Tag Archives: Modernity

What is Modernity? (HUM303/HUM415/HUM425/HUM470)

You don’t have to read these pdfs, but if you want to acquire a better understanding of a very vexed concept you could do worse than consult them:

The shorter article (4 pages) is from the International Encyclopedia of the Social SciencesModernityIESS

The second article is from the Encyclopedia of Social TheorymodernityEST

Both of these encyclopedias are available in electronic format through the library.

Commie Notes


Wednesday I lectured in a somewhat coherent fashion on the relevance of the Communist Manifesto for the study of US history and culture. Let me recapitulate the most salient aspects of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ pamphlet (which, as I said in class, is globally the most significant political tract ever published).

The CM opens as a ghost story: the “specter of communism” has appeared, frightening the owners of capital, those Marx calls the bourgeoisie, a French term for capitalists. Why would capitalists be frightened of communists? According to Marx, because the latter are dedicated to the absolute overthrow of capitalism– in a word, revolution.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At one time the bourgeoisie itself was a revolutionary class, destroying the old order of feudalism and building a new system based on private property and investment.

The first section of the CM is primarily concerned with history, and to that end Marx gives us a model of historical change, a theory of history that would eventually come to be known as “the materialist conception of history.” In another text Marx had claimed that

“We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process.”

At issue here is a philosophical principle, one which holds that in order to understand the world– and, indeed, to change it– we must begin not with our ideas about things but those things themselves. The study and criticism of history, then, is above all concerned with material forces: how people subsist and reproduce themselves through their labor, the movement of populations, the rise of new technologies, etc. Who we think we are and what we think we are doing are outgrowths of our  basic material condition, a product of the way that society is organized. Marx encapsulates this idea with the assertion that

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

What follows is a brief and pungent history of the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, “the modern bourgeois society [which] has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society,” a transformation that, far from dispelling the antagonism between classes, has, in fact, simply deepened those contradictions. As the bourgeoisie grows in size and power, so does another class, the proletariat, which Marx describes as those “who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” Proletarians “must sell themselves piecemeal, [they] are a commodity… and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The bourgeoisie own, and by owning increase their wealth. The proletariat own nothing but their capacity to labor, which they are compelled to sell as a commodity in order to survive.

Note that for Marx one of the watershed events in the rise of capitalism is the “discovery of America” and the ensuing extraction of massive amounts of wealth from the western hemisphere which was then funneled directly into Europe. We talked about this development in passing on Wednesday, and it bears repeating: the production of raw commodities such as tobacco, sugar, tin, silver, cotton, etc. with slave labor essentially built the great cathedrals and cities of Europe. The opening of what was at that time called “the antipodes” for intensive agriculture and mineral exploitation provided an incredible boost for early capitalism, ultimately creating fortunes which would be invested in new technologies and fueling the industrial revolution.  Let’s be clear: America was indispensable to the development of global capitalism.

New forms of labor arose and new ways of organizing that labor, from the closed shops of “guild-masters” to the advent of manufacturing centers. The character of work changed: the division of labor separated different activities in the productive process. Work became more specialized. If at one time a craftsman might, for instance, build an entire chair himself, in the new system one worker might lathe the chair’s legs while another wove its seat and yet another assembled the finished parts.

As these changes in labor transpired, a world market was rapidly emerging, an example of which might be the triangular trade. New transportation and communication technologies emerged, such as steam power and, in the 19th century, telegraphy.

Yet this new economic system was rife with contradictions and depended on ceaseless transformation:

“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.”

A key characteristic of capitalism, then, is an unending ferment, what Joseph Schumpeter identified as a dynamic of “creative destruction.” That principle of constant change is related to another core trait of capitalism: the absolute necessity for growth. As local resources are depleted new sources of raw materials must be obtained. As local markets are saturated, new markets must be created or conquered in order to absorb surplus. The expansion of trade begets new desires:

“In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction….”

Now this last passage might sound something like globalization, and indeed it is. Globalization is a process that has been operative since at least the opening of the Silk Route, one that was massively amplified by the industrial revolution and later phases of capitalism.

