Ulrich Beck (1944–2015)

Ulrich Beck. Photo: Augsburger Allgemeine.

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Ulrich Beck as a (superannuated) postdoc. I was a Humboldt Stipendiat in Berlin, where in 1987, I heard the sociologist Helmuth Berking give a paper on Beck’s “Reflexive Modernisierung” (Reflexive Modernization) at a Freie Universität colloquium. I had already published a paper called “Postmodernity and Desire” in the journal Theory and Society, and Beck’s notion of reflexive modernization seemed to point to an opening beyond the modern/postmodern impasse. Today, Foucault, Deleuze, and even Lebenssoziologie (Life sociology) are all present in German intellectual life. But in 1987, this kind of stuff was beyond the pale. Habermas and Enlightenment modernism ruled. And rightly so: It is largely thanks to Habermas that Germany now is a land rooted less in fiercely nationalistic Blut und Boden (Blood-and-Soil) than in a more pluralistic Verfassungspatriotismus (Constitutional Patriotism).

Beck’s foundational Risikogesellschaft (Risk Society), however, abandoned the order of Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” for contingency and unintended consequences. This was hardly a celebration of contingency; Beckian contingency was rooted in the Chernobyl disaster; it was literally a poison, or in German a Gift. Hence Beck’s subsequent book was entitled Gegengift, or “Counter-poison.” It was subtitled Die organisierte Unverantwortlichkeit (The Organized Irresponsibility). Beck’s point was that institutions needed to be responsible for a politics of antidote that would address the unintentional generation of environmental crises. This was a critique of systematic institutional irresponsibility—or more literally “un-responsibility”—for ecological disaster. Beck’s thinking became more broadly accepted in Germany over the years. Yet the radically original themes of contingency and unintended consequences remained central to Beck’s own vision of modernity and inspired a generation of scholars.

Beck’s influence has been compared by Joan Subirats, writing in in El País, to that of Zygmunt Bauman and Richard Sennett. Yet there is little in Bauman’s idea of liquidity to match the power of Beck’s understanding of reflexivity. It was based in a sociology of knowledge in which the universal of the concept could never subsume the particular of the empirical. At the same time, Beck’s subject was still knowledge, not the impossibility of knowledge and inevitability of the irrational (not, in other words, the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” that have proved so damaging to contemporary political thought). Beck’s reflexivity, then, was not just about a Kant’s What can I know?—it was just as much a question of the Kantian What should I do? and especially What can I hope?

For Beck, “un-responsible” institutions were still situated in what he referred to as “simple modernity.” They would need to deal with modernity’s ecological contingency in order to be reflexive. They would need to be aware of unintended consequences, of what environmental economists (and later the theory of cognitive capitalism) would understand as “externalities.” Beck’s reflexivity extended to his later work on cosmopolitanism and Europe. For him, Europe is not an ordering of states as atoms, in which one is very much like the other. It is instead a collection of singularities. Hence his criticism of German Europe’s “Merkiavelli”-ism in treating Greece and the European South as if all were uniform Teutonic entities to be subject to the principle of austerity.

Though Beck has remained highly influential, Bruno Latour’s “actor-network” theory has outstripped his ideas in terms of popularity, establishing a dominant paradigm among sociologists. Yet the instrumentalist assumptions of actor-network theory do not open up the ethical or hopeful dimension of Beck’s work. The latter has been a counter-poison, an antidote to the instrumentalism at the heart of today’s neoliberal politics, in which our singularity has been eroded under the banner of a uniform and possessive individualism. Because of the contingency at its heart, Beck’s work could never become a dominant paradigm.

Beck’s ideas clearly drove the volume Reflexive Modernization, which he, Anthony Giddens, and I published in 1994. There, I developed a notion of “aesthetic reflexivity,” and although in some ways I am more of a Foucault, Deleuze, and perhaps Walter Benjamin guy, Beck’s ideas still drive my own work today. Thus we should extend Beckian reflexivity to speak of a reflexive community, and of a necessary risk-sharing that must be at the heart of any contemporary politics of the commons.

I was offered the post to be Ulrich’s Nachfolger (successor) at University of Bamberg when he moved to Munich in 1992. In the end, I decided to stay in the UK, but we kept in touch. Although to a certain extent I’ve become a cultural theorist, Ulrich always treated me as a sociologist, and he was right: When I attended his seventieth birthday party in April 2014, all of cultural Munich was there, from newspaper editors to museum directors. Every February, when he was based at the London School of Economics, Ulrich and his wife Elisabeth would spend a Sunday afternoon with Celia Lury and me at our house in Finsbury Park/Highbury, enjoying a lunch of Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) and deli cheeses and hams. No more than a fortnight before his death Ulrich emailed me about February 2015. I replied sadly that I would be in Asia and for the first time would miss this annual Sunday gathering. At his seventieth birthday Ulrich was in rude health. I was honestly looking forward to his eightieth. Now neither the Islington Sundays nor the eightieth birthday will happen. It is sad.

Scott Lash is the Research Director at the Center for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.