Modernity’s eclipse

Virtually no one today seems to want to make the large human connections that the idea of modernity entails. Hence discourse and controversy over the meaning of modernity, so lively a decade ago, have virtually ceased to exist today.

Many artistic and literary intellectuals have immersed themselves in the world of structuralism, a world that simply wipes the question of modernity — along with all other questions about the self and history — off the map. Others have embraced a mystique of post-modernism, which strives to cultivate ignorance of modern history and culture, and speaks as if all human feeling, expressive-ness, play, sexuality and community have only just been invented — by the post-modernists — and were unknown, even inconceivable, before last week. Meanwhile, social scientists, embarrassed by critical attacks on their techno-pastoral models, have fled from the task of building a model that might be truer to modern life. Instead, they have split modernity into a series of separate components — industrialization, state-building, urbanization, development of markets, elite formation — and resisted any attempt to integrate them into a whole. This has freed them from extravagant generalizations and vague totalities — but also from thought that might engage their own lives and works and their place in history. The eclipse of the problem of modernity in the 1970s has meant the destruction of a vital form of public space. It has hastened the disintegration of our world into an aggregation of private material and spiritual interest groups, living in windowless monads, far more isolated than we need to be. (33-34)

Marshall Berman | All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity


Reactionary Contempt

Weber had little faith in the people, but even less in their ruling classes, whether aristocratic or bourgeois, bureaucratic or revolutionary. Hence his political stance, at least in the last years of his life, was a perpetually embattled liberalism. But when the Weberian remoteness and contempt for modern men and women were split off from Weberian skepticism and critical insight, the result was a politics far to the right of Weber’s own. Many twentieth century thinkers have seen things this way: the swarming masses who press upon us in the streets and in the state have no sensitivity, spirituality or dignity like our own; isn’t it absurd, then, that these “mass men” (or “hollow men”) should have not only the right to govern themselves but also, through their mass majorities, the power to govern us? In the ideas and intellectual gestures of Ortega, Spengler, Maurras, T.S. Eliot and Allen Tate, we see Weber’s neo-Olympian perspective appropriated, distorted and magnified by the modern mandarins and would-be aristocrats of the twentieth-century right. (28)

Marshall Berman | All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity

A unity of disunity

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 mankind. 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.” (15)

Marshall Berman | All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity