Modernity and Beyond

Note: This essay has been shelved. There's a lot with it I don't believe has aged well and it would take major revisions before I can fix it up. I'm open to this, but it won't be for a while.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is an interesting look into the mindset of late-modernity[1]. The book itself remains a rather mediocre and forgettable story written by a relatively obscure Brazilian author with no real foundation or precedent to work off of; yet it remains the second-highest selling novel of all time, so something has to be up.

The story centers around a young boy abandoning his humble life of shepherding in search of treasure following a series of dreams. Slowly, but surely, he journeys across the lands in search of this treasure, finding love, conflict, and purpose along the way. Throughout the book, the boy is beginning to understand he isn't just searching for treasure, but for something greater, a destiny (or as the book calls it, a Personal Legend).

1988 is the year the book was released; this is important to note as the date itself stands in the middle of two eras. Despite the countless interpretations of causes and the implications of the new age, there was undeniably this sense that something had changed. This is why I think it's important to look back on something like the Alchemist, because regardless of its literary merit, it and its success has provided an incredibly useful snapshot of this critical transition period.

Or to put it in simpler terms; as a product of its time, whatever is behind the explosion of this book most likely can shed a light on the nature of what exactly has changed in our understanding of the world.

The Alchemist definitely holds some recognizably modernist elements; the plot on an abstract level centers around the departure of the individual from a quiet and simple existence towards something greater. It is no coincidence that this mirrors the Enlightenment narrative.

However, simultaneously, what we see is that something about the book still feels off. The Personal Legend is vaguely characterized, the metaphors and allegories seem to lack any detail or precision, and despite all the aphorisms and flair, the language is unnervingly hollow.

I call it unnerving in the sense that it is by definition a modern work, but one can't help but feeling as if something is missing. To put it in more vivid terms, it almost feels as if you're looking at a corpse. The body and the matter remain the same, yet you cannot help but feel that on some level, the person that was no longer is.

Broken Modernity

I dislike the term “postmodernity”, because our condition hasn't exactly succeeded modernity. The progressive history, the methodological dogmatism, the calls for democracy, it still remains just as present as before. What's changed is that our expression of these ideas become increasingly more and more absurd as we find ourselves abstracted further from meaning.

It's difficult to describe something concisely, but I'll try in more metaphorical terms: the condition of broken modernity is the death of God's killer, in reference to Nietzsche's allegory[2] of the madman shouting in the marketplace.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever shall be born after us—for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Nietzsche actually wrote this in reference to the birth of humanism, which he saw as killing the religious dogmas of old. A death that he painted as the harbinger of an intense feeling of uncertainty and with it, the reign of the actualized individual, the overman. And yet we stand here over a century later, now reflecting upon the death of man. For many, this wasn't the end they imagined, neither the one they hoped for nor dreaded.

An Autopsy

We know something has died, but what do we know beyond that? Who did the killing, what took its place, how did this happen, where do we go from here?

There's only one real course of action if we wish to solve those questions and that is to reflect on what modernity is, what has changed, and what reactions are occurring in this so-called “postmodern” era.

Dogma: History as Progression

Despite the portrait of the Enlightenment man and dogma being irreconcilable, there definitely is a set of dogmas the modern man continues to cling to, namely the dogma of methodology.

The most notable and continuously challenged of these dogmas is the idea of a progressive historiography: the past, present and future are all defined and juxtaposed in relation to an inevitable outcome. In other words, history itself is convergence.

From the beginning, we had “Whig history” arise out of the Enlightenment. Rapin provided the most well-known of these accounts in his History of England[3]. The goal of the anthology was to justify and give the then-controversial English Constitution (1688) a place in the greater English history. To Rapin, the new constitution was just another step in time towards the eventual conclusion of English liberty.

