Modernity Research Paper

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If it is true that a notion is intuitive knowledge, synthetic and inaccurate enough about one thing, then modernity belongs to this type of mental representation which, as opposed to concept, does not offer clearly defined contours of the abstract object to which it refers. We commonly agree upon what must be understood by ‘modern’: that which appears, exists, or belongs to the current era or to a recent period, while ‘modernism’ expresses a preference against all traditionalism. Economists, sociologists, development experts also know what ‘modernization’ means when expressed in terms of politics and equipment plans. They agree with Jean Fourastie that, in the 1920s, to modernize a factory meant to install machines there and to submit the workers to their rhythms, whereas today ‘it is to introduce into it a new working method, based, above all, on the means and faculties of men’ (1969, p. 354). All those who deal with religious sciences know about the crisis of ‘modernism,’ which condenses the doctrines and movements advocating renewal and adaptation of Catholic theology in relation to modern scientific discoveries and the general evolution of the world at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century. Finally, nobody can ignore that ‘modern style,’ 1900 style, ‘noodle’ style, is composed of floral ornaments intertwining iris, Virginia creeper and plane tree or chestnut tree leaves.

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Numerous semantic samples, which relate to the modern or to what it specifies, could be attached to modernity. In particular, we should mention those which include ideas of custom, of avant-garde, and of doubt, as well as the refusal of traditional values. The complexity—paradoxically, as it would itself become the challenge—of modernity lies in the multiplicity of levels in which it is unfurled and in the uncertainty of the temporal framework which we tend to attribute to it. It appears to show solidarity towards ‘progress’ made in the field of science and technology; when applied to arts and culture, it can be conceived as being free from established rules, released from former achievements, and of new creation, original, unpublished. It is possible that modernity saw the light of day in the sixteenth century: did not a French historian entitle one of his works La Modernite du XVIe siecle (The Modernity of the Sixteenth Century)? Leaving the modern period for the contemporary era, modernity emerges in the nineteenth century, when Chateaubriand created the term in a text dated 19 May 1833 and entitled Memoires d’Outre-tombe, and in which he recounts that, on the outskirts of a town on the Danube,

Vulgarity and modernity of customs and passports were contrasted with storm, the gothic door, the sound of a horn and the noise of a torrent.

It is also useful, from the beginning, to clear away the confusion which has surrounded the notion of modernity. We will therefore recognize the primacy of the aesthetic dimension which, at first sight, is nothing more than a rather vague constellation of ideas. Seen in this way, one might wonder how sociology should approach the subject, and which works should be consulted when we intend to examine its relationship with modernity.

1. The Characteristics of Modernity

Historically, modernity has a double origin: the Renaissance and the Reform. From the beginning, it was the demonstration of a crisis, the symptom of a transformation—and in no way its ‘analyzer.’ It must be recognized that Jean Baudrillard ably demonstrated that modernity is not an analytical concept, but rather, by converting the crisis into a value, it is a form of regulation—and first and foremost, a way towards civilization—supporting a new mythology. It is not enough to say that the latter is centered upon change; the ideological contents must be defined: these include categorical requirements which institute the ‘tradition of novelty.’ This argument owes nothing to Christopher Colombus, nor to Galileo Galilei, and very little to Luther and Calvin. The idea of ‘rupture,’ to which modernity provides the rhetoric is, however, associated with the great discoveries, with the passage from geocentricism to heliocentricism, and to the theses of Wittenberg.

The development of this rhetoric continues through a series of processes: world rationalization, secularization of thought, loss of one’s fondness for community links, and assertion of individualism. In France, we are very aware of the strong moments of this movement. First, we have the quarrel of the Ancient and the Modern, in which the champions were, on the one hand, Boileau, Racine, Bossuet, La Bruyere, and, on the other, Quinault, Saint-Evremond, Fontenelle. The last of these was the author of Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes which appeared during the same year (1688) that Perrault began his compilation of Paralleles des Anciens et des Modernes (1688–1692). Descartes had already affirmed that there is no reason

to bow down before the Ancient because of their great age, it is more ourselves who should be called Ancient. The world is now older than before and we have a greater experience of things.

Here we see that the old image of dwarves perched upon the shoulders of giants has reappeared. In fact, it was not only a question of the specific literary value within the works of Antiquity. The opposition was especially interested in the effectiveness of progress of intelligence and morality: the Ancient remained attached to the idea of an original and ‘natural’ simplicity, while the Modern believed in the beneficial effects of civilization.

