Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 28, 2016

modernity as temporal self-exile

In The Theological Origins of Modernity, Michael Allen Gillespie writes,

What then does it mean to be modern? As the term is used in everyday discourse, being modern means being fashionable, up to date, contemporary. This common usage actually captures a great deal of the truth of the matter, even if the deeper meaning and significance of this definition are seldom understood. In fact, it is one of the salient characteristics of modernity to focus on what is right in front of us and thus to overlook the deeper significance of our origins. What the common understanding points to, however, is the uncommon fact that, at its core, to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time. Of course, any self-understanding assumes some notion of time, but in all other cases the temporal moment has remained implicit. Ancient peoples located themselves in terms of a seminal event, the creation of the world, an exodus from bondage, a memorable victory, or the first Olympiad, to take only a few examples, but locating oneself temporally in any of these ways is different than defining oneself in terms of time. To be modern means to be “new,” to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming.

The notion that there is some indissoluble and definitive link between my identity and my moment accounts for some of the most characteristic rhetorical flourishes in our political debates: When people say that history is on their side, or ask how someone can hold Position X in the twenty-first century, or explain that they care about the things they do because of the generation they belong to, or insist that someone they don’t like acts the way he does because of the generation he belongs to, they’re assuming that link. But if time is so definitive time is also a prison: we are bound to our moment and cannot think or live outside it.

And yet people who are so bound congratulate themselves on being emancipated from “their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods.” They believe they are free, but in fact they have exchanged defining structures that can (and often do) offer security and meaning for a defining abstraction that can offer neither — a home for a prison. This helps to explain why people who believe they are emancipated nevertheless tend to seek, with an intensity born of unacknowledged nostalgia, compensatory stories set in fantastic realms where the longed-for structures are firmly in place. To be imprisoned-by-emancipation is the fate of those who define their being in terms of time. Modernity is thus temporal self-exile — though it may be other things as well.


  • The "rhetorical flourishes" mentioned are the same as those of the "progressives." "Progressive" is so incredibly heavy-handed, it's a wonder that we let people get away with self-identifying in that way. I say you prove your way is indeed "progress" before you're allowed to call yourself by that word. Both words (modern and progressive) rely upon a Whiggish retelling of history, a narrative that is not very compelling to me.

  • On third read, your argument proves too much to me. I do think you have insight in highlighting the temporal aspect of modernity, and it brings to mine Ross Douthat's scoffing at Whig history. Nonetheless, many of the points you raise are in no small part true of any revolutionary creed, including rejecting the world and seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. Many hymns, spirituals, and eschatological writings are "compensatory stories set in fantastic realms where the longed-for structures are firmly in place."

    I am sure this is addressed at length in the Theological Origins of Modernity, as the excerpt mentions "the religious roots of our ostensibly godless age." For the sake of argument, while I have not read the book, I am happy to accept that point. Likewise, I think their is a fair critique of basing your revolutionary creed in temporal matters. This past year, past month has in my mind foot stomped again and again that history has a significant cyclical element.

    Nonetheless, I have visited prisons and homes (predominantly prison museums, a failure in my duty to visit actual prisoners). Notably including the home where my Best Man lives with his husband and seen their domestic stability and the joy and comfort they offer to those around them. Modernity is certainly not their only creed, but the figurative bars that they escaped were quite real and the home they have achieved is represents an emancipation that yet gives me some hope for this world.

    The point you have successfully impressed upon me is that modernity is not enough, locating matters in time is not enough. I think for many moderns the genuine accumulation of scientific knowledge is a great comfort, but it's too easy to translate that progress into other realms, and doubtless proper history of science course teaches some necessary humility about even that accumulation. Nonetheless, I think you prove too much, and those who have indeed achieved any degree of genuine emancipation will have a harder time seeing your other points as a result.

  • The sort of historicism you and Gillespie identify can be found in 'anti-modern' critiques of 'modernity', as well. Instead of an emancipation, they see modern times as a tragic misfortune. Instead of unrecognized nostalgia, theirs is explicit. But they share with modernity's champions a belief that times are now fundamentally different than how they once were, as the result of various decisive revolutions. Both the moderns and the anti-moderns are modern, so to speak- they both believe in modernity!

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