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date: 17 February 2020

Modernity and its Critics

Abstract and Keywords

This article looks at the concept of modernity and the philosophy of its critics. It discusses the epochal shift and the secularization of a traditional order that had been imbued with divine or natural purpose and suggests that the condition of modernity refers to a set of institutional structures associated with popular elections, rule by law and a secular bureaucracy. The article also contends that modernity is alive and kicking even within a theoretical framework of postmodernism.

Keywords: modernity, epochal shift, institutional structures, popular elections, rule by law, secular bureaucracy, postmodernism

Seeking insight into the political events and debates swarming around them, undergraduates enrolled in “Modern Political Thought” courses are often surprised to learn that the focus is on writers from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. This is because, as part of the series ancient–medieval–modern–contemporary, “the modern” in political theory is that which has already passed, although its traces are said to remain in the background of today. The term “modernity” functions somewhat differently in the discipline: it names a contemporary condition. As I contend at the end of this chapter, modernity is alive and kicking even within a theoretical framework of postmodernism.

In what does the condition of modernity consist? First, in a distinctive constellation of intellectual tendencies, including the propensity to subject established norms and practices to critical reflection, to seek physical causes for disease, to believe both in universal human rights and in cultural specificity, and to affirm oneself as an individual even while lamenting the lack of community. The condition of modernity refers, second, to a set of institutional structures associated with such a temper, including popular elections, rule by law, a secular bureaucracy, an independent judiciary and free press, public education, capitalism, and monogamous marriage.

“Modernity and Its Critics,” therefore, is perhaps best approached as the story of this habit of mind and its institutional embodiments. In a version of the story that circulates widely in North America, Europe, and Australia, the plot goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a (medieval Christian) world where nature was purposive, God was active in the details of human affairs, all things had a place in the order of things, social life (p. 128) was characterized by face-to-face relations, and political order took the form of an organic community experienced as the “prose of the world” (Foucault 1970). But this premodern cosmos gave way to forces of scientific and instrumental rationality, secularism, individualism, and the bureaucratic nation state.

“Modernity and Its Critics” is a tale of this epochal shift, of the secularization of a traditional order that had been imbued with divine or natural purpose. Some tellers of the tale celebrate secularization as the demise of superstition; others lament it as the loss of a meaningful moral universe. When placed against the backdrop of a dark and confused premodernity, modernity appears as a place of reason, freedom, and control; when it is compared to a premodern age of community and cosmological coherence, modernity becomes a place of dearth and alienation. Even the celebrators of modernity, however, share something of the sense of loss accentuated by its critics—and this is to be expected, given what seems to be the tale’s prototype, the biblical story of the Fall.

As a cultural narrative or civilization fable, “Modernity and Its Critics” tells us who we are and are not, and it identifies the key ideals to guide us and the most important dangers and opportunities we confront. As such, the narrative serves less a historiographical than a therapeutic function. It helps to order the vast and variable field of experience, and thus to shape the actual world in which we live. Under its banner, a certain tradition of thought and a certain group of people try to make sense of themselves and their collective life.

But which tradition of thought, which group of people? The story of modernity is embedded in the history of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century Europe, in particular in its political struggles against totalizing forms of rule and unthinking forms of obedience. The twenty-first-century encounter between militant strains of Islamic fundamentalism and “Western culture” has been read by Michael Thompson, for example, as a recapitulation of Europe’s own internal struggle between modern and anti-modern forces, between, that is, “Enlightenment notions of reason, secularism, universalism, civil society” on the one hand and “the volkish tendencies of cultural particularism, nativism, provincialism, and spiritualism” on the other (Thompson 2003, 1–2).

Bruno Latour has shown how the story of modernity portrays modern, Western culture as a radical break from all other modes of human thought, social organization, and inquiry into nature. Only the moderns, the story goes, have mastered the art of categorical purification, of distinguishing clearly between what is natural and what is cultural, between what is universal and true and what is particular and partial. Latour rejects this conceit, arguing that the difference between modern and other cultures is not qualitative but quantitative; that is, a matter of “lengthened networks.” If modern critiques are more global, if modern self-consciousness is more explicit, if modern technologies are more masterful, it is only because of a difference in the “scope of mobilization,” which, while important, “is hardly a reason to make such a great fuss” (Latour 1993, 124).

