When terms like modernity and postmodernism are bandied about freely in academia and in the media, people are bound to ask at some point, “So when did things switch over from modern to postmodern?” Or: “When did the Modern Era begin and end?” Or: “What events marked the transition from the Premodern Era to the Modern Era?”
Any answers to these questions are likely to be arbitrary, however buttressed by scholarly arguments, perhaps even arbitrary to the point of whimsy. To the many who still believe in the “march of Progress” view of history, the ever upward path from the premodern to modern can be described as “barbarism and irrational religious beliefs” are overcome somewhere between the 16th and 18th centuries by “humanistic civilization and rational science”, with an annoying postmodern speedbump toward the close of the 20th century where “pretentious academics in linguistics and psychology try to subvert the validity of reason and authority but are discredited by their own excesses”. To those waiting for a future of prolonged youth through anti-aging treatments (or even virtual immortality), with robotic or nanotech workers ensuring that humans all have “creative” careers with copious leisure time to fly about with personal jet packs or nuclear-powered automobiles, this is a comforting myth. As with many myths that are mistaken for actual history, it requires that a large body of contradictory evidence and sad experience be ignored or wished away.
Without intending to be (entirely) whimsical, I offer the following chart as an
idiosyncratic timeline of some of the events that heralded the end of
one era and the beginning of the next. As an American my bias is plainly
toward events in the western world. Without doubt, over time the complicated
becomes even more complicated, the grandiose more grandiose, wealth compounds,
efficiencies in both killing and healing increase, and the powers of the
rulers (of both the visible and behind-the-scenes varieties) become ever more
god-like. But should we describe this as Progress?
There is no good way to date the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens from earlier homo sapiens variants as those became progressively less “archaic”—the most common guesses range between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, but the fossil evidence is more suggestive in the 100,000 to 160,000 year range, and there is the possibility that some of the early fossils may have represented “false starts” that did not end up contributing to our lineage. I aimed toward the middle of that latter range for an estimate of when our ancestors may have finally become established, although it might have been wiser to leave the origin in the mythical realm of ur-time rather than including it in the timeline at all. [Note: Since this article was originally written, fossil discoveries have provided more evidence for those who would argue for a much earlier date for humanity's origin—even as far back as 300,000 years. If correct, this leaves us with a bit of a mystery as to the lack of significant cultural evolution over approximately 95% of our species' existence. The graphic above has therefore been updated to reflect a moderately—not radically—earlier timeframe.]
At the early end of the timeline, one would hope that the division of the Premodern Era between prehistoric and “ancient” (early historic) times is noncontroversial. Some other choices may seem more obscure. The significance of early bone tools in relation to the later prevalence of fish-eating is that the tools include the first fish-hooks. The speculation now is that fishing provided micronutrients in the early human diet that helped the brain complete its evolution to the advanced state which produced the various “cultural explosions” of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras.
Why mention the domestication of the horse, but not that of oxen or bees or dogs? There is something unique about the horse's role as a living extension of the human body for the very basic human function of locomotion. In the case of dogs (or ferrets or falcons) used as hunting animals, the activity is not so basic and the extension of human physiological function is more abstract.
But why are the developments of writing or the plow more significant than the invention of the wheel (or, much later, gunpowder)? The first two are much more intimately tied to our notion of an economy based on surplus production and sedentism, with its need for extensive recordkeeping of material and labor exchanges, obligation and debt, as well as the resultant changes in social status and authority accruing to those at the top of the newly stratified societies developing in parallel. The wheel and gunpowder are among subsequent crucial technologies for allowing the ruling elites raised up by this economic and social system to extend their rule.
Some events are not included because their dating is subject to much controversy (e.g., the Thera explosion) while others, especially military triumphs and defeats, I tend to think of as having great importance to the fortunes of the people alive at that time but having less and less impact on long-term cultural developments over succeeding generations. Others concern the lives of characters that verge on the legendary rather than historical—although I did find it fascinating that Pythagoras, Buddha, Mahavira and Confucius could all have been alive at the same time and that some of them had the remote chance of encountering one another. At one point historians might have included Lao Tse and Zoroaster in this group, but the former has now been placed almost a century earlier and the latter almost half a millenium beforehand—assuming that any of them really existed!