Another important step was the period known as the Aufklarung, the Enlightenment, the Siecle des Lumieres which in France was the setting for the adventure of the Encyclopaedia. In a world plunging into obscurity due to the effacing of religious signals, there emerged a willingness to maintain an illuminated centre—and to assume the heritage—far from the models which had merely to be imitated. ‘Modernity’ provided support for ideas of progress and freedom: ‘Laisser faire (les hommes), laisser passer (les merchandises)’ ‘Let them do (men), let them pass (merchandise).’ This injunction coined by Gournay, became the motto of economical liberalism, an expression of modernity. Free examination, free expansion, free pleasure in fact cumulated their impact at the time of the Enlightenment, but it was not until the next century, with the continuation of the democratic and industrial revolutions, that modernity acquired its full political and economic significance.

Without a doubt, modernity is the inseparable companion of industrialization, of urbanization, and of the introduction of regular salaries, which characterize a productive society wholly placed under the sign of the division of work. It is also an integral part of a progressive movement towards a mass consumer society based upon standardization. The new way of life that it engenders, of which dissociation of work place and living environment, as observed by Max Weber, is just one aspect, corresponds to the organization of the ‘modern’ state, the centralized, the bureaucratic state and the promotion of the individual as an abstraction, which in turn creates the combination, in the universal de-realization exposed by Marx, of the rationality of the state—henceforth equipped with a constitution—and of private interests—which are linked solidly to ownership. However, the concepts we have just discussed are not, objectively speaking, the most essential part of what we are seeking to understand. This can be found in the anxiety which overtakes the individual freed from the old magic-religious mechanism and which will, in the end, only be alienated by new networks of mediation. Mobility has in fact reached a state of subjectivity and has rendered the identity of the subject uncertain, so that from then onwards it will be predisposed to instability.

2. The Attractiveness of Modernity

If we see modernity man installed in a time-specific, historical era, that is to say in a new temporality which apparently excludes eternity, we are again making him the vector or the product of an ideology of rupture. Within a cultural context where everything seems to be contemporary, current, and immediate, contradictions follow on from each other and opposites unite; e.g., standardization and the search for singularity, social integration and irruption of subjectivity, submission (to norms) and subversion (of forms), and so on. With the emergence of a ant-garde, i.e., the aggressive emancipation of models, which had been considered legitimate until then, the destruction of traditional frames and perfect examples, we are nevertheless passing from a period of modernity viewed as a rhetoric of rupture to an attractiveness for change.

In a incisive study, Prosa der Moderne (1988), Peter Burger perfectly demonstrated that

if it is true that philosophical thought is blocked because it is incapable of considering the catastrophe by which it is obsessed, it is time to discover the other medium which allows one to see clearly within ourselves, in other words the prose of modernity.

Thinking laterally, he also gave prominence to how literary knowledge and sociological analysis can cross paths. Among the authors of literary modernity whose writings have the power to take their own presuppositions as a theme, we must place Charles Baudelaire. We will not, however, refer to P. Burger’s subtle comments (1988) about the allegory of the poet of Fleurs du mal, we will simply recall how the critic, in Curiosites esthetiques, identified modernity by assigning, for the first time, the meaning which remains attached to it today.

In 1863, Le Figaro consecrated its famous chronicle to modernity, as seen through the street scenes drawn by Constantin Guys, ‘the painter of modern life.’ The quality which should exist in the heart of all creation is identified: it is ‘movement.’ ‘And thus he goes, he runs, he seeks’ and what is this ‘modern’ artist looking for? The goal he is aiming for being

other than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance ( … ), it is, for him, to release from customs what they can contain as poetical in the historical, to extract the eternal from the transitory.

Modernity ‘is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is eternal and unchanging.’ It is the resolution of a conflict, the reduction of tension between the ever suspect outpouring of emotion and the unjustifiable steadiness of eternal beauty, the reconciliation—thanks to poetical works—of the requirement for emotional authenticity (via the insertion of work in the evanescence of daily life) and of a desire for eternity (which is satisfied by the freeing of the invariable from the contingent).

We can clearly detect the reasons for Baudelaire’s strong delight in painting and music, and especially for the canvasses of clashing contrasts by Delacroix and the swelling music of the Wagnerian universe. There is an energy which gives dynamism to these works; it jostles and disrupts the emotional state of the person who contemplates or listens to them. Combining passion and control, Delacroix remains detached from all imitation of nature: he is the ‘suggestive’ painter and ‘what he translates is the invisible, the impalpable, the dream, the nerves and the soul.’ On this subject, Baudelaire observes that Breughel, with his dreamlike chaos, and Goya, the painter of the monstrous probable, figure among the initiators of modernity. Modernity is therefore neither topicality, nor contemporaneousness; one is less fond of it at a given time. It becomes an orientation towards a future-past and a discernment in the era of the ‘provisionally eternal.’

