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.