In broad terms we can see the historical premodern as a transition in social behavior from the sufficiency economy of nomadic gathering and hunting to the surplus economy of agrarian sedentism and urban life; in religious practices from animistic or pantheistic paganism into hierarchical polytheism and eventually monothesim; all in step with with a transition in political systems from poorly organized tribalism to areas ruled by petty thugs and gang leaders to city-states ruled by “god-kings” and more grandiose thugs, thugs committed to providing order and protecting you from other thugs on some minimal level. The sum of these developments is usually termed Civilization. At its height in the Classical Age this odd collection of societies ruled by kings, warlords, priests, oligarchs and demagogues produced much exquisite art, the beginnings of philosophy and scientific theorizing, and most of what we now consider organized religion, while upholding the solid existing traditions of slavery, continual warfare and skirmishing, massively unequal distribution of wealth, and urban populations subsisting on a deficiency diet of “mainly grain”.
Most historians date the start of the Middle Ages much earlier than I have
in this chart, many to the 4th century CE and some to the latter part of the
3rd. The status of the Roman Empire at different points in its terminal decline
is usually the deciding factor for them. I looked at the death of Mohammed as
formalizing the conflict between Christianity and Islam that would occupy
the rulers of the Mediterranean countries for much of the next thousand years
(and that still occupies the minds of the ruling classes today, although now
cast more in terms of geopolitical “realism” relating to control of
petroleum). Attempts to find unity in the mystical traditions of both religions
continued up to the beginning of the modern age, with a series of actions and
reactions, e.g., the fall of the Moorish kingdoms of Spain to the Reconquista being
followed by the rise of the troubadors and the chivalric traditions of
courtly love being followed by the destruction of Occitania in the Albigensian
With Tilly's defeat of the Bohemians fighting for the Winter King at White Mountain, the impulse toward a mystical reconciliation was driven underground for the last time and the Modern Era, the era of the scientific rationalists and religious literalists, was ready to begin. What the Moors of early medieval Spain would make of the Islamic regimes in Saudi Arabia or Iran today would be almost as interesting to know as what the trans-Pyreneean Christians of a slightly later period would think of today's American televangelists and their “Christian Zionist” political counterparts here and abroad. As with my late starting date for the Middle Ages, this date for the beginning of the Modern Era may seem too late to those accustomed to seeing some much earlier development chosen as the breakpoint between the Premodern and Modern Eras, such as Gutenberg's printing press or Luther's instigation of the Protestant Reformation or the defeat of the Spanish Armada—but on the other hand this may seem like an early date to those more accustomed to seeing modernity identified with the Enlightenment or Cromwell or the Industrial Revolution.
In general we can see modernity as a rejection of mysticism in favor of materialism, of superstition in favor of science, of rulership by ecclesiastically supported divine right in favor of government based on contractual legal principles, of human inspiration and originality in favor of method and repeatability, of moral agency in favor of reflex and conditioning as the determinants of behavior, and of oral traditions in favor of the printed word. In addition modernity is closely associated with a secular faith in historical progress, in terms of scientific and technological advances, expanding economies, and the realization of utopian social possibilities. So it was indeed a fulfillment of the promise of the printing press and of earlier Protestant science and industry to put knowledge within the grasp of the “common man” and to make the acquisition of wealth a positive social objective for all. And in large measure it was able to maintain the myth of progress or rapid “upward” evolution thanks to the huge deposits of fossil fuels, primarily coal and oil, that modern societies were able to exploit.
A century and a half of the Modern Era was sufficient to bring forth new movements in reaction against its ascendancy and these multiplied over time, with notable examples including the Luddites, the Romantics (and various related neo-Medievalists and neo-pagans), and, most significantly, religious fundamentalists dismayed by attempts to apply scientific reasoning to the study of religion. As it became evident that conceding the validity of any portion of the modernist program of science and rationalism quickly led to the questioning of all religious doctrine, the emphasis on extreme doctrines such as Biblical inerrancy became even stronger: the only way to shut off any dialogue with science was for religion to build an impregnable structure of self-referential arguments whose contradiction by science and rational thought was taken as badge of virtue and sign of strength rather than as a fatal flaw. If the blessings of progress, or at least of increasingly democratic government and of rapid scientific and technological advancement, were as dramatic and as universally shared as the modernists liked to think, then the message of such reactionary movements should surely have fallen upon deaf ears and been scorned. Unfortunately the performance of nations based on contractual relations between government and an informed and reasonably literate citizenry came in only slightly better than that of monarchies based on divine right. Wars were still frequent, famines not uncommon, and national economies were beset by bankrupting levels of debt and cycles of inflation and deflation—mitigated only by abundant natural resources for those lucky enough to have access to them, thanks to fortunate accidents of geography or (just as likely) outright theft. The witch burnings and mass murders instigated by earlier religious zealots were matched, as technology progressed, by the indiscrimate killing of aerial bombing, slave labor camps, gas chambers, and medical “experimentation” on helpless victims.
