We live in modern times. But what exactly makes them modern? Modernity is a complex phenomenon that is usually taken to be made up of a number of distinct components (some of which are more problematic than others), such as industrialisation, urbanisation, bureaucratisation, the increasing powers of the nation state (especially in the economic sphere), ideological pluralism and a more inclusive body politic. Not all modern societies have all of these characteristics: their prelapsarian propaganda notwithstanding, Nazi Germany was certainly a modern society.
Modernism is the movement in art and thought that is a response to modernity. It is broadly characterised by a very self-conscious focus on form as well as content and the content often has to do with man's place within modernity. Modernist artists were trying to turn man into a subject rather than an object of modernisation, and frequently they addressed an issue that is central to the process: alienation. The disorienting effect of modernisation is often seen as its fundamental property with regard to the individual person. The transition from a moral economy to a capitalist one, from a rural life to an urban life, and the turning upside down of values - all of this can leave an individual unaware of their place in the world.
Modernity can also be pitiless. Goethe's Faust can be read as a "tragedy of development". The story of Faust has been told many times, but this is the first in which the deal with the Devil is made not for money or fame, but out of a desire to experience all of life. After falling in and out of love with both a woman and then debauchery, Faust taps into one of the strongest currents in modern history: a synergy of personal self-development and economic development. Tired of all past pleasures, Faust sets about creating a new world of modern, free men (like himself) who will sweep away the primitive, stupid rural life that destroyed his love. In doing so he pitilessly exploits his labour force, and in a last jealous bid kills an old couple who stand in his way. Even the act of killing is modern, for Faust does not carry it out himself but merely orders his subordinates to "take care of it". Impersonal, without shame, without even knowledge of how it was done.
This striving towards modernity eventually destroys Faust. Having banished darkness from the outside world, its last refuge is in his heart: he is struck blind by his conscience and dies. His spirit has not died. It is alive in those who have a sense of being underdeveloped, of not being modern enough: the third world dictator and the Stalin or Mao. This embracement of modernity is not universal - many have lamented its ill effects and sought to destroy it, or part of it. Others, such as Marx, believed it could be transcended and something better achieved: but in the meantime it needed to be allowed to run its course. In the following essay I examine two "modernisms", i.e. strands of modernist thought, which were both expressions of and protests against the process of modernisation. Marx and the Italian Futurists provide two interesting takes on modernity, ones not irrelevant today.
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The process of modernisation was universally viewed as a disruptive one. It dissolved past traditions, transformed the structure of society and forced men to "face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men."1 Marx congratulated the "bourgeois epoch" on demonstrating "what man's activity can bring about."2 Only by constantly revolutionising the very fabric of society itself (said Marx) could the modern industrial class survive: this was as opposed to earlier ones, which survived by maintaining the status quo. Marx understood the process of modernisation as one which was so inherently unstable and unstoppable that it would eventually destroy the bourgeoisie as a class, and lead to a classless society.
He was correct about the massive, sweeping changes parts of European society were undergoing at the time of his writing and would continue to undergo: the advent of ideological pluralism, parliamentary democracy, urbanisation, industrialisation and increased social mobility. Combined, these factors started to shape the artistic consciousness of the avant-garde. Their world was characterised by constant change and movement, and their own lives characterised by a rootlessness within this world that was constantly in flux. The Italian Futurists embraced modernity's challenge to the traditional world, declaring that "[p]oetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces", so as to "reduce and prostrate them before man".3 Unlike in Marxism, this Faustian challenge to the world had no Utopia as its endpoint: the "violence, cruelty, and injustice" of its art was ultimately self-destructive, for it glorified death. Their restlessness would lead to war and destruction; Marx believed his would do the opposite. But both were expressions of, and protests against, modernisation.
Marx's relationship to modernity was a complex one. His own vision of future society would never have been conceived as possible were it not for the process of modernisation, and indeed he saw this vision as the logical conclusion of the process. Modernisation had allowed the productive capabilities of man to be released and exploited as never before, and the classless society would come about only once these forces had reached their highest point of development. Marx's protest against this process came from this very belief that development was ultimately unsustainable, that eventually it would be able to go no further. Having unlocked man's drive for self-development, capitalism necessarily placed limits on it through the division of labour. Modern man was lost in a paradox: exhorted to constantly develop himself yet alienated from that which he produced, he was unable to transcend the limits modern industrial society placed on him.
