Modernity – Tohib Adejumo

Growing up in Nigeria at the ending years of the 20th century, my understanding of modernity (a modern life) was informed mainly by the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood. Modernity was represented by modern films which typically took place in cities and urban areas, and antiquity (premodern era) was represented by ancient movies set in villages, with characters holding animist beliefs, and generally, the time would be precolonial era. Modernity was manifested to me, during those years, in automobiles, electricity, and the Christian faith as well as other things. These past few months, I have come across understandings of modernity which render my childhood’s as simplistic, and which push out critical and unpopular stands on modernity. In this paper, I will be looking at four theorists whose view of modernity sometimes build upon the other, while in other instances conflicts with each other. And then I will conclude with my general take on the issue after four intensive months of reading and thinking.

First off, I start with Zygmunt Bauman, whose view of modernity I find quite interesting because of the way he compares it with other epochs in history, and finds it as not quite special when it comes to the human psychological processes. Take for example, the Holocaust. Instead of furthering the normative view of modernity as progressive, humane, and guided by reason and liberty, and say that holocaust was a failure of the ideals that modernity presents, Bauman took a different view, and saw holocaust as an evidence that, on a sociological level, nothing has really changed in the human ways of thought processes and behavior. We may now be driving cars, but we’re no different in terms of rage and bitterness to the people of Mesopotamian civilization.  On the other hand, the Holocaust, was not a result of modernity. And Bauman was quick to point out that the human history is full of mass murders.  The intensity and efficiency of the mass murder that characterized holocaust was what is a product of modernity.

For Bauman, what ultimately marks out modernity from later epochs of human history is similar or stems out of what Karl Marx termed as mass-production, and what positivists such as August Comte saw as the movement on the arc away from raw emotions towards rationality. Mass-production increases efficiency, and rationality makes way for precision and somber calculations. These two makes the combo for modernity. He writes in his treatise, The Holocaust and Modernity:

       [Modern culture]…defines itself as the ideal life and a perfect arrangement of human  conditions. It constructs its own identity out of distrust of nature…. through its endemic distrust of spontaneity and its longing for a better, and necessarily artificial, order.

            In essence, what is different about modernity is its ability to reduce human’s dependence on nature through the destruction of nature and the subsequent production of artificial orders. So although to commit such gruesome genocide like Holocaust or the Bosnian genocide naturally in the past would take hundred thousands of years, with the gift of modernity, this can be done in a matter of months. While it might naturally be physically and emotionally tasking to kill in mass, the division of labor and the use of technology, again central to Marx’s ideas, has distanced the human from the natural emotions – a type of alienation.   And to this effect, Bauman uses the analogy of a garden to represent the modern society, whereby ‘the gardeners’ (leaders) of the society have the power to create artificial orders, and to weed out unwanted elements. For Bauman, modernity paves the way for planners and visionaries with massive resources at their hands to carry out economic, social, and political gardening, whether it be good or evil. But one might ask how do they carry out this social engineering? And the answer would be found in the theory of Panopticism.

Panopticism, built on Bentham’s panopticon, is Michelle Foucault’s way of conceptualizing modernity.  Foucault uses this imagery of a conical building with a tower which lends sight to the cells, and gives a supervisor or warder an incredible presence over inmates or workers, without having to monitor each cell privately.  Foucault describes modern society as one closely watched by the State through the system of panopticon. Like Bauman, he sees Panopticism as an efficient system of control that replaces and reduces the natural strains or heavy use of human power by creating artificial orders and differences which keep people in different, isolated cells (strata), and in check. In this cells, people can be observed, controlled, and assessed in tiny masses without having to spend tons and tons of time knowing the individual.

In this system of total control of the state over the individual, including the very intimate aspects of life, the Panopticon is also used as a laboratory, whereby the people of an open society becomes unwitting participants in social or economic experiments.  Foucault, to illustrate this point, uses the testing of different punishments on prisoners, but here I give two contemporary examples which are : (1) the Red Revolution of China whereby communist ideas were put to test on real people, and (2) the ever mentioned Trickle Down theory in America, where people are being subjected to poverty while capitalists are testing if Adam Smith’s theory is right or not. Through Panopticism, Bauman’s “gardeners” have the resources needed to engage in their gardening.  Foucault, however, is clearly reluctant to cast a total, dark glance over modernity. He cautions that Panopticism – which figuratively represent modernity – must be seen as a neutral system with immense efficiency and power, and that it is, in his word, “polyvalent in its application.” Meaning it could weave good or bad. Foucault can hence be described as a modernity skeptic.

Skeptical to the idea of modernity itself, another French thinker, Bruno Latour takes a more philosophical approach to his understanding of modernity. First, he identifies modernity as an era of hybridity, where nature and culture meets to produce new entirely different ontological areas of life. The two distinct areas are the realm of humans on one hand, and the natural world on the hand, and this characterized human life in antiquity. But modernity, according to Latour, breaks the dichotomy between human and nature, subjecting the nature to the human, and extracting from it to produce entirely new areas of life. These areas of life are what we consider technological advancements which of course had a ripple effect on the entirety of our civilization from economy to social to politics to religion.

Modernity, marked by this dissolution of the natural, then is nothing but advancement in science, technology, political thoughts – embodied in the enlightenment. For Latour, the advancement are not in fact the purification of the filth of the ancient times, but of proliferation of new things which haven’t really advanced our civilization. To this end, Latour asks: “… if we have stopped being modern, if we can no longer separate the work of proliferation from the work of purification, what are we going become? Can we aspire to Enlightenment without modernity?”

The last of our sociologists on modernity is John Urry who coined the term Mobile Sociology.  Urry argues that modernity is shaped by the flowing of individuals, ideas and resources from one space to the other. Contrary to societies in the past which are locked to specific geographical location in terms of its culture, ideas and resources, the modern society is more fluid and less static. Starting with the invention of railways and telegrams, down to the digital age and supersonic jets, according to Urry, understanding of the modern society should be done from a view of societal crisscrossing. For him, the world is filled with network and fluids which allows for mass mobility of peoples, objects and ideas. This of course also makes one remember some lines in the Communist Manifesto referencing the bourgeoisie voyage around the world, and the breaking down of all Chinese walls. Multi-national corporations today are the most fluid with huge networks. It is noteworthy also that Urry seems to reject Bauman metaphor of gardener in his understanding of modernity. He claims that contrary to gardening, modern states today are more interested in gamekeeper state, whereby mobility regulation is the state’s concern.

In summary, conceptualizing modernity comes in different dimensions and shades, with each theorist focusing on divergent aspects and unique perspectives to make his points. But in general, modernity according to the four theorists I have looked at, is an epoch of mass and efficient system of production, control, and rationality. Modernity is the time of mass service and education, of extreme individuality and at the same time of conformity. Like every other thing in life, it is what it is. It has the potential of springing humans to the Enlightenment of which they claim it begins with, and at the same time nothing can stand in its way if it is used to plunge human societies into full scale annihilation, the likes of which the people of antiquities or middle ages could not even fathom. There’s no modernity, except if we’re referring to the creation of machines. There’s just a continuation of history – history is continuum. If we aren’t even in unanimity yet on modernity in clear concrete terms, what then in the world is post-modernity, again?.


Tohib Adejumo is a writer, filmmaker and apparently a budding sociologist. 🙂





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