The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are one of the great surviving relics of medieval civilization.

Last August in The Temporal Structures of Civilization I suggested that we might think of early modern civilization — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism — as an abortive civilization. Modern civilization, sensu stricto, was preempted and essentially overtaken by industrialized civilization, or, as I now like to say, industrial-technological civilization.

Implicit in this claim is the idea (not explicitly formulated in my post of this past summer) that our civilization or any civilization might be suddenly and unaccountably preempted by a macro-historical revolution that changes everything, if only that revolution is sufficiently large and catastrophic. Those were my thoughts of high summer, and now it is fall and the rains have begun. I have been meaning to return to some of these themes, and the change in the weather is as good a reason as any to revisit my less-than-sunny summer thoughts.

The most studied macro-historical transitions in Western history are 1) the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages, and 2) the transition from the middle ages to modernity. Both of these transitions have must to teach us, and it is remarkable that the differences between these two macro-historical revolutions are so schematic that they also seem to have been formulated to give us two radically different perspectives on what it means to make the transition from one form of civilization to another.

The transition from medievalism to modernism was gradual, continuous, and incremental; any attempt to draw a clear line between medieval civilization and modern civilization must adopt some conventions simply in order to make the distinctions, and in adopting historical conventions we know that we could have chosen our conventions differently.

Despite the gradual transition from medievalism to modernism, the medieval mind and the modern mind could not be more different. Their separation in time was gradual but the result was nearly absolute incommensurability. To formulate it in Aristotelian modalities, it was the accidents of of life that remained continuous in the transition from medievalism to modernity, even while the essence of life fundamentally changed. There is a sense in which we could say that there was an essentialist revolution that left accidents unchanged.

The transition from antiquity to medievalism, on the other hand, while it did take several centuries to consolidate as a macro-historical revolution, involved a violent break with the past and its traditions — actually, several violent breaks in tradition. There was the relative suddenness of the abandonment of classical religious traditions in favor of Christianity; there was the collapse of any unified Roman legal and political power in Western Europe; there was the break with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which continued on for another thousand years (turning itself into what Toynbee would have called a fossil civilization); there was the collapse the urban life in Western Europe and the flight from the cities, and with this came a radical economic transition from a unified system of commerce across the Roman Empire to a self-sufficient manorial system.

Although this transition from antiquity of medievalism involved a series of violent social dislocations, the scale of which have not been seen since in Western civilization (with the exception of the Black Death and industrialization), the medieval mind believed itself to be unchanged in essentials from the world of classical antiquity. It was common rhetorical and indeed an intellectual trope of the middle ages for people to speak of themselves as Romans and to assume that their world was simply a greatly diminished and impoverished Roman Empire. Rather than thinking in terms of a new civilization that had been born with the passing of classical antiquity, it was said that mundus senescit — the world grows old — and it was thought that the peoples of time were simply waiting for the old world to end.

From an historiographical perspective, medieval civilization is an historical phenomenon of great value, because it represents a fully contained macro-historical division of western history, with a more-or-less clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, we have the full arc of the story of medieval civilization.

Somewhere (I don’t recall where as I write this) I read that someone characterized the upshot of Toynbee’s historical effort as embodying the idea that civilizations are the proper unit of historical study. Civilizations are a unit of historical study — one unit among many other possible units of study — but every epistemic order of magnitude has its proper units of historical study. Those units are the “individuals” recognized by the conceptual infrastructure of a given epistemic order of magnitude.

Different objects of historical study will also mean different forms of historical transition between the objects in question. Civilizations have characteristic forms of transition. Demographic macro-historical transitions that affect the entire human population of the Earth, like the transitions from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agriculturalism, and then the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, are of another order of magnitude. It is no wonder that the modernism of civilization gave way before the demographic revolution of industrialization; the latter is a far larger historical force that can easily swamp developments as relatively small as those on the scale of civilization.

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It is interesting to reflect on the peculiar character of civilization in Western Europe after the decisive shift to historical modernity, which we can locate in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, yet before the decisive (and transformative) emergence of industrialization. Roughly speaking, the period of European history from 1500 to 1800 represents a unique transitional stage in the history of civilization.

I touched upon this indirectly in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, which was an inquiry into possible alternative forms of industrialization that did not happen. But there is a sense in which these alternatives did happen, but continuing economic and technological development made it possible for industrialization to fully overtake modernism so that the two appeared to be two aspects of a single social development, whereas they are in fact isolatable and distinct historical processes.

Jethro Tull's seed drill was an important innovation of the British Agricultural Revolution.

