Published February 25, 2017
In the course of endless discussions across the Twitter-verse we very often hear about something called ‘Modernity,’ and what this is I’m not exactly sure I know, but I have looked into the matter a bit, and will here report some of my results.
More often than not, what I observe is people deploying the concept of modernity in a purely chronological capacity, as a list of years in which different significant ‘modern’ events transpired. Certainly whether or not humanity has prospered during these particular years is an open question, some say they were years when humanity really got off track, others claim they were years of increasing freedom and living standards for people around the world. Who is right is not our present concern, what I would rather draw your attention to is the fact that Modernity is less a particular time than it is a particular mindset, one that has just as much to do with shaping the material circumstances humanity has experienced during the modern era as the material circumstances have had to do with shaping the Modern mentality.
There is a story I see, passed around from time to time, about an experiment known as “Universe 25.” The anecdote, which is usually pasted at the beginning of articles written by Alt-Right bloggers to demonstrate the destructive consequences of Modern lifestyles, is chilling enough. It involves a mouse ‘city’ constructed by an experimenter to be the ultimate mouse paradise, but, as all of man’s dreams are folly, even his attempts to realize his Utopian schemes among the smallest of God’s creatures eventually end in despair, for, the mice, who were provided with comfortable surroundings and endless food, soon collapsed into such decadence that all off mouse society came teetering down.
The abundance of food and the absence of competition and predation allowed the mouse city to grow into a robust colony in the early days, but alas, the mice grew increasingly socially maladapted as time went on. This appears to lend itself to some easy comparisons to our modern human society, where there is an endless supply of hamburgers to feed an endlessly growing population of increasingly weak and effeminized individuals. The
disposable abundance provided to us by corporations utilizing advanced technological and organization systems is understood in this analogy to be the root cause of modern degeneration.
It is of no small consequence, however, that it was not the mice who built themselves a utopia, but man who built it for them. Did it ever occur to the mice to venture such an experiment? Never, not in ten million years did a mouse ever think of such a thing. Man, on the other, hand, is obsessed with the prospect of a perfect world of some kind. If man, in his traditional mode, under the auspices of natural hardship and reproductive pressure, is shielded from the degenerative effects of modern super-abundance, and the unrelenting desire to create such unnatural conditions for himself is itself a perversion of man’s ideas, how could he ever have been induced to impose this state of affairs on himself? If mice, in their animality, were unable to conceive of such an arrangement, and were in need of a higher intelligence to introduce the notion to them, then how was it that man, beginning from his base condition, ever advanced to the state of degradation we now find him in?
To focus squarely in on the artificial, techno-material conditions of post-Industrial Revolution society as the source of man’s present enervation, is to beg the question of how the pre-modern, un-enervated man went about enervating himself when only an already enervated man could have planned out society in such a way so as to industrialize its capacity to enervate men. Such a tangle is one I hardly feel myself up to sorting out, but I do not like to disappoint the reader, as he is a good friend of mine, one whose approbation I am always eager to seek, so I will do my utmost to assist him in his investigations into this matter with a few comments which will perhaps be of some use to him.
Which part of the phrase “Modern Society” is the part most deserving of special scrutiny? Certainly there has been plenty of attention lavished to date upon the former half of the term, but what of the latter? The “Society” part? Our idea of Modern Society is not just one of chronological limitation, of an inclusive series of years during which society attained to an unprecedented level of capital accumulation, (one which consequently triggered the progressive deterioration of the human spirit), but rather a sophisticated conception predicated upon a much deeper understanding of the world of human interaction as a place called “Society,” where people interact according to principles of taste and manners.
Modernity is not just a change of time, but more importantly a change of consciousness. The Modern era is marked by the development of advanced social technologies, and this began long in advance of the Industrial Revolution. These social technologies were innovated by philosophers and writers who shared a new and peculiar preoccupation with somebody called “The Public,” and it is this concept which gradually lead to explosion of Sociological thinking that came to characterize 19th century philosophy, which, in turn, came to influence the public-administrative organizational science of the New Deal and beyond. This is an incredibly broad phenomena, a transformative one that permeates the entire Western mind. My point is not to ‘blame’ crypto-leftist public policies of post-Depression America on a particular school of Enlightenment philosophy, for this transformation is a transformation of Consciousness, and underlays all ideological thinking, both of the Left and the Right.
