Theses on Modernity

8 June 2009




There is nothing more modern than the rejection of modernity.

In what other age has man sought so insistently to alienate himself from himself, from his essence in the present, as man does today? Many people speak of spontaneity and of living in the moment, but the moment shorn from its context in history is nothing, it is nihilism.


Modernity is the age of reflexivity, and we can be assured in an age of reflexivity that there will be nothing that escapes the net of reflexivity, nothing that does not come back to haunt us, nothing that is not thrown back in our face.

Whether in the form of irony, sarcasm, cynicism, or satire, we can be assured that we will be continually reminded of the other side of the coin, of the point of view of the Other, and moreover that this point of view is manifestly not our own and probably not even a perspective with which we can feel any sympathy. To be lampooned, derided, and humiliated is to be reminded of the claims of the Other, and of the validity of Otherness. This is a fundamentally moral point of view, so that hidden beneath the rancor and harshness of modernity there lurks always the unattainable ideal to which we aspire in spite of ourselves.

In modernity, everything that goes around, comes around. As Marx wrote, all things solid melt into air. Everything is inevitably brought around to its opposite number. The rejection of modernity becomes the acceptance of modernity, and the acceptance of modernity becomes its ultimate rejection. And we cannot, for that reason, ever be fully moral or fully cynical but will always embody the kind of compromise that is despised by the totalizing consciousness that aspires to absolute morality even while luxuriating in the cheap pleasures of unrelieved cynicism.


Humanity today is not comfortable in its own skin, trying on one cloak after another in the attempt to find one that fits, never being satisfied.

It was said in antiquity of the philosopher Plotinus that he was embarrassed to have a body. His disciple and biographer Porphyry encountered his resistance in attempting to learn any facts of his life, as Plotinus did not even want to divulge when or where he was born. Our discomfort in our own skin today is not quite that of this philosopher of late antiquity, though it might be understood as a species of the genus, of which Plotinus represents another, distinct species. It is as though today we are not at ease with the lives we have made for ourselves, which is in a sense even a more radical rejection and self-abnegation than the mere contempt of bodily existence that was also a feature of Gnostic belief. So we try out one life after another, a serial churning of lifestyles, a meta-lifestyle if you will, not realizing that the very act of eclectically sampling distinct modes of existence is itself a mode of existence, and that we have in fact chosen a mode of existence without knowing that we have done so — perhaps even concealing from ourselves that we have made an irrevocable existential choice.


We share, with late antiquity, the desire to define ourselves apart from our age and to show ourselves as being neither in or of the moment.

Harry S. Truman is often quoted as saying, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” Time and again I have found this to be true. Buried within the interstices of time are oddities and grotesqueries of every imaginable kind, and many of an unimaginable kind. Among the strangest of the eras of world history is late antiquity, a buffer of several hundred years between the authentic civilization of antiquity, i.e., classical Greece and Rome, and the rise of authentic medieval history, i.e., as embodied in the great castles and cathedrals of the age. The transition from the one paradigm to the other was gradual, incremental, and far too slow to be observed in the life of any one man who lived in the period.

The age of late antiquity also saw the rise of two great empires that were to last a thousand years each — the Byzantine and the Islamic, with the first emerging near the beginning of the period and the second emerging near the end of the period. Late antiquity is also filled with bizarre and eccentric characters like ascetic saints living in the desert, pillar saints and the emperors who consulted them, philosophers ill at ease in their own bodies (as with Plotinus, described above), peoples who still called themselves “Roman” though the Roman Empire had vanished in the west and been replaced by the Byzantine Empire in the east, and barbarians building a civilization of their own in the far north of Europe. Sartre said that man is the creature who is what he is not and is not what he is; this contradictory condition is perfectly illustrated both by late antiquity and by our own age.


Those who immerse themselves in the moment, vying to be the most fashion forward of the age, are the most likely to eventually react against this and against all that the age represents.

The symbol of our age ought to be the omnipresent and omnipotent clock — or, better yet, the second hand that sweeps the dial of the clock. The worship of the moment is one of the weaknesses of our age, and leads us into our most typical failings and fallacies even as it describes our condition most poignantly.


The fascination with being au courant is a form of systematic self-alienation and an invitation to burnout.

