And now, part 16 of "Modernism and its enemies."
Modernism Part 16. Putting it all in context.
In part 15, I compared author Michael Crichton to one of his left-wing counterparts, Margaret Atwood, revealing underlying agendas that are remarkably similar, despite superficial differences of politics, heroes and villains. Relentlessly and point by-point, they reject the modernist notion that we can and should improve both humanity and the world through calmly-negotiated, pragmatic advancement in realms of commerce, society and science, in an era of openly shared knowledge.
Of course, each of them would deny this, since both claim to be "progressive" and scientific in their own ways. But I contend that a long checklist of traits argues otherwise. For example, they seldom, if ever, show either society or science utilizing sophisticated enlightenment processes for error-discovery and correction. While praising diversity in principle, they never show diverse competing interests actually engaging in a mature process of reciprocal accountability or negotiation.
True, a good fiction tale can thrive upon situations when such mature processes fail. Exciting drama may revolve around a few heroes opposing terrible errors or oppressive opponents. But these errors and opponents are portrayed by romantic authors in simplistic, polemical fashion, demonizing straw-man villain groups for the purpose of making a political point. Never to illustrate mature processes in action.
In almost every case, the fictional failure mode seems to arise out of secrecy that prevented society and science from functioning properly. And yet, secrecy itself is never shown to be a core mistake! Rather, hubris is the classic character flaw that these authors bemoan. With typical elitism, they cast unalloyed dread toward the possibility that common citizens may seize new powers to remake society, their own lives, and even the lives of their children.
You can find the same loathing all across the arts, from fantasy novels that despise democracy and extol feudalism to rock videos that foster egotism as a primary human virtue.
Of course, the situation is not as simple as I've described so far. Dichotomies are inherently untrustworthy, (a decidedly modernist position, by the way.) Indeed, romantic polemics conveyed via the arts can often overlap with messages of the Enlightenment. They may even agree over specific or surface issues.
This shouldn't be surprising. Romantics and modernists were once allies, after all. Two centuries ago, until a great rift tore apart these worldviews, they briefly stood shoulder-to-shoulder through the American and French Revolutions -- before spilling apart in violent fraternal dispute. (Thomas Jefferson would seem to be the perfect blending of modernism and romanticism.)
For example, both movements claim credit for what seems to be the universal propaganda message, pervading nearly all recent movies and dramas. That message is Suspicion of Authority or SOA. (Name a popular film you've enjoyed in the last 30 years that does not feature it.) Both also claim to champion tolerance and admiration of human eccentricity/diversity.
Only with a key difference. Modernism calls for mild suspicion toward all centers of authority, including any that include you or me. An omni directional accountability, enforced by open and freely-accessible knowledge.
Romanticism nearly always manifests SOA as fervid hatred of some particular authoritarianism... while making excuses for its polar opposite. Romantics seldom see anything wrong with unaccountable power in the hands of their favorite authorities. Indeed, they make many excuses for why the masses cannot be trusted to take care of themselves.
And yet, after all this going on and on about romanticism in the arts, it may surprise you to learn that I find such artistic expression to be the least bothersome aspect of an ancient worldview. Indeed, the romantic impulse is deeply and naturally human. I exploit and foster it in myself, when writing a dramatic scene in one my own novels -- though I try to do so with open eyes and some awareness of the inevitable tradeoffs.
Even within the arts, romanticism has long waged war on the nerdy, cautious, cooperative and reasonable, in favor of extravagance, emotion, lusts and love-at first-sight. Indeed, can you even begin to count the number of times that films or novels have posed a dichotomy between logic and love? Between passion and reason? Between calculated risk and that bold roll of the dice? And how often has passionate illogic been portrayed as wrong? The nearly universal reflex does seem to indicate something driven, consistent, like a concerted campaign.
And I don't really mind. Again, we all grew up with this relentless romantic propaganda in the arts, and it sure has its good side. Certainly we will never abandon the richly emotional and voluptuous power that romantic posturing can offer through the arts, from Shelley, screaming at the heavens with lighting flashing all around, to Slim Pickens riding a hydrogen bomb like a bucking bronco, in Dr. Strangelove. The arts are where romanticism thrives and feeds us. In art, it can inspire and stir or replenish the soul.
Unfortunately, it goes far beyond fiction and the arts. If you look across six thousand years of recorded history, nearly all cultures were led by romantic thinking in their centers of policy and power. And that's where inestimable damage has been done.
Oh, there are more than enough superficial differences that allow anti-modernists of "left" and "right" to pontificate and rage at each other... while colluding over a deeper agenda. Certainly the left has been more direct and honest in its intellectually assault, fostering an entire movement called postmodernism, implying that their foe (modernism) is already finished off, a relic, even dead.
It should be no surprise that many of the leading figures in postmodernism, such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, emerged from the French wing of the Enlightenment... the wing that got suckered away from pragmatism and back into the arms of Plantoic mysticism.
Proclaiming that nothing is objectively true - that only subjective texts matter - they preach (in-effect) for a return to the era of persuasive magical incantations. By claiming that science is just another incantory system, they hope to downgrade its authority, denying this era's masters of wisdom any authority to "prove or disprove" anything at all. (More on this, in part 18.)
The hostility of rightwing intellectuals can be much more cryptic, and yet easy to understand. The retro-romantic impulse of the neoconservatives is not to restore the authority of magicians, but rather to re-empower aristocratic lords and priests.
...on to part 17... about the need for mysteries...