ‘to what practical effect?’ (30). This conclusion is quite at odds with the authors’ initially stated aims, not to mention their title. Such inconsistencies are perhaps not a problem within the ebbing and flowing context of a dialogue, but certainly do not match the supposedly sociological goal of this volume.

The ideas on show themselves are not to blame, but their haphazard, clunky form of presentation means that rather than the authors coming across as the highly original and erudite thinkers they so clearly are, something of a nostalgic fuddy-duddy atmosphere lingers, especially in the constant jibes about the insidiousness of technological advance and the rise of new media. Not so much ‘in praise of literature’ as in castigation of its digital evolution, this is still not a terrible book. It is just that contrary to its claims, before reading literature alongside sociology, one might be better off reading In Praise of Literature alongside its authors’ other works.

Romén Reyes-Peschl, University of Kent