It is a reasonable assumption that many readers of the Conducive Chronicle or students around the world enrolled in some type of college social science class featuring elements of post modernism are familiar with the concept of modernity. Modernity has been both categorically and lexically challenging to define since the term is immensely expansive. Subsequently, the important question is not necessarily “what is modernity” but rather how does this elastic word fit into academic vernacular and everyday life. This article looks at various themes of modernity and gives some contextual clarity by exploring its relationships with technology, social interactions, and the mind. The one footnote that should be added to this piece is determining the meaning of modernity has been quite challenging and I hope dialogue about this topic will paint a clearer picture of what modernity is. I revisit several popular books: Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and The Holocaust , Edwin Black’s IBM and The Holocaust, Robert D. Putnam‘s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.
Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and The Holocaust
The word “modernity” automatically raises further inquiries as to ask what is it meant to be “modern” or “not modern.” Perhaps the best way to explain this is to look at the progression of technology overtime as it pertains to modernity. Present technologies advance forward replacing past ones and will be ultimately replaced by future technologies. This changing of the guard is always in constant motion making obsolete technology “not modern” and newer ones “modern.” What dictates this pattern of continuous transformation is that each invention will be more efficient then the last making some general laws about the definition of modernity. One is that the concept of modernity not be viewed as a fixed point in history but rather as an evolutionary innovating force. Second is modernity moves forward for the sake of improvement and being efficient. The terms “past” and “present” usually refer to periods of time but they exhibit different meanings in the context of modernity.
A relationship is synthesized between past and present when there is an advancement made from its previous point of departure. An example of this would be the development of weaponry over time. A musket is an outdated weapon by today’s standards considering that a well trained soldier could only fire three to six shots a minute while the M-16 carried by infantry troops today fires between six hundred and one thousand rounds per minute. Will a military ever reinstate the use of a musket? Probably not. The musket represents the aspect of modernity which is the past and the M-16 characterizes the part of modernity which is the present. It is significant to note that the M-16 will one day be the past when it is replaced by a device that is more effective. This scenario exhibits that modernity is always moving forward and its central goal is efficiently. One can certainly argue that this example shows that modernity is negative since the human race uses much of its ingenuity to create horrific inventions such as nuclear weapons. Conversely, others argue that nuclear power is a viable source of energy. This is an example of the duality of modernity.
Similar sentiments have been shared by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his book Modernity and The Holocaust. Bauman focuses on a multitude of aspects ranging from the systematic application of the “Final Solution” by Nazi Germany’s bureaucracy to the idea that “racism is unthinkable without the advancement of modern science, technology, and modern forms of state power.” However, I mainly will be focusing on the notion of Bauman that the Holocaust could have only occurred in “an advanced state of modernity.” Many scholars like Henry Feingold have described the extermination camps like Auschwitz as “an extension of the modern factory system” but “rather than producing goods, the raw material was human beings.” He goes on to say that “the brilliantly organized railroad grid of modern Europe” carried victims to the camps where they “inhaled noxious gas generated by prussic acid pellets” manufactured by the chemical factories of Germany. This chilling assessment by Feingold reminds us that modernity does not necessarily aim to be moral but to maximize efficiency and improve on the preceding innovations even if it is for a visceral reason. IG Farben was a large German chemical company that worked closely with the Nazis on the manufacturing of chemical weapons and the managing of plants during World War II. Of their many products, the cyanide pesticide was mass produced for usage in the gas chambers of the various extermination camps.
Edwin Black’s IBM and The Holocaust
Edwin Black’s IBM and The Holocaust details the financial and industrial link between the Nazis and IBM. Black states that the “Hollerith technology (system of tabulation using punch cards) had become a German administrative way of life and punch cards would enable the entire Reich to go on a war footing.” IBM’s Hollerith machines let the Nazis keep track of prisoners of the camps and recorded their executions as well as punishments. It also allowed them to conduct a national census which helped “identify” non-Aryan races so they could be targeted. Bauman points out that Antisemitism was not the major factor that contributed to the cause of the Holocaust but rather the modern industrial machine of Nazi Germany. It was precisely the technological advancements of the time that allowed such a large scale organized attack to transpire. Consequently, there are many who disagree with Bauman’s thesis citing that it was the motivation of the Nazis that caused them to use the technology rather than the advancements in technology. The ambiguous nature of modernity can be seen in numerous spheres other than the military.
