Thursday, September 1, 2016

Defining Modernity

Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker:
We like to think of ourselves as living in an age of unprecedented disruption. Just look at all the commonplace features of our world that didn’t exist a century ago—jet travel, television, space flight, the Internet. If you could transport someone from the year 1916 to the present, we ask a little proudly, wouldn’t that person be stupefied by the changes? And, of course, he would be, at least for a few days, until he figured out how everything worked. But one thing would be very familiar to such a time traveller: the pride, and the anxiety, we feel about being so modern. For people in the early twentieth century were as acutely aware of their modernity as we are of ours, and with just as good reason. After all, they might have said, imagine someone transported from 1816 to 1916: what would that person have thought of railroads, telegraphs, machine guns, and steamships?

Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us. Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power over nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question. But it is always disorienting.
I second this; the defining feature of our age is our experience of the present as something radically different from the past, along with the amount of thought we devote to a future different from either.


David said...

Partly, yes, but they're cunning in picking someone from 1916 instead of, say, 1616. Modernity's idea of itself as new or different isn't just based on discourse--there's a real reality there. Modern life really is different from that in the more distant past in very striking ways. A person from, say, China in 1016 would feel more at home in the China of 1516 than in the China of today (or Spain or India or whatever).

John said...

Yes, things really are changing at a dizzying pace, and real change always existed in a sort of dialectic with how people thought about it. Sometimes the thought ran far ahead of the reality, as with 17th-century visions of future science, or the Jetsons. In other ways thought has lagged behind.