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When is the modern?

I am engaging (I think that is the right word, at least if you think in terms of a military engagement) with Gabriel Josipovici’s argumentative essay, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (and I am curious about the refusal to use ‘Whatever’). It’s a book that raises new questions with every page, but the first question that strikes me is simple: what do we mean by modern?

As an historian I use modern to refer to that great sweep of history that covers pretty well the last 500 years. But when does the modern age begin? With the enforced social and political changes that came about as a result of the Black Death? The modern world certainly doesn’t encompass feudalism, that effectively died of the plague. Or with the new marine technology that allowed the building of ships that could travel further that in turn changed the shape of the known world by reaching south round Africa and west to the Americas? Or with the Moslem conquest of Constantinople that sent scholars streaming westward and introduced new approaches to learning such as humanism, and that in turn became what we know as the Renaissance? Or with Luther following common practice by nailing a set of discontents to the church door at Wittenburg, and finding almost by chance that his work became the culmination of a century of increasing unhappiness with the shape of the Church so that the Reformation was launched?

And if we don’t know when it starts, no more do we know when it ends. Another book I am reading at the moment is State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook, a history of Britain during the Heath government, 1970-74, written by someone who was only born in 1974. For Sandbrook, then, this whole period is history that has to be researched. For me it is memory, it is the years I was at university in Ulster, so for me it is not history but contemporary. So when does the modern become now?

Josipovici, by the way, talks almost exclusively of the modern starting with the Reformation, but he sees the Reformation in terms of what it took away from community: the rise of individualism and of capitalism. He doesn’t seem to notice that one of the basics of Protestantism was that the individual should engage directly with God rather than through an intermediary priest, hence the individual should learn to read the Bible for themselves, hence in turn the introduction of schooling. One of the first things that Elizabeth I did after restoring the Protestant religion in England was expand education, spreading grammar schools across the land. One generation later we had Shakespeare and Marlowe and the rest.

But that 500-year sweep of the modern is only one version. There’s the modern that covers a new way of expressing artistically the new ways of seeing the world introduced by, for example, Freud. So the modern means a reaction against one way of presenting the world and in favour of a different way of presenting the world, a switch from the external to the internal, from the idea that the world is comprehensible to the idea that it is not. But again we have no way of dating this. Does it start with the psychological insights of Freud, or with the evolutionary insights of Darwin, or with the long history insights of the geologists that set the scene for Darwin, or with the interlinking of science and art that was a feature of the Romantic imagination? Josipovici tends to go for this last, but I find it difficult to think of the Romantics and the Moderns in the same terms.

What this view clearly seems to do is link literature and science. But the way literature has responded to science has changed over time. If we start with the Romantics, then the way they viewed science and the world had changed totally by the time we come to Wells or James or Woolf, and that scientific world view has changed again several times in the century since. So again we have the question: when does the modern end?

But that is not the only way of seeing the modern. We can also look at it as a series of literary devices introduced as a way of responding to those scientific world views, devices such as stream of consciousness, unreliable narrators, shifting viewpoints and the like. But these devices have acquired a life independent of the authors and the world view that gave them birth. And like all literary devices they have grown tired and been replaced or supplemented by other devices, because literature is an endlessly evolving form. So again, where and how do you place the beginning; where and how do you place the end?

I think identifying the modern with such devices is too mechanistic a view for Josipovici, who seems to regard the modern as a sensibility, or perhaps a set of sensibilities. But at the same time he begins his essay by talking about his disappointment with the contemporary English novelists of his youth, who were writing in an essentially mimetic form rather than the challenging and inventive forms that continental novelists were using. (He conveniently ignores the many English novelists then and since who have used, to great effect, precisely such forms, just as he ignores the many continental novelists who were writing rather conventional realist fiction.) If this is the starting point, then it is a mechanistic view of modernism as a set of narrative devices.

Again we can think of the modern in political terms, the rise of social consciousness, the economic discontents that were the culmination of the Industrial Revolution. The urbanization of European civilization, the exploitation of workers, the appalling living conditions that many had to endure, all boiling up into the sort of political sensibilities expressed by, for instance, Marx and Engels. The modern is the end of authority by birth, the end of everyone knowing their place, and the start of modern democracy, universal suffrage and empowerment. But again, we have to ask: when did this start? Marx and Engels were not the starting point, for that we have to go back maybe to Gerard Winstanley in the middle of the 17th century or even before. Or maybe the start didn’t come until much later, when philosophical ideas started to become a political reality in 1917? Or maybe they haven’t started yet? Or maybe it’s already over with the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Or maybe we should consider the modern in religious and philosophical terms, the enlightenment shift from a religious way of explaining the world into a scientific way. The end of positivism and the rise of analytical philosophy (was Wittgenstein modern or postmodern?), perhaps? But again, these are changes that were already happening in the 17th century (Locke) and are still going on in the 21st century (the rebirth of religion).

