Lecture 1 Modernity and Postmodernity
Modern Progress and Concerns Questioning Technology
Since the Renaissance, humanity has made its world over again in its own image in ways unprecedented throughout the preceding millennia of human habitation of the planet. Science and the advance of technology that it fosters have progressively empowered human beings‘ own fashioning of their world beyond their wildest imaginings. This human advance of upon the material grounds and substrate of our own existence over time undermines objectivities such as ―nature‖ or ―things themselves‖ and even ―reality.‖ By the time we get to the postmodern world that many human beings inhabit today, our lived-in, physical environment is, in crucial ways, for the most part culturally produced. This changes the whole orientation of human beings to their world as the reality in which we live. This milieu is for us no longer something solid and immoveable, as if it were given in the nature of things. It is rather produced by human activity: what counts as real is produced as an effect of humanly made instruments and operations. Nothing is given independently of human ingenuity and industry; everything has been assimilated into the human sphere as the projection or product of one of our ideas or perceptions. Even reality itself becomes virtual, an effect or appearance of reality generated out of the arts and inventions of human beings.
A symbol of this predicament, celebrating and exploiting it, might be found in the Opry Land Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. As they exit from their hotel rooms, guests are enveloped by a vast indoor simulation of luxuriant nature. Nature itself turns out here to be technologically concocted. This is true on a larger scale of the cities in which we live. We are kept constantly surrounded by human constructions and enmeshed in their operations. We are transported everywhere by machines within a realm totally fabricated by human engineering. We remain mesmerized by phenomena that are electronically simulated. Hong Kong with its ubiquitous elevators and escalators, its plastic-encased pedestrian bridges and moving walkways, its high-tech towers that colonize the sky, its transportation and communications networks, its dense commercial ferment and infrastucture, its neon landscape of flashing advertisements and video screenings in the street, is an epitome of this modern urban experience. The propensity to completely supplant the natural by the artificial is what leads modernity to the brink at which it precipitates into postmodernity. This happens at the point where the very difference between the natural and the artificial itself becomes just another artifice and is consequently undermined.
Reality—or things as they really are—is traditionally (particularly in the modern
era) presumed to be different from how things appear and are constructed in our experience of them, but just that difference collapses, if it is apprehended as itself just another construct. There are artificial constructions in any perception of reality that we can articulate—our language itself imposes such artifices. As
soon as we reflect on the difference between the real and the artificially
constructed, it comes to us no longer as a given but as an artificially constructed difference.
The difference between the human and the natural was clear for modernity, and the inexorable advance of humanization of the world as materially given traced out a clear direction for progress. The project of modernity was to shape reality into conformity with human wishes and ambitions—and thereby to make raw
nature into a work of art. But when the underlying substrate supposed to be reality has been completely absorbed into this process of production, it is no longer clear what the direction of progress is or who is mastering what or whom. Without anything outside human subjectivity and industry to be worked on and gradually made to conform to human purposes, the very idea of homo faber, the
human maker, enters into crisis. The idea of the human depended on relations to something other. The basic postulates of modernity, concepts such as freedom and the subject, presuppose always some kind of distinction between an objectivity, which is given, and an autonomous subject exercising its liberty in relation to the resistance of an objective world. Once this tension gives way, through the total triumph of the subject, which no longer finds any resistance or anything at all outside itself, notions such as freedom and subjectivity collapse or implode. The very success of human freedom in totally mediating the recalcitrant material of the world that it works with results in the liquidation of human subjectivity itself. With this liquidation, modernity flows out unstopped into the shapes that characterize rather the postmodern era.
