the new modernity

The great American modernist architect Barry Byrne commiserated with his Bauhaus colleague Lyonel Feininger in 1926 that the term “modern” was inaccurate and unfortunate. Within a decade the “modern” revolt against style had itself become a style and Byrne and Feininger were proved right. What does “modern” mean when the word connotes the latest thing but has been used to describe such trends for a century? We can use the word “contemporary” to distinguish between current design trends and the “modern” movement of the 20th century, but the problem with both terms is that they slide over time – they are fancy ways of saying “now” and thus are awkward when we make them mean “then.”

Historic preservation is one result of the collision between tradition and modernity. As traditions and traditional things become obsolete, we desire to preserve them. It is an impulse with expressions as diverse as Mount Vernon and Farm Aid. The advent of “globalization” in the 1990s caused much hand-wringing, although historians and economists might argue that globalization is contemporaneous with modern capitalism, dating to the late 18th century creation of the joint-stock corporation. Preservation has similar roots and a similar timeline – it is a product of the Enlightenment.

But as much as I like to poo-poo claims of paradigm shifts, I think we are in one, or perhaps even exiting one. It is a form of globalization, but it is bigger than that. It is the end of the Enlightenment, or perhaps the fulfillment of the Enlightenment’s metaphilosophy, which had to do with the idea that people had rights like liberty, equality and fraternity, and that these rights were automatic: not conferred by social rank or faith community.

The immediate products of that philosophical revolution were the then-modern ideas of the nation-state, ethnic identity, and heritage (which includes preservation). These ideational products were put to the use of crafting industrial society. They provided urban society with the necessary tribalisms the rural world used as social glue. The demise of traditional, agricultural, village-based adynamic society and the creation of modern, industrial, urban alien nations, notions, and nightclubs required transitional structures. The nation, ethnic identity and heritage – an appropriation of history – filled the bill.

But these ideas – nations, ethnicity, heritage – that were so useful in convincing people to leave the safe circumscription of tradition for the leveraged uncertainty of modernity, took on a life of their own. They became institutions and agents of change in history, notably in a couple of large wars in the 20th century. So where are we now?

The NY Times had an article this year about an exhibit in Stockholm, Sweden of “war booty” – items captured from Poles and Lithuanians and Russians in battles well over 200 years ago. Sweden has managed to sit out of all wars since the Enlightenment, but the exhibit raised the usual questions of repatriation of artifacts, yet it was intelligent and involved enough that it noted there is a problem with repatriation – where do you stop? If Charles Augustus looted Prague and stole treasures that Karl I looted from Italy, including treasures that Domitian looted from Illyrians who took them in turn from Ephesians, who crafted them from booty taken from the Scythians or Hurrians, where do you stop? The article put a period in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna, which established the “modern” idea of reparations. That doesn’t stop the Greeks from demanding the Parthenon marbles that Lord Elgin took – under contract – in 1805. Or the Turks from demanding the Pergamom altar from Berlin, even though the altar never looked anything like it does now and is really more a relic of early 20th century German archaeology than it is of Turkey, or rather the Greco-Romans who built it in what is now Turkey, a nation fully 85 years old. Repatriation is a legal idea, which is to say a logical idea but it deals with history, which is not logical. History deals with dates but dates can’t make it logical or legal, because there is always another date.

Preservation deals with the endlessness of dates through the idea of stewardship – none of us are owners, we are all merely actors in time and we will pass too, but if we are good stewards we will not simply pass we will pass on. Of course, the British Museum uses the idea of stewardship to keep the Elgin marbles, which they contend are safer where they are. (they would rather you overlooked the disastrous damage done in 1938 when they tried to clean them.)

In 1066 the Normans, who were French, but 200 years earlier had been Vikings (Norsemen), conquered the English, who were Germans (sort Frisians by that point, with the words falling to the front of the mouth) who had arrived within the last 400 years, displacing Romanized Celts, who had displaced Britons who had displaced Picts and the evidence stops there but doubtless the story does not. History is messy that way: no endpoints, no final owners, no first causes – it just keeps on going. Archaeologists in China race to find older and older artifacts so they can claim some civilizational primacy. I understand the boasting – when I spent Summer 2005 in Krems, Austria, I liked to boast about the Krems Diana, an older (and svelter) fertility figurine than the nearby Venus of Willendorf, much more famous. But that is like saying a 12-year old Glenlivet is better than a 10-year old Talisker, which it most certainly is not. Age is deceptive: the numbering of time is not the same as the numbering of quantity. Rules of advanced mathematics do not apply.

The ideas that fall apart when you apply history are these lovely Enlightenment ideas we used to get people off the farms – heritage, nation, ethnicity. None of those ideas are needed in traditional village life because there is only ONE heritage, nation or ethnicity. In the midst of modernity, people need a sense of identity and heritage, nation and ethnicity provided that. But they are artificial intellectual ideas (yes, I know they have great agency – I’m getting to that) with no basis in history or biology. The human genome project basically uncovered that most of the people on the British Isles were like 90% the same, despite their “ethnic” and religious differences.

