Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page

When Did Modernity Start?

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Answers on a postcard please. Modernity might have ‘started’ when the ploughboy opened his  double-entry bookkeeping system?  Or when pints replaced flagons. Or Henry the VIII asked for ‘pastrami-triple-deck-on-rye-no-butter-no-olives-with-double-decaff-skinny-latte-soy-no-sugar’? A concept still difficult at most British cafés! Although if Kolakowski’s right, no person can conceive of the Age they are in. So, if you’re praising Modernity’s greatness ‘we’ must be Post-Modern? Aha! ‘Seeing’ the Modern Age means it’s already finished.

The question is fraught then, if it’s a Modern Question. Something ‘starting back then’, as it were, suggests A Modern History, where, ‘back then’ supposedly can tell us something about ‘now’, when many of you will queue up to say Now is creating Then!  Gulp. Park that nihilist/liberating notion for one moment.

W. B. Yeats’ modern antinomies remain alive in the Syrian conflict: “Between extremities Man runs his course; A brand, or flaming breath.” (My underscore.) An event must be matched by another event. This is Modern Progress achieved by vacillation rather than resolution  (“hello United Nations, Nick Clegg here”). By seeing an event as the only response to an event, alternatives go hang. By camping on one side you ‘create’ the sectarian divide, even if any fundamental differences in sides are false. Kierkegaard offers up his choice of Either/Or (hedonism versus piety) as the arch parody of the modern fallacy. The joke for Kierkegaard was on Christendom largely, but also us, as no-one chooses such ‘camps’: Firstly, as choice is a luxury, and secondly, no-‘one’ can be one or t’other. But some governments seem to think: ‘Syria is bad, because it bombed, er, Syria, and to punish Syria, we must, er, bomb Syria’. For The West to stay pious it must bomb ‘its opposite’ to keep alive its self-image of being on ‘piety’s side’. This Modern or better still Greek fallacy persists. The Greeks and Trojans march back and forth. Except there is no global synthesis for West versus East it seems. Only back and forth because one side prefers vacillation as a way of life. What if the Taliban wanted to talk all along? Which we suspect they did.

Before this ‘progress’ of Modern history it is somehow comforting to know a couple of things: a) mythologies abound in all societies of ‘the Present Age’ being a poor shadow of some former glory (making spurious the idea of history as working from the ‘then’  to now, when it’s likely to be working from the now to now, remember!)  and b) prior to the so-called Modern Age there was a labyrinthine ‘mess’ of dominions and principalities beyond assessment. So the Modern Age then is an Age where people unscramble a perception, call it ‘unscrambled’ and start writing about it in binary terms. It’s there because a Platonic Ideal emerged alongside the Nation State trying to position itself in its own mind for its own sake. The interstitial space between East and West is ineffable so it can’t exist as an option, says Obama?

Coffee Mugged: Asking for 'double-decaff-Latte-skinny-soy-no-sugar' in the Modern café is still hedonistic liberal nonsense. 'We serve ham and cheese only!'

Coffee Mugged: Asking for ‘double-decaff–skinny-latte-soy-no-sugar’ in the Modern café is still hedonistic liberal nonsense: ‘We serve ham and cheese only !’

The modernist writer explores the ‘space’. If, as Girard points out, the theatre (in Swann’s Way) is a disappointment, just as with a modern institution, the close encounter with the ‘old man’ in The Stalls restores not the theatre or institution but faith in its principles. The old man sits in the space, so to speak, waiting. Kafka’s character, K., a Land Surveyor, can’t visit The Castle, nor his employer, The Count. The Castle is omnipresent in his struggles as he surveys the village. It rules the community. But he can’t go there. Nor bridge the gap with those it rules. Persistent alienation from The Other marks the private reflection of ordinary people. To bridge the divide is to question The Castle and its ‘place’. A moral travesty. K. develops the language of ‘the space’ to navigate between the villagers who keep the Castle at the front of their minds. The Castle, its loyal advocates, enter K.’s sleeping and waking hours, uninvited. For the modernist writer, life sits below ‘the structure’ of the pre-eminent ‘Other’ in modern life. Even if the ‘Other’ isn’t encountered. The Other is The Taliban, the benevolent Monarch, the PhD thesis, or the the much vaunted ‘known customer preference’. Or The Socialist Nightmare in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Written in 1944 when any neat enemy suited.  What if Thatcher had read a second book?

If not being Modern then is returning  to an ‘Ageless’ labyrinthine world, by, say, de-Stating yourself, or de-modernitying your language, it’s worth noting that some argue that the Modern Age was pre-fixed by other modes, such as The Renaissance or Reformation mindset. Fundamentalists of all shades prefer single narratives and located ‘starting points’. So care needed. Protestant fundamentalism would rarely want to give a nod to Erasmus’s mocking of a laughable church offering cut price deals on a shortened Purgatory; or The Renaissance, or, the weakened North European Princes for enabling Luther’s unction: ‘go on Martin, you can do it my boy; 60/40 alright?’. The idea that powerful self-interest supported radical religious reform makes the story grubby. The conservative right-wing positions the UK as being a post-Christian nation. Ask though a Modern Christian which day in history ‘we were a Christian nation’. Was it Thursday 4th in 18whenever? The right-wing constructs the ‘Christian’ and then constructs ‘the nation’. Without apology. No-one knows these terms anymore of course, so diffuse are they by overuse. What, then, prefixes a collapsing of the binary opposites?

Stephen Spender (a schoolmate, by the way, of Ben Britten, whose music explores the difficult middle), writing on pre-eminent modernist T. S. Eliot, refers to the brightness of modernity (“eyes cut open”). Implying its construction be-shadows ‘the spaces’ in the gloomy middle. Brilliant (as in dazzling) modernity is better described as a sensate-culture: “Most poets adopted, as Oscar Wilde had done, and as Yeats and Ezra Pound later did, aggressive and flamboyant poses. But Eliot was too profoundly ironic to do this.” T. S. Eliot, the Lloyds Bank foreign account manager, is too ordinary until propelled by The Waste Land into super celeb status. We discover at last language is political. We’re informed by the ordinary man, the bank manager. This is the turning point where theory is seen, as Terry Eagleton notes, as a High Political Project. Modernity itself ends then when all ordinary folks believe this together? Not until then.