The Lernaean Hydra and “Liquid Modernity”
I was surprised recently in coming across an article on the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and his characterisation of Late Modernity as “liquid modernity.” He has even apparently written a book about it with that title.
The Wikipedia entry for Bauman describes his notion of “liquid modernity” as follows: “… its characteristics are the privatization of ambivalence and increasing feelings of uncertainty. It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where one can shift from one social position to another, in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the liquid modern man, as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes even more (such as political or sexual orientation), (self-)excluded from the traditional networks of support.” And he contrasts this condition with the sense of “solidity” or “solid modernity” that prevailed earlier (pre-1914, perhaps?).
I can’t say, presently, whether or not this is a fair assessment of Bauman’s views on the matter (I’ll have to investigate further). What struck me, though, was how the phrase “liquid modernity” recalled the meaning of the name “Hydra” (“water”), which I introduced earlier as a way of trying to interpret the right-wing boogey-man of “cultural Marxism” and even the pernicious demagoguery of the so-called “War on Terror.” These phrases are so “fluid”(deliberately) that they can embrace practically anything contradictory, dissenting, or ambivalent as belonging one and the same single existential threat, just like the polymorphous, many-headed Hydra of classical mythology.
The association of the two with “water” is owing to the fluid, polymorphous and shape-shifting nature of both Late Modernity (per Bauman) and the Lernaean Hydra. And here occurred to me that strange and peculiar custom among the Celts that mystified the Romans — that the Celtic king, upon his ascending office, was obliged to wade into the ocean (or the tide) and attack it with his sword. It is a legend that I have heard associated directly with King Canute, reputedly attacking the tide with his sword to demonstrate the ultimate impotence of kings to command time or tide and thus (one surmises) death and mortality itself. It may well have been, as the Romans reported, a wider custom among the Celtic tribes as a way of instilling humility in those who presumed to be rulers and kings, by demonstrating to them in this ceremonial way their own ultimate impotence and the limits of their authority and power. The sword has always symbolised “will;” the ocean, “chaos” (abyss); and tides,”time”.
The sea, here, bears the same meaning as the Hydra (water). It’s nature is to be almost invincibly polymorphous (but also indivisible) and, in the case of the Hydra, also multifaceted. That seems to be what Bauman wants to imply by his term “liquid modernity.”
But we can also understand this “liquid” condition of Late Modernity somewhat differently. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has used the term “polychrone” to describe the condition of human society in the global era — many times, histories, traditions or generations co-existing, and which multiformity and diversity of times must become synchronised or coordinated through one universal human history (is how he put it). How we effect that is the great purpose of the integral consciousness and the grand task of a planetary civilisation beyond the reactionary “clash of civilisations,” which must definitely end in grief.
I do believe, tentatively, that Bauman’s characterisation of “liquid modernity” is incomplete and that Rosenstock-Huessy’s is probably the more accurate description of what this “liquidity” of Late Modernity amounts to — polychrony — many times co-existing in the present. This was also Jean Gebser’s assessment in The Ever-Present Origin where he spoke of different structures of consciousness in their polychrony (the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational) co-existing in the planetary era, and to be realised in their unity only through and within the fifth element or quintessence — integral consciousness as a multiplex of these historical forms. Here, the plasticity or flexibility of consciousness is completely owing to its also being polychrone, as the essential characteristic of its potency, expressed in terms of multidimensionality and multiversity.
In that sense, “ocean” has also always symbolised the experience of consciousness liberated from attachment to form, which is the true original meaning of the word “Absolute” and absolution. It means “totally free” (and not what a lot of our contemporary seducers for “moral absolutes” mean, whose “absolutes” are merely inviolable abstractions). What is the greatest example of this “absolute,” “liquidity”, “flexibility” or the polymorphousness of consciousness I have ever encountered if not that of the great Rumi,
“I am the morning mist,
and the breathing of evening.
I am the wind in the top of the grove,
and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman and keel,
I am also the coral reef they founder on….
Both candle and the moth
crazy around it…
I am all orders of being,
the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence,
the lift and the falling away.
What is and what isn’t…”
That’s the only meaning of “liquidity” that’s really worth the name. If Bauman’s “liquidity” does not also mean “empathy” in somewhat similar terms — for empathic identification is the true fluidity and multidimensionality of consciousness in those terms — than it is a flawed concept. Rumi’s consciousness is “Absolute” in those terms — totally free — precisely because it is not fixed or rigidly attached to any one particular form or configuration. This is also an older principle of mystical Christian practice: “to know the thing, you must become it”. The Hindu mystics already put it “the same but different”: “thou art that” already.
That, only, is the true nature of empathy or compassion. Otherwise, it only masquerades as pity and self-pity.