Now Kosovars and Tutsis and Palestinians and Tamils and Armenians and Chams and many others will disagree, pointing to wars and genocides and persecutions they have suffered based on their ethnicity, heritage or nationality, and this is true. Despite the fact that these distinctions are not biological and despite the fact that their historical roots are generally shallow and dilute, these ideas have incredible agency and have caused mobs and leaders of mobs to kill, maim and oppress in the name of these Enlightenment concepts of heritage, ethnicity and nation.

But I am seeing a shift here. Not in the brutal oppression of peoples based on superficial qualities, spurious signifiers or chance associations – that will go on forever. No, the shift is the shift away from these Enlightenment ideals of ethnicity, heritage and nation. They have become the new tradition and a new modernity is now setting about rendering them obsolete.

The EU and NAFTA and OPEC and ASEAN and even the UN are severely muddling and eroding the old idea of nation. NASDAQ and NYSE are dissolving it even more, and the globalization that was visible in the late 18th century became inescapable by the late 20th. Ethnicity is threatened by multiculturalism and the intrapersonal activity that comedian George Carlin once described as a remedy for racism. Even if it survives, the associations will shift and pale-skinned male Europeanness may no longer constitute advantage – a condition apparent in the current election.

That leaves heritage, which was always the most mutable, because it dealt with history and thus lay a little bit beyond the law, so to speak. When I was a kid, we talked about what we were, by which we meant ethnic or national descent so you were Irish or German or Chinese or Indian, and you talked about and worked with this “heritage” as you constructed your own identity but it seemed to me in my teens and twenties that identity was about music and books and things you ate and bought and otherwise ingested and you could travel to Europe or Asia and find other people your age who ingested and bought the same things and listened to the same music and watched the same movies and it was already clear probably in the 1960s and 1970s that there was a global culture and this culture, like modern automobiles, was not imported from a place but from all places, made and assembled in three dozen countries, its industrial DNA far beyond the reach of hoary old ideas like heritage, ethnicity or nation.

That was already true 22 years ago when I went around the world and it is truer today. Manga is integral to youth culture (every third grader reads from right to left as easily as from left to right now) but earlier generations had their Japonisms like Godzilla and Speed Racer. I read an article about the Afghani version of American Idol and how it is breaking down barriers but still facing opposition and the wire services were quick to report that the woman contestant did NOT win, but the salient fact is simple: there is an Afghani version of American Idol. There is a new modernity burying a new tradition.

The ideas of heritage, ethnicity and nation are now traditional and they are confronting extinction in the face of the new modernity, which groups peoples by a complex matrix of identity attributes many of them defined by commodities and consumerism. You could throw religion in as well, a survivor from earlier clashes between earlier traditionalisms and earlier modernities. Much of the agency of 21st century terrorism that is not attributed to heritage is attributed to religion, but its agency is operating in the same fashion as heritage, ethnicity and nation. Religion is even more mutable than heritage, its precepts and outcomes constrained by no physical or logical bounds.

I’m always conflicted by the Multicultural fairs held by my school and my children’s school. I mean, I could show up with corned beef and kielbasa, but my reality, my identity has more to do with salsa, beef noodles, and Belgian beer, even if that has nothing to do with my provable “heritage.” My kids grew up speaking Japanese, which also has nothing to do with my provable “heritage.” I have been to the house my great grandfather was born in in County Limerick and I have stayed in the 17th century Silesian castle named for a king who shares my real last name, but are these “heritages” more real to me than this elevated rapid transit line I have ridden for 45 years? Is my identity more lost if I lose Stanislaus Leszczynski or if I lose Harold Washington, whom I met and voted for six times? Is my identity more a farm in Limerick or the tinny guitars of Leeds punk? I found that essence rare; it is what I looked for.

The reality is we all build Wiidentities nowadays, lists of likes and dislikes and influences and heroes trotted out on MySpace and Facebook and we beg borrow or steal these identities from manufactured versions and visions of ethnicity, heritage and nation. (See our 2005 project http://www.identityistheft.com) These are not natural things: they are products and we are consumers and they were born at the same time as the modern corporation and now I think they are withering away.

Withering, you say? The resurgent Taliban, the Darfur genocide, hair-trigger Kosovo and al-Qaeda in Iraq are harsh manifestations of ethnicity, heritage and nation. But these are the last desperate, ultraviolent gasps of traditionalisms faced with a new modernity, a new Matrix of atomized but socially networked individuals whose identity is entirely too complex – and too fluid – for those hoary old Enlightenment concepts. So they will wither and a new wikieality will replace them, to run its course through time. The terrorists haven’t grasped the new reality – their oft-touted and once realized idea of Islamic states just links one outmoded concept with another.

When I first drafted this, I concluded that while ethnicity, heritage and nation are withering, another Enlightenment project – the joint stock corporation – was thriving. The atomized consumer network of the internet is perfect for corporations, helping them chop old traditions into identity commodities. Google is trying to remake philanthrophy and business at once. I wondered whether the corporation would also become a dinosaur and what would replace it. I wrote “for now it is one of the few legacies of the Enlightenment that still has legs.” And then the events of recent weeks cut those legs off. I can’t wait to see what happens – that’s what I like about history: its unpredictability.

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