The Dilemma of Hypermodernity, part two

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, by Umberto Boccioni

The Dilemma of Hypermodernity,
part two

Mark Wegierski continues his analysis

Apart from the ever-present (and multifarious) possibilities for self-destruction, there seem to be only two real main possible paths before humanity. Modern Western liberal technological society is already slipping into a post-Western, hyper technological, hyper liberal, hyper capitalist, homogenized, and polymorphous social construct — and will doubtless be able to mould all the societies, peoples, and tribes of the world into that same pattern, sooner or later. This is coterminous with the dystopic scenarios of the futurists and litterateurs, in somewhat differing variants. It can be said to represent the triumph of technology over humanity, of the machine over human culture, of oligarchy over community, of soul-less capital over human decency. This alternative can simply be termed hypermodernity.

On the other hand, a variety of figures and thinkers, rebelling against and transcending the stultifying categories of present-day politics, have begun the search for a cluster of alternatives centred on the possible breaking of technology’s strangle-hold on humanity. This positive alternative could be termed as postmodernity, with the understanding that it represents something fundamentally different from hypermodernity. The so-called “postmodern” society would seek to combine that sense of spirit, community, and closeness to nature which existed in virtually all premodern societies, with a sensible measure of the material benefits and comforts gained through the technology of the modern world.

Intimations of such a society are today prefigured in the West itself by the so-called “New Physics”, whose transcending of the Western subject/object distinction suggests a re-union of humanity and nature; by the thought of Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung, who have called for a “re-enchantment” of human relations; by the New Age movement of “new spirituality”; by certain types of feminism which stress a return to the natural world; and, most importantly, by the emergence of ecological and environmental issues as a serious concern. The reassertion of the necessity of limits on our exploitation of physical nature — now accepted by almost everyone on the planet — is truly a moral breakthrough. But one also hopes that the further development of ecology will extend this sense of boundaries to the awareness of natural limitations on “social engineering” and frenzied consumption, which are all-too-pervasive characteristics of modern societies.

All these emerging tendencies seem to be working towards building a different kind of society than the one based on rationalism, technology, and purely materialist science which has been dominant in the West for about two hundred years.

The new society, by contrast, would be one where technology, and the excess of rationalism and materialism, would be kept strictly in check, within a paradigm of Nature which would unite Humanity, the World, and the Cosmos. The source of our strength would be a renewed emphasis on the deepest roots of our unconscious; our openness to human feeling; the evocation of our distinctive, historically-rooted ways of being, to reduce our boundless material craving for acquiring and having superfluous commodities; and the desire for closeness and re-union with Nature arising from the upsurge of our true eros.

It is possible that only this higher, positive synthesis could offer a real way out of the current dilemmas, which might well destroy the sense of humanity within us, and quite possibly the physical existence of the human species. As André Malraux has said, “the Twenty-First Century will be spiritual — or it will not be.”

It is only by maintaining some degree of reflection concerning technology and the way the world is going (even as we are all forced to participate in it, to a greater or lesser extent) that anything recognizably human can be salvaged from the wreck that seems increasingly inevitable, if current trends and directions continue unopposed.

The Resistance to Hypermodernity

The broad outline of the question of humanity versus technology has been posed. It had been suggested that there in essence lie two main alternatives before humanity, the dystopic “hypermodernity”, and a more positive “postmodernity”. The concept of “postmodernity” arises, like many worthwhile ideas, from the systematization of a quasi-intuitive, quasi-commonsense notion. The manifest problems of late modernity — the disenchantment of a once meaningful and “magical” cosmos; the attenuation of truly meaningful collective identifications; and the virtual elimination of a serious public-political realm — are accepted as valid criticisms across virtually the entire spectrum of serious political thought. (Generally-speaking, differences arise only in ascertaining the real importance and actual severity of these problems to the polity — which are of course minimized in individualist, liberal political discourse — as well as in the proposed solutions: liberal political theory, for example, would probably say that “taking rights seriously” — along with a tiny eye-dropper’s worth of collectivity in the vast ocean of society — is the optimal solution.) On the other hand, the problems of premodernity, whatever warm ecstasies of “belonging” and “meaning” it might have offered — are also manifest. These basically consist in the wretched material conditions of existence of the time, as well as in the often too-vehement denial of the material. The idea of “postmodernity” arises as a hope for a saner world in which “our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.” This is from a passage which was probably the original inspiration of this concept for the author, the conclusion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s startling commencement address to Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (published as A World Split Apart). To cite the conclusion in fuller form:

“If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.” (A World Split Apart, pp. 59 and 61.)

