Don't confuse "modernity" or "modernization"
early to mid-20th century literary-artistic-cultural period known as Modernism; e.g. Picasso, James Joyce, Stravinsky. (Our
current period is either "late Modernism" or "postmodern.")
"Modernity" or "the modern era" is
not just now or a single period but a way of life involving continual change of
human conditions and even humanity itself.
What is called
"modern" is not just now or the recent past. Your
parents or grandparents may not seem modern in the same ways you are, but
were modern to their parents and grandparents.
Modernity definition (Oxford English Dictionary) 1b: An
intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or
repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of
contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific
rationalism and liberalism). ["liberalism" here
doesn't mean leftist politics as much as free trade and free exchange of
An identifying feature of modernity is constant
change or breaks in continuity from one generation to the next.
traditional cultures—which survive in rural America and the developing world—continue doing what their parents and
Positively on both sides, tradition means
belonging, while modernity is liberation.
For careers, for example, most modern people don't think of
doing what their parents did—their parents' jobs don't exist, have evolved to new
descriptions, or are unsatisfactory to rising expectations. In a
traditional culture, you would expect to grow up to do what your
parents did (though most cultures made some allowances for individual talents).
At least in theory, traditional culture still holds in families,
where position status, gender identities, and relationship-styles perpetuate themselves across generations.
(Also families tend to function without writing, compared to modernity, which
emerges with literacy and written constitutions.)
No need to take sides. Modernity and tradition
are always in dialogue. Nearly everyone lives in some mix of modern and
In history, the beginning of "modernity"
is often associated particularly with the Enlightenment
(late 1600s-1700s), especially the Scientific Revolution and skepticism toward
tradition. The Renaissance is often characterized as "early modernity" or "the early modern era," but modernity or modern thought may be traced back to the ancient Greeks
(5th-3rd centuries BCE).
is associated with modernity: to modernize ("to adapt to
modern needs or habits" OED) is to make more efficient, more practical,
productive, or egalitarian.
Characteristics of modernity:
mobility / migration—whether geographic or socioeconomic—is
also a feature of modernity; in a traditional culture, people know their place
(geographical or social) and everyone else's place too. A modern society is a
city or club or classroom of strangers who come and go with no past attachments.
human equality (in opportunity or possibility if not in fact)
secularization (never absolute or
science over superstition (or traditional beliefs)
urbanization (farms > city);
city as mass of strange individuals without kinship in contrast with traditional
cultures of 50-200 inter-related people. (See
rise of middle class
freemarket capitalism (with technology) as foremost driver of
The Communist Manifesto
(1848): "The bourgeoisie
cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of
production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole
relations of society. Conservation of
the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the
first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant
revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty
and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All
fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable
prejudices and opinions, are swept away,
all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.
All that is solid melts into air, all that is
holy is profaned, and man is at last
compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his
relations with his kind. The
need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the
bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere,
settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. "
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and
Democracy (1942): "creative destruction":
innovations by entrepreneurs guarantee economic growth even while destroying
value of previous investments in capital and skills. For instance, Midwest
railroads in 19c USA stimulated mass production but destabilized earlier
agricultural methods and lifeways. Today venture capitalists make companies
more efficient by downsizing and destabilizing any established relations
between employers and employees.
recent examples: decline of newspapers, post
offices, formerly pillars of local communities, as a result of technological
changes like smartphones, email, online shopping.
nationalism (i. e., identification of a person as "an American"
or "a Nigerian" rather
than a member of a tribe, family, religion, or state)
globalization (interconnectedness of local and global
markets and communications,
with pockets of local resistance or isolation)
authority of tradition is replaced by authority of
observable human behavior, and personal choice
may be understood in contrast to tradition
4b: The action of transmitting or ‘handing down’, or fact of being handed down,
from one to another, or from generation to generation; transmission of
statements, beliefs, rules, customs, or the like, esp. by word of mouth or by
practice without writing.
5b. A long established and generally accepted custom or method
of procedure, having almost the force of a law; an immemorial usage; the body
(or any one) of the experiences and usages of any branch or school of art or
literature, handed down by predecessors and generally followed.
Modernity in dialogue with
"modern change" vs. "traditional values":
ongoing revolution in
values and material life that began in Ancient Greece and was reborn in
Renaissance Europe and the Enlightenment.
Elders have power or prestige in traditional cultures;
power or prestige in modern cultures.
family pattern of traditional
cultures is the extended family (e.g., "It
takes a village"); modern cultures
develop the nuclear family, smaller
(sub-atomic?) structures, and individualism.
Pace of change constantly accelerates, with occasional pauses (e. g., the 1950s)
lifespans lengthen, population increases
in modernity; traditional cultures maintain by subsistence, with births and
deaths canceling each other statistically.
in most material terms, modern life offers a better
standard of living than the past (except for leisure, which disappears or is
concentrated and calculated in modern and postmodern existence).
reactions against modernization may include fundamentalism, "family values,"
nostalgia for earlier times.