Other critics have noted that modernity, precisely because it is part of European history, cannot be exclusively European. Modernity cannot be divorced from the (p. 129) imperialist and colonialist projects of Europe or America, and thus is a product of the (psychic, linguistic, normative, bureaucratic, military) interactions between the West and the non-West. This means that multiple modernities exist side by side around the globe. Amit Chaudhuri makes a version of this point when he says that, “if Europe is a universal paradigm for modernity, we are all, European and non-European, to a degree inescapably Eurocentric. Europe is at once a means of intellectual dominance, an obfuscatory trope, and a constituent of self-knowledge, in different ways for different peoples and histories” (Chaudhuri 2004, 5; emphasis added). For Partha Chatterjee, too, because the cultural exchanges that generate modernity are not unidirectional, modernity must be understood as a multicultural production. Speaking in the context of India’s modernity, he says that:

true modernity consists in determining the particular forms of modernity that are suitable in particular circumstances; that is, applying the methods of reason to identify or invent the specific technologies of modernity that are appropriate for our purposes.

(Chatterjee 1997, 8–9)

The postcolonial scholarship concerning non-Western or “alternative modernities” is rich and ongoing (see Gaonkar 2001; Chatterjee 2004). In insisting upon the geographical, cultural, and subcultural specificities of coterminous modernities, such work resists the idea that modernity has a single lineage or is a univocal practice. This resistance is also served by acknowledging that every version of modernity includes, right from the start, its critics. “There must be something in the very process of our becoming modern that continues to lead us, even in our acceptance of modernity, to a certain skepticism about its values and consequences” (Chatterjee 1997, 14). Although he writes from a position deep inside Europe, Max Weber helps reveal just what this something is, just how modernities of all kinds generate their own critics.

1 Disenchantment and the Problem of Meaninglessness

Max Weber (1864–1920) identified the central dynamic of modernity as Entzauberung or de-magification, usually translated into English as disenchantment. Disenchantment names the processes by which magic is gradually supplanted by calculation as the preferred means for enacting human ends. Disenchantment is itself an instance of a more general process of “rationalization,” which in turn encompasses several related processes, each of which opts for the precise, regular, constant, and reliable over the wild, spectacular, idiosyncratic, and surprising. In addition to eschewing magic as a strategy of will (“scientizing” desire), rationalization also systematizes knowledge (pursues “increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts”); instrumentalizes thinking (methodically attains a “practical (p. 130) end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means”); secularizes metaphysical concerns (rejects “all non-utilitarian yardsticks”); and demystifies traditional social bonds in favor of those founded on the shared reason of all men (Weber 1981, 293).

Systematization, instrumentalization, secularization, demystification: the shared grammatical form of these terms emphasizes the fact that modernizing transformations are ever ongoing, never fully completed. There will always be some phenomena that remain resistant to full mathematical or social-scientific analysis. These remnants, in Weber’s account, are to be left aside until such time as scientific knowledge has advanced further into the logic of nature and society, or they are relegated to (the distinctly modern invention of) the realm of private “values” and aesthetic, sexual, or mystical “experiences.”

Weber acknowledges that the “modern” processes of rationalization predate modern times: attempts to displace magic were made, for example, by the ancient Hebrew prophets “in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought” (Weber 1958, 105; Jameson 1988, 26). But Weber describes the urge to demystify, pursued in fits and starts throughout history, as reaching its “logical conclusion” in seventeenth-century Puritanism. The ascetic ethic of Puritanism and its idea of a “calling” eventually became the entrepreneurship and acquisitiveness of modern capitalism (Weber 1958).

Whether directly or indirectly touched by Puritanism, any culture of modernity will encourage a distinctively analytical style of thinking. More specifically, to be modern is to be able to discern what things are “in principle” and not only what they are in current practice: one learns to relate to phenomena by seizing upon the logic of their structure, upon the principle of their organization, and this enables an even more careful and precise categorization of things. In a passage that also exemplifies how modernity is defined by way of contrast to an imagined primitivism, Weber describes this “in principle” logic:

Does … everyone sitting in this hall … have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot? Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. …The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted.