One common reaction to this peroration might be that, while it seems quite positive, where and how is it likely to be realized in today’s tangled and confused world? The author will attempt to identify some of the possible centres and idea-streams from whence this so-called “postmodern” resolution of history might arise, as well as to sketch out (partially as a consequence of the identification of these foci) the actual possible shape (if only in the roughest contours) of a saner, better world. Some attention will also be paid to the enormous obstacles standing in the way. The author, incidentally, finds it hard to share Solzhenitsyn’s somewhat optimistic and providential view of matters — the coming struggle for humanity will demand the utmost sacrifice and commitment from every person who is more-or-less conscious of the near-impending disaster before us.

Five powerful and incisive cultural structures support a view of history similar to that of Solzhenitsyn’s. First, there is the Hegelian system of thesis – antithesis – synthesis. Applying this schema to the contemporary world-historical situation, the thesis could be interpreted to be premodernity, the antithesis modernity, and (a possible) synthesis (“the negation of the negation”) is “postmodernity”. The thesis is really “re-established at a higher level”, having passed through historical experience and consciousness of what modernity entails. (History would not necessarily “end” then, but presumably develop in directions of which we can have no knowledge.) Secondly, there is the psychological development of the human being, where one typically sees the progress from a “magical” childhood, to a troubled adolescence of rebellion and questioning, to (in most cases) a settled, integrated adulthood. Thirdly, there is one of the central ideas of the visionary poet, William Blake, who suggested another type of psychology which passes from the child’s world of innocence, into the adult world of experience (“the school of hard knocks”), but with the re-emergence of what critics have called a “higher innocence” at the end.

Reinterpreting this idea for the contemporary context, it may be seen that some people, although they are older, have some remnant of a distinctly unjaded, “fresh” approach to life left in them, whereas many younger people seem to have all their idealism burnt out of them, by excessive sensual and sensory indulgence early in their lives. They can at best be good technicians and lawyers, being significantly diminished in their real sense of humanity. (This argument has been advanced by, among others, Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, and by Malcolm Muggeridge, in his mordant essay, “The Great Liberal Death Wish”.) It is more likely that it is through the informed and conscious idealism of those persons who remain somewhat unjaded that the world might possibly be taken in more positive directions, rather than by the jaded cynicism of those who only seek personal power and self-aggrandizement, and are often also thoroughly debauched. Fourthly, there is the philosophical insight about education, which is that one passes from ignorance, which may indeed be blissful, to education, where one rejects intuition, and is unsettled by constant self-questioning (“a little education is a dangerous thing”), but finally to the state of wisdom, where many of the intuitions once held are validated “at a higher level” (“a true and extensive education allows one to find again one’s place in the world”). Finally, one sees in the history of philosophy and philosophy of science a movement away from “myth and mystery”, in favour of mechanistic calculation with full predictability, but, with the emergence of speculative physics in the Twentieth Century, the possibility re-emerges of a non-dualistic view of the cosmos, of a “virtuous circle”, where “the observer affects the event”, thereby presumably establishing a kind of “post-rational” worldview, where “reason is put in its place”, and “myth and mystery” can exist again.

One of the most interesting images that relates to this threefold schema is Rousseau’s analogy of the three gardens. It appears in one of Rousseau’s novels, La Nouvelle Héloïse. The three gardens are one which is naturally wild, a second which is clipped in artificial geometric shapes, and a third, which although it appears as exceedingly wild and exuberant, is in fact carefully cultivated by human hands. They are seen in succession by the protagonist of the story. The analogy seems to mirror the development of humanity — from a spontaneously wild state of nature, to a state of enchained and regulated civilization, and then, possibly, to a situation where a sense of organic harmony is maintained through conscious human intervention. Without passing out of the naturally wild garden to the artificial garden, we would not have the ability to have the exuberant and humanly maintained third garden. (See Lester G. Crocker, “Order and Disorder in Rousseau’s Social Thought.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America vol. 94, no. 2 (March 1979), pp. 247-260.)

One of the greatest obstacles to truly meaningful social change today is the obstinate presence of the so-called “New Class”, or world-level corporate/media oligarchy, which is centred in North America (i.e., the United States of America and its Canadian appendage). Because of the continuing ineffectiveness of the challenge to its control of the mass-media and mass-education systems, the New Class is able to impose its highly selective worldview on virtually everyone in North America, and thereby on most of the planet.

