Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Modernism Part 2.

Before resuming, let me announce a few new items at

First a major review (published in the Union's Book Review Section) of Jared Diamond's new tome about how societies past and present collapse or fail. I praise the book while pondering that Diamond doesn't step back enoughfor the big picture. And we need perspective if we're to avoid a collapse of our own.

ALSO there are other items like some audio file speeches to download. Enjoy.

Now back to the serialization of my draft about modernism....

Modernism: Part 2.

Despite cynical diagnoses that modernism is all-but dead, it clearly remains a vital force in the world. Even taking into account the inevitable mistakes, tragic blunders and unanticipated outcomes that accompany any bold endeavor, it would seem obvious that scientists, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, economists,civil rights activists, environmentalists and social reformers have a better track record at confronting age-old human problems and injustices than all of the kings, wizards and priests from past eras, combined.

Moreover, modernism suggests that bold measures - moderated by the accountability of open criticism - may even improve upon humanity itself. Perhaps not through garish means, like genetic engineering, that deserve healthy skepticism. But certainly in the incremental sense that we see as one generation after another achieves higher levels of educationand, yes, higher IQ scores.

The core belief - and one that most-rilesthe opponents of modernism - is that children can - at times - learn somewhatfrom the mistakes of their parents, and thus not repeat them. Change is not only seen as inevitable, but potentially beneficial. Moreover, the crucial difference between harm and benefit may be determined by ingenuity,hard work and good will among human beings who actively grip the tiller of change.

Modernism expresses fealty to the notion of human-generated progress.

Of course, most societies would have punished even minimal expressions of such confidence as heretical hubris. Today, that same loathing bubbles and froths from countless wellsprings spanning every spectrum, from left to right, from academia to the ill-educated,from religious to secular. The major common theme, shared among scoffers in almost every quarter, appears to be a deep distrust toward the can-do spirit of Enlightenment pragmatism.

Elsewhere ( I talk about how this reaction has manifested in the arts. Using as core examples JRR Tolkien’s popular Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Star Wars series, I discuss how romanticism systematically rejects a complete range of Enlightenment values and beliefs, as if from a checklist. (Even Communism and Capitalism do not glare at each other across such a complete catalogue of opposites.) This systematic rejection includes the promulgation of a cliched truism, so widely accepted that even believers in progress nod, sadly,when hearing it.

Isn’t it a shame that wisdom has not advanced at the same pace as our technology?

Accepted without question or demurral, it is one of the most insidious bits of propaganda currently in circulation, denying all of the evidence that fills our cities,schools and airwaves. Evidence supporting the notion of human improvability where it matters most. In our hearts.

In another article, I comment on this same rejection of progress in political terms. ( Across a broad front, from art to philosophy to politics and social policy,very notion of a confident future is under heavy assault.

Here I’ll take a different perspective, looking not at the enemies of modernism, but at modernism itself.

on to part 3 -->


Gregory said...

I've often wondered about the notion about our progress in moral/wisdom terms vs. our progress in technology. I think the commmon failing here is that when we look at the idea of "wisdom," we tend to think in utopian terms. Whether it's Plato's Republic or Roddenberry's Federation, true wisdom is presented in full fruition. The fact that the change is a complex one -- fighting, in many cases, some deeply seated patterns of behavior in our species -- gets lost. While people view technological progress as incremental, we seem far more likely to view wisdom as an either/or.

I'm reminded of the European Community here. Few people, I think, fully realize the revolution through evolution that it represents. The process is ugly, inefficient, and decidedly unsexy. There will be no great epic films about the Unification of Europe. It's tedious and dull and incremental. And in the context of Europe's history, the result so far is nothing short of astonishing.

Anonymous said...

I think antimodernism stems mainly from having no sense of perspective- and having no sense of greatfulness for the civilization one lives in.

Yes, premodern and early modern (i.e. pre-20th century) civilizations produced much great art, music, architecture, philosophy, literature, and mysticism. What cultivated person can't help but appreciate the Parthenon? Michaelangelo? Beethoven? Aristotle? The Illiad? Jesus? Nagarjuna? When you accumulate all the creations of these civilizations, it's truly impressive.

However, these are the collective creations of thirty centuries of written culture and verifiable history.

