WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE “MODERN”?

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“Walls and spheres and immobility! For two thousand years people have believed that the sun and all the stars of heaven rotate around mankind. Pope, cardinals, princes, professors, captains, merchants, fishwives and schoolkids thought they were sitting motionless inside this crystal sphere. But now we are breaking out of it, Andrea, at full speed. Because the old days are over and this is a new time. For the last hundred years mankind has seemed to be expecting something. Our cities are cramped, and so are men’s minds. Superstition and the plague” (B. Brecht, Life of Galileo).

“Imagine a man, who as here has laid his ear as it were on the heart chamber of the world-will, who feels the mad desire for existence flow outwards into all the veins of the world in the form of a thundering torrent or of the gentlest spraying brook, should such a man not suddenly shatter into pieces?” (F. Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy)

The ‘phenomenon’ of modernity is a very complex one, and a number of difficulties are found when we try to define it: era, period, movement, phenomenon? But in a way, this is part of the kind of study that we are involved in. In media studies, for example, we find the same difficulties when we talk about masses, and the concepts of mass-culture or popular culture related to it. The first important note to make is that we are here talking about a period that we still live in, fully, deeply immersed in it. Some aspects of modernity will be so naturalised in us that we might not be able to distinguish them. I myself, while writing this essay, am modernity: the kind of research I am doing, the look I give to the past, the kind of structured analysis, the fact that I am not writing philosophy or poetry to the purpose of expressing my feelings and ideas, but that I am writing about what other people have written, thought, desired. I am modernity: the computer I am typing on, the ink I will use to print out these pages, the CD playing in the background. In the end, therefore, when talking about such issues, maybe the most important thing to bear in mind is ‘that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things’.
Secondly, even though the modern era seem to be the era of the ‘masses’, as I will be discussing later on, I believe these ‘masses’ are composed by individuals still very different from each other, coming from different backgrounds, aspiring for different things, often artificially made similar by the ‘media’. It can be easier, when discussing some major phenomena, to refer to masses, but it will then be inevitable to make assumptions, often beyond our ability to prove them right.
The themes about modernity I have chosen for this essay are the belief in science and industrial growth, the Nietzschean theme of the Apollinean and Dionysian, and the birth and development of the concept of ‘mass’. These are some of the themes that most captured my attention throughout the course. The way I will deal with them will consist in a description of the idea, by mainly drawing on to some examples, with an emphasis on my personal experience of them.
Some talk about an early modern period, followed by a modern and ending with post-modern. When necessary, I will make a distinction between the three, even though I will try to keep focusing on a general concept of modernity.

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we know, everything we are. Modern environment and experiences cut across boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology: in this sense modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction.” This is a good definition of modernity, I believe, in that it emphasises the idea of modernity as a paradox, as a unity of disunity, where all is related but at the same time separated. All the ‘modernity’ issues are linked to one another by complimentarity, or contradiction, at times, but how to understand where things come from and end up into we need more and more to have a very clear scenario of history.
In the end, it can be argued, modernity is a construct, a tool, to try to explain what world we live in today. Sometimes, maybe, to the price of not really living to the full?

BELIEF IN SCIENCE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS

The first theme is the one of the belief in science. The advent of science, empiricism, a different system of knowledge had a major influnce in the slow deterioration or at least revisitation of the old clerical system, and this is one of the main defining characteristics of modernity.
“Today is 10 January 1610. Today mankind can write in its diary: Got rid of Heaven.” How great is this!!! I am being a bit Dionysiac here, maybe, but I believe this sentence, pronounced by Galileo in the work by Brecht is a huge step towards modernity. We have here one of the first attempts of going against Christian morality, ‘emperor’ of ‘Europe’ for so many centuries. I would take this as one of the first lights of modernity; and it came with belief in science. “The great, as was particularly stressed by Lynn Thorndike, comes only at the end of the 16th century. If we are interested in the history of science, we are not so much interested in what Petrarch recovered of the letters of Cicero as we are interested in one man, and that is Galileo Galilei”.
This is the kind of fight Galileo was involved in: making people accept the concept that now, if we learn how to use “reason” in a more proper way (and since we have the right instruments to empirically test our hypotheses, I would add) we do not need religion anymore to answer those questions for which it seemed that the only possible answer was faith (and this is the whole idea of Saint Agostino when he had to explain the difference between religion and philosophy). This is why religion was so eradicated and strong: it provided people with answers to theoretical questions, as well as providing relief and hope.