Some of these are areas directly addressed by Josipovici, many are not. But the problem I have is that the more terms like Modern are bandied around, the less I understand what they mean. Or rather, the more I understand that they mean very different things in different ‘language games’ (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein). Are we modern? Or is Modern a thing of the past? Or are we yet to achieve modernity?

11 thoughts on “When is the modern?

  1. I think you’ve answered your own question: there is no beginning, really. Anyone who wants to make a case for a specific year is advocating some particular aspect of modernity, and some event or invention etc. that brought about or popularized that aspect. (They’re also advocating a particular view of history—the one that the Annales School criticizes as histoire événementielle, “the history of events.”) (I am of course much enamored with the Annales School, and favor their alternative, longue durée approach.)

    But the modern condition is the sum of hundreds, if not thousands of different things, many of which have been developing for hundreds of years, if not longer… Modernity has been a long, steady process that is still developing.

    As always, Paul, I love reading your posts…


  2. My point exactly, Adam. There is no such thing as Modernism, but there are many, many modernisms. So any examination such as Josipovici’s is inevitably going to be partial. The key, then, is in understanding which modernism is in play: and I think in Josipovici’s case he uses several different modernisms indiscriminately, possibly without even being aware that he is shifting between perspectives.

  3. My compliments again, Signore Kincaid. Foremost among the Modernists whose work far predates the appropriate historical period, seems to me, would be Dante. You might’ve seen my posts here about the COMEDY.

    As for the Modernism historically defined, and Postmodernism as well, I don’t believe we’ve got a better, clearer thumbnail sketch than John Barth’s 1979 essay. “The Literature of Replensihment.”

    1. Hi John, Paul (kinda Popish),

      I like those two Barth essays (mainly for nostalgic reasons), but at the same time I think he’s utterly, totally wrong. Replenishment is a constantly recurring problem in the arts; every generation has had to struggle with the sense that “everything has already been done.” This can be historically documented; it goes back to BC times. So postmodernism’s defining characteristic cannot be that; there’s no there there.

      I don’t really believe in postmodernism, though, except as per F. Jameson’s definition (“late capitalism”)—although even then I’d just call it Late Late Modernism, or Later Modernism, or Post-Industrial Modernism*. I have never been able to understand how we’re in any sense post-Modernist; we seem completely awash in Modernism, if anything.

      *Even this doesn’t make sense, though, because we’re not really post-Industrial. Most industry has just been relocated to the global south; we still have factories making our computers and cheap plastic Happy Meal toys. Not to mention most of our food… Farming’s more industrial than ever!

      Anyway, Barth’s essays made minor splashes back in the day, but I don’t think they’ve stood up well at all. Their biggest contribution was probably promoting Borges to a wider English-speaking audience.


      1. I actually have a problem with Jameson’s view of Postmodernism, mostly because so much rests on periodising. We end up with the postmodern being no more than a set timescale (late capitalism, late modernism, posy-industrial, they all say the same). But if postmodernism is worth talking about (by no means a given) then it has to be something other than simply an historical moment. Like modernism, which it interweaves rather than succeeds, postmodernism has to be looked at critically as a way of approaching art, and it is a way of approaching art that goes back at least as far as Sterne (just as modernism, for Josipovici, goes back at least as far as Cervantes).

    2. Was Dante the first of one thing or the last of another thing or the high point of a third thing? It seems silly to include him as a modernist, just as it seems silly to exclude him. One of the reasons I have a problem with modernism, and postmodernism, and come to that romanticism, is that it tries to force us to look at things as belonging to one set or another. Most great writing belongs to many sets (often contradictory) and to none.

  4. Adam, all due respect, as they say around Satriano’s Meats. But I can’t agree. Barth’s essays have a certain breeziness, a certain populism, but they remain touchstones for defining American fiction of the last half-century nonetheless. The problem isn’t with Postmodern Fiction, or the Novel since 1945, or call it what you will — that’s flourishing, really. But it’s viciously misunderstood, widely ignored — & thus the problem’s with the *criticism,* the so-called recording angels of our culture, who seem equipped w/ blinders & a heavy dose of Ambien.

    Barth’s essays call for better criticism, more knowledgeable reading (& I must note, the second did a lot to help Calvino reach American audiences, too), & almost no other essays (by Jay Cantor? by Ben Marcus?) have achieved anything near his impact, in airing out the country’s literary thinking.

  5. Oh, & I should add that I know Jameson, & he’s a useful thinker. His work’s a different animal, though.

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