Just as the objectivity of the world is gradually undermined by its appropriation for human uses, so that it becomes subjectified and reanimated, perhaps even ―reenchanted,‖ as certain postmodern voices claim, so subjectivity finds itself
invaded by objectivities that it cannot control. In a postmodern era it is no longer man or the human subject that is realizing itself by rational activity. Impersonal structures of administration or economics can be seen to dominate all human activities. The desires of the subject are themselves artificially produced by manipulations of the advertising industry and driven by the imperatives of profit. A dehumanization of the subject opens up from within its own immanent sphere of self-determination. The modernist story of steady amelioration of the conditions of life through progressive domination of reality by human freedom reverses into a story of dissolution of the human and of subjection to impersonal forces of domination.
Technological progress in the wake of the resurgence of humanism since the Renaissance is crucial to the story of modernity as the conquest of ever greater human autonomy. The supplanting of the natural by the culturally produced world is basic to modern and postmodern realities alike, their common generative matrix. All this is what we might call the culture of reflexivity. The human being finds itself reflected everywhere in the world it has produced by transforming the environment by which it is surrounded. (We will return to this issue of reflexivity and humanism later.) But the clearly positive valence of this progress of reflexiveness for the modern era becomes equivocal in the postmodern era: it is no longer clear who or what is in control of the prodigious transformations of the world that human activity has set in motion. The powers that dominate the world seem to dominate humanity as well, and from within, so that they cannot even be resisted. On this basis, new questions arise.
Is this humanization of all reality to be seen as the goal of evolution? Or does it rather entail the exclusion and repression of some necessary otherness to the human? In other words, What are the ethical and value implications of humanity‘s attempt to found and ground itself, remaking the world around it to
suit its own purposes—or at least constraining the circumambient universe to bear the scars of transformation by humanly unleashed powers? Postmodernism has raised these questions, thereby calling modernism and its ideology of unlimited progress and of human completion through its own creative, demiurgic, formative powers into question. Especially post-structuralist forms of postmodern thought elaborated by Derrida, Deleuze, Irigaray, etc., have been obsessed with the claim of the Other. Groundbreaking in this regard was Martin Heidegger‘s 1953 essay Die Frage nach der Technik (The Question Concerning
Technology), in which the Other appears in the guise of Being as mysterious and humanly ungraspable.
Certainly ecology and other political and religious movements in postmodern times have raised their objections to the unlimited hegemony of the human. But, at the same time, there is another postmodernism that tends more to be the continuation of modernism than to place it in check and to question it. There is a postmodernism that entails complete erasure of the Other, effacement of any trace of otherness whatsoever. The total system of the World Wide Web and the consumer capitalism that brooks no boundaries for the expansion of its global markets evince no qualms and are restrained by no pieties in the face of ―otherness.‖ Perhaps we should mark a further split and admit that there are both serene and troubled versions even of this sort of postmodernism that is comfortable with extending the modern project of conquering the world for human purposes (as opposed to the questioning sort of postmodernism, which is already one clear alternative).
Whereas modernism and some forms of postmodernism typically celebrate the progress constituted by such all-consuming ―human development,‖ and
conceive of human activity as perfecting the materials of nature, making the environment friendly and serviceable, some postmodern thinkers are bothered and even obsessed by certain ambiguities of this process. Taken to the extreme, the progress of development undermines its own basis, cannibalizing and altogether obliterating nature. The underlying material support for any human activities whatever can be degraded and destroyed by this activity itself.
In the typical modern and postmodern perspective, accordingly, one tends to lose touch with any ground and root outside human, technological production. Modernism is a movement of development and mastery of the natural world. Postmodernism goes even further in this direction and projects a world of pure artifice without any reference or basis and grounding in nature at all. Reality is transumed into simulations and itself becomes just the mirror image of human artifice. There are no longer any original presences that are not produced in evident ways by representation. Reality disappears into its simulations, becoming purely virtual. This can be seen as the continuation, but also as a collapse, of the project of modernism. Indeed, the idea of shaping the world in the human image is shattered as impersonal forces of system and chaos supplant humanism. Carried far enough, human conquest of the world ends up by absolutizing certain finite human powers, and at this point the development of progressive modernism becomes its own undoing. The positive powers wielded by human activity no longer work to shape and order the world, natural or material, in which they are embedded. Unchecked by any external and resistant world, these finite powers mistake themselves for infinite; to effectively assume this status they must vie for hegemony by attempting to efface or absorb one another. They recognize nothing as simply given, as beyond their power, and so they must create their whole world out of themselves, but this entails inevitable conflict with every other likewise undelimited and yet finite, worldly power.
