The Antimodern Modern
This summer, faculty from several universities gathered for the Genealogies of Modernity Faculty Seminar. This post is a reflection from one participant in our collective discussion. Gayle Rogers is professor and chair of English at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of several books on modernism, translation, global literary studies, and the comparative literature. His current book project is a history of the concept and practices of speculation from antiquity to the present.
Incrementalism is not the sexiest mode of historiography, but it’s often the most accurate one. When we think of “modernity,” we think of ruptures, breaks, radical changes oriented toward a wholesale rejection of the past. But in the eyes of most any historian of science, social change, language, literature, pick your field—most change occurs gradually, and it’s only later that we read it as starkly abrupt. This is not to deny that radical changes do take place from time to time, but rather, to acknowledge the simple fact that it’s at once logical to speak of “the nuclear age” and to understand that nuclear weapons did not appear out of nowhere. They were built on centuries of technological developments, just like moments even as radical as the Russian or Cuban revolutions were built on decades (at least) of organizing, planning, persuading, and fighting—in response to centuries of oppression, in turn.
Sometimes this mode of historiography can feel like an endless regression: you can’t understand the American elections of 2016 without understanding the Civil Rights movements, the Jim Crow South, the Civil War, the American Revolution, the colonial period, 1492, even 7/11 in Spain, and on and on. But what if, instead, we look for tipping points and discrete moments of symbolic resonance? That can help narrow the question and the scope, especially when we see that “modernity” has been invoked as a term and proclaimed in a hundred different chronotopes for over a millennium. When, where, and why did “modernity” become attached to certain ideas or events of incremental change?
If we looked for such answers, at least two things would become apparent. One is that we need to separate more carefully “modernity” from ideas like rupture, radicalism, and dramatic change—and to separate those latter three terms, too. T. S. Eliot certainly had a large hand in launching a revolution in poetry, but he did so precisely by what he characterized as deep traditionalism: to be traditional, for Eliot, was to be modern. The mid-19th century French poets who embraced the term “modern,” moreover, did not necessarily mean it to signal radical rupture, either: sometimes it was just an in-house slur, sometimes it was a badge of honor among those dismissed by the literary establishment, and sometimes it simply signaled transience and ephemerality—hardly the markers of a “new era” in human history.
Moreover, some of the strongest proponents and agents of radical change were antimodernists. The Puritans were so disgusted by certain aspects of the modernization of English life that they set sail for new countries. The Nazis (not to equate the two here!) celebrated their paganist, primitivist, blood-based notion of mastery and racial belonging, all while loathing cosmopolitanism or avant-garde cultures as markers of modernity. Or, if we think of the phrase “post-9/11” as signaling a stage of modern world history, we must recognize that those attacks aimed precisely at a symbol of modernity that al-Qaeda wished to demolish.
All to say, modernity certainly has multiple genealogies and those genealogies, like many of our own familial pasts, often have unexpected twists and divergent courses. It’s too simple to take those who make proclamations of modernity at their word, and/or to attach the term to large-scale events around them (especially if they chose the events themselves). We have to parse and to think incrementally. We have to understand what tipped a balance where and when, and then to follow the increments—not just the sea-changes—that ensued. It’s messy and sometimes minute work, but it’s necessary. Think of the painstaking attention to detail in Claude Lauzmann’s Shoah (1985), which reconstructs the sites and scenes of the Holocaust, with horrifying detail, as a coordinated process, not as a bomb dropped from out of nowhere upon human history. It was the culmination of centuries of patterns, but also of minutes and seconds of concrete actions.
I remain less interested in whether our current stage of history needs to be called “modernity” by ways of some reference points beyond its own periodization. But what is impossible to deny, and necessary to analyze deeply, are the narratives of “modernity”—specifically, how they endow the quotidian but endlessly fascinating dross of history with a power that seems to transcend itself. Modernity may be, as philosophers and narratologists have theorized, one of the greatest self-fulfilling prophecies of Western historiography, but it’s nothing without the accumulation of piecemeal changes that often pit the forces of modernization and antimodernization against one another on what Virginia Woolf prototypically called “an ordinary day.”