Modernism and Its Discontents

So at the dawn of the twentieth century, persons could choose from a buffet of justifications for all of their claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. Let’s examine those a bit before exploring why choice isn’t always a good thing.

First, one could appeal to the old fount of authority. Never mind that this mode of justification had been so severely discredited by the nightmarish two centuries of Reformation conflict that it had lost all credence with those who studied the past. Judging from the frequent attempts to revive authority, many people must ignore the lessons of history, or at least the history of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. But, of course, the same issues occur today in a multicultural world with many competing authorities, and the situation is only made worse by religious authority’s disgrace over the course of the Reformation.  Since authority by definition is “power exercised with the assent of the beneficiary,” once that assent is withdrawn, the authority’s power collapses. The quickest means to accomplish that is to have authorities dispute each other’s truth and goodness claims. Because no means of resolving disagreements between authorities in these matters exist short of appealing to another mode of justification—and thereby acknowledging authority’s sterility as warrant—it can only survive in a monolithic or consensual cultural climate, though its adherents seem not to see this as a problem. They continue to hammer their opponents with their point of view, vexed at opposition, failing to note that the existence of disagreement is itself enough to vaporize their warrant, never mind who has truth on her side.

For those who know their history, modernism offers its alternatives: reason and closely examined experience, though both are hobbled at the starting gate by their uncertainty and so are endlessly gnawed upon by their own adherents. The doubt that assailed analytic reasoning and revealed the limits of the scientific enterprise from the eighteenth century through the present are well-documented in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification. These consistent attacks revealed the strengths of these warrants as well as their limits through an incessant buffeting, but their legacy is a tentativeness and doubt that make educated persons speak more softly and use more qualifiers than they did in the thousand-year reign of authority. Such weakness prompted a revival of mysticism in the early nineteenth century that offered certainty without authority. This Romanticism appealed to intuition and insight, with the added appeal of a god-in-nature who made few demands of adherents but offered them indubitable warrants for their truth and goodness claims based on revelation. One of the most difficult broad themes in intellectual history, I think, is the perverse interaction of Romanticism and rationality during the Victorian era, one that ultimately did little to ennoble either means of justification.

This dialectical opposition was complex and poorly understood, though thinkers as religiously diverse as Nietzsche and Eliot, as philosophically opposed as Russell and Foucault, and as artistically antipodal as Manet and Warhol tapped its power to subvert comfortable truisms about reality and our knowledge of it. Pressure built in the last years of the nineteenth century because of the inversions of Victorianism, grew explosive in the early twentieth because of the undermining effect of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein on the rickety epistemological structures of the fin de siècle, and burst forth in an orgy of novelty after World War I. Full flowering of this love affair with the new produced the twentieth century’s contribution to epistemological warrant: postmodernism.

None of this would have been possible without the greatest invention of modernism, one obscured by its very ubiquity: the birth of popular culture during the Romantic age. Blame or congratulate the Enlightenment for the explosion of literacy and interest in innovation that is the sign and seal of the new media. Ask yourself this question: who was the first historical figure whom everyone knew, whose life was of huge public interest? In other words, who was history’s first celebrity? For my money, it was Napoleon Bonaparte, and after 1815 all the other Romantic heroes who move the zeitgeist to admiration and imitation. From that time on, the homogenizing effect of mass culture was a force that any student of intellectual history would have to acknowledge, and its formative pressures irresistible.

Any educated person can recite by rote the failures of modernism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in part because post-secondary education harps on them so insistently. Imperialism demeaned and subjugated non-Western cultures while materialism strip-mined the planet for natural resources. Capitalism exploited workers drawn from traditional agricultural pursuits into miserable new industrial ghettoes. Victorian sexism demeaned women while ruthlessly stereotyping masculine social rules resulting in a stultifying conformism that elevated etiquette to a near-religious valuation. Scientific progress accelerated the pace of social upheaval to a frantic pitch and promised even more unsettling change, a permanent state of transformation. Readers of the great social critics of the era–Thoreau, Marx, Toynbee, Nietzsche– find their nostalgia for a vanishing way of life surprising, but those who lived through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were left breathless by the headlong rush to an uncertain future. Romanticism itself, the great mass movement of the nineteenth century, was largely a retrospective idealization of a pre-modern natural life. Fiction writers from Tolstoy to Dickens, from Walter Scott to Mark Twain popularized the charms of a simpler and nobler past.