A less contentious area to point out when discussing modernity and technology is the evolution of electronic devices and their relationship with many human beings using them on a daily basis. Like many other children growing up in the United States during the 1980′s video games monopolized many of my evenings after school. My friends and I would sit on the floor several feet away from the television pounding our plastic controllers alternating turns while occasionally freeing our hand to dig into bowls of popcorn and pretzels that were adjacent to our periphery. These meetings became almost ritualistic as we would convene day after day. With the advent of online gaming, the paradigm shifted so that friends that would normally play together in each others’ living rooms could now play the same video game without leaving their couches. The video game industry was part of an electronic microcosm that witnessed an internet revolution allowing millions of people to interact across thousands of miles while not physically meeting one another. Modernity’s goal of efficiency creates convenience for us all and this is where critics point out the negative effects of the technological advancements of the internet. This is part of a debate that transpires in millions of households all over the world. There is probably an adolescent teen somewhere texting at the dinner table while his or her parents ask them to put their high tech smart phone away so that they can talk to them about their day. It can be said that this example exhibits the negative effect that the information age has had on social interactions. Others would argue that the internet has broadened social interactions since people can speak to their families that might live overseas or give individuals the confidence booster they need to converse with people that might otherwise feel socially anxious.
Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Modernity deeply affects what sociologists have labeled social capital or essentially the value of social relationships. The question then becomes does modernity raise or lower our social capital? The answer is seemingly both as shown earlier in the model of texting as can have both positive and negative consequences depending on the person or situation. I used my own personal experience of playing video games in a physical communal space not to argue that it is a positive occurrence but rather one that suggests that technological advancements have moved human beings away from a tangible space into an intangible one. My parents always grumbled that playing video games stopped children from going outside and meeting others. As children growing up in the 1950′s, they were always outdoors playing with their friends and in essence enriching their social capital. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam attributes the decline of social capital to the increase in television sets per household since the mid part of the twentieth century. By “1950 barely 10 percent of American homes had television sets, but by 1959, 90 percent did.” Putnam masterfully points out that television became the center of family life as a whole household would congregate around the one television to watch a program. He goes on to say that “as the number television sets per households multiplies, even watching together becomes rarer. More and more of our television viewing is done entirely alone.” When you consider that many homes have two sometimes three televisions, one can only conclude that the members of that family are interacting with each other less when you consider the amount of hours people watch television programs. The personal computer and smart phone era have further isolated people away from their physical communications. Modernity has created a cause and affect scenario for social interactions in that as technology advances the physical connection between people lessen. One might think that it is the technology itself that creates this situation but I argue that it is precisely modernity that gives technology this ability to make advancements because of its primary notion of improvement and efficiency.
While modernity has decreased the amount of physical contact people have with one another, it has allowed for individuals to sometimes reach millions of people without ever physically meeting them. The internet and various social networks such as Facebook have allowed for conversation to be instantaneous and communications to globally expand while a person does not even have to leave the comfort of his or her own home. This past year has seen a large number of political revolution around the world as a direct result of social media. The Occupy Wall Street Movement became successful by organizations posting videos on YouTube encouraging people to protest and soon after there were over one hundred Facebook pages related to Occupy Wall Street. The world also witnessed another series of revolutions known as the “Arab Spring” and watched social media updates and YouTube videos to see which government was being overthrown that day. Consequently, the government had tried to censor the internet in certain instances to squelch the movement’s message and communications. Both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street Movement became transnational revolutions due to modernity (as it pertains to technology and social networking.) Perhaps the social movements of this past year are happening with no greater frequency, but it just seems that way since people are constantly bombarded with internet news blurbs and status updates of people that might have a passing thought. Alternatively, it may very well be the greatest number of social movements around the world since people are able to spread their message through the interlocking network of the internet.
Modernity’s progression forward has taken shape in many forms and is often met with resistance. If one were to conduct a case study regarding this, file sharing websites would be the perfect model. At the turn of the millennium, Napster became the archetype free music sharing Internet service that altered the way music was produced and challenged conventional business practices of the music industry. While obscure musicians and small market artists might have found Napster great because it exposed them to a larger audience, many platinum selling acts condemned them for stealing their songs. Had Napster initially worked out a contract with the record companies where consumers paid for their download, there would have been less of a backlash from the music industry. Apple’s I-Tunes Store, LastFM.com, and Rhapsody are just a few of a multitude of successful websites that have millions of files downloaded yearly. Even though Napster was shut down by the courts due to copyright infringement, it showed that computer music files would replace the compact disc as the predominant choice to listen to music. Despite Napster being met with mixed reviews, the technological advancements of file sharing and software based music formats continue the line of modernity’s linear evolution until something will inevitably eclipse it.