At the same time, we are experiencing the assumption of imaginary. Towards this— which dilates as the symbolic becomes tense—there opens a space on canvass and score. A constructive imagination, the first constituent, governs its display which does not end with the imagination-deceptions generated by fancy. With passing movements of decomposition and recomposition, the form of the beautiful symbol of modernity is sketched, made up of strange things and devices which render the beautiful the antonym of the real. The caricature of Daumier, the hair-splitting of the universal exhibitions, and the calculated affectation of the dandy are equally make-ups, but not masking, of the real. During the Salon of 1859, Baudelaire gave meaning to the lie which is modernity, when he wrote that, after expressing his enchantment for the theater decor which concerned his artistic dreams

these things, because they are false, are infinitely nearer to the truth, whereas most of our landscape painters are liars precisely because they forgot to lie.

We can also identify the reasons that led Walter Benjamin to see the passive stroller in the intoxicating crowd as the ‘hero of modernity,’ in his studies dedicated to Charles Baudelaire, Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus (1938–1939). This is surely the poet of modern society who, in the agitated throng of large towns, feels the loss of experience intensely: for which the instantaneous real-life experience of innumerable shocks was substituted, became permanent and could not be assimilated. In this situation, which is characterized by a new relationship to time—about which modernity no longer recognizes the accomplishment, having lost all sense of recollection and festive moments—he can respond by miming death. He can also, like Baudelaire, search within the ‘correspondences’ for an experience which will be pursued and protected from, and far from, the modern clash. In a general way, the loss of the ‘aura’ will be converted into a poetical experience.

An earlier text by Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1935) provides a definition for this tendency of modernity to be in constant opposition to uniqueness and distance. The masses appropriate images multiplied by technique; a new, democratic, community is formed, where the concepts of creation, genius, and style fall into disuse as we move from the value of worship to the value of expression. Growing reproducibility leads to the decline in ideas of authenticity and uniqueness, of the authority of the original all condensed into the ‘aura,’ which becomes a theological survival. In this perspective, modern art trivially signifies that by as many people as possible having access to its products. With the texts united within the title Das Passagen-Werk (1927–1940), Benjamin aimed for a deeper comprehension of modernity in the light of historical and dialectical materialism. Taking as examples, arcades, universal exhibitions, Baron Haussman’s destruction and constructions, together with photography and the bourgeois interior, he makes the ambiguous demonstration of the process triggered by the fetish for merchandise. The creation of Parisian arcades, covered passages lined with shops and boutiques with their window displays full of goods, is identified as the moment when merchandise and technique seem to be liberated from art in order to appear free of all artifice, but are once again surrounded by borrowed elements. Art becomes technique and, from then on, is placed mainly at the service of the market. It is draped with dreams of the past and transfigures the defaults of the present into works which reveal the utopia of the future. Another art which became very fashionable during the nineteenth century was phantasmagorical art, which consists of showing phantoms through optical illusions in a dark room, leads to the assimilation of modernity with a phantasmagorical universe where signs free of all substance proliferate and where, at the same time, the primacy of form is asserted.

3. Criticism of Modernity

The aesthetic dimension of modernity and the society in which it is inscribed are both examined by Georg Simmel (1989–1990). In his opinion, the world of modernity was in opposition to that of classical culture which was considered to be orderly and containing hierarchical values. In this world, where custom was represented as the summit of the change to which it was perpetually dedicated, was born a new living place—the large town inhabited by masses of people—and a new style of behavior appears which was characterized by the modern individual. Individualism, its dominant trait, was no longer seen as a universal archetype, as it was in the ancient Latin and Christian world. The individual was conceived from now on as a totality, which German romanticism had glorified. Similarly, tragedy was no longer, as in ancient times, seen as a confrontation with an external destiny, but interiorised, so that the individual was not only man, but also victim and torturer.

In this configuration, which stems from the movements and the disorder which it designates, ‘modernity’ appears as a sum of transformations and contradictions that Simmel attempted to disentangle. People can be placed under the sign of conflict, thus providing one of the most important chapters of Soziologie in 1908 and were particularly well portrayed in art and religion. In order to persist, it is required to become consciously but implacably subjective within itself: this is considered as the stylization of life expressed through its liberation. Rodin was selected to be the representative of modern art and interpreter of modernity, in so far as his sculpture was the representation of movement—as an expression of the soul—in relation to a renewed conception of temporality. In the same way that time is an addition of separated instants, movement is composed of a succession of instantaneous postures. This idea leads to condemnation of mechanism and of naturalism, to the assertion that art, because it does not have to bear the ‘train of reality,’ does not have to copy reality. Art is an original conception of the aesthetically modern which is no longer that of the object, but of the subject, with its moods which are expressed in a portrait or a landscape.