If what we've accomplished in one century is, say, one-twentieth as great, or one-tenth as great- we've made progress- amazing progress.

Yes, the composers of the 18th and 19th century were great. I enjoy listening to them. But what of the artists of the 20th century? Are Carl Orff and John Williams to merely be written off? Or Enya or Trent Reznor, for that matter? Look at all the genres that have been CREATED in the 20th century... the emergence of Jazz, Rock, Country, Techno, Hip-Hop, New Age, and many other permutations certainly has something to be said for it.

What of visual arts? Yes, the postmodernists and "pop artists" like Andy Warhol aren't exactly the greatest artists around- but they're far from the whole of 20th century visual art, or even the dominant trend. The continental modernists and futurists, while sometimes ethically abhorrent, created fascinating currents of design, while others revived or continued with classical art styles. Graphic designers and artists are at work everywhere today- creating corporate art by day, fashioning the works of their soul by night. My hometown has streets lined with sculptures crafted by artists in numerous styles, while the art galleries are filled with works by artists that, just a few centuries ago, would have been relegated to back-breaking farm labor and unable to express their talent. We also have entirely new genres- film, for instance. Kubrick and Kurosawa, Scorsese and Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson... the century that created these individuals certainly must be given credit! And what of computer graphic and 3d art? I've watched as friends have put loving details on models and objects that will never exist outside of the realms of cyberspace, and wondered at what our ancestors would have thought of these spiritual creations. We are awash in visual artistic creativity.

But then, what of architecture? Aren't we surrounded by ugly boxes, hastily thrown-up housing blocks and Wal-Marts? Why do our churches look like pole barns, rather than the great cathedrals of the past? Well, while there is certainly a great deal of ugliness, there is also a great deal of beauty. Compare the hovels and tenaments of the past with the ranch houses of suburbia, for a moment. Yeah, thought so. We build mighty skyscrapers that arrogantly, and beautifully pierce the heavens- those are our cathedrals, the cathedrals of capitalism (uh oh, I'm starting to sound like Ayn Rand...) Much of the mass architecture of this century was built the way it was so that it would be easy to bulldoze and rebuild, in the event of demolition by nuclear war. On top of that, the democratization of wealth lead to money being invested in smaller edifices (our splendid homes) rather than mighty churches and castles for an elite. Yet there is still a beauty in what we've created- and it can be shared by most of society, rather than enjoyed only by a tiny elite.

But philosophy? Isn't that the bankrupt home of Foucault, Derrida, and their spawn? Yes, but it is also the home of Russell, Whitehead, and the Principia, which reconstructed mathematics to pave the way for the era of computer science. The cosmological speculations of Einstein and Hawking, among numerous others. The practical sciences that got us to the moon, cured diseases, and built our information economy. The practical economics of Keynes, Friedman, Hayek, Galbraith- while these men disagreed in the specifics, they all believed in modernity and progress. Even as we speak, the next generation of political philosophers is digging through the wreckage of Hegel and Marx, trying to reorder the idea of sociological evolution and society under the wise auspices of Jurgen Habermas. And, I must even give the devil their due- while the Neoconservatives are abhorrent in other ways, their love of classical philosophy is to be admired, and is a hopeful contribution to modern liberal education.

I won't even get started on literature. There have been more great writers in this century than any other. Their names are legion.

But wait, isn't modernity spiritually bereft, and empty? No more or less so than any other time period. How could the century of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramana Maharishi, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tenzin Gyatso (his holiness the Dalai Lama), Martin Luther King Jr., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and all the other men and women of spirit be bankrupt? And, even forgetting all that, I look at the basic DECENCY of the city I live in- a city with little poverty, a low crime rate, and generally moral people, and compare it to the majority of cities throughout history- I wonder, could we not be less, but in fact, more moral than our ancestors? In the age of civil rights, social safety nets, polite (if somewhat vapid) political discourse, religious freedom and toleration, worker's rights, and 13 years of compulsory education for every person- how can one call our society immoral, compared to any other in history? Go ahead, make my day.

We live in amazing times. Incredible times. Appreciate them.

-Nicq MacDonald

David Brin said...

Dang! I may not have the biggest readership, but I sure have the smartest. These are two truly excellent posts.