The developments of science have been huge, e.g. technology and industry. But let us try to briefly follow this process.
As an indirect implication of the growth of science we can see the ‘democratisation’ of society (always referring to the ‘West’): from divine monarchy to popular sovereignty, especially after the French Revolution. The birth of a powerful class, relatively independent from the monarch, the class with the technology, the ones producing and giving jobs, moving the wheels of society, had more power…as someone said, the locomotive became the modern God (or Devil…?). This reference to the locomotive gives me the chance to highlight some of the most important characters of the 19th century. “In the first place the early industrial economy discovered- thanks largely to the pressure of its own profit-seeking capital accumulation- what Marx called its “crowning achievement”: the railway. In the second place- and partly due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph “which finally represented the means of communication adequate to modern means of production”- the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period.” From the feudal agricultural economy, we see the rise of the Industry, with the coming of an urban-based mass-society. It is the roots of global capitalism, the beginning of globalization. This is a very important matter. At the basis of a successful capitalism was the possibility, thanks to the technological improvements listed earlier on, for capitalists to import and export goods with a certain facility. The development of capitalism had a great influence on society: if you do not produce you are no one; it seems implied in the word ‘society’ that people must produce, more and more, and commerce, to an always wider scale….globalization.

What I am trying to demonstrate is that everything is linked to science; that after its increasing relevance, everything was changed. Even life was prolonged (at the beginning of the 19th century vaccines were discovered). And linked to this we have the very tricky problem of an excessive belief in science, as a science able to make us, in extremis, immortal, by winning death. So far, this has not been realised. We are running away from the courage of acceptance of death, and we are asking for immortality. Well, what scenario is about to come? Is going to be a Frankenstein-like type of thing? In the 19th Century, after the French Revolution, things started changing. The belief in science was still strong, but different voices started speaking out against certain systems. Shelley warned of possible outcomes of science (Frankenstein…), Marx criticized firmly the capitalist society, a society based on the production of capital and alienation, Nietzsche claimed that society was becoming more and more decadent, and people were forgetting what the true inner forces of life were.
The 20th century witnessed Hiroshima. The atomic bomb seemed to be the last achievement of science. How do we look at that? Are these the value of the much-celebrated “Modern World”? How do we justify this to ourselves? It seems to me the only relief that we have is, once more, our freedom to doubt. Uncertainty…
In away, the Church might happen to be right, in warning us that there are limits we had better not challenge…
For sure, science has changed our lives. Leopardi was looking at the infinite behind a bush. Now, in a way, we can partially reach that infinite.

Strongly linked to science and technology is urbanisation (and we see here the link to the concept of the ‘mass’). I would want here, as a way of concluding the discussion of this theme, quote a passage from La Nouvelle Eloise by J.J. Rousseau. “I’m beginning to feel the drunkenness that this agitated, tumultuous life plunges you into. With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I’m getting dizzy. Of all the things that strike me, there is none that holds my heart, yet all of them together disturb my feelings, so that I forget what I am and who I belong to”. How many times have we found ourselves in this situation? We celebrate in one way the prodigies of science and technology, but in the other way we get a feeling of alienation (Marx…), of not wanting to be part of this mechanical world, of this huge unstoppable, sometime, engine, that we feel is at times so far from our inner nature. Therefore, has science taken the place of nature? Or is science nature, and technology its development? Shall we look at the way the ancient people looked at the Golden Era, or is the future the modern Golden Era?
Again, this sense of being lost seems to be so typical of modernity.

