No. 16 (2018): Issue No. 16, September 2018 - Main Topic: Re-Thinking Modernity
“All that is solid melts into air...”
Those words, quoted from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, were used by the American philosopher Marshall Berman in the title of his book on modernity and modernist culture, which was first published in 1982. Berman’s book originated in a kind of opposition to postmodernist theories that were prevalent at the time, whose advocates saw in the idea of modernity only a traditional ‘meta-narrative’ that should be ‘deconstructed’. For Berman, however, modernity was a kind of dialectics that carried a utopian promise. In this regard, modernity was at first a crisis: this crisis came about when traditional knowledge that rested on eternal and universal truths and all a priori criteria finally became unsustainable. It was the point when people realized that there were no longer any objective values and that nature was not an unchangeable order with its own goals. For modern people, values are not a given – they are something that has to be found; there is no a priori structure of things or the world – rather, the world is something to be created; art is not a representation of a universal ideal – it is a value that the artwork creates through itself. Modernity is therefore a dialectics in Marx’s sense – a crisis, a feeling of groundlessness, a state wherein everything seems conceited and constantly “melts into air”. However, precisely because of that, it is also an unbroken series of attempts to overcome the crisis, to resolve those internal contradictions of capitalist society.
In our own time, we are witnessing an era of new permanent crises, irreconcilable internal tensions that capitalist society continues to generate. However (and maybe this is part of the legacy of postmodernism), it also appears to be a period of epochal resignation regarding our ability to imagine different, utopian alternatives, of the kind that modernity formerly implied. Our age sounds like parts of Marx’s manifesto but without the hope of a new universal class emancipation: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air...” Is there anything that modernity, precisely due to our epochal apathy, could tell us? What do Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, or Wittgenstein mean to us today? Or abstract painting and atonal music? What kind of significance do the concepts of modernity and modernism bring today to contemporary aesthetics, theory of arts, and philosophy? Are those concepts still relevant to current politics, political economy, or social theory?