Shane Dobbie

NAME: Shane Dobbie

COURSE: English and Film

MODULE: Advanced Topics in Film

ASSIGNMENT TITLE: The Modernity Thesis

Let us try to get a better grasp of what is meant by ‘modernity’. Jurgen Habermas, one of the great writers on the subject, goes right back to the start and explains the roots of the word:

‘The word “modern” in its Latin form “modernus” was used for the first time in the late 5th century in order to distinguish the present, which had become officially Christian, from the Roman and pagan past. With varying content, the term “modern” again and again expresses the consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new.’

Marshall Berman sums up modernity as ‘A mode of vital experience’ –experiences of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils – that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience ‘modernity’. To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises 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. Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology; in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all humankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

In order to get a better understanding of what modernity means for us, we need to turn our attention to the 1800’s – the age of ‘Enlightenment’. It was a time in which the great artists and thinkers were concerning themselves with the ‘human project’, that is, what it means to be human and how we adapt, and cope, within our ever-changing modern environment. Science, Technology and Art would play important roles at the heart of this idea. Lansana Keita notes, ‘The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century heralded new world-views that varied qualitatively from those that hitherto obtained.’ In Western Europe, the theoretical concepts and belief structures that contextualized modern science came to be known as the Enlightenment. For its supporters, the Enlightenment implied that reason, applied in all its dimensions, could ground all human progress, whether in scientific investigations or social organization. The Enlightenment’s rationality and paradigm promised and delivered progress not only in science and technology but also in new forms of social organisation. The legal codes that determine human behaviour in society were also founded on rational principles. This was the basis for social theories that viewed human beings as potentially free individuals with equal rights.

David Harvey takes this idea further: ‘The idea was to use the accumulation of knowledge generated by many individuals working freely and creatively for the pursuit of human emancipation and the enrichment of daily life.’ The scientific domination of nature promised freedom from scarcity, want, and the arbitrariness of natural calamity. The development of rational forms of social organization and rational modes of thought promised liberation from the irrationalities of myth, religion, superstition, release from the arbitrary use of power as well as from the dark side or our own human natures. Only through such a project could the universal, eternal, and the immutable qualities of all humanity be revealed.

Arguably, however, Hitler, Stalin, the atomic bomb, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were all born out of Enlightenment thinking, as was the capitalist society we now live in, with its class-led social problems. Are these the ‘immutable qualities of all humanity’ which Enlightenment hoped to reveal? And there lies the problem at the heart of Enlightenment and Modernity. How could a new world be created, after all, without destroying much that had gone before? You simply cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, as a whole line of modernist thinkers from Goethe to Mao have noted.

Modernity, as Berman suggests, ‘can be said to unite all mankind’. This is true on several levels. The modern world has joined us all together via a network of electricity lines, gas pipes and railway tracks, most of which we can follow towards the creation of cinema.

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