Thus the proletariat – who now encompassed many previously "holy" and revered professions – had to develop themselves constantly in a fundamentally modern way so as to overcome the trials of modernity and pass into the classless society. Marx's glorification of action and labour - the vita activa – encapsulated this constant struggle, but this struggle would come to an end after the revolution. The belief in action, the exhortations to self-development, and the acceptance of economic development made Marx’s thought an expression of modernisation; his call for "working men of all countries" to unite and overthrow the existing order made it a protest against modernisation. In doing so he rejected the dynamism that he himself said was the defining characteristic of the modern epoch: in the post-revolutionary world, this movement would end.
Like Marx, the Italian Futurists embraced the dynamism of modernity. "Progress," wrote Marinetti, "is always right even when it is wrong, because it is movement, life, struggle, hope." In art, the Futurists epitomised the destructive aspects of modernisation – as Faust had pitilessly destroyed the old world to make room for the new, they sought to destroy all artistic conventions and niceties. The Futurists cannot be described as nihilists because there was a political and ideological message that lay hidden in their art and was openly proclaimed in their Manifesto – "[w]e will glorify war -- the world's only hygiene -- militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for."4 They believed, they said, in modernity and its symbols – in the opening passages of the first Futurist Manifesto, we see them recklessly whizzing around the modern city in motorcars, scorning contemplation and embracing action. They pour scorn on past artistic traditions and its museums, and also recognise that their own work will eventually be disparaged and overthrown by the younger and stronger. This is the ultimate expression of reckless modernity – embracing its own transient nature and seeking to be no more permanent than that which it aims to destroy.
Free-thinking and the will to action of this kind could not have been found in pre-modern society, but they represented a certain type of modernism that was not entirely conducive to the process of modernisation itself. Marx was correct to say that the process of modernisation was posited on the organisation of social labour by the bourgeoisie, and could well have gone on to say that similar developments marked the civil and political spheres. There was an increased rationalisation and organisation of political parties, of the workforce, of the civil service and even of the home – the so-called "rational peasant" who decided how best to use his family’s labour power. The modernism of the Italian Futurists based itself on all these developments by proclaiming a belief in economic progress, but was surely in itself inimical to the process. The glorification of war, struggle, death and destruction were more likely to lead to a cataclysm like World War I than continued rational modernisation.
The process of modernisation had dissolved "fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions"5, and left men rootless and alone in the world. The Futurists' cure for man’s alienation was the cult of movement and eventual death – an individualistic rejection of the fact that modern life requires everyone to submit to some form of hierarchy. While exhorting the people of the world to smash tradition, they failed to cope with the fact that "free moderns" like themselves could never be free from "docile servility", by which they meant limits on their action. Technology liberated man to a degree, but Futurism’s vision of the future could never be compatible with the actual process of modernisation. Because Futurism stayed aloof of mass culture, believing in artistic elitism, they also sought to avoid the levelling influences of modernisation. There was no guarantee that their Manifesto would be successful in the marketplace of ideas in the future, especially as it was likely to lead to instability. The short-lived nature of the Futurist movement brings into sharp relief this fact, its influence on later Fascist art notwithstanding. Dadaism was of a fundamentally different character because of its nihilistic base and embrace of hopelessness, as opposed to Marinetti’s "movement, life, struggle, hope."
Both Marx and the Futurists saw the process of modernisation as desirable and laudable in many respects, primarily in its ability to unlock the productive powers of man and lead to their conception of progress. But neither accepted the full implications of what modernisation meant and led to, although because the purviews of their thought were different they expressed this differently. Marx was concerned with society as a whole and its very fabric, and believed that modernisation itself – which had created the current social structure – would eventually lead to its own destruction. The Futurist Manifestos sketch out an idea of the place of art in the modern world, and how best to capture the dynamism of modern life. They did not recognise that the logical conclusion of their thought is an acute instability which may have provided man with roots and solved the problem of his alienation through struggle, but could not lead to the continued economic development of society and technology which they proclaimed desirable. The process of modernisation was characterised by acute instability and change for many people, but the Futurists displayed a lack of pity for its victims which would have subverted the whole process. Marx disparaged modernity because he said he could predict something better was to come; the Futurists did so because their prescriptive program would have destroyed it. Both harnessed the process of modernisation against itself, embracing aspects of modernity they approved of and discarding those they did not.
1. Marx, The Communist Manifesto
3. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto
5. Marx, op. cit.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
Peter Nicholls, Modernism: a literary guide
Marshall Berman, All that is sold melts into air: the experience of modernity
Adrian Lyttelton, Liberal and Fascist Italy
F.T. Marinetti, The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism
Jervis, Exploring the Modern: patterns of Western culture and Civilization