(Weber 1981, 139)

Modernity produces a self skilled in the art of discerning the hidden logic of things. Key to Weber’s story is the claim that while this skill is a laudable achievement, its cost is very high: a rationalized world stripped of all “mysterious incalculable forces” is a meaningless world. “The unity of the primitive image of the world, in which everything was concrete magic,” gives way to “the mechanism of a world robbed of gods” (Weber 1981, 281). Or, as Charles Taylor puts the point:

(p. 131) People used to see themselves as part of a larger order. In some cases, this was a cosmic order, a “great chain of Being,” in which humans figured in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. … But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life. … The discrediting of these orders has been called the “disenchantment” of the world. With it, things lost some of their magic.

(Taylor 1991, 3)

Weber identified modern science as the “motive force” behind these disenchanting and discomforting effects: in defining nature as a mechanism of material parts, in defining materiality as deterministic and devoid of spirit, and in allowing spirit to retain its premodern definition as the exclusive locus of “meaning,” science empties the lived, natural world of moral significance. What is more, the very logic of scientific progress also demoralizes. Because every piece of scientific knowledge must be understood merely as a temporary and soon-to-be-superseded truth, modern selves are denied the psychological satisfaction of closure, the pleasure of a fully accomplished goal:

civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge and problems, … catches only the most minute part of what … life … brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless: by its very “progressiveness” it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.

(Weber 1981, 140)

How, then, does Weber illuminate the link between modernity and self-critique? How does modernity necessarily engender radical repudiations of it? In subjecting norms to a demystification that weakens their efficacy without providing any critique-proof alternatives, in reducing nature to a calculable but heartless mechanism, and in celebrating a scientific progress that precludes the pleasure of completion, modernity alienates. One response, perhaps the most common one, is the demand for a return to a social whole exempt from relentless analysis and to a natural world restored to its cosmic purpose. Weber did not quite foresee the rise of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish fundamentalisms that would characterize the last years of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. But he did insist that rationalization inevitably generates a black hole of meaninglessness and a set of profoundly disaffected critics.

To sum up the story that Weber recounts: modernity is now-time, positioned against a lost age of wholeness; moderns are swept up in accelerated processes of disenchantment, scientization, secularization, mathematization, bureaucratization, and alienation; as such, they bear the burden of a world without intrinsic meaning, although they also benefit from an unprecedented degree of critical acumen. The story ends, as do all fables, with some advice: do not resent the condition of modernity, counsels Weber, because a world devoid of intrinsic purpose positively overflows with opportunities for individuality and freedom. Modernity calls one to make one’s own valuations, to choose for oneself among competing meanings:

(p. 132) So long as life remains immanent and is interpreted in its own terms, … the ultimately possible attitudes toward life are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice.

(Weber 1981, 152)

For Weber, the anti-modern project is futile because disenchantment, although never complete, is not a reversible historical trajectory. And so it is most profitably met by a heroic will to choose rather than by a cowardly slide into resentment.

The more recent work of Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash on “reflexive modernization” pursues a similar line of response. They argue that modernity is now:

a global society, not in the sense of a world society but as one of “indefinite space.” It is one where social bonds have effectively to be made, rather than inherited from the past. … It is decentred in terms of authorities, but recentred in terms of opportunities and dilemmas, because focused upon new forms of interdependence.

(Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994, 107)

In its emphasis on the inevitability of the disenchantment process, Weber’s tale distinguishes itself both from attempts to re-enchant modernity (Moore 1996; Sikorski 1993; Berman 1981) and from attempts to identify opportunities for wonder and enchantment in secular, counter-cultural, or even commercial sites within modernity (Bennett 2001; During 2002). Weber’s version also diverges from Marx’s story of modernity, which explores the possibility of a more radical escape.

2 Commodity Fetishism

Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) narrative of modernity focuses upon two linked social processes not emphasized by Weber: commodification and fetishization. A commodity is an article produced for market exchange rather than “for its own immediate consumption.” In the commodity form, “the product becomes increasingly onesided. … [I]ts immediate use-value for the gratification of the needs of its producer appears wholly adventitious, immaterial, and inessential” (Marx 1977, 952–3). Com-modification thus homogenizes objects, destroying their “sensuously varied objectivity as articles of utility” (Marx 1977, 166) and reduces them to equivalent units of exchange. Marx presents this alchemy, through which unequal things are made equal, as a sinister process (Jameson 1991, 233).

It is sinister not only because people are deprived of “sensuously varied objectivity,” but also because, as commodified entities themselves, people (workers) come to be treated as mere objects. This objectification of labor is what makes profit possible: although a portion of labor is indeed “exchanged for the equivalent of the worker’s wages; another portion is appropriated by the capitalist without any equivalent being paid” (Marx 1977, 953). The masking of this swindle is the most pernicious effect of modernity.