The large tension pitted the headlong rush toward modernism fostered by reason operating upon nature against an elevation of emotion attached to a vanishing past. No individual exposed to Westernized mass culture in the nineteenth century could escape that tension between past and future any more than she could the struggle between exaltation of emotion and the dictates of reason. Victorianism was defined by these rifts, and the bipolar impulse to satisfy the demands of both should be seen as its most powerful, and most powerfully destructive legacy.

Victorianism had introduced a lasting suspicion of modernism’s justifications for truth and goodness, for any attempt to defend reason and examined experience faced immediate challenges from popular Romanticism’s reliance on a pantheistic intuition and love of emotion. Cracks in the facade had been plastered over by positivist promises of scientific utopias or Marxist visions of proletarian triumph. The twentieth century was ushered in by World Exhibitions of progress. Less than a generation later it lay in smoking ruin.

Seen in this light, the rest of the twentieth century may be seen as analogous to the sixteenth in terms of warrant. The Reformation revealed the hidden rot beneath the apparently solid facade of authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). Reason and closely examined experience had only slowly emerged as marginal replacement warrants, cobbled together only with the greatest of difficulty and subject to endless attacks both by nostalgic adherents of lost authority (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”) and by increasingly sophisticated practitioners of its own methodology (see “Modernism’s Midwives“).  The first decade of the twentieth century was rife with prophecy. The Fauve roared their protests against mimetic art. Literary naturalism disdained the prettiness of Romantic literature with a new focus on the harsh realities of real life (the power of literature to mold the popular culture is indisputable but also dangerous, particularly in times of social upheaval [see “Tall Tales“]). Einstein published his theory of special relativity in 1905. Yet no contemporary saw these portents as revolutionary. Change had been the order of the day since the first French Revolution (and had been suppressed in the name of authority and had risen yet again in the Revolutions of 1830), so the culture quakes at the dawn of the 20th century were greeted with some equanimity.

That all changed in 1914.  The lunacy of the War to End All Wars was the defining epistemological event of the twentieth century. A war no one wanted emerged from a combination of chivalric honor and ruthless competition. It was truly the child of Victorianism, beginning with cavalry charges and ending with mustard gas. It saw the collapse of empires, the birth of Soviet communism, the triumph of the nation-state, and, all told, some fifty million dead. They died, but for what reason? Empirical science had made industrial scale murder possible, but for what intended good? Why did these unprecedented millions die? It is literally true that no one could say. The U.S. Congress actually launched an investigation to investigate the question. Its conclusions buttressed the point that a corrupt and dying world order had made it all not only possible but inevitable.

Just as thinkers of the seventeenth century used ad hoc and consensual notions to find their replacement warrants for lost authority, so did this second crisis of warrant in modern times create its own rationale from what it found congenial. Like the earlier effort, this one took far too long and was characterized by extreme social unrest and obscene violence. The twentieth century’s miserable legacy includes the neologism genocide, for example.  Postmodernism was formalized as a conceptual system in the 1970’s (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“), but its blueprints were drawn by the lines of trenches and torpedo wakes in World War I. Its opposition to all prior means of warranting claims to truth, goodness, and beauty was so dogmatic as to be its dominant trait. Authority and objective reasoning were spurned, though postmodern academics adopted the language of the human sciences to question the findings of the natural sciences and philosophy and most every other modernist assertion (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). What postmodernists needed was what everyone needs: a persuasive way to justify truth claims. In their judgment, the modern successors to authority– reason and closely examined experience– had failed as authority had failed before them. Their solution to the problem of warrant would permeate the zeitgeist and change everyone who participates in it. That includes all of us. It was not only a rejection of modernism’s warrants but of the deeper axiom that had always supported declarations about truth, goodness, and beauty: that reality was knowable and that our claims to know it could only be verified by a correspondence between those claims and that reality. No sane person before our own age could question Aristotle’s definition of truth: “To say of what is that is is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” This dictum, considered so obvious that only Aristotle would bother making it explicit, was not only the broad base of modernism. It was broader yet, having supported all intellectual efforts in the West from their beginnings. The postmodernists challenged that axiom and the warrants it generated. Theirs was a complete, if not completely successful, campaign to change the rules of the game. Their axiom was the virtual circle (see “What is the Virtual Circle?).


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