January 2014

Marx, Modernism & Modernization

Written by Marshall Berman

In this world, stability can only mean entropy, a slow death. Progress and growth is our only way of knowing for sure that we are alive. Thus, to cry that our society is falling apart is merely to say that it is alive and well. We live in a state of permanent revolution--from nature to culture to self--and in order to survive, the personalities of human beings must take on the fluid and open form demanded by such an environment. Modern men and women must learn to desire change: not just to be open to it, but to demand and seek it, to carry it through, to delight in mobility and thrive on renewal, to look forward to future developments, all the while avoiding nostalgia for the fixed relationships. This is exactly the culture of the bourgeoisie, the most destructive ruling class in history repeated intentional destruction of the “built environment” is integral to the accumulation of capital], yet that very class claims to be the Party of Order--which is a political slogan since order is impossible. This situation, as Berman says, is modern nihilism. There is nothing that may transcend the pays. This, again, is modern nihilism, equating our human value with our market price. The intellectual classes cannot escape. Even artists cannot escape this. They are wage-slaves of the bourgeoisie, members of the modern working class, the proletariat. They are modes of production, and their
productions, once accomplished, are valued by the ups and downs of the market in a manner completely separate from the intention or will of their creator. What this means is that the market does not just employ their labour, but also the fruits of their creative energy--their spirit. Intellectuals are dependent on the market not only for bread but for spiritual sustenance. Surely, everything and everyone is entangled in the market. Berman concludes this section with a question about the possibility of political community. How, in such a maelstrom as this, can the nihilistic thrust of modernity be avoided enough to create some kind of lasting political bond between human beings?
This pastoral vision “proclaims a natural affinity between material and spiritual modernization; it holds that the groups that are most dynamic and innovative in economic and political life will be most open to intellectual and artistic creativity --’to realize the idea of the future in all its diverse forms’!” This is a grand adventure, sparkling, dazzling, youthful, glittering and triumphant, “a harmony in the turmoil of human freedom.” Pastoral modernism, not only in Baudelaire but among many of his contemporaries, “sees the whole spiritual adventure of modernity incarnated in the latest fashion, the latest machine, or--and here it gets sinister--the latest model [military] regiment.”

with spiritual order, a confusion spread by the romantic story-utopia of Progress. The development of better technology is mistaken for the deepening of human moral and spiritual life. Unfortunately, instead of resisting this trend and re-asserting the artist’s place in the whirl of the modern world, Baudelaire disconnects him. “He disconnects his artist not only from the material world of steam, electricity and gas, but even from the whole past and future history of art.” The artist derives his art, now, from himself, a walking Ding-an-sich, dualistically floating freely above it all. [How different is this from Schleiermacher’s use of theology?] Baudelaire divorced discussions of beauty from discussions of truth, finding in truth that modern reality which is “utterly loathsome, empty not only of beauty but of even the potential for beauty.” Art divorced from reality is “pure.” Along with it goes contempt for modern human beings and their lives, a contempt which, as Marshall says, cripples Baudelaire’s aesthetic. Marshall writes, “what makes this pastoral,
Notes on Modernism

What we mean by "modern" is that each process led to the emergence of certain distinctive features or social characteristics, and it is these features which, taken together, provide us with our definition of "modernity". In this sense, the term "modern" does not mean simply that the phenomenon is of recent origin. It carries a certain analytic and theoretical value, because it is related to a conceptual model. What are these defining features or characteristics of modern societies?