The development of capitalism over the last 400 or so years, Marx continues, has led to unprecedented demographic changes, to urbanization, to a world-system of economic power in which those nations which are most developed dominate those which are less developed. Capitalism has changed the political character of countries as well, leading the State to centralize its powers and to codify laws, in effect creating governments which reflect the values and ideals of the bourgeoisie.

Yet the capitalist mode of production– in perpetual agitation, constantly expanding, establishing creative powers that dwarf the abilities of all prior civilizations– is prone to crisis. Recessions and depressions follow periods of unprecedented economic growth. Fortunes are made and lost. Whole sectors of the economy become redundant. Industries are plagued by over-production. In order to escape these crises the bourgeoisie must remake the economy, locate new markets, intensify the exploitation of old ones, adjust wages, develop new technologies.

In the coming weeks we’ll be studying a period of history known to scholars as the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (also identified with the unfortunate acronym GAPE). The industrializing landscape of burgeoning American cities were the scorched earth of maturing, late-nineteenth century capitalism. The awesome productive powers of that rapidly consolidating economic system were accompanied by some of the worst depredations of which capitalism is capable. It was in these years that ideas about the relationship of the State to its People were formed. Should Americans be left to struggle individually or did the government have some obligation to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable? Was capitalism synonymous with the national identity or character? Was democracy at the risk of subversion because of economic inequalities? The ways that ordinary people approached such questions will, I think, give us a fuller understanding of the past and  insight into our own historical moment.

Modernity (contcult)


Re-reading Ghosh’s novel thrusts me into a cognitive circuit running all the way back to the first week of class when, if you recall, we discussed the defining characteristics of the contemporary period. Do you remember what they were? 

If modernity is a particular experience of space and time–  Marx called it the annihilation of space by time– then our own moment can be construed as an amplification of that historical relationship between subject (the individual) and object (the world, though we need a mediating term– let’s call it society or culture– to bridge the gap between these concepts). 

All of the texts we have read this semester– to varying degrees to be sure– approach the problem of what it means to be modern, to be a contemporary of this world right here and now. In Waiting for the Barbarians Coetzee’s Magistrate suggests that the Empire itself is responsible for big-H History, that the entry into that history is an irreversible fact, a fall, an existential life-sentence to post-lapsarian conflict. By positing a telos, a narrative of progress and its own burgeoning power, Empire forecasts its demise. 

Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions prompts the question of whether modernity, particularly in its colonialist incarnations (and maybe this is the wrong way to phrase it– if there’s one thing we take from this course it ought to be that modernity and colonialism are inseparable and may in fact be as the saying goes “mutually constitutive”) re-wires the human psyche, in this case the “Native” who is caught up in titanic historical forces. Think of a big wave, the kind that knocks you over and tumbles you toward shore. What you do as the wave buffets you is called agency. Strike for the surface? Dive down to escape its force? Go limp and let it carry you? There are a range of choices within a determinate situation. We see that with Nyasha, Tambu, Jeremiah, et al. 

And there are other questions for Dangaremga as well, which we can discuss in class: if the Native knows s/he’s a native is s/he really a native? Is his/her impossible situation it really a matter of being caught between Tradition and Modernity?

As the most reactionary of all the texts we’ve read Frank Miller’s 300 stands apart from the effort to criticize history and instead succumbs to the narcosis of myth. Even Coetzee, as delightfully allegorical as his novel seems to be, resists the temptation to counterfeit the truth mythographically. If communism politicizes art, Fascism seeks to aestheticize the political, Walter Benjamin famously wrote. What would he make of 300?

Soundtracking (calicult)

Critical Methods: Soundtracking

To our critical toolkit we can add another method, soundtracking. Let’s think of the latter part of that term, tracking, not only as background music or the noises generated by human activity, the natural world and the movement of machinery but as the activity of tracking, as in the way a hunter might track her quarry. For the period of the 1930s, then, soundtracking becomes the critical method of following the development of social sounds: from Delta Blues and lefty folk to the pop of tear gas canisters fired at strikers, the thrum of turbines generating electricity, the scratch of chaff blown across the dustbowl wasteland or the tintinnabulations of the city. The trail of California—and more generally, American—culture provides us with clues about how we arrived at the future that is our present.