(p. 133) Second to that is its unnatural animation of artifacts. Marx compares the tromp l’oeil of commodification to the mystification perpetrated by religions:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists …in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves. … In order … to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own.

(Marx 1977, 163–5)

In capitalism as in theism, nonhuman entities are empowered and humans are deadened.

Thus, commodity fetishism: the idolatry of consumption goods. This is an irrationality quite at home in the modern, rational self. Under its sway, the human suffering embedded in commodities (by virtue of their exploitative system of production) is obscured, and mere things gain hegemony as they dominate attention and determine desire. Commodity fetishism is modernity’s relapse into primitivism, into the superstition that “an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character in order to comply with [one’s] … desires” (Marx 1975, 189).

Here again the Eurocentric tenor of the story comes to the fore: the negative force of the phrase “commodity fetishism” derives in part from an image of the repulsive non-European savage. More specifically, the primitive is aligned with the negro, the negro with pagan animism, animism with delusion and passivity, passivity with commodity culture. And this line of equivalences is contrasted with another, consisting of the modern, the light, the demystified, the debunking critical theorist. Here Marx highlights for us the central role played by the technique of demystification or “ideology critique”—what Weber called a rationalization process—within the narrative of modernity. For Marx, modernity is ideology; it is a narrative that maintains the existing structure of power by obscuring or defending as legitimate its inherent inequalities and injustices. The just response to modernity qua ideology is modernity qua critique; that is, the clear-eyed unmasking of inequities that reveals them to be products of social choices that could be otherwise.

3 Ideology Critique

An exemplary instance of ideology-critique is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 essay on “The Culture Industry” (see Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). This elaboration of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism aims to awaken man’s critical faculties, which have been blunted by a postwar world saturated with commercialism. Horkheimer and Adorno echo the calls of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844– 1900), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), Henry Thoreau (1817–62), and others for a life lived deliberately and in opposition to the voices of conformity, normality, (p. 134) and respectability. Unlike Nietzsche and the American Transcendentalists (and the Adorno of Aesthetic Theory and Negative Dialectics), however, Horkheimer and Adorno are skeptical about the role that aesthetic experience might play in this project of wakefulness. They argue that even the senses have been colonized, rendered incapable of posing an effective challenge to the “iron system” of capital. “The culture industry can pride itself on having energetically executed the previously clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, 137). Despite its constant invocation of novelty, the culture industry serves up only formulaic amusements designed to produce a passive, consumeristic audience.

In the version of the story told by Horkheimer and Adorno, modernity is on the brink of no return. It has solidified into a system where commercial forces have almost wholly triumphed. Almost—for these heirs of Marx still harbor hope for a way out through the demystifying practice of radical critique. For Nietzsche, too, unmasking was a key strategy in the fight with modernity, a modernity that he identified with Christian and scientific asceticism. Nietzsche’s practice of “genealogy,” like ideology-critique, sought to uncover the violent, cruel, or simply contradictory elements within conventional ideals and concepts, including those constitutive of the modern self (e.g. moral responsibility, guilt, and conscience) (Nietzsche 1987, 1989)

Horkheimer and Adorno evinced a particularly strong faith in the power of ideology-critique, in, that is, the ability of human reason to expose the truth. Unlike Nietzsche, for whom reason required the supplement of aesthetic motivation, Horkheimer and Adorno imagine this truth as morally compelling, as capable of enacting itself. They reveal for us the extent to which the modern temper includes a belief in the efficacy of debunking, in the idea that insight into injustice carries with it its own impetus for undoing wrong and enacting right.

In invoking an independent and efficacious realm of critical reflection, Horkheimer and Adorno interrupt their own, more dominant, image of capitalist modernity as an all-powerful system of exploitation. In so doing, they display something of Gilles Deleuze’s (1925–95) and Felix Guattari’s (1930–92) sense that “there is always something that flows or flees, that escapes … the overcoding machine,” that although “capitalists may be the master of surplus value and its distribution, … they do not dominate the flows from which surplus value derives” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 216, 226).

