Friday, February 5, 2016

From modernity to postmodernity

Patrick Henry Bruce, Painting (1929/1930)
The anthropologist David Harvey characterizes the changes that occurred during the postmodern transition around 1972 as being largely superficial in view of the social and economic changes that occurred in the 70s, and to the extent that postmodernism demonstrates social and economic progress it is more as a reaction to the changes rather than internal to postmodern thought itself. Harvey writes that the ideas of postmodernism, "when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shits in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society." In order not to prejudge Harvey's conclusion it might be useful to examine the route to these new ideas and what these ideas are.

Examining the route to these ideas will be what this discussion is, and then in a later post we will examine the ideas themselves. Our trajectory begins with the Enlightenment, which originated in the 18th century. The Enlightenment was characterized by the belief that no authority by virtue of their position as authority has the right answers to the way the world works or how we ought to treat other people. We need to become our own teachers and the beliefs that we have need to be justified.

David Harvey asserts, without explanation, that the Enlightenment project "took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the would could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly." Some Enlightenment figures may have asserted as much but there is nothing in the Enlightenment ideal that would make this necessarily the case. In fact, it is not even the basic mark of Enlightenment values.

Believing the caricature sketched above by Harvey makes it easier for people to perceive the Enlightenment as continuous with the emerging worldview of domination and oppression of the fascist regimes of World War II. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) by Horkheimer and Adorno makes just such an argument. If the Enlightenment requires one correct answer to world problems, and if a group of self-appointed enlightened persons reason their way to the wrong solution, it would be possible to have a system of thought and political behaviors like fascism.

Modernism emerged during the late 19th century. The movement permeated the arts and sciences and everyday life. The mark of modernism was that the old ideas had to be discarded for novel ones and that the limits of rational and aesthetic intelligibility had to be pushed to the limits. Also, it was assumed in modernism that the proper position from which to undertake study and creativity were from the inside, examining the world from the first-person point of view. Modernism was not a political movement but this belief in novelty, subjectivity, and the limits of intelligibility required some stance toward politics. If all traditional forms are to be discarded, there arises the question of what ought to replace it. For some modernists, this meant inaugurating new traditions. For others, it meant getting comfortable with the flux. For still others, it meant creating more flux. No wonder, then, that the late 19th to early 20th century gave rise to fascist and anarchist movements, both sides of the extreme.

Postmodernism supposedly came in the wake of the Enlightenment and modernism. Yet many people think that this retelling of the history of ideas is misguided and that the Enlightenment and modernist projects never went away.

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