"If there is hope, it lies in the polis". Zygmunt Bauman at the Academy of Architecture


Institutional Communication Service

3 February 2015

The “Associazione Amici dell’Accademia di architettura” (Friends of the Academy of Architecture) was founded in 1996, at the same time as the Academy of Architecture began its activities in Mendrisio. The purpose of the Association is to raise funds to grant scholarships for deserving students and to support cultural projects at the Academy. Every year, the Association organises a public event, inviting leading figures in culture and science to lay out their views and stimulate discussions that lead beyond the discipline of architecture.

This year, soon after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Association invited acclaimed Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who gave a speech on Multiculturalism, coexistence, fears, and clash of civilisations. Modernity in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Bauman (1925) was a man who always swam upstream, having fled first from the Nazis, then from the Communists, and who has pinpointed the events in Paris in the context of his critical theory of contemporary society.

The famous concept of “liquid modernity” portrays, according to Bauman, “the instability of our times: a liquid is in fact a substance that, unlike solid matter, does not maintain its form and that does not require much force to change its appearance and nature; all things are precarious, and our actions are no longer 'for' but 'due to' something; our behaviour is, at the same time, void of ideals, design and memory. A condition underscored by the economic crisis on one hand, and by the silent withdrawal of democratic sovereignty on the other”.

The Paris attacks fall into this context and dramatically highlight one of the yet unsolved issues of our modern Western civilisation, the coexistence of identities. In the turmoil of media simplifications and political manipulations, the attacks show the fragility of our model of coexistence, where foreigners – even when living next door – remain such, in a new kind of apartheid.

The inaction of European policy on this issue reveals the ugly truth of our societies: the paradigm of multiculturalism, which for years has been exhorted by referring to an idea of a "politically correct society", has proven to be totally inadequate in managing contemporary conditions; this failure is particularly evident in the way that Islam was almost instantly associated with the actions of a group of criminals.

However, Bauman sees in this bleak setting a glimmering light, an idea to work on for the common good: the potential that is provided to us by cities and the overall urban condition. While governments, constrained by global fluid powers, are blinded and disoriented by the new context, political power could actually regain solidity within the community, the town square and the neighbourhood, thereby returning to its roots - the polis, as a public space, as a place of meeting and dialogue between all citizens, regardless of their ethic-cultural origins.

Bauman, quoting Benjamin Barber, tells us that the unavoidable cohabitation of different ethnic groups, and therefore the concurrence of different identities, could be the ideal context in which politics and power can reconnect, triggering new communication processes and thus renewed understanding among the different communities. Cities could become the real connector between individual identities and their globalness, thus overcoming the empty promises of ‘multiculturalism’ and blind radicalisms.