A secondary valence of ‘tracking’ might relate to the idea of a track as the determined trajectory of cultural practices and social changes. Think of railcars clacking along: they move through time and across space, but barring derailment there’s very little leeway. This sense of the word brings us to a confrontation with historical necessity. In a way, history isn’t what happened; it’s what had to have happened in order for us to be here to talk about it.

This weekend, research some of the sounds of the Depression on the internet. Youtube might be useful, particularly in terms of popular music of the period. In class I mentioned Woody Guthrie, Son House and Robert Johnson but there is a cacophony of notes, noises and voices to consider: Swing, Dixieland, James Cagney’s gangster snarl, the syncopated beat of apples raining into a wooden bin.

In Dubious Battle (calicult)


Notes on Realism

As we discuss In Dubious Battle we’ll necessarily come up against the notion (the aesthetic ideology) of Realism. The diegesis of Steinbeck’s novel is one that we can immediately recognize as ‘real’ in terms of its characters and locales. IDB represents the world in a way that seems to be transparent and intelligible, an “obvious” “reflection” of reality as we know it. This response on our part, of course, is the product of lifelong conditioning which encourages us to confuse causes and their effects. What do these markings on paper have to do with the world we think we know? To what extent is our sense of the novel’s “truth”, its veracity, a product of prior knowledge of the Great Depression? 

Those are deeper questions that bear some scrutiny and we will have to confront them in some form as we attempt to master the novel’s content. In other words, our conversations about this work will address both the “what-said” and the “how-said”– those two dimensions of signification that are impossible to separate. 

Realism presents itself as an uncomplicated and straightforward method of description, a series of pictures of a familiar world– not unlike photographs. As such it effaces its own textuality, the linguistic materials that go into Steinbeck’s production of an orchard workers’ strike in California. Perhaps it’s easiest to grasp this double gesture of revelation and concealment if we think about documentary film as a model. The documentary film seems to show us the world without mediation, as directly accessible to our experience. Yet the apparatus of film-making, in terms of both physical tools and discursive methods, intercedes between the text and the audience. The camera, sound equipment, editing, framing, etc.– all of the artistry and artifice of making a movie go into the representation of a subject that to the unsophisticated viewer seems merely, naturally given.

Realism of the sort practiced by Steinbeck in In Dubious Battle might also go by the name of Naturalism. The difference between these two genres is somewhat narrow: Naturalism tends to treat life in its grittier aspects; its characters are generally working class or underclass; human existence is often portrayed as overdetermined by social and natural forces which are ultimately beyond any control. So, for instance, another great novel of California, McTeague, written by Frank Norris at the turn into the 20th century, takes as its subject the bestial Mac, an uncredentialed, sadistic dentist whose inner tendencies toward cruelty and brutishness are inexorably fulfilled. Norris’s novel suggests the fundamental inalterabilty of human nature, a situation in which destiny is enmeshed in biology, one where the social environment degrades those consigned to it and every existential trajectory is charted in advance. 

Not so in In Dubious Battle. Though the novel displays some traits of Naturalism its title connotes the possibility at least of struggle against fate. By now, of course, we all know where that title comes from: Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of how the Devil rebelled against God and was 

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire

Satan, as a literary character, has long been portrayed as a symbol of insurgency, and Paradise Lost was in a sense as much about the right of English subjects to depose the King during the Revolution of 1644 as it was an effort to write a Christian myth in the Greek epic manner. Here, then, is a contradiction: the revolt against the master is viewed with sympathy, but the facts of that uprising– its execution, its inversion of a divine order– risked terrifying consequences.

