the guardian Fri 01 August 2008
Sartre said that one should choose a "life project" that would determine the nature of all other choices. Such advice, Bauman argues, would sound absurd to the youth of today. Is not the primary virtue taught by "liquid" modernity, as he has long termed it, that of flexibility: being always ready, even obliged, to change allegiance and even identity at a moment's notice? Well, says the author, the "art of life" is one that everyone has to practise: even doing nothing, or doing a succession of mutually exclusive things, counts as an artistic choice, if perhaps a bad one.
Forget, meanwhile, the "pursuit of happiness": a sloganeering justification for incessant consumerism. "Happiness needs one-upmanship," Bauman notes deadpan. His argument ranges with humane irony across Fukuyama and business theory, Seneca and the founding of MySpace, Sarkozy and Amos Oz and chaos theory, building to a climactic battle between Nietzsche and Levinas, the latter being, for this author, on the side of the angels. There are also two brilliant mini-essays or excursions: one on the idea of "generations" (of people of different ages) as a sociological discovery or achievement that was born in the destruction of the first world war; and another on eating and its disorders. To be read while listening to the Manic Street Preachers.