You two should consider joining the Brin-L email discussion group at:

I agree that it is soooo weird. The idealism that makes people find fault with today's society is the same trait that (1) helps propel us forward and (2) prevents us from ever noticing how far we've come. That's the good news. The bad is that too much inability to see progress leads to nihilism or else contempt for the masses.

As for the Europeans, as an American who lived over there - twice - I am both repelled by their bureaucratic approach and admiring of the incredible accomplishment (in large part fostered by American midwifery: especially in settling the Balkans mess under Clinton) of unifying such a morass of languages/hostilities.

We had better watch out. The process of "accession" which they have now mastered won't stop at the Urals and the Bosporus. It could very well become the way that World Government comes creeping into being, as Strasbourg decides to keep admitting members far beyond "Europe."

Gregory said...

David --

Thanks for the ego boost. I will certainly look into the discussion list.

The Europeans certainly do have a bit of bureaucracy - cough, cough -- I'll never forget reading about the fights over the precise definitions of, I think it was, cheese. I definitely appreciate the British love/hate relationship with the EU (listen to Eddie Izzard sometime for funny takes on that). All part of that other side of the enlightenment you were talking about in part 3 of the essay -- the more top-heavy, masses-are-asses form. Europe's future, I think, will be determined by what the citizens do -- right now, they could care less about EU elections. If something happens to make that change, interesting things could happen. Because I think a lot of Europeans hunger for a tad less paternalism, but just don't have the habit of being feisty about it. I can't help but wonder if the expansion might awaken that -- some of those new nations may have ideas that the folks of the core nations will have some problems with.

Travis Garrett said...

Hi David - I just read your "Collapse" review and I wanted to say that I agree completely with your final conclusion: it is crucial that scientists and engineers are fully supported in developing innovative solutions to global sustainability issues. That said, I am quite optimistic about the future - I strongly suspect that we'll do a lot better than just reaching some sustainable level. Based on some speculative side work I am doing ( - I do black hole computer models for my day job, which is a lot of fun too), I argue that infinite technological and scientific growth will be possible (it's a statistical conclusion based on all mathematical structures existing - i.e. Tegmark's level 4 multiverse). Indeed this is why what it is to exist is to be an intelligent observer evolving in time: observers form the largest class of information (you can loosely think of observers as the power set on the set of all information). And it's testable (in a manner of sorts) - things either keep on progressing or they don't! We'll see... There's a semi-formal paper on the idea (I'm currently calling it the Observer Class Hypothesis - I was calling it statistical metaphysics before) thats linked to on my blog if you're curious. And thanks for all the thought-provoking ideas!

Sincerely, Travis

Jacare Sorridente said...

While I agree with many of Brin's contentions about the effects of the enlightenment and modernism, I don't think that he pays enough attention nor gives enough credit to religion in general and Christianity in particular in the development of this "gritty practicality" which developed as the hallmark of the American enlightenment. Brin seems to view religion as solely a stumbling block to progress in two ways: first, as slowing things down by their unreasoning opposition to progress (e.g. "...united against any notion that the future might be a good and desirable destination, subject to intelligent design") and second, as embodying one of the major romanticist groups which harks back to a golden era.

As with any large, heterogeneous group, Brin's apparent view of religion and the religious is clearly accurate to a certain degree. However, when considering the role of religion in the development of the American brand of the enlightenment one may see that far from being a stumbling block, in many cases it was a stepping stone to the development of enlightenment principles. In the first case, of course, the very roots of the United States were planted by religious groups seeking to establish a new life. Any schoolchild could tell us about the Mayflower compact as the earliest glimmer of democracy in America, and of course this was followed by the equally famous New England town meetings. Later on we have the influence of the Quakers in establishing the foundation of American egalitarianism in the Pennsylvania colony. Note that all of these developments took place in what were arguably some of the most intensively religious communities on earth at the time.

Without going into much more detail we can list any number of later developments fueled primarily by religious motives which were crucial to the development of the American enlightenment which is the foundation of Brin's essays. From the abolitionist movement which Brin cites specifically to the founding of universities, the writing of the constitution and so on, the powerful developments in human culture these religions represent have shown themselves to be quite capable of maintaining both a romanticist notion of a past golden age worthy of striving to recapture as well as working hard to improve the human condition in the current age.