Even Fascism, with its conception of the ‘Volk,’ is a mutation of the emergent concept of the Public during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. I am sometimes disputed on this point, by people who say that the concept of Volk is irrelevant to the existence of the Volk, as if to defend Traditionalism and Fascism from a perceived attack. It is not, they say, a Modern creation, but rather an Ancient foundation atop which our society rests. Correct, though they may be, that the individual populations, which in aggregate comprise the Volk, exist outside of the existence of any such conception, they are nonetheless in error to believe that those populations may be coordinated and organized on a mass scale without the use of one. ‘Volk,’ is a concept dependent upon philosophical insights of the later 18th century with regards to language and mass consciousness. The Volk comes in being as philosophers like Herder begin speculating about the fundamental connection of thought and language, only to realize that if thought is dependent upon language, than people within different language groups much think, on a cognitive level, in fundamentally different ways. This, in turn, lead to the idea of a ‘German Speaking’ world, one that went beyond political borders and encompassed German speakers living in French or Russian territory.
It is necessary, therefore, to return to the early years of the Modern era, to a time before many would recognize it as being so based on outside appearances alone. It was in places like the coffee houses of early 18th century London that Modernity began, 200 years before there were any Modernist painters, atonal composers and Freudian psychologists. Coffee shops proliferated by the thousands across London, which was growing rapidly in population at that time, almost uncontrollably so. At the coffee house, as you might expect, one could have a meal and drink some coffee, but, one could also rent a book or newspaper to read while you ate, and in this capacity the coffee houses of the era acted as an affordable semi-public library system, where one could buy a subscription and go to read all the latest newspapers each day. and not only could you read the latest Gentlemen’s Magazine at the local coffee house, you could also participate in auctions for fine art, or for shares of literary copyrights even. The coffee house was a robust institution that became one the staging grounds across Europe for the mobilization of mass social consciousness.
The daily papers that came out in those days were the contemporary equivalent of blog posts. They were not full newspapers, but were one sheet publications, featuring essays and advertisements, lifestyle blogs essentially, written for consumption by, for the first time, a mass audience of potential readers. More than any other lifestyle paper of the era, The Spectator, published beginning in 1711 by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, sculpted the modern manners of Europe. Though The Spectator only appeared for two years, the essays were collected, translated and republished across Europe. They were used as models of highly refined rhetorical writing in University courses well into the 19th and early 20th centuries even. They represented a pinnacle of English style, of good taste and polite discrimination. In each No. of The Spectator we see some little aspect of modern life defended or, as was usually the case, satirized. In one we meet an upholsterer who is addicted to reading all the latest news about foreign political upheavals to the point that he loses his business and family and winds up on the street. In another No., a famous essay titled “Pleasures of the Imagination,” Addison writes:
A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.
These were delicate literary morsels, critiques of little excesses of behaviors, annoying fashions, obnoxious cultural trends. It was the intention of the authors to mold public manners, to teach people how to have polite sensibilities, to value art and literature an appropriate amount, to avoid appearing foolish to others while out in public at the coffee house or theater etc. Central to the whole enterprize of The Spectator was a literary conceit adopted by Addison and Steele, that of “Mr. Spectator” and the “Spectator Society.” Mr. Spectator, the purported author of the majority of the pieces published in the paper, introduces himself in the first number of The Spectator thusly:
There is no place of general resort, wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those little circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman [a newspaper], overhear the conversation of every table in the room. I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner room, as one who comes there to hear and improve. My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree, and in the theatres both of Drury Lane and the haymarket. I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s: in short, wherever I see a cluster of people, I always mix with them, though I never open my lips but in my own club.
