Barbarism: the active dystopia

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In this article, I argue that dystopia also has an ambivalently “active” function in Bauman’s sociology. Across his work, as a counter-image to the “active utopia” of socialism, the traces of the “active dystopia” can be tracked, defined as a pointed elucidation of the possibilities for barbarism latent within the present, the clearest expression of which is presented in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). The article proceeds roughly in three steps. Firstly, I revisit the arguments in Bauman’s foundational cultural and critical sociology that developed alongside his revisionist reading of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s, on epistemologies of the future, common sense and the limitations of the predictive ambitions of social science. Then, I develop a particular focus on an unpublished, though essential, typescript entitled “Is the Science of the Possible Possible?”, suggesting that it is usefully read in terms of the emphasis on possibility and potentiality in Modernity and the Holocaust. Throughout these sections, I intersperse a reading of Modernity and the Holocaust in the light of this foundational work, presenting it as an exemplary form of critical sociology as active dystopia, which elucidates the possibility for barbarism residing within modern societies. Finally, I consider how his thinking situates him in a lineage of critical thought animated by the “active dystopia”, arguing that what is often mistaken for gloominess and pessimism is, in fact, a crucial resource for sociology in its speculative imagination of possible futures.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages19
JournalStudia Litteraria et Historica
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


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