Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Modernism as a recurring annihilation of both past and future

"According to the modernists, whether in the seventeenth century or the twentieth, innovation means tearing down the old—literally, in the case of cities—in order to make room for the new.  Modernism revises everything, fundamentally.  Foundations is a word borrowed from the modernists' own vocabulary:  Because the old has been obliterated, the new must be built upon its own, carefully laid foundations.  Modernists are not bricoleurs.
     "Nor do they believe in organic growth—or, indeed, organic anything.  Modernists negate the slow accretions of history:  They do not want to learn from the past; they want to break with it.  This is why the scientific and aesthetic dreams of modernists are so relentlessly radical, whatever their century.  For those who want to start afresh, the only possible stance toward the past is rejection.  Or, to recur to Descartes's urban planning metaphor, the only way to build the new city is to raze the old one to the ground.  But modernist radicalism doesn't stop there.  In its purest form, it seeks to annihilate not only the past but the future as well.  The new city erected on the smoldering ruins of the old one is intended to stand for all time, perfect and therefore ageless.  This is why it is so difficult to locate modernism along the political spectrum of the reactionary right and the progressive left.  Both right and left define themselves in relation to an unsatisfactory present:  The right wants to return to a better past; the left wants to move on to a better future.  The modernists may seem progressive as compared with the right, but they often look reactionary as compared to the left.  In truth, they belong to neither party, because the aspire to be the architects of an eternal present.  Once modernists have fulfilled their vision, time stops—until the next wave of modernist fervor.
     "But modernism cannot live with the vision that it comes in recurrent waves.  Nothing is more fatal to a movement that seeks to remake art or science or politics from the ground up than to repeat itself.  Once-and-for-all is thrilling; twice-and-for-all, embarrassing; thrice-and-for-all, simply ludicrous.  Modernity cannot begin in the seventeenth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth century without becoming something like a joke told once too often.  This is why the three modernities of the history of science cannot peacefully coexist.  There would be no difficulty in characterizing all three as moments of epoch-making change, as indeed all three undoubtedly were.  But change, no matter how transformative, falls short of the accolade 'modernity.'  Modernity aims to be the only change that is so vehement, so thorough, so fundamental, that no further change thereafter is conceivable.  There is thus always a simmering argument among the proponents of each of the three modernities in the history of science as to which one is the real one, the implication being that the others are imposters, mere revolutions masquerading as the one and only modernity."

     Lorraine Daston, "When science went modern," The Hedgehog review:  critical reflections on contemporary culture 18, no. 3 (Fall 2016):  27-28 (18-32).

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