Modernism In The Streets

Please click the four arrows to view in fullscreen. The creators’ description can be read here.

The title of this post, so literally exemplified in the video’s example of Manhattan, is taken from a despairing Lionel Trilling as his students occupied Columbia University in 1968. Not to compare the contemporary Occupy movement(s) with May ’68, which is so tacky, but the quotation gains an intriguing new meaning now, which the above video helps to draw out. Though I’m in no state to define modernism, it can roughly be described as the belief in the capacity of science and reason to encapsulate all the variables of the universe in order to achieve a state of total control & perfection. This is to be contrasted with postmodernism, which is, quite frankly, impossible to succinctly describe. With our cliché definition of modernism out of the way, however, we can focus our attention on the much more interesting elements entailed by this weltanschauung.  Case in point:

High modernist subjectivity gives an extraordinary privilege, for example, to judgement and especially to cognition. It correspondingly devalues the faculty of perception, so that vision itself is so to speak colonized by cognition. The modern predominance of reading fosters epistemologies of representation, of a visual paradigm in the sphere of art […]. High modernist subjectivity seems furthermore to privilege the cognitive and moral over the aesthetic and the libidinal, the ego over the id, the visual over touch, and discursive over figural communication. It gives primacy to culture over nature, to the individual over the community, As an ethics of responsibility, high modernist personality and Lebensfürung [life-course] it allows the individual to be somehow ‘closed’ instead of open; to be somehow obsessed with self-mastery and self-domination.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 5

To conclude, here is Microsoft’s projection of our technological future:

For the 2009 version, see here.

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About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on November 5, 2011, in Philosophy, Science, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I guess authors who use phrases like “high modernist” to characterize modernism cannot really decide whether they want to systematically describe modernism as a particular attitude or whether they use a historical, relativistic perspective in which “early modernism”, “high modernism”, “late modernism” and finally “postmodernism” become somehow distinct phases – much unlike “anti-modernism” which is seems to be used in an a-historic way. They nevertheless adopt a modernist value system in which the latest phase is the best and most enlightened and critical one because it represents the highest level of knowledge and reflection. History becomes the unfolding of the Weltgeist after all.

    However postmodernism can only be conceived as progress over modernism by rejecting the idea of progression. So it is the kind of progress that arises from the insight that there is none. This allows for retaining modernism as a style among others, which collapses the previous progression model: “high modernism” was only a particular Zeitgeist which existed synchronous with others ( fascism and communism for example with which it also intersected ). Instead of an order of time you have now a loosely coupled series of Zeitgeist fashions which can be re-cycled and combined into a-temporal collages. As those practices become attached with the label “postmodernism” as a style, it starts to be discovered throughout history.

    The problem seems now how to distinct a “modern age” after its destruction?

  2. I entirely agree with you that it is ridiculous to think of modernism & postmodernism as distinct phases. Lyotard is much more intelligent about this, however: in his essay “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?,” he de-historicizes pre-/post-/modernism, stating that they instead are different forms of subjectivity (for me, the key word in the paragraph I quote). I’m pretty sure, for example, that he cites Don Quixote as an example of postmodern literature. I can’t help but think that viewing the matter this way, instead of historically, allows us to escape some of the antinomies you raise. Lash & Friedman’s paragraph is strongly influenced by this focus on subjectivity.

    I wish I had the book with me right now, but the authors contrast ‘high modernism’ (of which they cite Habermas as an exemplar) with ‘low modernism’, which incorporates many more of the artistic connotations of the word ‘modernism’: not exactly pastiche or bricolage, but a blurring of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art/praxis and valorization of the marginal, as in the case of Dada, détournement, and reflexive pop culture. Low modernism’s ‘transvaluation’ is one more method of testing narrative boundaries, and as such, it may allow a more ‘pure’ form of modernism than those variants which cling to ossified regimes of symbolic capital.

    Much of the academic hype about postmodernism, post-industrial society, etc., is no doubt due to the fact that it’s fun to theorize about. Many of the arguments that the world has irrevocably crossed into a new stage of capitalism are, when examined skeptically, tenuous at best. It’s surely more useful to retain a fragmented view in one’s analyses: even as the cultural sphere cannibalizes itself in the search for ‘originality’, science steadily progresses in isolating & controlling all relevant variables. Nevertheless, it still strikes me as overly idealistic when scientists blithely assume that today’s seemingly insurmountable problems (e.g. whether P=NP, the mind-body problem, “What does a woman want?”, etc., etc.) can be solved after enough brainstorming.

    In case you haven’t heard of him, by the bye, the artist/theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has posited that we’ve even gone beyond postmodernism, and that we’re now in a state of the ‘altermodern’. His ideas haven’t really caught on, but I hear that he offers good arguments for his case, if you’re at all interested.

  3. Thanks for the very thoughtful reply.

    It’s surely more useful to retain a fragmented view in one’s analyses: even as the cultural sphere cannibalizes itself in the search for ‘originality’, science steadily progresses in isolating & controlling all relevant variables. Nevertheless, it still strikes me as overly idealistic when scientists blithely assume that today’s seemingly insurmountable problems (e.g. whether P=NP, the mind-body problem, “What does a woman want?”, etc., etc.) can be solved after enough brainstorming.

    There had been an “end of science” sentiment lately which articulates the same sort of skepticism but this time it doesn’t seem to be detached from the scientific culture as some kind of external criticism made by philosophers, humanists and catholics who defend their own case. I wonder if the scientific subjectivity slowly transforms as well under the backlashes of its most ambitious and optimistic research programs – or even within the realm of their success? David Hilbert could still proclaim in the 1930s that “We must know and we will know!” without looking ridiculous. Today we are dreaming of appeasing Lord Skynet, our hopefully friendly superhuman AI, which may or may not happen to exist, whereas Hilbert wanted to be a Lord himself.

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