THE APOLLONIAN AND THE DIONYSIAC

To remain on the same line of thought, this way of looking at the past, comparing it to modernity with some sort of melancholy, I would want now to introduce the Nietzschean theme of the Apollinean and the Dionysiac. “The Greeks are, as the Egyptian priests say, the eternal children, even in tragic art they remain mere children unaware of the sublime plaything which has emerged in their hands and which those same hands- smash to pieces.” Nietzsche, one of the most original voices of modernity, recalls the Greeks for their naturalness, at least until the coming of Socrates. This theme finds great interest in me, in that it is a strong critique of modern society, based on such true concepts too often not taken into account. Originally, I intended to talk about another idea of modernity, but a situation in which I found myself a few days ago made me want to talk about this instead. I was at the airport, on the way back to London, after a happy holiday, where I had found a great balance (to put it in those words…) between the Apollinean and Dionysiac forces inside me. At a certain point, I expressed my self in a more Dionysiac way, and this met the attempt of rationalisation from my sister. I reacted, over-reacted in a very Dionysiac way: I felt, unconsciously, apparently, an enormous power growing inside me, that manifested itself in a great burst of anger. I shouted, reacting to a kind of oppressing rationalism. On the aeroplane, I then rationalised the whole event myself, and the power of the ‘reason’ took the place. I have to say, albeit very stressful, I saw beauty in the whole thing, in that I felt alive, giving voice to those liberating emotions that often, because of so the many social conventions, we are told to keep inside, not manifest. This is modernity too: the chance we have to learn from the past, from Nietzsche, in this case, to better understand our situation.
In modernity, it seems so easy to feel lost. Philosophy, after having concentrated on describing the process of knowledge, had, at a certain point, to be concerned with the truth about nature, the nature of the self, the forces that move us, the reason of our existence. This is why ‘movements’ like Romanticism are so fascinating and fresh. This is why the voice of Nietzsche is so charming and fresh. We have with these people a return to classical themes, to investigate modern society, like with Schiller, who, in his On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry “distinguished between the free and spontaneous (naïve) creativity of the Greeks and the problematic and self-conscious (sentimental) sensibility of the modern artist.”
Nietzsche’s work (and we will here be referring mainly to The Birth of Tragedy) is intended to defend and explain the total, full-on and enthusiastic acceptance of life. And this is fundamental, I believe. Dionysus is the deified symbol of this acceptance and Zarathustra will be its prophet.
The basic “leitmotiv” of The Birth of Tragedy is the distinction (and fusion) of Apollonian and Dionysiac, as it characterises itself in a series of opposites: chaos-shape, becoming-stasis, instinct-reason, light-darkness, happiness-misery, dream-drunkenness.
All these opposites are present in Nature (where we see the contrast between life and shape, the apeiron and peras, which are the Infinite Principle and the finite beings springing out of and returning to it), and constitute the guidelines of Greek Spirit and its art. The Dionysiac aspect springs from the chaos and forces of the becoming Nature, and manifests itself through Music; the Apollonian aspect, which comes from a more “rational” approach to the facts of life, manifests itself through balance and plastic art. Nietzsche believes that the Apollonian was born out of a need of the Greeks to “sublimate” a chaotic Dionysian insight of life.

This idea of coming back to Nature to find ourselves, our individuality, the idea of the Dionysiac through which “this same Nature speaks to us in its true undistorted voice: ‘Be as I am! Beneath the incessantly changing phenomena, I am the eternally creative original mother, eternally compelling people to exist, eternally finding satisfaction in this changing world of phenomena!” finds a great representation in Pasolini’s Medea. When Medea loses her powers (symbolically entering Modernity), the first thing she does is to go, alone, and speak to Nature, trying to find herself again; she cries out, in Dionysiac desperation: “Speak to me, Earth, let me hear your voice; speak to me, Earth, speak to me, Sun!”. What is so fresh about this is that “there is nothing here to remind us of asceticism, spirituality and duty: everything here speaks to us of a sumptuous, even triumphant, existence, an existence in which everything is deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil”– and we notice here a reference to a the fundamental concept of Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, discussed in Beyond Good and Evil.

