PGS Lit Soc: What Makes Modernity?

by Henry Wiggins

Louis Bleriot, making the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel, 1909

This morning I woke up in a relatively modern house, I got up and made a coffee using my modern coffee machine, looked at my emails on my ultra-modern phone, got into my modern car and came to work. I’d probably, if pushed, describe my family - wife and one child - as a ‘modern family’, I tend to like modern art, I listen to a lot of modern music, I prefer modern novels to non-modern ones (for want of a better phrase), I like a lot - but not all - modern architecture. I think I’m relatively up-to-date with modern technology and modern ideas. I consider myself, in many ways, modern.

As you might have gathered in terms of the point I’m making, modern and the idea of what makes modernity are incredibly loose terms that we use reflexively and as a cultural short-hand for almost all aspects of human experience.

Taken purely at face-value, the term ‘modern’ can be defined as an adjective relating to something now or in recent times as opposed to the most distant past. On the strength of that definition everyone at any point in human history has been - or felt the capacity to be - ‘modern’; the Normans in 1066 landing in England were, for the time, at the cutting edge of modernity - shocking, terrifying newness - with their chainmail and cavalry and longbowmen.

The dynasty they ushered in would eventually become known as the Plantagenet era and this is traditionally seen as coming to an end at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1545. This of course ushered in a ridiculous post-hoc historical moniker in the form of the ‘Early Modern’ era; did this make it a little bit old? A little bit new? Was it the beginning of our truly modern world or the tail end of a defunct middle ages? Yes, yes, yes and yes is the answer to all of those questions which of course tells you everything you need to know about the absurd vagaries of the phrase.

What we can comfortably say for sure however was that nobody woke up on 23rd August 1545 and felt ‘early modern’; nobody remarked or wrote how nice it was to have finally entered the ‘early modern’ era and get rid of all that embarrassingly old fashioned medieval paraphernalia. Nobody consciously felt more modern due to one battle.

This brings us to the first of the key bonds holding modernist movements, concepts of modernity and the celebration of what makes the modern together. They are all inherently and committedly self-conscious ideas. To be modern or celebrate modernity or modernism in the, er, modern world is I would argue to be utterly aware that you are in a period of change or experiencing life and reality in a way that nobody has ever done before. It’s to have a genuine sense that something important or different or just new is happening; that a watershed moment has been reached. It’s also to be completely wrapped up in that moment and have fairly strong emotional – often contradictory and irrational – feelings about it; whether that’s excitement, awe, terror and so on.

The breadth of awareness of the world around us – what came before, where we are, what might happen next – that’s required for true modernity is therefore only really possible with the advent of the industrial age and associated scientific, transport and communications revolutions amongst others. Modernity also encompasses high art and popular culture - along with things that lodge somewhere in between - and a mass readership was vital for that. The revolution in education legislation in the 1870s in Western Europe - that transformed literacy rates - was also therefore crucial.

Therefore, as a moment in time, modernity really begins - and could only have begun - in the mid to late 19th century; some would argue we need to look to the 1850s and the rapid increase in urbanisation for its appearance as an idea whilst others may point to the 1890s and the appearance of modernism as an overt series of cultural movements - including literacy modernism - as the key start date.

If that begins to locate modernity in time, then what binds modernity and modernism together in terms of the themes and ideas that actually make something truly modern?

Above all, it is probably the impression of fragmentation or transience, captured very well by Marshall Berman in one of the great books on the notion of modernity; ‘All that is solid melts into air’ published in 1982;

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world - and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”

Modernity - and the cultural and political movements it inspired - was to be torn at the turn of the 19th and 20th century by both the possibilities and potential terrors ahead. As the seaman Marlow notes in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘we live in the flicker’; the consistent and clear or certain light of the 19th century was now decidedly more unstable; old certainties were collapsing and, as the English Literary Professor Valentine Cunningham put it, ‘a grand metaphoric atmosphere of dubiousness’ was setting in. This was, in turns, seriously disturbing - or at the very least dislocating - and also potentially seriously exciting.

The title of Berman’s book – ‘all that is solid melts into air’ – is itself a quotation from Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’, suggesting that what came before capitalism was – above all – not fluid. It was well-built, it was stable. The modern world was not.

Imagine you were born in 1880; 20 years old by the fin de si├Ęcle in 1900; 38 years old by the time the First World War eventually drew to an end. In that time you have experienced the thrill of the possibilities that the dawn of the 20th century brought; the unbridled optimism of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris that 50 million people attended where the motion picture and the escalator made their public debuts and the new tower constructed specially by Gustav Eiffel dominated the whole thing.

In 1903 the Wright Brothers pioneered powered flight and the world began its path to seeming a lot smaller, in 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity forced us to rethink the very nature of time and space; relativity and relativism itself as a concept would play a huge role in the modernist movement (and beyond); individual subjectivity, the importance of differing perspectives, the desire to break with tradition and prove that what came next – and might look very different – was equally valid.

Three years later, Virginia Woolfe declared - in response to London’s first post-impressionist art exhibition - ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed,’ she observed. ‘Relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children shifted, and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’ The possibilities of the future were endless although its probably worth noting what an elitist statement of Woolfe’s that is (‘masters and servants’ for instance) – it’s actually describing a revolutionary moment in a very traditional way (‘husbands and wives’).