In this manner, the foundations of human cultural productions and constructions tend to be corroded by their own development in extremis. The limits within
which the development of human culture made sense and could be shown to be a positive progression are exceeded. Progression appears no longer true or real, nor to be clearly distinguishable from regression. It may still be possible to
affirm the surpassing of such outmoded values as truth and reality, so as to reinsert the more complicated developments back into the modernist narrative of continuing progress. But such affirmation and optimism, together with the grand
récit of progress that undergirds them, have also often been rejected as outmoded. A mood of peering anxiously into the inscrutable, without any comforting narratives of linear progression at all, is in fact more characteristic of
the postmodern. Beyond the inevitable consternation it causes, this loss of a sense of direction and of the goal of progress can also be exhilarating. The mystery of existence in and for itself is rediscovered. The world may become ―reenchanted,‖ even as we become ―strangers to ourselves,‖ once there is no
positively definable program that precomprehends it and us.
This suggests how postmodernism follows the development of modernism to its furthest consequences and results in certain reversals and in some respects a reductio ad absurdum of the hopes and program of modernism. Elimination of any alien reality outside of human making and culture results in a wildness appearing unaccountably from within: our world and we ourselves become
unknowns. This is the opposite side of the coin from the absolute banalization of human life produced by rampant technologization that reduces everything including human beings to meaningless, mechanical activity. Poles of opposition such as subject-object, apparent-real, given-made collapse when human creative power and shaping activity makes everything over into its own image. Of course, there is always some sort of a support, some material basis for this activity, and forgetting this sets it up to come back in unexpected, perhaps unconscious ways. What had been treated as exterior to humanity now turns up as a dark, shadowy side within its own all-encompassing activity. This exteriority discovered as arising from within is for some interpreters a rediscovery of the religious. A radical otherness to or of humanity is recognized as the continuation of the experience of the sacred or divine, especially as it was known in premodern times. At that earlier stage, the divine still wore strange faces that had not all been made in the image of man. Postmodern religion can recover a sense of the numinous as it was experienced before the humanization of God through anthropomorphic, so-called revealed religion.
Genealogy of Two Mutually Opposed Postmodernisms
Mark C. Taylor, in ―Postmodern Times‖ (and elsewhere), distinguishes
between a modernist postmodernism and an alternative, ―poststructuralist‖
1postmodernism. Modernism is understood by Taylor as the enactment of the outlook first reached by German idealism and fully articulated in Hegel‘s system, which in effect achieves total consciousness of reality through its complete and total representation, its being defined as fundamentally an object for a subject. Human activity as Spirit finds itself in everything as the principle of all reality. This is a rigorous and systematic working out on an intellectual level of the postulate of human autonomy—of the human subject as the only maker of its
1 ―Postmodern Times,‖ in The Otherness of God, ed. Ollin F. Summerall
(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), pp. 175-89.
own world—that is realized in Western civilization eminently through technical and technological advances. It is the prolongation of the project inaugurated by Descartes and his program of science based on the conscious subject (―I think therefore I am‖) as Archimedian point for leveraging the whole universe. Heidegger would later designate this as the age of the world picture (―Das
Zeitalter des Weltbildes‖), where reality is equated with a subject‘s representation of the world.