Here is Satan’s first soliliquy in Paradise Lost, from which the title of Steinbeck’s book is taken:

“If thou beest he—but Oh how fallen! how changed

From him!—who, in the happy realms of light,

Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright—if he whom mutual league,

United thoughts and counsels, equal hope

And hazard in the glorious enterprise,

Joined with me once, now misery hath joined

In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest

From what highth fallen: so much the stronger proved

He with his thunder: and till then who knew

The force of those dire arms? Yet not for those,

Nor what the potent Victor in his rage

Can else inflict, do I repent, or change,

Though changed in outward lustre, that fixed mind,

And high disdain from sense of injured merit,

That with the Mightiest raised me to contend,

And to the fierce contention brought along

Innumerable force of Spirits armed,

That durst dislike his reign, and, me preferring,

His utmost power with adverse power opposed

In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven,

And shook his throne. What though the field be lost?

All is not lost—the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome.

That glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power

Who, from the terror of this arm, so late

Doubted his empire—that were low indeed;

That were an ignominy and shame beneath

This downfall; since, by fate, the strength of Gods,

And this empyreal substance, cannot fail;

Since, through experience of this great event,

In arms not worse, in foresight much advanced,

We may with more successful hope resolve

To wage by force or guile eternal war,

Irreconcilable to our grand Foe,

Who now triumphs’, and in the excess of joy

Sole reigning holds the tyranny of Heaven.”

Depression (calicult)


I read an essay once that called Steinbeck an ‘apple pie radical’. Cute. But maybe he seems insuficiently proletarian because John’s working a populist-agrarian trope: dispossession from the land resonates at a heavy symbolic level– the first humans cast out, the Hebrew tribes in exodus from pharaoh, etc.


It also occurs to me that maybe we could use a working list of names to describe the period in which In Dubious Battle transpires:

the Great Depression [like the Great War? What does it mean to call a historical conjucture Great?]

the “age of the CIO” [from Michael Denning’s Cultural Front, foregrounding the lived experiences and relationships of workers, their alliances and allegiances]


“Fordist modernism” [another Denning-ism. as a heuristic, as a problematic, as a way of thinking about history and culture, it encourages us to link cultural production and consumption and the meanings that erupt from the practices these terms imply. The dialectic this linkage produces allows us to consider the signifying practices of everyday life together with what is more obviously ‘cultural’: literature, music, film, etc. ]


the interwar period [periodizing by wars reproduces the logic of mainstream historiography?]

hard times [which is appealingly colloquial, gritty and direct, yet carries with it the risks of romanticism]

the Jazz Age [do we automatically associate this term with F. Scott Fitzgerald, bootleg hootch, and The Cotton Club? What are the benefits/limits of emphasizing a leading form of a period’s cultural production? For me, this term resonates with a kind of midcentury urban negritude, the adaptation of largely rural “Negro” folkways to a highly stratified urban environment. Richard Wright is an obvious candidate here, but also, essentially, Claude McKay, whose West Indian origins, communist fellow-travelling and Harlem Renaissance ties make him a seminal figure of 20th century US fiction (see Home to Harlem, Banjo, Banana Bottom). We could mention Zora Neale Hurston too, especially her ethnographies of the South, Haiti, and Jamaica and the links they reveal between modernism/primitivism. Or Bessie Smith, Aime Cesaire, Oscar Micheaux, Prez, et al.]


Finally, here are some notes for a lecture on the Depression I once gave at Scotts Valley High. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it might be helpful in locating IDB in its cultural/historical context.


The American Dream and the Great Depression

Seeds of the Dream

The American Dream is as old as America, which is to say the United States, which, in the scheme of things, hasn’t been around that long. We might push back in time to the period prior to the United States when North America was a system of colonies under the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish to find the seed of this dream, its undeveloped beginnings. Going back to the opening of the western hemisphere to European colonialism means the 15th century– still not very long ago in terms of the span of human culture (which, some say, is about 100,000 years old). This period– the late 15th and early 16th centuries– is potentially important for our purposes because it witnessed two crucial events: the birth of a new economic system– capitalism— and, with it, the beginnings of modernity. That’s too big a task for today. Nor is there time to discuss a significant change within capitalism that is connected to the American Dream that occured roughly 200 years after the western hemisphere was colonized and has been called “the rise of the bourgeoisie.” We must set aside those questions for now, because our focus is fairly specific: the American Dream and its relationship to the Great Depression.

Continue reading