All the Simmelian digressions on copy and creation, on distance and proximity, on the tragedy of culture and the intuition of life, are harmonised into a single philosophy of modernity which cannot be separated from general sociology. Lilyane Deroche-Gurcel (1997) perfectly demonstrated their complementarity, beginning with an explanation of how aesthetic points of view and sociological analyses come together for Simmel. Two dissatisfying conceptions of modernity in art are revealed by the author of Rembrandt—Ein Kunstphilosophischer Versuch (1916). One provides him with a matrix with as its only formal principle: the beautiful works are the girls and their shape. The other makes it the immediate expression of life: the original creations are born from strict contact with reality. Going beyond the hieraticism of art for art and the outburst of exuberant expressionism, Simmel saw in the interaction of life and form—an interaction which had been accomplished by both Rembrandt and Rodin—the outcome of modernity. It is this conception which led him to general criticisms or criticisms of detail: instant photography which can only give a fixed expression of a reality, though it pretends to show movement; naturalism, which is constantly at work in the a ant-garde, closed in by the childish rejection of tradition and the boundless search for novelty, and, finally, all dogmatism.

Taking into account the main characteristic of modernity, that is the multiplication of the interactions among individuals, the dissolution of stable contents into transient elements, Simmel concentrated on studying, not constituted society, but socialization. The substitution of movement for substantiality is in correlation with that of the Vergesellschaftung in the study of the Gesellschaft. It is also accompanied by the abandoning of the system for function, of the structure for process, of the status for role, behaviour, attitude. It supports the election of the fragment compared with the totality and of the form compared with the contents. In this respect, the sociology of Simmel, more than any other, has a hold on modernity which signifies, apart from the secession with stability, the loss of all substantial contents. Here we can observe the relationship which exists between modernity and melancholy.

What is significant, from this point of view, is the analysis of indifference: Simmel thought of it in terms of melancholy, by observing within certain aspects of socialization (customs, coquetry, adventure, sociability: the politeness of a detachment without despair) the resurging of melancholic syndromes within the species of their form—depersonalization and a-historicity—understood by their sociological meaning. Finally, Simmel underscores the ambivalence of modernity. Though movement in fact appears to be carried off in a flow of tormented forms, it in fact offers itself to the serene contemplation of the amateur who sees in the work of art of modernity, not the deceptive immobilization of life but rather its stylization.

Generally observed from above, modernity could just as well be observed from below, as fragile historical periodizations. Dedicated to post-modernity, the works of Colin Campbell (1987), David Harvey (1989), Sygmunt Bauman (1989, 1992, 1997), Barry Smart (1992) especially, draw in a hollow a representation of modernity. A Fordist method of production, a division of the society into classes and mass consummation would be the last traits to have been presented by modernity—finally discredited in, and by totalitarian barbarism. The postmodern era would therefore begin with the jamming of the effects generated by the rationalization of the world and would be followed by the coming of social configurations which would, from then on, be commanded by new information and communication techniques. Today, the deconstruction of what modernity edified would therefore be put into operation. In the field of urbanism and architecture, the cities of Brasilia and Chandigar show well what modernity meant during the twentieth century: a utopia of simplicity which does not recognize the complexity of life.

Retrospectively conceived in this way, modernity found itself deprived of many of its characteristics which were transferred to the age which closed it down: the mix of the present with the past, of the new with the archaic, of cultural relics with technical gadgets. However, subject to trial by a plurality of readings and interpretations and according to segments of severed time, modernity can less be a rupture than a response to this—by amalgamation. Above all, the postmodern point of view concerning modernity, whose horror is exposed, leaves behind the tragic which profoundly touched it. It is therefore a reducer, the better to reveal the return of complexity which led to its adoption.

In fact, modernity man is seized by this complexity. It is Ulrich, alias Musil, of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1931), the man ‘without quality’ devoted to the juxtaposition of partial histories. Before the series of events crossed by the crisis of sense and before the difference between physical reality and psychic reality which is being increasingly demonstrated, the question is: how does one summarize it? How can we find the balance between the vital, the emotional, the affective and the control, the criticism, the censure? Within the Cacanie, Austria–Hungary mythical, modernity is an impossible synthesis. But it is also the uneasiness to which we are condemned as soon as, in the order of politics, a work interrupted by reduction of admiration or respect renders the calls for trust and esteem hardly audible and credible.

We should also distinguish two registers within the study of modernity. The one which we will qualify as ‘ideological’ is the most frequented by sociologists. In the ideology of modernity, some see a conservatism via change, others see a spectacular ambiguity and yet others see a culture of daily life. On another level, which, for want of a better term, we will call ‘existential,’ we must situate all that was produced with the weakening of subjectivity, with the assertion of individualists, with the perversity of human relationships, which are just as much aspects of modernity. It is at this level of analysis that we must position ourselves in order to examine the psychosociological consequences of self-constitution, according to which modernity was unveiled and which will always be, though in changing forms, the return of the same.


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