Although Hegel himself was not a direct influence on most modernist artists and writers, Madam Blavatsky‘s theosophy and Rudolf Steiner‘s anthroposophy did achieve wide diffusion in the ambiences of modernist art, and they in effect mediate the idealist view of a universe perfectly knowable as pure form. Postmodernity moves in two directions from this point. On the one hand, it can extend the aestheticization of reality as object of representation to a subject. The historical dimension of temporal development so crucial to Hegel‘s vision is elided, and the simultaneity of all things together in one immediate sensation is experienced in forms of hyperreality such as cyberspace and virtual universes. All grounding in reality drops out, but still the total connectedness of all in one is affirmed and indeed appears now, empowered by the new technologies, as enhanced in previously unimaginable ways.
Modernism was acutely conscious of a brokenness in the world but generally sought to transcend it through art. No longer believing, as some Romantics did, in a seamless organic wholeness between art and reality, nevertheless, at least in the aesthetic sphere, wholeness was still deemed possible. Friedrich Schiller‘s aesthetic education of mankind envisaged using art to reconstruct human wholeness after the initial lesions and dismemberment of the dawning industrial age and the breaking up of the classical pursuit of wisdom into specialized areas of scientific knowledge. This vision of wholeness leads to the aesthetic masterpieces of high modernism, for example, to Proust‘s A la recherche du temps
The postmodern does not often produce consummate works of art like The
Waste Land or Finnegans Wake or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or the paintings of
Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Barnett Newman. In postmodernist
productions the high seriousness of modernist art is often exchanged for triviality and irony, although there are certainly notable exceptions like Anselm Kiefer. This type of postmodern perspective envisages the total realization of the real here and now in the profane world. The ―real‖ is immediate in the image.
Signs do not have clear referents any longer. But rather than being discarded in a direct assault upon the absolute, as in modernist abstract expressionist painting, signs are absolutized; they are made into images that are themselves, even as simulations, completely real or rather hyperreal.
There is another possibility, however, which is that of admitting that the signs are empty and that we are left without access to reality, which is thenceforth irrevocably an absence as much as a presence for us. This leads to a
postmodernity that does not proclaim absolute presence of the real as immediate, aesthetic, and iconic, but its infinite absence as absolute difference and deferral. The real is never attainable; it is only a trace of what can never be present as such. This turns postmodernity in the direction of the Other. In either case the relation between sign and referent has broken down and there is no longer any claim to grasp the deep structure of the universe. There is no key to the essence of reality such as modernist art seemed to promise. There is no longer even any reality that can be intelligibly spoken of or thought about. Precisely reality, as basis and fundament for thinking and life and language, has proved illusory and been abandoned. It has been dissolved into simulation.
In either case, the relation of phenomena to ground and of sign to referent breaks down and becomes a matter of indifference or of impossibility of relation. No longer concerned with signs as relating to some external reality, postmodernism deals with images that are simulations and usurp the reality of what they represent. When the sign becomes fully identified with reality, immediacy can flip over into infinite mediation that never arrives at any destination. Either this world of images can be proclaimed as absolute fulfillment of human desire, the overcoming of alienation and need in nature, or it can be felt as itself empty, in which case desire is directed entirely beyond the world as the totality of signs and images that it fabricates. The one form of postmodernism is the continuation of the project of modernism and its completion, fulfilling it infinitely by erasing all opposition to the total realization of the real as a work of art (or artifice). The other form of postmodernism looks beyond this achievement of the technological world as a total system to what is altogether and irreducibly other to it.
Taylor finds the seeds of these two postmodernisms both in Kierkegaard‘s reaction to the Hegelian system. Kierkegaard‘s aesthetic stage of existence prefigures the modernist postmodernism, which thinks itself in possession, if not of reality, then at least of its effects and sensations in the immediacy of the image. But, beyond this, Kierkegaard envisages a religious stage of existence that respects the absolute difference and unknowability of what it is attuned to without ever being able to possess it. Here, too, there is a notable lack of available foundations that can be grasped and relied on, and this predicament leaves human beings in fear and trembling. The experience of being suspended within a maze of signs, with no way of getting outside of them, has these two very different valences, and both tendencies have produced much postmodern art. The black comedy of Kafka‘s novels, of never knowing why one is being
prosecuted (The Trial) or impeded (The Castle), expresses the perplexity of the
second attitude, whereas Andy Warhol‘s pop art brashly exploits the deliberate, unrepentent superficiality of the first. In Disfiguring, his religious genealogy of
postmodern art and architecture, Taylor writes of Warhol: ―The world that
Warhol represents is the world of postindustrial capitalism. The aestheticization of the commodity and the commodification of l’oeuvre d’art join in the ‗realized
utopia‘ of the culture industry celebrated in Warhol‘s art. ‗Making money,‘ Warhol exclaims, ‗is art!‘‖ (p. 178).