When talking about Aeschylus, the tragedy Nietzsche refers to most of the time is Prometheus: “So the essential duality of the Aechylean Prometheus, his simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian nature may be expressed in conceptual terms as follows: ‘All that exist is just and unjust and equally justified in both’. That is your world! That is a world indeed!”

This quote (the last part borrowed from Goethe’s Faust) shows again that total acceptance of life mentioned before; total acceptance of a life which is just and unjust, that is the way it is, and therefore we must only accept it for that.
Antigone, Oedipus, Prometheus were heroes. Later on, when talking about the concept of mass, we will see how different heroes are today, and, sometimes, how little it takes to become one.
Nietzsche argues that the corruption of modern society started with one man in: “a newly born daemon called Socrates”with his “sweetly seductive column of vapour.”Tragedy died because of the new ‘Socratic optimism’ based on the ability that we all have to use our reason, and therefore acquire knowledge. This ‘awareness’ is negative, Nietzsche argues, in that it opposes life.
So, in the ancient Greek culture, Nietzsche sees an instrument for our liberation from the chains (something that Marx was quite concerned with…) of modernity: progress, science (another link to the earlier discussion on science), morality, God… Nietzsche was not the only one criticising the apparent decadence (let us think of D’Annunzio’s The Pleasure) of modernity: Baudelaire, Adams, Flaubert, Ruskin, all expressed their concern for and critique of the “banality” of their time. “It seemed as if with the onset of positivism and science, Realpolitik and Darwinism, realistic art and popular culture, all noble thought and true emotion had been suffocated.” In a first period, Nietzsche sees in Wagner and his music what could bring us back to those glorious times: the ‘passionate’ dissonance is reproduced.

I would now like to quote a few paragraphs specifically regarding ‘modernity’:

“The satyr and the idyllic shepherd of more modern times are both products of a longing for the original and the natural; but with what firm and fearless hands did the Greek reach out for his man of the forest, and how shamefully and timidly modern man dallies with the flattering image of a meek and mild flute-playing shepherd! […] Through a peculiar weakness of our modern constitution, we tend to have an overly complicated and abstract conception of the original aesthetic phenomenon. For the true poet, metaphor is no rhetorical figure but rather an image which takes the place of something else, which really hovers before him in the place of a concept.”

Science and ‘Enlightenment’ brought “atrophy of the strength of body and soul”; as mentioned before, it all started (modernity as well, Nietzsche says) with Socrates… “How unintelligible must Faust, the in himself intelligible modern man of culture, have appeared to a true Greek, the Faust who storms dissatisfied through all faculties, who is devoted to magic and the Devil because of his drive for knowledge, the Faust whom we have only to compare with Socrates to recognise that the modern man begins to sense the limits of that Socratic delight in knowledge and in the middle of that wide and desolate expanse of the sea of knowledge longs for land.”

The concept I find most true still nowadays, is the need for a total acceptance of life, and its two ‘forces’, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, the ‘good and evil’, beyond which we must go to fully appreciate what we are. We see this in our everyday life: the different instincts we have, the way we consider mind and heart as two separate places, when reading a horoscope (the work section is always about being rational and clever and the love one about being passionate), when we behave formally in certain circumstances and five minutes after we switch to some sort of ‘devilish-perverted-unconventional’ humans…but this is, as a matter of fact, how we are, our ‘nature’, and I think we should come to balanced terms with it instead of trying to suppress it or control it (the whole of Freud, for example, is about this….).