- Standard contrast with "modern" is
"traditional"—modernity threatens tradition; it disrupts and unsettles older
ways of life
- Modernity and change are confusing, disorienting—desire
for simplicity of past (which wasn't really simple, just familiar)
- Reaction often leads to popularity of
occult or supernatural + conspiracy during
rapid change: people want to understand what's happening in familiar, personal terms
of dramatic right and wrong rather than complex forces of history
in most material terms, modern life offers a better
standard of living than the past did (except for leisure)
For most of human natural history, people lived short
lives in interdependent communities of 50-100 people; in recent generations,
people live increasingly as independent individuals in large cities of
(category of comparison, below)
|model for present behavior (Bakhtin)
past ("Our fathers did so . . .
future ("need to get ahead of
oral / spoken
literate / written
|time / space orientation
polytheistic: local / tribal / animist
monotheistic "World Religions"
(Judeo-Christianity, Islam, Buddhism)
farm / village
"Modernization" is relevant to studies of the American
Renaissance and American Romanticism because
The American Renaissance is the period when Americans first began moving to
cities in large numbers and experiencing the other changes listed above on a
Some literature of the period shows changes of intellect,
lifestyle, and nature that resulted and how people adjusted. (Literature as
Much "Romantic" literature (such as "The Legend of Sleepy
Hollow" and The Last of the Mohicans or
The Scarlet Letter) is set in an earlier or more
rural time and place.
Anxiety in the Land of the Anti-Immigration Crusader
By Kirk Johnson
New York Times, 24 June
IT’S hardly news that illegal
immigrants lead fitfully uncertain, insecure lives. The storm winds of
enforcement and international border politics can blow unpredictably and
fiercely at any time.
But very similar tones of
anxiety about the universe and its curveballs can be easily found in
this upper-middle-class suburb southeast of Denver — in the home
district of Representative
Tom Tancredo, the
man waging a one-note anti-immigration campaign for the Republican
Mr. Tancredo’s district is the richest, best educated
and most family friendly in Colorado (the latter based on numbers of
children counted by the census). Housing prices are high and there are
few immigrant-based industries like manufacturing, meat-packing or
agriculture. Nearly 9 of every 10 residents are white, while less than 1
in 10 are Hispanic. In several dozen interviews across the district,
most people said they didn’t even know an illegal immigrant.
So why would illegal immigration be a cause célèbre in
a place like this, the whitest Congressional district in Colorado?
Residents and local political leaders say the answer
comes down, at least partly, to words like “order” and “stability.”
Those concerns may mask a certain amount of bigotry or bias. But the
residents say they are motivated by concerns about borders they consider
broken, leaving America open and vulnerable, especially in the post-9/11
world. Government, which many people here talk about with far more scorn
and rage than they do about immigrants, has become a puppet to economic
forces that demand cheap and mobile labor, they say.
In short, local residents and immigration experts say,
beneath the anger about immigration is great anxiety about a global
economy that has made people feel less in control of their lives, their
country and the culture they grew up with — wherever they work, and
however nice their house is.
“Globalization causes Mexicans
to come because the jobs in their country are going to China,” said
Chris H. Lewis, a senior lecturer at the
University of Colorado
who teaches Western immigration history and globalization. “And
globalization makes the middle class in this country feel we don’t have
a voice, that our future is being created somewhere else.”
Both illegal immigrants and many here in Mr.
Tancredo’s district endure transience and isolation, albeit in different
ways — from corporate relocation and outsourcing on the one hand, to
old-fashioned immigrant job insecurity on the other. And both sides see
the hard truth of the global job market: jobs flow downhill toward lower
“I’ve got all kinds of people in my district —
engineers, computer-science people especially — whose jobs have been
eliminated by H1B,” Mr. Tancredo said in a telephone interview,
referring to the federal visa program aimed at attracting foreign
technical workers. “They believe, and I believe, it’s because the
company found a source of cheaper labor.”
Yet jobs created Parker, which had only a few hundred
people as recently as 1980, and now has 45,000. The nearby Highlands
Ranch area grew from literal ranch land in that same period to more than
130,000 people today. While some people surely came for the climate or
to take advantage of Colorado’s outdoor lifestyle — far more came for a
job, especially in the high-tech industries in Denver, to which many
people commute. Illegal immigrants have followed, as well, typically
commuting to work here from enclaves in Denver where rents are
Stanley A. Renshon, a
psychoanalyst and a professor of political science at the
City University of New York,
said Americans have developed what he calls a “de facto identity” that
allows for diversity and individualism as long as a few core beliefs and
values are shared, like personal responsibility and respect for the
country. If people don’t assimilate into the broader culture, he said,
then the idea that communities can coalesce is challenged — especially
in new places like Mr. Tancredo’s district where cohesion is still weak.
“I’ve done a lot of review of the public-opinion
polls, and Americans are foursquare against illegal immigration and
foursquare for immigrants becoming Americans,” he said. “When people
talk about becoming an American, that to me is the hidden core of the
Some Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — cling to
their old culture and language because they say that American life,
whether in the new suburbs or the cities, is fragmented and rootless,
lacking the richness of their traditions and culture. Equally protective
of their culture, many in Mr. Tancredo’s district say illegal immigrants
who don’t assimilate and learn English are in fact a major contributing
cause of the cultural fragmentation.
“Portugal is Portugal because of the Portuguese
language; Spain is Spanish; France is — God knows — France is French;
Germany is Germany, all because of language,” said Dick Hanson, 71, a
retired Navy man who came to Parker in the 1980s. “That, to me, is the
thing that holds, that builds a country.”
Mr. Tancredo makes much the same point. “The impact of
immigration — legal and illegal — on jobs, schools, health care, the
environment, national security, are all very serious problems,” he said.
“But more serious than all of them put together is this threat to the
culture. I believe we are in a clash of civilizations.”
Bill Lieb, a 52-year-old business-owner and Republican
from Highlands Ranch, said he generally supported Mr. Tancredo. He said
nonetheless that the American economy had become dependent on
immigrants, both legal and illegal, and that the challenge was to come
up with a policy to provide for those labor needs and fix what he said
was “unregulated, uncontrolled chaos” at the borders.
He said his business trips to Mexico and China have
made him more sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants. The
Mexican government supports only the rich, he said.
“If I lived there, I’d want to get the hell out, too,”