His own club, the Spectator Society, is composed of people, who, like him, are observers of people in society. The members of the Spectator Society are anonymous, they could be anyone, they are always watching and judging your behavior as you go about your business. This is the Panopticon of Modern Inter-Subjectivity. As London grew, and population density increased, and lifestyles changed, that was not Modernity, it is rather the contraption of the Spectator Society, as a machine designed to regulate and manage inter-subjectivity on a massive and never before seen scale, that is the true essence of the Modern.
The culture of Europe was the first thing to become Modern, and this change is not just a symptom of increasingly modernized or industrialized external conditions, it is antecedent, the necessary condition for the material transformation witnessed during Modernity. A rising GDP did not teach man how to understand himself and his world as Modern. In Universe 25 all mouse society collapsed, but why wouldn’t we expect it to? Society is a foreign concept to mice, their social interaction is strictly circumscribed to the purely physical, rather than the moral and cultural dimension. They could not dream of building a Spectator Society, which is the load-bearing psychic architecture which allows mitigation of the competing desires and personalities of the individual members of Modern society. A mouse who retreated into his own corner to groom himself never had any fear of appearing in a negative light to the silent observer we call Society, the mouse has never heard the name. That fear, of being perceived in a negative light by Mr. Spectator, is the organizing principle of the complex modern societies spread over the Western World today.
For the modern individual, there is a division, between his private and his public self. The two began to become distinct as he began to regulate himself in public. He found himself under the necessity of modulating the way in which he appeared to others, of projecting a self into the cultural world of society. This second self, he soon realized, was but a phantom, whose behavior was not completely bound by the basic material circumstances of its author’s life, but could serve him, as an emissary, to an emerging dimension of mass society where it was possible, for a properly tailored apparition, to achieve a new kind of success for its owner, social advancement.
In essence the public self became a character, one its owner only inherited from reality, one subject to conscious manipulation, customization, and modification by the individual. A well designed public self could take advantage of the social environment, by appearing to occupy a particular place in society by publicly projecting, or signaling traits others who occupy that position demonstrate, you can position yourself to enjoy the benefits you perceive them to enjoy. Needless to say the possibility for exploitation is enormous, as we see in the case of confidence men who tailor their public selfs to take advantage of a mark. The confidence game is, really, a perfect and natural metaphor for the public projection we all engage in, and though it is a powerful tool for large-scale mitigation of individuality, it a dangerous tool to let people have.
Not only did people during the 18th century begin to read, they began to write, in the form of letters to others and journals to themselves. Not only did they read essays in The Spectator, but also encyclopedic novels of social types like Fielding’s Tom Jones or Lesage’s Gil Blas. The act of journal writing became a widespread mania for the 18th century individual. He wrote to himself, about himself, in order to practice his own self-controlled manipulation of his appearance. The metaphor of the mirror was commonly invoked, as a man observing and reflecting upon himself and how he appears, assumes the pure perspective of Mr. Spectator, of Society. He is forced to consider the criteria Society uses to form judgments of people, and consider how he must be judged in turn. Soon he begins carefully presenting himself in ways that make him appear in a more advantageous of flattering light, and he feels pride in how he must be perceived. Though his journal is private, it becomes the Bible of his public self, which is why so many novels, like Defoe’s Moll Flanders, make use of the conceit of being someone’s own private confession. They are a form of powerful self-observance and an experimental staging ground for our attempts to manage our own self-appearance to others.
It was the Novel, as a genre of literature, that ultimately became the dominant cultural engine of fully modern mass consciousness. The rise of the Novel is a topic still widely discussed in the academy, though without much success, and it nevertheless remains a cultural innovation of foundational import to the creation of Modernity, despite the feeling among literature graduate students that there is nothing left to say or think about the subject. We see, in the development of the Novel, two tendencies wrapping around one another in a converging helix, represented on the one hand, by the Novel as Confession, and, on the other, by the Novel as Socio-Cultural Encyclopedia. In the former instance the individual, in the form of private letters, or a journal engages in the construction of their public self. In the latter, the narrator, as an impartial social observer judges the characters therein on how successful their personas are in Society.