THE CONCEPT OF MASS and the MASS MEDIA

The last theme I would like to discuss is the one of the ‘mass’. We have encountered it when talking about science and the industrial developments, again when discussing society-related issues in Nietzsche, but I believe it deserves a paragraph of its own. In media studies, we always talk about masses, and we study their reactions, their characteristics… but what is ‘mass’ exactly? Is it possible to clearly define it? And mostly, when was it ‘born’? Has it always existed? If we look at the period before the industrial revolution, it might not very proper to talk about masses. Sure, at Roman times, for example, we had massive armies, but we would not call them mass armies, as we would do with those of Napoleon. The concept of mass seems to be related to modernity. So, how does the ‘mass’ originate? “Mass is not only a very common but a very complex word in social description. The masses, while less complex, is especially interesting because it is ambivalent: a term of contempt in much conservative thought, but a positive term in much socialist thought.” Generally, if you ask someone in the street, they will tell you that mass means ‘common people’. But it can be argued that this is a very general definition, in that in media studies, for example, we are all mass, in that we are all viewers, all decoders, all influenced by, or at least subject to, the media message.

“Two significant but alternative senses can be seen developing: (I) something amorphous and indistinguishable; (ii) a dense aggregate.” It is argued, and I agree with that, that the concept of mass as we live it nowadays, was born with the Industrial Revolution, which implied massive urbanisation, and all the technological developments coming from it. Let us think of the telegraph (today’s Internet…): pieces of news could all of a sudden travel so fast that talking to the people (and propaganda…) became much easier and faster. That is a great ‘peaceful’ revolution. The power of the masses grew, or it was found that the masses have power. Carlyle in 1839 wrote that “men…to whom millions of living fellow-creatures…are ‘masses’, mere explosive masses for blowing down Bastilles with, for voting at hustings for us.” Voting for us…it sounds like the way politicians treat the masses today: they despise them, but fake worship for them, so they get elected. This theme of the link between the masses and the media is clear, for example, in N. Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, where it is demonstrated that the mass media, especially in certain countries, do not serve us, the mass, but the powerful. Again, by promising us freedom, and slowly taking it away. And the kind of freedom that they are taking away from us is that one that the Greeks taught us no one can take away: the freedom to judge and think independently.

Let us now consider art, especially contemporary art. While time ago, a painter, say, would paint on commission from a king or high priest, with the purpose of satisfying the need of that one person, nowadays art is mainly done with the purpose of entertaining a vast public, who is, hopefully, going to galleries, paying a ticket to see the works of artists exposed all together. Even the idea (let us think of Eco’s Travels in Hyper-reality) of museums as a celebration of the past is proper of modernity. In this sense we could talk about a culture of the mass instead of a culture of the individual. The point is to sell, in most cases, as much as possible. An artist who does not sell is not a real artist, it seems, and to sell you need to appeal to the masses.

So as art is mass-produced, as part of this capitalistic system, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish true from fake, real needs from fake ones. We buy a pair shoes, not really, in many cases, for what they are –shoes- but rather for the lifestyle they embody, in this “mindless hedonism of capital consumerism,” as Harvey strongly criticises it. And about this life-style issue, I would like to make a note. A characteristic of Postmodernity is the fragmentation of the masses, the breaking down of traditional, modern ideas (how funny that we now associate traditional with modern…) about class. Marx’s description of society as divided into two groups anymore (proletariat and bourgeoisie) is not actual anymore. We could now replace class with ‘lifestyle groupings’. Personal and social identity does not come from mass-political beliefs anymore, but is determined by consumeristic choices.

Also, let us consider all the modern derivatives of the word mass: mass observation (let us think of the way, for example, an institution like the BBFC works in the UK), mass taste, mass psychology, mass opinion, or the concepts of mass production (still so characteristic of our age), mass revolutions (how many have we reads about in modern history), or the mass armies of Napoleon, mass movements (e.g. the student movements in 1968 or the feminism movement), and in extremis, mass genocides (from Stalin to Hitler to the atomic bombing). A common point to all these seems to be the influence of the mass media, and I now want to recall the point made about the telegraph, and the birth of the mass media: without information and general organisation, not many of these mass events could have taken place. All this to come back to the original point that everything is very much interlinked and that technology played a major role.

