Modernity and History

There is no single point when modernity emerged. Already in the twelfth century, Peter of Blois proclaimed that the moderns had gone beyond the ancients: "We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, thanks to them, we see further than they." Still, as late as the end of the sixteenth century, individuals widely believed that the golden age was in the past and that the world was decaying. [1]

A tipping point emerges in the seventeenth century. In 1605 Francis Bacon opens the century with the paradox: " Antiquitas saeculi juventus mundi," antiquity was the youth of the world: "[t]hese times are the ancient times, when the world is ancient, and not those which we account ancient, ordine retrogado, by a computation backward from ourselves." [2] Accumulation (of both knowledge and things), Bacon senses, is growing and with it, the present advances away from the past. At the time, primitive accumulation of capital was starting to concentrate wealth in the hands of a rising bourgeois class in Europe, the spread of print was making it possible for information to be rapidly shared while giving rise to new ways of thinking about the organization of information, and cracks were showing in the edifice of feudalism as power re-oriented around courtly life. [3] Although they were not able to conceive of modernity, individuals like Bacon could begin to glimpse themselves as having broken from the world that came before. The quickening pace of life and the advancement of knowledge opened up a rift with the past, prompting writers to forge new ideas about periodization.

Economic development advanced slowly in the seventeenth century, when it advanced at all, and progress was far from assured. But with the scientific method coming together for the first time to challenge natural philosophy and even, tentatively, Christianity as ways of knowing the world, the days of the past were numbered. Toward the end of the century, the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes directly called the past's preeminence into question. In his Parallèle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences, Charles Perrault declares the modern age to be superior; after all, it has taken place under the rule of Louis XIV, the "most perfect model of all kings." Nevertheless, for Perrault the consequence of living in a new golden age was that decline would soon follow: "We ourselves are the ancients," he suggested, in a tone more melancholy than Bacon's. But by invoking "the century of Louis the Great," Perrault wound up reframing the word siècle from in its traditional use of a generation or an age associated with one ruler to refer to a hundred year span that he identified as having a birth, character, and death. Others would soon build on this chronological framework and claim it for their own centuries. In the December 1699 issue of Le Mercure galant, the most popular French journal of its day, Jean Donneau de Visé, a man of letters, would anticipate the coming century and its distinct character. [4]

This new interest in understanding one's place historically accompanied a greater attention to timekeeping in everyday life. The clock, which Karl Marx describes in a letter to Friedrich Engels as "the first automatic machine applied to practical purposes," began to subject individuals to its unwavering order.[5] By the fifteenth century cities competed to build impressive public timepieces, leading to the identification of urban life with clock time.[6] Soon enough, household clocks and pocket-watches spread and time ceased to be the sole province of church and town. In England, priests began to keep registers of births, marriages, deaths as well as significant events in their parishes.[7] [8]

Well past the tipping point into modernization, the eighteenth century would witness industrialization, secularization, fundamental changes in class structure, even uprising and revolution. Reinhart Kosseleck suggests that European exploration and colonialism not only allowed capital to accumulate in Western Europe to such a degree that it helped fund the investment that produced the Industrial Revolution, it also spurred historical thinking and periodization. When intellectuals in the West observed what Kosseleck calls the "contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous," they came to understand that there was a lack of historical synchrony among cultures and, as a result, imputed to their own culture a universal world history with a trajectory of progress.[9] Compounding this, with the antiquarianism of the seventeenth century giving way to archeology, the scientific study of the past, notions spread that the present was greater than the past and that historical evolution was natural. [10] At the close of the eighteenth century, thought itself transformed, historical ways of understanding replacing the classical explanation of the order of things in terms of taxonomies.[11] If the moderns of the Querelle still understood power-and with it, history-to reside in the sovereign, the progress of the subsequent century gave rise to the faith the modern idea of progress and with it, the idea that the subject of history was not the sovereign, but man and his liberation.' From then on, the world would be apprehended historically.

