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Modernism and Modernity, III

Motion and Form

The internal tension that marks modernity, the difference between the seemingly new transience of life to which moderns felt themselves subject — the increasing rapidity of technological progress, the increasing flux of urban styles and ephemera, the collapse of institutions that had stood since time immemorial — and the universal truths they strove to found, lies at the center of the Project of Modernity, of the Enlightenment. When Kant lays out the a priori conditions of knowledge, he is not interested in only the knowledge of European subjects from the 18th century, he wants to lay out the necessary and universal conditions of knowledge as such; when Newton postulates an absolute space and time that contain the flowing objects of the universe, he is positing universal truths; when Locke declares the natural rights of man, he intends them to apply come what may. The moderns were concerned with the notion of universals. Yet, their concern for universals was always refracted through a consideration of the transience of modern life itself, and caricatures that show all modernisms as absolutist attempts to conform reality to first principles contain more distortion than truth.

We can see this by considering the notion of progress, so central to the Enlightenment and the modern project as such. What Enlightenment thinkers took as the goal of human activity was ever progressive “demystification and desacralization of knowledge and social organization in order to liberate human beings from their chains” (Harvey, 13). So, while the notion of a progression towards some abstract ideal of liberation, towards knowledge, was an aspiration toward an unchanging, immutable thing, the progression itself was only possible through a continuous refinement or interaction with the day-to-day transience of modern life. According to this thinking, little was impossible, given enough effort and time, and it was inevitable that we end up, all of us, as liberated subjects.

Mushroom CloudUnfortunately this was not the case. The shocks and horrors of the 20th century bled the optimism from European thinkers. How was it that science, something that was supposed to free humans from their subjection to nature, have been used to craft the atomic bomb? What was the purpose of rationalization of work, considering the miserly care the Nazis had taken in exterminating the unfortunate from the lands they occupied? As the 20th century marched onward, it soon became apparent that the project of modernity had serious flaws. Rather than progress toward an ultimate liberation, it had granted bastards and petty despots the tools to far better enslave and exploit the great mass of humanity, or, worse, to eradicate not only humanity but the great thronging horde of life on earth. Some went so far to argue that this state of affairs was contained within the modernist project itself, that hegemony was presupposed in the very effort to exercise reason on the flowing world, that even in the positive activity of the Enlightenment there lie hidden an urge to destroy.

It is not evident, though, that the monstrousness of modernity was made apparent by the bulbous top of a mushroom cloud or by the rationalized killing schedules at Auschwitz. The slums built to house the proletariat, or the eradication of the indigenous Americas, or chattel slavery, serve just as well as a testament to the horrors produced in tandem with Enlightenment progress. What the 20th century added was technical capacity and bureaucratization, and of these it is the latter that is remarkable. It is the promise of order turned on its head, the hope for universality that upholds one half the tension of the modernist project come to dominate the other. It is this tendency that evacuated the Enlightenment of its promise for those living in the middle of the last century.

But the Enlightenment need not have been bureaucratized. The avant-gardistes, such as the futurist Balla, certainly would have resisted the rationalizing tendency even as they operated within the modernist tradition, as they struggled to grasp the inherent rejuvenating flux of modernity for all of its horrors and possibilities. The avant-garde’s understanding of the dialectical relation between law and transience was not necessarily a progressive one, if that needs to be stated, but it stands distinct from the bureaucrat’s commitment to application of ossified law, a commitment which could only be monstrous.

Categories: Notes.

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