Modernity— yes, dialectic, but more…

by MT

“Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is the one half of art, the other being the eternal and immutable.” (Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1863)(Harvey, 1990: 10)

The dialectic nature of modernity (or everything in the world) has been mentioned by many. Words such as maelstrom, whirlwind, conflict, contradiction, and paradox are everywhere to be seen throughout the introduction of Marshall Berman’s book All that is Solid Melt into Air:

The quintessential quote regarding “to be modern.” [skip.][15]

Berman unfolds this dialectic with three figures: Rousseau (in his New Eloise), Marx (in Communist Manifesto) and Nietzche (in Beyond Good and Evil)…[17-23] Yet what else can be said beyond this easy pairing up of opposite ideas and terms? For Berman it is the recuperation of the vitality and optimism of modernity.

“… we don’t know how to use our modernism; we have missed or broken the connection between our culture and our lives. …we have mostly lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognizing ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time. Our Century has nourished a spectacular modern art; but we seem to have forgotten how to grasp the modern life from which this art springs. In many ways, modern thought since Marx and Nietzsche has grown and developed; yet our thinking about modernity seems to have stagnated and regressed.” [24] (this page appears to be the hinge of his argument)

The 1960s, forexample, is categorized by him as the revival of modernism, though with three different attitudes: affirmative (Barthes, and Greenberg: “the only legitimate concern of modernist art was art itself; the only rightful focus for an artist in any given form or genre was the nature and limits of that genre: the medium is the message… ‘flatness alone is unique and exclusive to the art.” [30]), negative (Rosengerg, in his “tradition of overthrowing tradion,” Trilling, and Poggioli, when “’modernism’ became a code word for all the forces in revolt.” [30]), and wirthdrawn (Daniel Bell, who he describes as a neoconservative!).

Interesting dialogue between Bell and Berman:

Bell:”The modern movement disrupts the unity of culture,” “shatters the ‘rational cosmology’ that underly the bourgeois world view of an ordered relation between space and time,” etc., etc.

Berman: “If only the modernist snake could be expelled from the modern garden, space, time, and the cosmos would straighten themselves out. Then, presumably a techno-pastoral golden age would return, and men and machines could lie down together happily forever.” [31]


Moreover Berman offers his most poignant critique on sociologists such as Weber. “Twentieth-century critics of modernity almost entirely lack this empathy with, and faith in, their fellow modern men and women. To Weber, his contemporaries are nothing but ‘specialist without spirit, sensualists without heart; and this nullity is caut in the delusion that it has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind.’ Thus not only is modern society a cage, but all the people in it are shaped by its bars… Ironically, twentieth-century critics of ‘the iron cage’ adopt the perspective of the cage’s keepers: since inside are devoid of inner freedom or dignity, the cage is not a prison; it merely furnishes a race of nullities with the emptiness they crave and need.” [27-8]

Marcuse and Foucault are treated with similarly witty and forceful tone. [29, 34] (elaborate the contrast between modernity and the so-called postmodernism)

So, is modernity an anachronistic idea? For Berman it is not only a valid term but also a vital idea:

“… the modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our own modern roots, roots that go back two hundred years. They can help us connect our lives with the lives of millions of people who are living through the trauma of modernization thousands of miles awau, in societies radically different from our ownand with millions of people who lived through it a century or more ago. They can illuminate the contradictory forces and needs that inspire and torment us: our desire to be rooted in a stable and coherent personal and social past, and our insatiable desire for growth not merely for economic growth but for growth that destroys both the physical and social landscapes of our past, and our emotional links with those lost worlds; our desperate allegiances to ethnic, national, class and sexual groups which we hope will give us a firm ‘identity'”… [35]

On the whole I agree with Berman, though I still think, like Hobes, Weber and Marcuse are still insightful great thinkers. (Does it come down as mere a business of personal preference? The good thing is that we still have a choice!) This has become a spiral of interpretation rather than a perpetuated swinging between two sides of the argument. Surprisingly Karl Marx has become one of those “optimistic” guys who fight the world rather than go with the flow.(expand this paragraph)

Follow up:

  1. What does Berman mean by modernity, modernism, and modernization?
  2. Berman has a lot to say about 1960s. Need to read more of it for my dissertation.