Modernism without industrialism comprises the emergence of science in its modern form in the work of Galileo, and even the triumphs of Newton, the emergence of modern philosophy in the work of Descartes, the emergence of nation-states as the primary form of socio-political organization, and developments like the British agricultural revolution — the name of Jethro Tull may not be as familiar as that of Newton and Descartes, but his contributions to civilization ought to be reckoned on a similar level.

Enjoying a ploughman's lunch in the field

As noted above, the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution, and indeed made the latter possible. One could interpret the British agricultural revolution as a dress rehearsal for the industrial revolution, as it involved the systematic application of scientific methods to agriculture, resulting in increased agricultural production that in turn resulted in more and better quality food for many people in England. It was this abundance of food for all that made possible the ploughman’s lunch.

As another exercise in a counter-factual thought experiment (as in Counter Factual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution), we might similarly imagine the scientific revolution being brought to other areas of life (other than agriculture) but without the peculiar developments specific to the industrial revolution — mass production, the factory system, the mobility of labor, the dissolution of traditional social institutions and so forth. There is a sense in which this did happen in some places, but it happened in parallel with the industrial revolution, and thus was overshadowed by the more far-reaching effects of industrialization.

There is also a sense in which modernism without industrialism still emerges from time to time. In those regions of the world in which industrialism has been imported, where industrialization has not emerged from the indigenous economy, we find circumstances not unlike the transitional conditions of modernism without industrialism in Europe immediately prior to the industrial revolution. One will find a few sporadic traces of industrialism, but not anything like the wrenching social changes which, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto:

“The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Remember this line the next time you hear someone complain about the inability of small businesses to compete with the cheap prices of Wal-Mart: the Industrial Revolution remains an on-going process, and now it is our own “Chinese walls” that are being battered down. The period of European civilization that constitutes modernism without industrialism is a world in which this observation of Marx and Engels is not true; we know that in our time it is true, and is becoming more true as industrialized civilization continues to develop.

If imported industrialism eventually takes root in an economy in which it is not indigenous, it can in time approximate the kind of industrial development we find in places where it has emerged from the indigenous economy. Thus the order of industrialization can vary in different circumstances, but it is likely that there are some orders of industrialization that are more efficient and more effective than others. That is to say, there is the possibility that there is an optimal form of industrialization. If we could go back and do it over again, we would probably do a better job at it, but the industrial revolution is a unique one-time event in the life of a society. Other societies even now are being transformed or will be transformed by industrialization, but they cannot (for obvious reasons) learn our lessons; they must learn these lessons for themselves.

Once again we are forced to recognize the lack of intelligent institutions of our society, institutions that would adapt and develop to meet changing circumstances. While we cannot do the Industrial Revolution over again, we can look forward to future wrenching social changes. Intelligent institutions would require a great deal of time to craft, but in all honesty we probably have a great deal of time before our next wrenching social transformation (unless communicants of the Technological Singularity cult are not as deluded as they appear to be), so that a truly civilized undertaking for a society today would be to formulate intelligent institutions for itself that will serve its interests in the long term future. I suspect this is too dull a proposal to count as a “vision” for the future, but it would be a worthwhile undertaking.

I have formulated a couple of fairly concrete proposals of events that may loom in our future, and which may transform societies around the world (and off the world). The “events” (such as they are) that I have in mind are extraterrestrialization and the next Axial Age. Extraterrestrialization, which would be the transition of the bulk of the human species off world, would constitute a social, political, industrial, and economic transformation of society. The next Axial Age, which would be a period in the spiritual development of humanity in which our mythological institutions would finally catch up with industrialization and provide us with a mythology equal and adequate to industrial society, would constitute a social, cultural, and spiritual transformation of society.

These events — extraterrestrialization and axialization (as it were) — are of a very different character, but both have the potential to have profound and far-reaching influence upon the way ordinary people live their day-to-day lives. They are also likely to lie hundreds of years in the future, and that gives us plenty of time to formulate intelligent institutions that would help us make the transition — with a minimum of violence and bloodshed — to the changed socio-political conditions that would be occasioned by these historical developments.

The Industrial Revolution would have truly done its work, and we could count ourselves as a mature civilization, if we could apply our scientific knowledge to a systematic reform of our institutions making them intelligent institutions that could prepare the way for a peaceful future, even if that future means that the historical viability of civilization can only be secured by the result of civilization being so transformed that it would be no longer recognizable as what we think of as civilization. A mature civilization would be able to look at its other and see not barbarism, but heretofore unrecognized civilization.

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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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