In Memory of Professor Ulrich Beck (January 8, 2015)

by Sang-Jin Han, Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University

An Asian saying states that life and death are said to be divided by a line as thin as the front and back pages of an empty paper. I ask with pain whether our lives are really so transient. Indeed, the finitude of life is an unavoidable destiny. But when I heard of Professor Beck’s sudden and unexpected passing, my heart ached with deep sadness and sorrow. When we met last December for our Paris conference, he was full of vigor and spirit. During our video call on December 22nd, he showed great enthusiasm for the “Seoul Project for a Safe City”, which we had agreed to start this year. He had led the frontier of new theories with never-ending passion and vision. How can I believe that such a man of full energy suddenly left us? I can hardly accept it. His kind eyes and warm smiles are still with me.

As is happening in the world, is the academic community not becoming fragmented, losing its role as a compass for the future of humanity? Everywhere in the world the lives of the ordinary people are becoming more and more exhausted. The world is at risk and the Earth cries out of its self-destruction. Despite these grim realities, Professor Beck never lost hope for the future and developed inspiring social theories. In the last thirty years he spread hope and courage from his realistic perspective to numerous intellectuals, students, and the public in all corners of the world. All agree that we are now faced with the increasing catastrophe of global risk society. Losing Professor Beck at this time of crisis is a cause for deep grief and a devastating loss for social science.

Professor Beck was the warmest and the most passionate Western scholar I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. We were at similar ages with shared theoretical orientations. He had a wonderful sense of humor and incredible consideration for others. Additionally, his wife, Elisabeth, is also a scholar as is my wife, Young-Hee, so the four of us had many laughs together and formed a close bond as two married sociology couples in academia. For my retirement ceremony, Professor Beck sent a long and heartfelt video message, congratulating me with his gentle smiling face. I was envied by many for our many years of cooperation and friendship. As we are now in separate worlds, the overwhelming sense of loss brings tears to my eyes and heartache in my chest. How can I express this sadness in words?

Together with Jürgen Habermas, Professor Beck was both the most active voice and the greatest contributor in suggesting a new vision for the future of humanity. He opened new horizons in the metamorphosis (Verwandlung) of the world, emancipatory catastrophism and reflexive modernization while confronting global risks such as climate change. In particular, he provided a great impetus to move away from Eurocentric assumptions in order to establish dialogue with East Asia. This aim was the driving force behind “The Seoul Conference 2014” held last July, and the fruits of this groundbreaking conference were published this month in a special issue of Current Sociology (January 2015), a prominent international journal. In addition, Professor Beck’s paper was published as a special feature in Development and Society (Seoul National University, December 2014). With the firm resolve to carry on his legacy, I dedicate these two publications to his memory.

Yet I am still left wanting because he passed away while he was concentrating on writing new books to change the paradigm of social science. The younger scholars following his ideas will inherit and finish the tasks he left behind. In our last conversation, he suggested “a Parliament for Risk Actors for Safe Cities in East Asia” at the end of 2015 for our “Seoul Project”. I vow to dedicate my efforts to carrying out his final wishes.

Professor Beck expressed his deepest condolences for the Korean people, who had been heartbroken by the Seoul Ferry tragedy. He emphasized that Korea’s energy for a new future lies within the people’s cries of “Never Again (nunca mas)!” I pray that from above, he continues to watch out for a safe Korea and guide the people to have unwavering passion for participatory democracy.

Global Express, South Korea

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