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Modernity as Whipping-Boy

There’s been a major increase in the use of the term “modernity” in this century. In recent decades it had become mostly a term used by academics and arts students, but now I’m starting to see it everywhere.

15 days ago

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Modernity as Whipping-Boy

from back in the days when modernity was considered a good thing

There’s been a major increase in the use of the term “modernity” in this century. In recent decades it had become mostly a term used by academics and arts students, but now I’m starting to see it everywhere.

It’s almost always being used disparagingly. By reactionaries it’s used nostalgically — things were better, apparently, in ‘pre-modern’ times. By technophiles and idealistic one-world globalists, it’s used hopefully, as a stepping stone towards the singularity or ‘the end of history’. And by progressives it’s used, usually, despairingly, describing everything that has turned out disappointingly.

It’s intriguing that the term seems to be outlasting “pomo”, which was also a mostly academic term that seemed mired in a sense of pretentious irony from the start, and was often seemingly used as a synonym for obsessive relativism, a kind of ‘well, anything’s got to be better than what we’ve got, but don’t count on it’.

But there doesn’t seem much agreement on what ‘modernity’ actually means.

Here is one writer’s list of the characteristics of modernity today:

There’s something on this list for everyone to abhor. In fact, my suspicion is that modernity is mostly used as a weasel word for ‘what’s wrong with the world’, or, more precisely, what each of us particularly hates about the state of the world. If that’s the case, it really means nothing. We can all agree that the world seems fucked up, but we may have diametrically opposed views of what exactly is fucked up and why, and what should be done about it.

Are there any parts of the list above that we can all agree upon as abhorrent, distressing, or undesirable? I think there are a few:

These are not things that can be ‘fixed’ by moving forward from ‘modernity’ to something ‘better’. These are things that are only going to get more so, more infuriating, more anxiety-creating, and more distressing as collapse deepens.

What the growing and ubiquitous use of the term ‘modernity’ really signifies, I think, is a broad sense that ‘this isn’t how it was supposed to be’ — a sense of despair that all those well-intentioned and promising things we hoped and fought for have actually, mostly, made things worse rather than better.

Perhaps our criticism of modernity is an earnest attempt to re-establish connection with people from whom we are increasingly polarized. Maybe, the thought is, if we can find common ground on what’s wrong, we can stop fighting and neutralizing each other and start to move forward.

Or perhaps the malaise of ‘modernity’ is just the inevitable result of the realization that our vaunted civilization culture just doesn’t work for us anymore, if it ever did, and that in our ‘modern’ imaginative poverty, we simply cannot conceive of or draw upon any of alternative way to live.

What comes after modernity, I suspect, is collapse, a clumsy walking away, a period of chaos, and then, much too late for our liking, some radically new, local, small experiments in how to live together, and some scary, wondrous new beginnings.


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Published 15 days ago