Sunday, August 22, 2021

What does it mean to be modern? (2)

 In the first part of this series, I quoted Michael Allen Gillespie's definition of modernity: 

...at its core, to think of oneself as modern is to define one's being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time...To be modern means to be "new," to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming.

To understand oneself as new is also to understand oneself as self-originating, as free and creative in a radical sense, not merely as determined by a tradition or governed by fate or providence. To be modern is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition but to make history. 
If you see yourself this way as a modern, then logically you will end up cutting yourself off from your own tradition. You will no longer be a culture bearer.

It took some time for this logic to fully work its way through Western culture. You can see it at work in Australia by the 1940s, at least in the corridors of power. It took an even more radical form by the 1960s. For instance, Malcolm Fraser, who was soon to become PM, gave a speech in 1968 criticising the languages on offer at the University of Melbourne. He complained that the university "recognises the following languages - French, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Japanese" and that "the list as a whole is one belonging to the last century except for one of the languages mentioned."

What he meant is that only the Japanese language was relevant to Australia in the twentieth century. He had no sense of affinity with the Western cultural roots of his own country. He was defining himself, and his nation, in terms of "time," which then allowed him to rupture the culture of his own country, on the grounds of what was "modern" or "new".

It got worse. Fraser did not see himself as a culture bearer, but by the 1990s it was common for it to be denied that there was any culture to be borne. I remember contributing to a debate at the University of Melbourne where the phrase "Australian culture" was mentioned. It led to a quizzical riposte of "What is Australian culture?" as if it were surprising to hear the claim that there was such a thing.

Nor was this just a local phenomenon. At around the same time, I watched an interview on TV with someone from Austria. He too was stumped when asked about culture and replied "What is Austrian culture anyway?". I thought this particularly curious coming from someone living in the heart of Vienna.

Since then the schools have focused in an unrelenting way on presenting Australian history as being a story of oppression and discrimination. It has had the intended effect of disconnecting many people from their own past.

One point to be made here is that for things to change you would need to do something more than just tweak the school curriculum. If the teachers see themselves as moderns, and if this means defining yourself not in terms of land or place, ethny or tradition, but as a continuous "becoming" into something new and self-making, then there will not be a positive account of one's own history. It will always be something to be broken from.

If we are no longer culture bearers then what are we? It strikes me that moderns are tourists. They still need the connection to a living culture, but no longer identify with their own. And so they act like outsiders experiencing the cultures of others. This does not just mean experiencing these cultures when travelling overseas, but in their own countries as well. Perhaps this also contributes to the push in Australia to have Aboriginal culture as the national culture, even though an overwhelming majority are not Aboriginal. This would be odd if we thought of ourselves as culture bearers of our own tradition, but for a modern who does not see themselves this way, but who still wants a connection (as an outsider) to a culture, it makes sense. (Which explains as well why moderns are comfortable with the "welcome to country" ceremonies - they don't see themselves as connected to land, people or tradition, and so don't mind being placed in the position of "guests" and "outsiders" to another culture).

By rejecting the role of culture bearer, the Western individual has lost a significant aspect of his being. As culture bearers, we take the baton from past generations, attempt to live up to their achievements and to pass them on to future generations. This gives us a standard to measure ourselves by, or even to surpass, a mission in the world that requires us to live up to an ideal, and a reason to feel a pride in what we represent. It connects our individual efforts in life to a larger and enduring communal tradition.

So how do we break from modernism? There is a lot that could be said, but I'll focus on just a few points. First, modernism relies on a belief in linear progress - that we are making continual progress toward ever more advanced forms of society. For many people, the main evidence for this is technological progress. We now have smart phones and smart TVs, a growing array of apps and this is held to be proof of progress.

What we should be pointing out is that these kind of technologies are just tools. They can be used for beneficial purposes or for harmful ones. For instance, if a young girl has all the latest communications technology, but it just carries junk culture to her, culture that is likely to lead to poor life outcomes, then in what way is the technology a measure of progress? What is more important, surely, is the quality of the culture she inhabits, and whether this culture encourages her to develop along higher, rather than lower, lines, in terms of her commitments, her virtues, her maturity, her wisdom, her relationships. The state of culture does not inevitably advance, it only improves over a period of generations, via much love and self-sacrifice - which is one reason to admire and to be grateful for the positive aspects of culture that we do inherit.

Then there is the issue of eschatology - of the idea of human history culminating in the end days. This is a feature of both pagan (e.g. Ragnarok) and Christian theology. The danger is not with the religious belief, but with its secularisation into a humanistic belief in a linear progress of humanity to some ultimate end point. Linear progress then becomes part of an implicit religion that is difficult to challenge, first because it is an aspect of the overall world picture of moderns through which people try to make sense and meaning of their lives and, second, because it is left implicit and so is absorbed as part of the general culture which means it is less likely to be examined.

This does not mean that a belief in linear progress can't be challenged, but we shouldn't expect easy victories. I think the key steps here are not only to point out that society hasn't progressed in the ways it was expected to, but also to provide an alternative world picture to replace the one that moderns cling to. One task, then, is a recovery of ideas that were once central to Western thought, particularly those that relate to the ordering of self and society toward higher goods.

One final point. I have emphasised the importance of being a culture bearer. Western culture was, until recently, a richly developed, "grand" culture. The next step, however, may not be to uphold the most sophisticated, urbanised aspects of this culture. It may be necessary to re-establish our own cultures and traditions at a smaller scale and at a local level, at least to begin with. To maintain continuity might require a measure of adaptability.

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