Edward Said’s Orientalism
There might be a theoretical association between modernity and the Enlightenment regarding the spirit of social investigation, elevated thinking, and improving the world around us through scientific questioning. In other words, rational thinking (as a notion of the Enlightenment) can be considered a “modern” idea since the rational mind is capable of forming new ideas and creating efficiency. Paradoxically, someone who is viewed as thinking irrational and ultimately not efficient is then not modern. This is where the concept of the mind fits into the vernacular of modernity. Bauman asserts that “with the Enlightenment came the enthronement of the new deity, that of Nature, together with the legitimation of science as its only orthodox cult, and of scientists as its prophets and priests. He goes on to say that “everything in principle had been opened to objective inquiry; everything could, in principle, be know-reliably and truly.” The majority of people subscribe to the idea that the Enlightenment changed the dogma of the world (or at least in Europe) from a mass population that accepted what they were told by literate religious leaders to a learned group of people that were rational and could achieve truth on their own through scientific inquiry. According to Antonio Gramsci, these ecclesiastical elites held a monopoly over most areas in society that perpetuated an “uninterrupted historical continuity” that cemented them as the “dominant social group.” It was not until the Enlightenment that these societal norms were questioned. Consequently, the language surrounding the Enlightenment began to use words like rational, progressive, and intelligent while terms like backward, static, and unscientific became associated with people or areas of the world that did not fully advocate Enlightenment ideology. There is a strong almost inherent tendency by certain people to dismiss others as superstitious if they display “traditional” cultural practices such as making the sign of the cross when passing a Church. Others might knock on wood, throw salt over their shoulder, or spit on the ground. The idea is that a rational person knows that knocking on wood will do little to keep their luck or keep them safe from harm. This generalizing becomes more dangerous when it begins to label enormous amounts of people as backward and static. Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism chronicles the history of how the West (Great Britain, France, United States) intentionally wrote a distorted history of the East (Africa, Asia, Middle East, etc.) to justify their imperial conquest in that the progressive hand of the West needed to civilize the backward East. As a result, people have an altered perception of the East which manifests itself in almost all aspects ranging from film to opinions. For example, people in America often say that the Middle East is stuck in the Stone Age or simply refer to the people as “they.” It might be wise to call the Enlightenment the European Enlightenment since it was an intellectual scientific movement that occurred in a particular time and area in history. This distinction is significant for three reasons. First is that other parts of the world (many in East) experienced similar intellectual and scientific movements prior to Europe’s. Secondly, it challenges the notion that both West and East are large homogeneous monolithic entities. Thirdly, it shows that modernity is not something only unique to the West. Modernity is by definition progressive since it is always looking to improve but it is extremely important to point out that what it replaces is not backward but rather a past idea that is part of an ever evolving chain of advancement. It is also meaningful to note that modernity’s forward progression does not necessarily mean that it has a positive effect. Again, modernity is a malleable term which almost unavoidably creates both favorable and adverse results.Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other
If we revisit the example of the superstitious person in society, a debate in modernity arises about the way people interpret the world around them. Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other perfectly articulates this argument by proposing the concept of the “medieval mind” and the “modern mind.” Todorov’s thesis focuses on deconstructing how Spain conquered the Aztecs through having a cultural advantage at a particular time in history. Anthony Pagden’s foreword best explains this concept saying that the “preliterate Aztecs moved in a world of discourse….that was past orientated and tradition-dominated.” “In contrast, the Europeans (Spaniards in this case) communicated with each other through language rather than directly to the world through external signs.” As a result the Spaniards were able to understand the Aztecs better than they could understand the Spaniards. Todorov asserts that this understanding might be superficial and sometimes incorrect but allowed the Europeans defeat the Aztecs. As a footnote to his central thesis, Todorov correctly explains that the Indians are not inferior to the Europeans in anyway and his “objective was thus to understand the process of conquest in order to prevent it; in order to recognize it when we encounter it today.” Todorov’s work is somewhat controversial since it generalizes the mentality of the Indians and Europeans.
The book details Hernando Cortes’ exploitation of the Aztec prophecy of Quetzalcoatl to overtake their leader Montezuma. Cortes made a strong effort to understand the Aztec culture so he could navigate and undermine Montezuma’s leadership. Todorov is precise in his analysis when he states that “for Cortes, the conquest of knowledge leads to the conquest of power.” He argues that Cortes’ empirical thinking or “modern mind” was scientific in dissecting Aztec culture while Montezuma’s “medieval mind” lacked the component of rational and questioning. It was this that allowed Cortes to falsely assert himself as Quetzalcoatl and seize power over Montezuma with little struggle. Todorov uses Christopher Columbus as another symbol for this “medieval mind” model. Columbus was convinced he was in Asia when he was actually on the island of Cuba. He insisted on saying he was in Asia despite to all information pointing to the contrary. Todorov refers to this as having a “finalist” mentality in that Columbus had a predetermined truth and he would apply this to the tangible world regardless of concrete evidence. His decision was final. Cortes remains the modern rational thinker while Columbus and Montezuma do not question their situation which leads to the conquest of the Aztecs and the incorrect naming of the “new world,” i.e. the West Indies. This idea of the modern mind versus the medieval is paramount to the conversation about modernity in regards to its natural duality.
With the dawn of the twenty first century upon us, the word “modern” seems to permeate almost all aspects of our lives. Modernity can help people interpret broad concepts such as technology, social interactions, and the mind while providing a context that future generations can understand. Whether it is fans of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber clamoring over popularity on Twitter or someone in the United States learning about the formation of a new country this past year in the Republic of the South Sudan; modernity is a strong factor when considering the world around us.