The nineteenth century was ruled by historicism. Secularized versions of Christian eschatology, progress and evolution produced a faith immanent to an age in which Marx observed "all that is sold melts into air."[12] Being, in a worldview dominated by historicism, was becoming. For Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield the nineteenth century is nothing less than "the Century of History" and this extends both backward and forward.[13] To many of those living in the maelstrom, change was constant and radical, and it seemed plausible to imagine that one day soon, the good news would come and modernization would be complete, delivering paradise on Earth.[14] Knowledge was thoroughly historical. Take Michel Foucault's "founders of discursivity," the thinkers who established the key discourses of modernism: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, but also Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Charles Darwin, and Heinrich Wölfflin. Their discourses were all historical. [15]

One strain of modernism-epitomized by Futurism and dada but also by Soviet Communism-calls for the violent collapse of existing temporality, a break within time that ends continuity, and the unequivocal death of past orders. Even this project, however, relies on a historical model. Like their predecessors in the nineteenth century, the twentieth century moderns ameliorate the disorienting nature of change by grounding the present in a historical continuum with a telos. A direction is key, be it the emancipation of the rational subject, the liberation of the oppressed worker, the reunion of thinking and feeling through design, or the development of advanced technologies.

The moderns live in a world of the past, occupying what Jameson calls "a culture of incomplete modernization." [16] Not only is history the mode by which they justify themselves, it is the context in which they operate. Even as industrialization makes the life of the countryside obsolete, the latter is nonetheless still vividly present in modernity. The time of longue durée, the "Long Middle Ages" for Le Goff was not so much an era, but a civilization coexisting with the city. Le Goff suggests that the Long Middle Ages last until the nineteenth century, when modernity takes hold, but it's clear that they still remained, in pockets, well into the twentieth century.[17] For example, take Pierre Nora's observation that even at the end of World War II some 50% of France remained agricultural. Modernity was predicated on the division between a new, vital urban life and a dying, old countryside, the former inconceivable without the latter. Nor was the rural world forgotten to those who had left it for the city. After all, no mater how great the depictions of city life by the likes of Edward Degas and Georges Seurat, the afterimage of the countryside recorded by Vincent Van Gogh and Gustave Courbet was no less compelling and no less an image of modernity. After all, it is the backwardness of the countryside that leads the displaced peasantry to the city, that "consumer of men," in which they would become the urban proletariat, the diversity of their experiences a constituent part of the modern city's engine.[18]

Beyond the lingering persistence of rural ways of life, the moderns daily confront the detritus of the existing city, rapidly becoming antique. Wandering the detritus of early capitalism, they dreamt a world already modern. Here we could do little better than to turn to Walter Benjamin's description of the century-old Paris Arcades as the "ruins of the bourgeoisie." Paraphrasing Jules Michelet's observation that "each epoch dreams the one to follow," Benjamin elaborate, "in dreaming, [each epoch] precipitates its [successor's] awakening." [19]

Take Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 1919 photomontage of his competition entry for the skyscraper on Berlin's Friedrichstrasse or Le Corbusier's photomontage of the Plan Voisin six years later. In both cases, the architect represents the existing city but proposes a dramatic rupture within it, a caesura that takes place not only in terms of the project proposed but also in the form of its representation. The crystalline modernist structures are of a different order entirely than the existing city, harbingers of an aesthetic, technological, and even political transformation that would one day be total, but still co-existed with the old city. In these photomontages, the modern object promises that the nineteenth-century city is a ruin that soon would be swept away. Just as Cubism preserves the corpse of the past by showing traces of representation, these architects had little choice but to acknowledge the persistence of the past: it was all around them. If nothing else, their experimentation was a Freudian process of working through, allowing the modernist subject to break free of the past by confronting it.[20] Such was modernism at its apogee, becoming rather than being, full of hope and promise for a new world.

Ernst Bloch sees modernism as the outcome of this clash of conflicting historical realities, the "simultaneity of the non-simultaneous." [21] In affirming modernity, the moderns set out to level the remnants of both court and church, deterritorializing the world they found and reterritorializing it with tools immanent to it. Still, as Perry Anderson points out, the term modernism is too broad.[22] It is a straw man coming late to the scene to reduce the diversity of the preceding era for ideological purposes.[23] After all, for many "modernists," modernity's promise was far from Utopian. Rather, in sweeping away the ancient structures of the premodern together with the obsolete traces of early modernity, progress threatened no end. At the end of his life, Benjamin saw modernity's progress as nothing less than a storm, "one single catastrophe," violently throwing up a growing pile of debris and wreckage.[24] Nor was he alone: negation was as an important a strain in modernism as the Utopian imagination. If the past was a heavy burden for some, its disappearance was traumatic for others-van Gogh or Marcel Proust for that matter-who registered the passing of a world. Still, whether figured as Utopia or negation, fear of the future or not, at base modernism assured itself that modernization had begun, a preliminary rupture with history had opened up that would be completed in the form of a second rupture that could only emerge when modernization was over.