Taylor suggests that Warhol‘s art is ―a perverse realization of the utopian
dreams of modernity, in which art and life become one. Pop art discovers redemption by redeeming appearances. Since signs signify nothing, the play of appearances is not the manifestation of an eternal essence but is the only ‗reality‘ we can ever know or experience. Pop art, Baudrillard explains, ‘signifies the end
of perspective, the end of evocation, the end of witnessing, the end of the creative gesture and, not least of all, the end of the subversion of the world and of the malediction of art. Not only is its aim the immanence of the ‗civilized‘ world, but its total integration in this world. Here there is an insane ambition: that of abolishing the annals (and the foundations) of a whole culture, that of
Along lines similar to those of Baudrillard, Taylor analyzes pop art as idealistic, as ―an idealism of the image.‖ There is no other reality than that of the image, so the image is real and the complete realization of the ideal, a utopia of the simulacrum. As Warhol says, ―Pop art is liking things.‖ Idem for Roy
Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. For the equivalent in architecture, under the rubric of ―logo centrism‖ Taylor highlights the work of Philip Johnson, James Stirling, Charles Moore, and Michael Graves, with his Walt Disney World hotels. This architecture is supposed to be fun and entertaining. In line with Venturi, and in the spirit of Las Vegas, they represent the realization of utopia in the modernist vein but in a new orgy of superficiality bringing in incongruous content to disrupt the deep structure and formalist purity of high modernism. Their eccelcticism and historicism, making a modern skyscraper in a gothic style, for example, mixing traditional and modern building materials, parodying pure forms by suspending and complicating them (Stirling), facilitate an illusory realization of all time and place here and now.
For Hegel, absolutely everything fits together in a total organic system. The Logos gives the underlying and centering principle on the basis of which everything is aligned and combined. Aesthetic postmodernism has assimilated the lesson that there is nothing outside the system, but this is no longer seen as a logical illumination of the real and a grasp of existence in terms of concepts. Now the self-enclosure of the system in pure immanence abandons this dimension of depth and of connection with reality. All phenomena are taken at face value and not as necessarily connected through any deeper essence, especially not through some underlying logic or principle. This is a world without depth and without transcendence. It absolutizes surface and
2 Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1992), p. 181; Taylor quotes Baudrillard‘s ―Pop: An Art of Consumption?,‘ in
Post-Pop Art, ed. Paul Taylor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 35.
appearance, for they are now self-sufficient, not the surface and appearance of
any underlying reality.
The alternative postmodernism that does not erase difference (the difference between the manifest and the latent, for instance) but remains obsessed by it echoes Kierkegaard‘s religious stage of existence, which is meant to challenge Hegel fundamentally. Taylor finds it in the art and architecture of André Masson, Peter Eisenman, and especially in the work of Michael Heizer, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Anselm Kiefer. In these artists, the repressed difference of the unrepresentable, the unassimilable returns and leaves an open wound that can never be healed, according to Taylor.
Baudelaire wrote in ―The Painter and Modern Life‖: ―By modernity I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.‖ Taylor aligns high modernism with the second of
these aspects and postmodernism with the first. However, there are also ways in which the modernist postmodernity makes even more exaggerated claims to total or eternal presence than modernism did. This style of postmodernity evidently declares the total presence of God in unprecedented carnality and materialism, extending nineteenth century ―theoesthetics‖: ‖the return of
repressed figuration, which disfigures the purity of the abstract work of art, coincides with the death of the transcendent God, who reappears as radically incarnate in natural and, more important, cultural processes‖ (Disfiguring, p.
