Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What is "modernity," anyway, and why should we give a damn?

Belle, I will salve your blog guilt.

A dialog from the comments to a post in Gowder-territory:


Religions are obviously more than passels of expressions sometimes conjoined with ontological claims, though one might forgive another for not getting this as a result of the general atomization of, you know, MODERNITY. ...

I don’t understand why continental-types think the sentence “X is a symptom of modernity” constitutes some kind of objection to X.

Are religions “more than passels of expressions sometimes conjoined with ontological claims?” I’m not sure. I suppose they might also represent some kind of collective thing — it might be important to being a religion that it is something shared by others, in communal rituals, etc. But so what? ...

Wolfson and Gowder:
[various undifferentiated snark, sarcasm, irritability, &c]

The sorts of people who do heavy work in continental philosophy, literary studies, critical theory, the "theory"-side of sociology, and the like* (several of whom read this blog, yes? Hence the non-guilt-salving reason for moving this here: I want your thoughts, damnit) have this notion of "modernity," which, I take it, means something like "everything from the Enlightenment onward," and is supposed to represent something like mechanistic views of the world, plus something about "individualism" or Ben's "atomization."

I further take it that "modernity" is supposed to be in opposition to something after "modernity," not necessarily "postmodernism," but, well, something. Perhaps that something is nothing more than what happens when bad social theorists study read have graduate students undergraduates any fool from the street read to them directly transcribe into their papers too many math or quantum physics discussions and think that Heisenberg uncertainty or the irrational numbers express some deep truth about the world or the human condition or some rot.**

But that would be uncharitable.

So let's say that the thing after modernism is... I guess... a more communitarian, holistic view of things. Quine rather than Carnap, Sandel rather than Nozick.

(On some accounts, modernity has something to do with rationalism as well -- with the scientific approach to the world, etc. But if that's the case, then whatever the thing is that is opposed to modernity -- irrationalism? superstition? is so stupid that it would be uncharitable even to even mention it. So just forget that this whole paragraph exists.)

But if that's all that's at play, then why do people make such great hay of it? To hear the sorts noted above speak, there's some kind of massive divide between "modernity" and [all that other stuff, yet to be firmly defined]. But what it turns out sounding like is just a series of objections, all of which basically amount to "your theory, which otherwise makes perfect sense, fails to take into account the fundamental interconnectedness of all things."

Which is a claim that just leaves me cold. I tend to think that the Enlightenment got its name for a reason, and that guys like Hume, Kant, Mill, et. al., had basically the right ideas about a lot of stuff.*** Sometimes, the non-monadic perspective matters, but often it's just a bunch of reifications of collective entities that aren't.

But perhaps there's more to the debate? What work, precisely, do these notions of "modernity" and "[insert term for the thing or things that are opposed to it]" actually do? I'm genuinely curious about this. The whole dialog on this has sounded like barbaric yawping**** to me for so long that I turn to you for enlightenment.

* If the universities ever break out into open warfare, I will stand with the analytic philosophers, economists, quantitative sociologists (like Granovetter), rational choice political scientists and "biological anthropologists" against the groups listed above, plus historical institutionalist political scientists, cultural and social anthropologists, 90% of law professors, etc. I have complete confidence in our ultimate victory, because we can do math.

** I have to quote that glorious Lacan passage that Sokal and folks love so much.

Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance [ecstasy], not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the square root of -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).

*** Also, let us not forget that along with Kant, Hume, etc. came Hegel, who is guilty of many things, but one of them is surely not inadequate holism.

**** See, Daniel? I like some American poetry.