Liquid Infrastructure

I’m not sure if it is fair to say this, but … we all know that Zygmunt Bauman is a considerable force in contemporary social theory. I was first turned onto his work when reading his small tome on globalization. I was impressed by his ability, at times, to tackle seemingly insurmountable issues such as the space/time relationship and so on.

Today I got a promotional e-mail from Polity Press celebrating Bauman’s work on liquidity. This was part of the advertisement.

Capture A

So, Bauman has been developing this notion of liquidity for more than a decade (although, from what I can gather the quality of writing, the tone, and the style change little between the books). Bauman published Liquid Modernity in 2000, Liquid Love in 2003, Liquid Life in 2005, Liquid Times in 2006, and Culture in a Liquid Modern World in 2011. These pieces should be lauded for developing the same concept so slowly over such a long period of time. Obviously, there is some repetition within the titles, which will undoubtedly annoy some readers. I grabbed the titles from our library here at Penn State and started to page through them …

  • In Liquid Love, Bauman decries increasingly unfixed relational ties that bond us together, leaving the average person to connect to others with whatever resources they have at their disposal.
  • In Liquid Life, Bauman describes how we live in a world of stubborn uncertainty, perpetual self-re-creation, and which is marked by a need to rid ourselves of the worthless junk we accumulate.
  • In Liquid Modernity, Bauman in the years following the Second World War, a period of expanding wealth and commercialization in the West,
  • In Culture in a Liquid Modern World, which, while containing the liquid metaphor in the title of the book, seems not to develop the concept further within the book … at any rate, Bauman describes the history of the term culture and its failure to help or aid those cultures it was supposed designed to describe.

In the end, it is Bauman’s Liquid Times, the 4th title he published in the ‘liquid series’ that has the most insight about what a ‘liquid infrastructure’. The dust jacket reads:

Zygmunt Bauman’s brilliant writings on liquid modernity have altered the way we think about the contemporary world. In this short book he explores the sources of the endemic uncertainty which shapes our lives today and, in so doing, he provides the reader with a brief and accessible introduction to his highly original account, developed at greater length in his previous books, of life in our liquid modern times.

In Liquid Times, Bauman goes on to describe the un-fixity of social institutions, which he sees as too fluid to count and a poor base on which to plan for the future, which leaves individuals to scrape along the best they can to find alternative or innovative ways to organize themselves, their lives, and our times. Indidividuals, living under such conditions mirror them; uncertain times and unstable institutions require individuals to flexible and reactive; consequently, ever-readiness for change and personal adaptability become the hallmark of this liquidity Bauman uses to describe many facets of contemporary living.

This is perhaps the point to harvest to get some leverage on liquid infrastructure; hybrid-infrastructure, custom infrastructure, adaptable infrastructure … all seems like directions I’ve seen developed over the last few years. For example, Kathryn Furlong’s work on hybrid infrastructures or Govind Gopakumar’s work on flexible water and transportation infrastructure, both of these scholars are already dealing, to some extent, with many of the notions that Bauman is working with. My intuition is that ‘liquid infrastructure’ would be a fitting umbrella term to bring together these lines of thought. Might also make a snazzy book title.

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

9 thoughts on “Liquid Infrastructure

  1. I owe Baumann´s thinking a lot, having read most of those books when I was studying. But it is not “fair” to reduce his work to the idea of liquidity (although it is a fantastic description of postmodern life, postmodern institutions, postmodern relationships) — that guy has seen all totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and struggled, well struggles still, I guess, with a way to intellectually cope with them.


    • What is also not fair is reducing what I wore to “But it is not “fair” to reduce his work to the idea of liquidity” … I don’t think, in calling Bauman a social theory guru that I implied that his only valuable work was about liquidity … just that he’s been developing the idea over a decade in the books I mentioned. . Still, I see your point that he embeds the term into such a robust set of books and ideas that it may be unfair to dis-embed the term from the corpus of work it helps give life to.


      • I should not have written “not fair”, sorry, bad choice of words. I wanted to stress the fact that his notion of liquidity has a deep political meaning, a constant a-totalitarian undertone and a not completely developed, but great notion of politics that does not need any reference to interests, dominant actors or underlying magical forces.

        Actually I wanted to emphasize that to show how much I agree with the thought that Baumann could be a source of great inspiration when talking about infrastructure and I wanted to help readers avoid skipping over it, thinking: “ahhh, multiple? relational? heterogenous? liquid? All the same to me…” Again, sorry for the “not fair”…


        • I was not being serious ‘serious’ anyhow. At any rate, that was my intention for thinking about infrastructure … without interests, dominant cultures, and so on. I still do not yet completely understand the a-tolitarian underpinnings, but stand by the idea that it seems like a fruitful idea and a telling concept name.


  2. Yes, indeed – It made me go to my shelf and read a bit of Baumann again. Given that liquidity is a more general diagnosis, one might also argue that infrastructuration as we understand it could be a (always temporal) solution for the problem of stability in an age of instability and at the same time a characteristic of this age: as stability reached through infrastructures is always only provisional and requires intense care, it is an instable stability – a feature one could call liquid.


    • Good read on it; something like the nearly inherent instability of stability efforts aimed at overcoming instability. Reminds me, as I said before, of Furlong’s 2012 4S presentation.


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