Immediately preceding the 40 year reign of High Modernism, the Second
Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, Philippine-American War, and Russo-Japanese War
collectively gave ample notice of the type of carnage and of the prevalence of
atrocities that would ensue, in the new mechanized warfare and in conflicts
between state militaries and guerrilla or native resistance forces.
World War I was sufficient to drive many intellectuals to nihilism and complete
demoralization. By the end of World War II in 1945, firebombing and atomic
weapons had made it obvious that no similar large scale conflict could occur
without causing massive numbers of civilian deaths—possibly to the point
of total human extinction. Yet within two years military budgets were bulking
up again as world leaders proclaimed the inevitability of a new Cold War. The
penultimate day of 1947 witnessed the death of Alfred North Whitehead, the
spiritual father of the Postmodern Era, destined like Moses not to see the
new world that his heirs would inhabit.
Modernism had acknowledged some of the issues that frutrated the realization of its program with concepts such as the Unreliable Narrator and the Unconscious Mind. Where Milton had proclaimed that Truth and Falsehood should grapple in a free and open contest, since Truth would surely be the victor, modernists began to recognize that this was not the result that was obtaining in practice, and modern works of art increasingly came to focus on the anxiety produced by this realization. Although Falsehood had always included delusions and lies in addition to error, the power of the first two turned out to be greater than rational discourse allowed for. And Truth and Falsehood could scarcely grapple on an equal footing in the press when the Falsehood was headlined on page 1 and much later retracted (the Truth) in fine print on page 28.
Novels began to deal with the psychological difficulties of finding the truth in the words of individuals with some type of (not always immediately evident) psychpathology, but then branched out to make reference (in the “noir” crime literature, for instance, or in Huxley's Brave New World) to the perversion of truth by elements of the state apparatus and its patrons in the economic elite. The audience for these works did not have to look far to find real life examples. Ordinary people became accustomed to a more or less constant barrage of exaggerations and falsehoods thanks to the nascent public relations and advertising industries, while military service in World War II gave millions a crash course in the use of jargon to either obscure meaning or simulate meaning where none existed. And in the academic world, theory gave itself over to grandiosity too readily, and at its most grandiose became totalizing, dangerously intoxicated with its own claims to all-explaining universality.
As Orwell finished his work on 1984 in 1948, the primacy of the printed word, already somewhat weakened by the popular acceptance of radio and motion pictures, would receive its gravest wound from the new mass popularity of television. 1984 would complement the earlier works of Huxley and the noir novelists by pointing out the unreliability of language itself, the ways in which carefully crafted language could make some ideas not just unspeakable but even unthinkable, and the extent to which power relations privileged some language constructs and expressions over others, making the free and open contest of ideas envisioned by Milton (and others, like Thomas Jefferson) seem almost hopelessly utopian. And, as later explicated by Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, the medium used to convey ideas was itself a critical aspect of the language not separable from the supposed “content”—and this also privileged certain types of ideas and narratives over others, made some ideas and stories not so much unthinkable as automatically forgettable. The television culture melded the “secondary orality” of radio with a highly compressed language of visual symbols in a way that undermined modernism's enshrinement of the printed word and made its sequential presentation seem tiresome and inefficient.
Postmodernism revealed that information was the true coin of the realm, not gold or silver, and that this had been the reality for a very long time. As in the famous (and probably apocryphal) story of Nathan Rothschild and the news of the outcome at Waterloo, inside information could make its possessors outrageous amounts of money. It was also crucial in battle, or in the mock warfare of political infighting or business rivalries. But when it came to money, power, armaments and soldiery, you could never have too much, while with information quantity was only a virtue in combination with quality, relevance, timeliness and privileged access. The converse was that you could put your rivals or those you sought to dominate at a disadvantage not only by depriving them of information, but by flooding them with too much information that was inaccurate, irrelevant, dated and redundant.