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present. [4]

Although he would die shortly after finishing it, with future translations and republications, it would prove to be highly influential on public opinion and 18th century politics as a whole. As time went on, various movements and leaders would champion it, placing themselves on the front lines of this new history and the text itself in a place of unchallenged authority. [5]

Reactionaries eventually picked similar tendencies up too, relying on an inverted form of the Whig history. The underlying assumption of history being a conflict between progress and tradition still remained, but with one key difference: the roles were reversed. Even as early back as the 17th century, do we begin to see these sort of anti-Whigs appear. Jean-Jacques Bousset updates Augustine's City of God to the politics of his time, placing the same conflicts Rapin details into a new context: a historical war between the Lord and the Devil. [6]

As to be expected, this interpretation had it's critics: the original account by Rapin, despite its broad influence, found itself having to answer to David Hume and his own take on English history. He consciously avoided presenting history in relation to the issues of his time, positioning himself as the anti-Rapin. He reflects on this in his autobiography [7], having seen his refusal to engage with the present as a mark of objective neutrality.

I thought I was the only historian that had at once neglected present power, interest and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices; and as the subject was suited to every capacity I expected proportional applause. But miserable was my disappointment, I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation: English, Scotch and Irish, Whig and Tory, Churchmen and Sectary, Freethinker and religionist, Patriot and Courtier, united in their rage against the man who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I and the Earl of Stafford.

As it should be clear, the public did not take it well, but of more importance it should be noted the groups he lists. Whig and Tory, English and Irish, Patriot and Courtier: the stark contrasts in each of these pairings shows that whatever Hume attacked is something that goes deeper than any political allegiances.

And upon reflection, it becomes obvious: the historical dogma was exactly what his work challenged, and regardless of the disagreements in usage, the method itself remained so strongly uncontested.

Dogma: History as Progression (Continued)

With the 19th and 20th centuries, we were given a new wave of historicism based off the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He retained a compatible, if not similar view of history, however by drawing from the Idealist traditions of his time, he was able to further expand upon and justify the interpretation. History became a process by which contradictions in our world become resolved: it progresses in tandem with our understanding of humanity in relation to the larger picture. [8]

And just like with Rapin's ideas, we quickly see that thinkers of all persuasions incorporated Hegel into their framework. Karl Marx built his theory of history by applying Hegel's historical/dialectical framework to the underlying logic of economy.

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. [9]

On the other side of the coin we see reactionaries adopt another form of inverted historicism. In Spengler's Decline of the West (quite possibly one of the most influential books for the 20th century fascism), he still details a linear history but one in the direction of decline rather than progress. For him, it was a story of tragedy rather than triumph, watching the greatness of the forefathers crumble.

At this level all Civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms, and finally the land itself, whose best blood has incontinently poured into the towns, merely to bolster them up awhile. At the last, only the primitive blood remains, alive, but robbed of its strongest and most promising elements. This residue is the Fellah type.

And as with Rapin, Hegel eventually found himself under attack too, this time from Karl Popper, most notably in his book, The Poverty of Historicism[10]. In the preface to said book, he summarizes his criticisms as follows:

  1. The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.
  2. We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge.
  3. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.
  4. This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history, that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.
  5. The fundamental aim of historicist methods...is therefore misconceived; and historicism collapses.

For Popper, historicism fails to take into account that we exist within, and thus do not have a full picture of history. He views the rigid system-building as inflexible and often relying on molding new information in a fashion that is compatible with the already-existing theory.

Dogma: Scientism (Hayek)

Dogma: Language of Symbols (Baudillard)

Protomodernity – Rousseau

Last Man/Overman – Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarasuthra)

Liquid Modernity – Bauman (Liquid Modernity)

The Left's Response

The Right's Response

Most of what was above has already been covered by previous, more in-depth works by authors such as Fisher and Reynolds, but I think it's important we take the analysis a bit further than just a simple restatement. I want to look at how we've attempted to challenge this dilemma politically.


1: 2: 3: 4: 5: 6: 7: 8:

Credit to Claudius for helping me remember the word “closure”. :P