But that moment has long since passed. With modernization over, so is our experience of modernity. As capital and the metropolis came to dominate all aspects of life, the lived experience of the pre-modern came to an end and with it too, the experience of modernization. The messianic promise of the disenchantment of the world, liberating us from the worship of ancestors and spirits failed to deliver us Utopia, even as modernity triumphed, obliterating the past. It is in this sense that at the close of the century, T. J. Clark inverts Bacon's paradox, declaring "Modernism is our antiquity." Once modernity fully arrives, Clark concludes, modernism becomes unintelligible: "the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are unreadable."[25]

As modernization completes in the West after World War II, modernism associates itself directly with capitalism. Communism had been irreparably damaged by Stalinism and many leftist modernists-from Walter Gropius to Clement Greenberg-saw compromise with liberal corporatism as an acceptable form of collectivism. Having lost their faith in an alternative order, these bureaucraticized moderns turned to affirming the status quo instead, negotiating improvements within the liberal postwar state, an aesthetic parallel to the end of ideology that Daniel Bell observed in political history. [26] But theirs was not so much a Utopia as a damaged condition: unwilling to produce a rupture within modernism, unable to claim that modernism could end the alienation created by mass-produced society, they could only deploy abstract, formal strategies for mediation and call for the autonomy of art even as that too was rapidly dissipating.

Such late modernism corresponds to a first phase of Ernest Mandel's late capitalism, the era in which capital finished colonizing the remaining pre-capitalist enclaves. Although Mandel identified those enclaves with the primitive agricultural areas of the developing world, Jameson understood postmodernism as the effect of capital's colonization of culture.[27] The postwar culture industry would be informed by the techniques of modernism while art would allow capitalism in, most clearly in pop art's direct references to the culture industry.

[1] . On the critique of origins, particularly applicable to the origins of modernity, see Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977), 140. For Blois and the emergence of new views of the past see David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 87-89.

[2] . Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning and the New Atlantis, The World's Classics, No. 93. (London,: Oxford Univ. Press, 1906), 35.

[3] . On the impact of print culture on thought, see Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New Accents (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991).

[4] . Joan E. DeJean, Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin De Siáecle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 1-30.

[5] . Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 8.

[6] . Ibid, 125, 245-51.

[7] . Hillel Schwartz, Century's End: A Cultural History of the Fin-De-Siècle from the 990s through the 1990s, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 123.


[9] . Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 246.

[10] . Alain Schnapp, The Discovery of the Past (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997).

[11] . Michel Foucault, The Order of Things; an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 217-20.

[12] . Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 223.

[13] . Stephen Toumlin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (New York Harper & Row, 1965), 232.

[14] . On eschatology and modernism, see Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions: Towards a Possible Retrospect (London: Academy, 1994).

[15] . Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?," in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 114.

[16] . The End of Temporality, 4. See also Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).

[17] . Chapter Two ? Le Goff and Jean-Maurice de Montremy, My Quest for the Middle Ages. trans. Richard Veasey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), * * *.

[18] . Louis Wirth, "Urbanism as a Way of Life," The American Journal of Sociology XLIV, no. 1 (1938): 10. Nora, "General Introduction" in Pierre Nora, Rethinking France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), xi, .

[19] . Michelet writes "Chaque époque rêve la suivante" in "Avenir! Avenir!" Europe 19, no. 73 (January 15, 1929), 6. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 97, 109.

[20] . Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 57.

[21] . Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). See also The End of Temporality.

[22] . P Anderson, "Modernity and Revolution," New Left Review 144, no. 96 (1984): 102.

[23] . In March 2010, I conducted a search of books at Columbia University's online library catalog that revealed 166 titles before 1980 with the word "modernism" in the title and 1376 titles since 1980 that contained the word in the title. Also, the reduction of late nineteenth and early twentieth century movements to "modernism" happens initially not at the hands of the postmodernists, but in the hands of Marshall Berman, himself a defender of modernism. See Robert Wohl, "Heart of Darkness: Modernism and Its Historians," The Journal of Modern History 74(2002). and Anderson, "Modernity and Revolution."

[24] . Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, [1st ed. (New York,: Harcourt, 1968), 257.

[25] . T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 3-9.

[26] . Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology; on the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Glencoe, Ill,: Free Press, 1960).

[27] . Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, xxi, 35-36.