145). For modernism, Taylor remarks, ―the goal of theoesthetics is union with the Absolute or the Real, which underlies or dwells within every person and all phenomena‖ (Disfiguring, p. 152). Such a goal is given up and is often mocked in postmodern circles. Nonetheless, we should not overlook that precisely because for postmodernism this presence is no longer real it can become total—it
becomes total simulation because there is nothing real to stand outside and over against it. Postmodernism implies the removal of the original and of authenticity, but then an ersatz ―presence‖ may very well take on totalizing
guises in the global network. This can indeed be a total presence even without any evidently real basis or foundation.
The Foundations Metaphor Discarded: From Modernity to Postmodernity
The simplest and perhaps most accurate characterization of modernism can be made in terms of the metaphor of foundations, and accordingly the passage into the age of postmodernism can be defined most succinctly as the shattering of these foundations. Descartes, at the inception of modern thought, uses this metaphor in his Discours de la méthode (1637) to describe how he is going to build
the edifice on the unshakeable certainty of self-consciousness expressed in his first principle: I think therefore I am. When this foundation falls away we enter into the uncertain, foundationless dimension of postmodernism. The certainty
and unity of the self are undermined in different ways by Nietzsche (through metaphors and masks) and by Freud (through the unconscious). Both of these thinkers prepare for the breaking out of radical attacks against the integrity of the subject that characterize the postmodern thought of Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray, Foucault, etc. The self interpreted as subject can no longer serve as foundation for knowledge or even for consciousness and experience.
Modernism (from Latin modus meaning ―now‖) is obviously conscious of
some kind of discontinuity with the past, of being a new and different epoch with respect to what has gone before. Yet the newness is typically a matter of a new beginning on new foundations that restore a ground after the dispersions left in the wake of preceding history. Whatever foundations past cultures were working from have become dispersed in the course of their evolution. The architects of modernism decide that it is now time to begin again, and in order to
do so they define new principles, axioms, foundations to work from. Descartes did this in philosophy, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich attempted to do it in painting, Le Corbusier, Mies de van der Rohe in architecture (in the literal sense), and Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Berg in music, with a new twelve tone or even atonal system.
Even though modernism sought to ―make it new,‖ in the slogan so often echoed, the refounding was almost invariably a return to something that was already there, to one‘s own past appropriated and understood and owned for the first time. The new is actually a renewal. It is a recovery of one‘s long lost
ground. Modernism was also typically about rediscovering the primitive, as in Picasso‘s and Braque‘s fascination with masks and with the arts of tribal societies. It was a search for origins. Especially alluring in this regard were aboriginal, tribal societies supposed to be living in some kind of unbroken continuity with nature. Thus the desire for foundations can be a desire to unite with the primitive and original. Since this is a way of appropriating such origins, modernist primitivism also expresses a will to be autonomous and without dependence on any outside or other. Finnegans Wake and The Waste Land fall into
this category of high modernism. As he states in his notes, Eliot based his manifesto modernist poem on the quest myth of the holy grail as treated most directly by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920). Primitive religious
rites, particularly druidical, but also from world cultures ranging from Egypt to Tibet and China, are evoked all through Joyce‘s text of the universe.
These quests are generally given over in the postmodern age. At least they are not taken earnestly as tendering the keys to true salvation. Interest in them or their residua is more likely to be colored with irony. This can leave the postmodern mind disabused and empty of the pretenses of the great, constructive modernist projects. There may be a pervasive mood of desolation and of mourning for irrecuperable loss. But it can also generate a much more smug attitude of self-satisfaction of those who have no need to search for anything because they are simply ―into‖ being themselves. The consumer