As we mentioned when talking about Nietzsche, in this mass culture there is always a need for the search of heroes, of individuals, still: someone who, in positive or in negative, does something unusual, not common, not ordinary. Just a little bit can be enough. It is not necessarily about coping with killing your father, or bringing fire and knowledge to men. I was in Italy the day the Italian version of the ‘Big Brother’ ended. I was absolutely astonished at the ridiculousness of this modern manifestation of celebration and appreciation. The three guys left in the house were one by one eliminated, until one was the winner. As they were walking out of the house, they were greeted, celebrated in ecstatic veneration, very Dionysiac, I should say, as if they had just conquered the world, as some Alexander the Great, as if they had brought absolute peace, saved the planet. To be a hero in this TV age we do not need to be a Prometheus, a Byron, or a Werther anymore. It is enough to be on TV, and be watched by millions of people. TV promises us freedom, tells us that we are all able to be in it. But it is not like that. By promising us individuality, it makes us more and more ordinary, it tries to form us and a homogenous…mass. What a brainwash TV is able to do! Are these the great events of modernity? Those who want to satisfy their need of being remembered, if they cannot be on TV, are they going to need to do something like Eratostenes did, when he burnt the temple of Ephesus to be remembered?

When thinking about modernity, the masses, and the mass media, I feel we live in a world of simulation, of (hopefully…) hyper-reality: “one can refer to it as either postmodernism or as neo-modernism, but what is characteristic of this order is that the elements of modernism are hyper-realised. They are reduced to their pure formal state and are denuded of any last vestiges of life or meaning.” I find this concept very interesting, and the reality it portrays quite sad at the same time; to use Eco’s words, we build ‘Fortresses of Solitude’ “protected against deterioration. […] To speak of things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake’. Absolute unreality is offered as real presence.”

What I have tried to do in this essay is to critically outline three themes about modernity that I found particularly interesting both because of personal interests and experience and because of their relevance for an understanding of the phenomenon of modernity.
With the discussion on science I have tried to debate the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ characteristics of the technological world that came out of the belief in science, in society, economics, philosophy.
The theme of the complementarity/contrast of the Apollinean and the Dionysiac gave me the chance to analyse some modern phenomena with a look on the possible forces moving them, furthermore tracing a brief history of the manifestations of these forces.

At last, we have seen an evolution in the concept of mass and the mass media, from the Enlightenment, when culture and science were seen as improving human condition by empowering human reason and individualism, to more post-modern times, where the aggressiveness of the media gives us more to deal with to maintain that reason and individualism.

One thing I would like to stress even more is the core of uncertainty that wraps most of these issues, uncertainty that, if neglected, can take us to that kind of ‘academicism’, that kind of ‘fried air’, as I call it, that does not take us anywhere in the analysis of a phenomenon, but just fills our mouths with contradicting words, and bookshops with nothing-reaching books…
Also, that if any, it is uncertainty and/or complementarity that reigns in modernity, and not historical determinism (as Popper criticises Marx for his view on historical necessities).

I would like to end the essay with some of the verse from the Palinode to Gino Capponi by G. Leopardi. A great view on modernity, and the media:

[…] But new and nearly
divine advice to find again the highest
spirits of this century of mine: that, unable
on earth to make anyone happy,
man forgetting, they went
for the search of a common happiness; and that
easily found, most of them miserable,
a people make, merry and happy:
and such marvel, still from pamphlets, magazines and newspapers
not declared, the civil herd admires…

(vv. 197-207)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

M Frayn (1998) Copenhagen. London, Methuen Drama;
M. Berman (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. London, Verso;
B. Brecht Life of Galileo. London, Methuen, 1985;
E.H.Gombrich, The Renaissance- period or movement?, (extracts);
Hobsbawm, E.J. (1975) The Age of Capital 1848-1875. London, Abacus;
F. Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy. 2000, Oxford University Press;
R. Williams (1976) Keywords. London, Fontana Press;
D.Harvey (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity. London, Blackwells;
Kellner, D. (1989) Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Polity Press;
Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyper-reality. London, Picador;
S. Hall, B. Gieben, “Formations of Modernity”, 1992, The Open University;
N. Abbagnano, “Philosophies and Philosophers in History”, 1992, Paravia.

www.britannica.com

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