The fashion industry is only the most obvious form of being fashionable, of being au courant, in the style, a creature marked by the moment. Every institution in contemporary society conspires to force us into a condition of obsessive timeliness. Some seek to achieve this ideal of being up-to-date through the twenty-four hour news cycle, others through worldwide investments, yet others by way of sports, entertainment, or gossip. Even charity is not immune from the demands of the moment: everyone has heard of “compassion fatigue” and this is simply the burnout that comes from au courant charity.


In becoming burned out, in over-expenditure, in exhaustion, and in eventual rejection of the regime that brought us to this point, we prove our modernity, and prove it twice over by reacting against it.

Just as there are some who have believed that the full experience of the Christian gospel could only be understood through a traumatic and total experience of sin, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness, so the full spectrum of modernity can only be understood by an equally traumatic and total experience of self-indulgence to the point of nausea followed by a turn toward renunciation and self-abnegation that grows toward the point of asceticism. Modernity is not one stage in a dialectic, but the dialectic itself, and not merely the passage from one extreme to another, but the experience of inhabiting one extreme pole of the dialectic only to feel a change within oneself that drives one to then just as fully inhabit the opposite pole of the dialectic. And as Socrates is said to have scolded Antisthenes by saying to him, “I can see your vanity through the holes in your cloak,” just so with the indulgences of modernity: the renunciation that follows over-indulgence is itself another form of indulgence.


Our very rigor in attempting to live up to a certain ideal of modernity is the tragic flaw that inevitably results in our fall.

Rigor is a feature of our age, and temporal rigor is one manifestation of this consciousness of precision. The clock and the schedule, the calendar and the timetable, embody this rigor, but the same unforgiving regime is also exemplified in our pathological pursuit of ideals, a pursuit that dooms us to certain failure. Our ideals are more elevated than ever, and the openness and relative honesty of contemporary society is conducive to ideals being taken seriously as a guide to life. But we have taken “seriously” too seriously, and now we take ourselves too seriously and are in danger of losing the ability to laugh at ourselves.


When we fall, we fall out of modernity, marginalized as being unmodern, as the Other, as the outsider — and what could be more modern than that?

Nothing garners more attention in the arts community today than so-called “Outsider Art.” But the very fact that “Outsider Art” is widely recognized by the art establishment proves that “Outsider Art” is not outside the tradition nor the market. Outsider art has become a commodity, both commercial and critical. But the effort that is made today to recognize works of art by outsiders is not merely, perhaps not even especially, a function of the widespread commodification of art. The outsiders that critics and gallery owners seek in order to praise and to appraise are not so much to be defined as outsiders from the aesthetic establishment, as outsiders from the social establishment. A member of any social group once considered marginal is immediately favored as the possessor of a special insight into the society that once marginalized the social group in question. An emphasis is laid upon the suffering and the victimization of the outsider artist.

The more things change, the more things stay the same: the phenomenon of the undiscovered and unrecognized outsider, whether literary or aesthetic, is not new to our time. Contemporary culture meditates upon the wounds of the victimized as medieval Christians once meditated upon the wounds of Christ and imagined receiving the stigmata as the highest expression of their identification with Christ and His suffering. The critical acclaim of outsider art is an attempt to identify with the sufferings of the victimized, a vicarious receiving of the stigmata of victimhood. Despite our modernity, it seems, we have never ceased to be Christians; despite Nietzsche, we have not yet heard the words of the madman. Rather, the words of the madman were treated like the words of any madman: the authorities were called in, the madman was taken away in a straight-jacket and institutionalized, and everyone was greatly relieved to have him removed from the public sphere. The ascetic priest lives on in the person of the acid-penned critic who uses the virtuous productions of the victimized artist as a point of departure for a ferocious critique of the failings of contemporary society.


Suffice it to say that our modernity consists in our post-modernity, with which it is convertible, and vice versa.

The conceit of the advent of a post-modern age is another strategy in the rejection of modernity and therefore eminently if not paradigmatically modern. And even if we are today living in a post-modern age, even if the end of the Modern Age is upon us, we have not yet ceased to be modern. Just as the men of late antiquity who were already becoming medieval did not cease to be men of classical antiquity, and just as men of the Middle Ages who were already becoming modern did not cease to be medieval on that account, so today as we become post-modern we yet remain irremediably modern.


Sufficient unto the day is the modernity thereof.

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The above remarks on modernity were extemporaneous reflections taken from my twitter posts of earlier today and subsequently elaborated.

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