The importance of communications intercepts and code-breaking to the outcome of World War II underscored this, and Bletchley Park gave rise to the computer as a tool for transforming and “managing” information. The Postmodern Era began in the midst of this new focus on the possibilities of programmed computer systems, with the research and development of Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener and others. At the same time, the invention of the transistor would eventually make possible the use of integrated circuits to drastically shrink the computer in size and make it a ubiquitous appliance instead of the latter day version of a vast temple idol, closely guarded by a priesthood of Management Information Systems professionals.
But if information was paramount, it was also in many ways more provisional and less clearly the carrier of truth or falsehood. The systems context became more crucial, and decontextualizing “facts” became a favored means by which those in control of the mass communications apparatus neutered them, made them forgettable “noise” and random “outliers” rather than parts of a coherent pattern. And, as the Devil could reportedly quote scripture for his own purposes, scientific researchers from Stalinist Russia to the laboratories of Wall Street's “Big Pharma” and oil corporations could cook statistics to serve their political and economic masters. In theory this would all be set to rights by further research and independent replications (of which far fewer were attempted than the popular scientific press let on), and in some notable cases this did occur in a very short timeframe. But for others only a very long run would turn up evidence of wrongdoing or gratuitous overinterpretation, and, as Keynes remarked, “In the long run, we're all dead.” Had he known, he might have added, “In the long run, we're out of oil.” To the current technophile both outcomes look disagreeably similar.
If the postmodernists took a somewhat more unfavorable turn in relation to the mythology of science, they tentatively turned to regard the mythology of religion less unfavorably. In denying mysticism the modernists had at first tried to arrive at a rational model of religion which retained at least a few of the core principles. But as this process launched offshoots such as Deism, Unitarianism and the “Tübingen School” of Bible criticism, it found few adherents and evinced limited appeal even among so-called thinking persons. The late modernist thinking person was much more likely to be an atheist, one who could look at religion and say, simply, “There's nothing there.” But the postmodernist was less sure. It seemed that there was something there, based on what the analyses and metaphors of comparative religionists like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell suggested. Perhaps it still was all in the mind, but it said something basic and important about the mind, if so, and could no longer be dismissed as mere wish fulfillment or delusion or simple anthropomorphism. Perhaps the subject of mysticism was something real, and mysticism could not be cut from the human psyche and metaphorically tossed overboard. Indeed even atheistic scientists in some disciplines sounded more than a little mystical as they described their new understandings of the universe.
The era of High Modernism had introduced the West to mind-boggling numerical expansions of scale beyond the Europe-centered, Earth-centered, millenium-centered, human-centered frames of reference—they made the average person's view of the world seem limited and quaintly provincial, with the new timeframes of billions of years of existence and the new prospects of life evolving not on hundreds of worlds among thousands of star systems but on countless planets among billions of galaxies. A few people found this exhilirating, but most found it incomprehensible and a bit unnerving. And there were a number of others who found it fascinating but ultimately depressing, frightening, even monstrous. While the existentialists took this view but insisted on the need to squarely face the grim reality, not everyone was convinced—to some this was asking more of humans than the human psyche could withstand. H. P. Lovecraft summed up this position: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” The vision of human insignificance conjured up by science not only produced the outright denial and return to regressive fundamentalism and know-nothingism foreseen by Lovecraft, but it also infected the political sphere with a much deeper pessimism. The once high hopes for a utopian solution to human ills, especially those aggravated by (if not the direct result of) massive imbalances in wealth and power, began to fade. An ordinary person could no longer calculate a regime's powers as being a multiple of his or her own, not when such powers included the ability to destroy all life using barely understandable technology. As a result, citizens began to see themselves as helpless against the enormously powerful but unaccountable and secretive bureaucracies that determined policy and carried out covert operations. Modernism itself disdained this “paranoia” as irrational (which, by definition, paranoia was), but in the postmodern worldview it came to be seen as a quite possibly appropriate response, at least some of the time.