4 Nature

Marx and the historical materialists indebted to him identify modernity with the exploitation of human labor and human sensibility. As in Weber’s account, the abuse of nonhuman nature receives less attention. But associated with every cultural narrative of modernity is a particular image of nature. In general, the modern assumption (p. 135) is that nature is basically law-governed and predictable, “in principle” susceptible to rationalization.

Let us consider critics who contest this nature-picture. Martin Heidegger (1889– 1976), for example, rejects modernity’s “enframing” of the world, an institutional, mental, and bodily habit whose ultimate goal is to reduce the Earth to the abject status of “standing reserve.” He calls instead for humans to become more receptive to nature and to let it be. Heidegger also contends that the rationalizing zeal of modernity will itself bring to light that which it cannot rationalize, that is, the “incalculable” or “that which, withdrawn from representation, is nevertheless manifest in whatever is, pointing to Being, which remains concealed” (Heidegger 1982, 154).

There is a sense in which Heidegger aims to re-enchant the world, to recapture a premodern sense of the universe as an encompassing whole that fades off into indefiniteness. There, nature and culture regain their primordial cooperation. Other critics of the picture of nature as calculable mechanism, however, eschew the serenity of Heidegger’s counter-vision. They draw instead from “pagan” conceptions of materiality as turbulent, energetic, and surprising. For these vital materialists, nature is both the material of culture and an active force in its own right. Nietzsche is one such materialist. He describes nature as:

a monster of energy … that does not expend itself but only transforms itself. … [A] play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many…; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing…, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent…, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord.

(Nietzsche 1987, 1067)

Political theorists described as postmodern or post-structuralist (see Foucault 1970, 1973, 1975, 1978; Butler 1993; Brown 1995; Ferguson 1991; Dumm 1996; Gatens 1996) also figure nature as resistant to human attempts to order it, although capable of emergent forms of self -organization. Like Marx and Nietzsche, they believe in the power of demystification: Foucaultian genealogies of madness, criminality, and sexuality; feminist and queer studies of gender and power; and postcolonial studies of race and nation all seek to expose the contingency of entities formerly considered universal, inevitable, or natural. But what is more, these exposés insist upon the material recalcitrance of contingent products. The mere fact that gender, sex, and race are cultural artifacts does not mean that they will yield readily to human understanding or control.

Nature appears in this work as neither imbued with divine purpose nor as disenchanted matter. Instead, all material formations—human and nonhuman—are described as processes with the periodic power to surprise, to metamorphosize at unexpected junctures. Drawing from discussions of nature in Spinoza (1632–1677) and Lucretius (c. 99–55 bce), Deleuze and Guattari, for example, speak of nature as a perpetual “machine” for generating new and dynamic compositions, as “a pure plane (p. 136) of immanence … upon which everything is given, upon which unformed elements and materials dance” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 255).

For this “postmodern” set of critics of modernity, the nonlinearity of nature and culture retains a logic that can be modeled, despite the fact that the emergent causality of the system means that trajectories and patterns can often be discerned only retroactively, only after the fact of their emergence. Complexity theory, initially developed to describe a subset of chemical systems (Prigogine 1997), offers these political theorists the beginnings of a theoretical framework and methodology (see Serres 2001; Lyotard 1997; Bennett 2004; Latour 2004; Connolly 2002; Massumi 2002). Modern science is not rejected; on the contrary, one version of it is actively affirmed. And that is the one that understands nature as a turbulent system where small changes in background conditions can have big effects, where micro-shifts can produce macro-effects. However, the nature that consists of flows, becomings, and irreducible complexity is not a random set of fluctuations unrecognizable as a world. It remains, rather, a world “in which there is room for both the laws of nature and novelty and creativity” (Prigogine 1997, 16).

Within the rich and heterogeneous story of modernity, therefore, it is possible to identify three nodal points or attractors, each with its own image of nature and culture. At one point, we find a “Weberian” social order plagued by meaninglessness (or a “Marxist” world of economic injustice and alienating commodification), and a “dead, passive nature, … which, once programmed, continues to follow the rules inscribed in the program” (Prigogine and Stengers 1984, 6). At a second point, we find a “Heideggerian” modernity of ruthless enframing, accompanied by a nature that gestures darkly toward a higher purpose. At the third, “Nietzschean,” point lays a world where creativity and novelty endlessly compete with the forces of regularization. All three versions, however, are infused with the hope that the world is susceptible to the critical reasoning, careful analysis, and practical interventions typical of modernity, and with the will to render that world more intelligible.


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