Although many famous modernist figures declared their passionate desire to break the status quo, they often did so from relatively comfortable middle or upper class backgrounds and perhaps didn’t quite have the connection with the masses that we might assume. D.H. Lawrence – another key modernist figure – was very against universal education for instance as he thought it would lead to mass conformity and brainwashing. Perhaps the most significant political ideology to emerge from modernism was also Fascism which is inherently elitist – amongst many other unpleasant things – in its obsession with the survival and dominance of the fittest. Having said that, many modernists were also committed socialists or anarchists, so the movement is nothing if not contradictory in many ways.

The unbridled optimism of the turn of the century - but not the sense of awe of what man could be able to do or accomplish - was blown apart by the First World War. Technological mastery could also lead to mechanised mass slaughter of course. The destruction wrought across North-Western Europe and elsewhere provoked the peculiarly - slightly contradictory - sense of unreal wonderment and deep uncertainty and insecurity that marks out modernity in many ways.

The decade or so after the First World War therefore represents, in many ways, the absolute peak of the modernist movements.

Modernism was initially seen and defined as one of a number of avant-garde (in other words, experimental) movements alongside futurism, surrealism, symbolism and others but, eventually, became a catch-all term that incorporated all of these pathologically new, somewhat cynical and occasionally non-too-serious artistic, literary or cultural ideas. Any style or movement that looked to attempt to better reflect the realities – warts and all – and aspirational hopes of early-ish 20th century society could be classed, in some form or another, as modernist.

There’s no doubt in particular that new ways of doing things and appreciating the world appeared at a furious rate in the 1920s. To take 1922 - not for no reason the year F. Scott Fitzgerald set ‘The Great Gatsby’ - as an example of this whirlwind;

The year started with the publication of ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce and ended with ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S. Elliott. Two of the absolute pillars of modernist literature that embraced an attempt to represent subjectivity, uncertainty, the irrational and untamed human consciousness and so on in a way that had never been done before. Like what is solid dissolving into light or the flicker of a flame, the Wasteland is full of half-observed and peripheral glimpses of different realities. Ulysses is a deeply modernist novel in the way that it focuses on something so ordinary and mundane (a day in the life of a deliberately very un-extraordinary man in pre-war Dublin, June 16th, 1904, to be precise), and then portrays it in the most unconventional, unfamiliar, strange, special and bizarre way; both in form and language. Compare this ‘book about nothing’ that still tries to condense almost all of western intellectual history and philosophy in in some way to the often quite convoluted plot contrivances and unrelenting narratives of the pre-1900 classics (see Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens etc.) and you see where we’re going in what makes modernity in literature. The most successful sitcom in US history remains Seinfeld which ran for 180 episodes across 9 seasons throughout the 1990s and is famously also a ‘show about nothing’ with whole episodes focused on the minutiae of daily life such as how to queue up for soup or what to do if you don’t like the name of someone else’s baby. There’s a direct line from 1904 Dublin to neurotic 1990s New York going on here.  

Back to 1922…in the same year the Ottoman Turkish Empire collapsed (paving the way for the modern geopolitical Middle East), the British Liberal party - stalwart of the 19th century - held power for the last time, British naval supremacy - unchecked since the 16th century - passed to the United States, the world’s first fascist state was created in Italy, the Communist USSR was formed, modern Ireland came into being, the BBC was formed, cinema found its first global megastar in Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney produced his first animated cartoon, colour film - Technicolour - was invented, Wittgenstein arguably ushered in modern philosophy, the Vienna clinic - one of the first centres of Freudian psychoanalysis - opened, the author H.P. Lovecraft invented modern fantasy writing, the Bauhaus movement peaked in Weimar Germany, Louis Armstrong took up the jazz trumpet, African American culture thrived in the Harlem Renaissance.

In other words, there was a lot going on.

It’s also worth noting - as symbolised by the Harlem Renaissance - how focused most of the above was on the urban and the role of the city. Simultaneously exciting and scary, very functional yet also weirdly ascetically beautiful, the city is another key motif of the modernist movement. As an architectural idea, it’s best expressed in the design and construction of buildings that utilised what were, for the time, the newest materials – toughened glass, steel, reinforced concrete – and celebrated the functionality of the buildings in their form.

The Eiffel Tower is actually a really good example of this; it’s a tower made of steel and you can see all the key bits that make it stay up. Later on, from the 1920s onwards, you have the revolutionary reinforced concrete buildings and dwellings designed by the French architect Le Corbusier. In 1920 he co-founded a journal called 'L'Espirit Nouveau and energetically promoted architecture that was functional, pure, and free of any decoration or historical associations. He was also a passionate advocate of a new urbanism, based on planned cities. In 1922 he presented a design of a city for three million people, whose inhabitants lived in identical sixty-story tall skyscrapers surrounded by open parkland. He designed module houses that could be mass-produced and then assembled anywhere and, in 1923, famously declared that ‘a house is a machine for living in.’ All super modern.

In conclusion, therefore, modernism is rather nicely summarised by the poet and critic Ezra Pound’s imperative to, whatever happens, ‘make it new’. To do something new or different, to reimagine the very function or form of everything from the novel to the mass-produced chair, and to self-consciously (and a little bit arrogantly) know and proclaim yourself to be changing the course of history in doing so are all key features of the idea.

Modernists didn’t always actually like the modern world - T.S. Elliott preferred to study medieval Catholicism when he could - but they were intellectually fascinated and emotionally moved by it.

Modernism as a movement had rather expired by the Second World War when the constant rapidity of change had become less new as a reality and an accepted truism of human existence - as it remains today. It was also succeeded by Postmodernism – think an even more ironic or sceptical modernism – which is another whole series of LitSoc talks in itself.