The masterpiece of the former type of Novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, is structured as an intricate web of letters written between four central characters. There is no mitigating narration, only characters trying to project their chosen persona to the others in order to advance their secret cause. At end of the novel, the heroine, Clarissa, learns her suitor, Robert Lovelace has been deceiving her in his own quest for revenge. He drugs and rapes her, and, having lost her honor, she goes off to die a long and talkative death which her friends and family marvel at due to her incredible and dignified reassignment to her fate.
In the second type of novel, the encyclopedic kind, there is an overall objective narrative perspective, where the person telling the story has limited information about what is happening, and is free to judge the characters in the story on their successes and failures in whatever way he wishes. This kind of book, like Don Quixote, works as a kind of extended succession of characteristically personalities that inhabit contemporary society. As the hero progresses from one acquaintance to another he must learn that each type is never what it appears to be, from the vain actress to the negligent physician.
Many of these novels are not of the familiar type we meet with in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during the height or Modernistic Romanticism, Imperialism and the Industrial Revolution, they are experimental, even by today’s standards, and make use of complex meta-fictional conceits. The early Modern novel was a period of literary upheaval, when the modern mind was still trying to perfect the design of the Panoptic mass consciousness machine that would allow the most complex and dynamic ordering of modern society possible. Though it considered many forms, it was the Novel which was ultimately selected as the ideal option beginning around the turn of the 19th century. The Modern novel is a synthesis of the two strains, the Sentimental-Confessional, and the Historical-Encyclopedic, in it the characters tell one another their own life-narratives, and though the narrator can observe how these narratives influence other characters, the individual is ultimately the one creates their own public self. Though the laws of taste and fashion function by the broad consensus of the public, the individual has an almost unlimited room to remake his own appearance within that framework to accomplish whatever it is he can get away with.
Modernity, it must always be remembered, is not a physical state but a cultural condition. It is an apparatus for managing competing personalities, and the primary engine of this apparatus is literature and art. Novels allow us to think of ourselves as belonging within a society, a society in which we retain freedom to create how we are perceived, but without a proper understanding of the limits of what we can really accomplish by controlling how self-characters, there can be unfortunate consequences, as when people believe they can tell stories about themselves to change who they are. Today the bounds are not well understood, our self-projections grow increasingly plastic in the era of social media and the slowing forming hyper-Panopticon of the internet. It is now believed by some to be possible to change your physical body by means of self-narratization, though whether or not they really thought through whether such an operation made any sense I’m not so sure. Modernity is not simply an era of history when this kind of practice became widespread, Modernity is instead best understood as a conceptual toolkit for managing complex social dynamics, one in which, it is true, it becomes possible for people to fall into such errors, but not one that we should be overhasty to discard for its perceived shortcomings.
As the coming of the book and the paper transformed consciousness 300 years ago, so the internet threatens to transform the mind of the world again, in possibly even more dramatic ways. As we move forward in history, and things grow stranger and stranger, we are tempted to proclaim that we are no longer modern, and that this a new state is in reach. Is Universe 26 is just around the corner? What world will technology create for us in coming decades? Though circumstances change, we still operate, I believe, on the basic psychic framework of modern inter-subjectivity, we still think Novelistically about our identities and how they fit into the society in which we belong.
What will change the world more fundamentally than any computer is what man eventually decides to replace the Novel with, and what role the internet plays in that is yet to be seen. But as we confront the future, and attempt to decide how to best organize ourselves and prosper in a new world, the functional aspect of the truly post-modern world we create must always remain in view as the basis upon which to judge our success. It is not fully automated luxury communism that will be the true next stage in human evolution, but whatever mindset man invents to hold his utopia together.
Exploring the literary potential of online mediums, therefore, is the essential task of the thinker today if he wishes to have any influence on how the world thinks tomorrow. Some blog you possibly read today, might be the Spectator Society for the future.