Most people will follow what is presented to them as inherently just and decent (regardless of its possibly negative underlying results) out of idealistic motives — not because they are selfishly seeking careers or self-aggrandizement. (An example of real selflessness is afforded by the young Irishwoman, profiled some time ago in the media, who has dedicated herself to caring for destitute and disabled orphans in Vietnam, in the midst of savagely grinding poverty.) Unfortunately, it is then typically a selfish minority of erstwhile activists that enjoys the material spoils of the over-all effort and mobilization. A good example of this are aid programs of the type which send idealistically-minded young people into Third World countries, paying them a bare-minimum local salary (in Nigeria, there are instances of such students begging for food from Western technicians and engineers working there), while the executive of the organization enjoys high-level, senior-civil-service-type salaries and perquisites, and hobnobs in various embassies during their infrequent visits to the South.

Though in some senses, the putative Sixties Revolution has succeeded spectacularly, in others it has failed miserably. One of the defining ideas of the Sixties was the opposition to the big corporations. Yet today we have ended up in a world where the transnational corporations are bigger and stronger than ever before. There was also in the Sixties a desire for a return to nature, and for a more natural existence, yet the world has only become more mechanized, more commercialized, more paved over, and more technologized over that entire period.

Another important idea of the Sixties was a sort of robust individualism, yet looking at the “jean generation”, one could conclude that, in effect, a new uniform had been put on, and any “squares” who dissented were to be treated as badly as “the beats” had been in the Fifties. In the aftermath of the Sixties, the ultimately meaningless quasi-collectivities of various “consumer-tribes”, based on different status symbols and commodity-fetishes — and sharply excluding “outsiders”, quickly arose. The realization of the extreme nature of “collective” peer-pressure in the typical modern North American high school — which effectively rips one away from one’s family and roots — is acknowledged even by the most ardent liberals. The surprisingly sharply defined “new hierarchy” of “cool” vs. “square” (in a society claiming to be hyper-egalitarian) is probably the least socially germane — if not most socially destructive — social distinction in human history. After the reductive mill of MTV and immersion in electronic media from age five, after the droning lectures of liberal pedagogues, after the intense collective pressures of adolescence (which together probably constitute the most intensive program of indoctrination ever hitherto devised in human history) corporate liberalism disingenuously says that it offers those who reach adulthood “freedom of choice” concerning the values they will hold, and the lifestyle by which they will live. Some choice! Some freedom!

Nowhere were the burgeoning contradictions of the Sixties exemplified more than in the emerging rock-world. The fine points of selling or not selling out became a sort of game, as it is patently clear that rock-music was and is commercially driven from the beginning. By the time one has heard of a rising, struggling rock-artist on the radio, it is almost certain that they have done any number of questionable deals to get there. Yet somehow, the public had to be convinced of the rock-star’s unsullied “honesty”, which was more often than not attested to by the obscenity of his lyrics and personal behaviour. And then again, it had to be reassured that, although a real party animal, the rock-star was at bottom a nice person who cared about various “causes”.

One might well ask “what is the point?” of so much of allegedly “subversive” rock-music. One can observe such rock subgenres as “cyberpunk”, as well as other extremal movements (which amount to being entire styles-of-life), like thrash-metal and “gangsta rap”, that only seem to promote hyperviolence and hyperdecadence without any real challenge to the system.

The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni

The City Rises, by Umberto Boccioni

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents

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2 Responses to The Dilemma of Hypermodernity, part two

  1. K R Bolton says:

    Superb article. This is also the Faustian paradox referred to by Spengler: the greatness of Western Civilisation which nonetheless contains the seeds of its own destruction in terms stated at the start by Mr Wegierski.

  2. David Ashton says:

    There is a triadic schema from Hegel and a challenge-response schema from Toynbee. All the philosophers and theorists of rise and decline, ancient to modern, are worth review, although Spengler remains the most remarkable and supremely important. I have said before that he was too influenced by the classical models, notably the physical ruin of architecture, to see the furthest implications of his own brilliant clue to the unique and unprecedented Faustian character of the West – the scientific exploration which, albeit with its intrinsic fatality and “collateral damage”, can prolong the life of the civilization by organized action, including the control of human evolution. “The dice are there ready for this stupendous game.”

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