As the film Strange Days posed it, “The question is not 'are you paranoid?'—the question is 'are you paranoid enough?'” This is a typically postmodern formulation in its humorous implication that what is evidence of psychpathology on one level can become evidence of sanity when taken to the next level, based on sufficient inside information—provided that can be trusted! Inside information differentiates the knowing classes (those “in the know”), who are able to manipulate, from the ignorant mob, who can only be manipulated. In Philip K. Dick's The Simulacra this is literalized as two formal classes of society, the geheimnistrager (the bearers of the secret, i.e., of the inside information) and the befehaltrager (the carriers-out of orders). The Ges are at least aware of, and often participate in the creation of, the absurd explanations and spectacles that the Bes accept as the truth of their society, or at least the only truth that they will be able to understand. In the novel's logic (as in the roughly equivalent situations in Dick's other three “political” novels, The Man in the High Castle, The Penultimate Truth and Dr. Bloodmoney) not only are the media and “culture” wholly complicit in the sham reality being created to keep the Bes in line, but the Bes themselves are also partly complicit in allowing the Ges to foist this fake version of reality upon them. This is in marked contrast to a nonfiction work published in the same year, The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter, which takes the modernist view of “conspiracy theories” as by definition evidence of psychopathology on a political level. (But, as we later discovered, it was acceptable to believe in conspiracies involving those on the margins of society, but not ones involving those highly placed in the centers of political and economic power.) Dick's novels are firmly in the postmodern camp, certainly thematically if not (from the literary critic's more doctrinaire viewpoint) stylistically, with the influence of Dick's vision carrying over most obviously to Baudrillard and his “hyperreality”.
What has yet to become clear is whether postmodernism can provide, if not a program for attaining a better social order than the increasingly tottering one bequeathed to us by the modernists, then at least a sufficiently integrated toolset to enable us to survive the vicissitudes of the collapse of the modernist project, and to take advantage of any opportunities presented by it to “land” in a society of communities or collection of societies that are more sustainable, more peaceable, more resistant to subversion and takeover by thugs and sociopaths, and more conducive to human happiness—all in an environment that will be poorer in the material resources that we have hitherto considered necessary and “not negotiable” (as one former U.S. president put it). At a time when we will probably need multi-skilled and mentally flexible citizen-inventors, we will be suffering a massive hangover from the previous half century's hyperspecialization of the consumer-citizen as the equivalent of a lever-pressing Skinner Box subject—a plight foreseen in E. M. Forster's story, “The Machine Stops”. The early Whole Earth Catalog project took on the problem in a typically postmodern fashion by focusing not on counterculture ideology but on (as its subtitle proclaimed) “Access to Tools”. That category broadly encompasses everything from composting toilets and diaper rash curatives to computer networks and encryption software, from firearms and farm implements to the psychology of mass media manipulation and methods for penetrating the persuasive masquerade of the sociopath.
We are aware, as were the founders of the U.S., that almost any system of
government staffed by good people will produce mostly good results, and that
systems of government which allow extreme concentrations of power are bad
because we can't guarantee that only good people will be in charge. One cannot
imagine men like Madison or Jefferson viewing the post-World War II
“national security state” and its “need to know” obsession with secrecy and
its banal consumerist social discourse, with anything other than strong
condemnation. But we can add to that awareness the late modern realization that
concentrations of power (primarily but not completely via concentrations in
wealth) anywhere in society, not only in government, will corrupt the
political process. There is some protection in better systems and forms of
government, but it can never be other than partial at best. And the perversion
of language and flattening of discourse by those who gain access to the levers
of power can progressively create even greater concentrations of wealth,
power and, perhaps most significantly, control over access to and
dissemination of information, until a society is wholly given over to thug rule
again, with criminals, megalomaniacs and sociopaths ascendant, although
perhaps wearing the smiley face of “friendly fascism” for a time. The necessary
skepticism toward language and how it is employed is nowhere more called for
than when those in power conjure up “threats” (to one's physical safety,
economic well-being, or psychological security) against which the citizenry
must be protected by wars, expanded police powers and the criminalization of
behaviors or even beliefs and attitudes, all for supposed “moral” (or sometimes
“health” or “safety”) reasons. As the Age of Petroleum ends, we will have to decentralize
and relocalize much of our social and political infrastructure, learn to
husband our resources much more frugally and make use of them more fairly,
become tolerant of more diverse social forms, and rely far less on government
to solve problems that are superfluous to human survival. Those most heavily
invested in and benefiting from the current political order will naturally
resist this with all the considerable means at their disposal. Whether the
Postmodern Era has staying power, or whether it is a brief discontinuity before
a descent to a new feudal age and a return of unquestioned mass subservience
to thug rule, is the question to which, at this time, we await an answer.
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