Illustration by Jenny Dodge
What does it mean to live in the “modern” world? While many people have heard of modernity and can vaguely remember examples from a history class, most cannot clearly define what this term means and where it originated. This is not surprising, though, since the word has a complex and disputed history.
The term “modern,” with all of its present-day connotations, was first used to distinguish between the present era and the previous one, known as antiquity. The date is contested, but most scholars consider the beginning of the the modern era to be the European Enlightenment in the mid-18th century. Modernity is distinct from “Modernism” — an aesthetic and artistic movement of the 20th century defined by its relationship to industrialization and social change. Modernity itself refers to more than a specific period in time — it encompasses philosophical, political, and ethical ideas.
Modernity was an ideological shift away from post-classical history which, in Western civilization, is considered the “Middle Ages.” Approaching the modern era, Europe had a feudal system and Christian society. An individual’s sense of self was based in their faith in God. Individuality was not a popular notion, but rather conformity and tradition were valorized. The Enlightenment opposed many of these ideals.
Enlightenment ideals influenced modernity heavily, so it is important to understand this period of history in order to contextualize modernity. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that produced the very ideas of reason, knowledge, and “freedom,” supposedly illuminating society’s pathway to “progress.” In other words, this was the birth of the “liberal human subject.” Philosophers like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Montesquieu were prominent thinkers of this time. Prior to the Enlightenment, God and organized religion were the forces that structured all of human life. Humans were not autonomous individuals but subjects to the will of God. Even political structures were controlled by the Church.
Mary Klages lays out the basic principles of modernity in her book, Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, and many of these tenets are either plainly or vaguely tied to the Enlightenment. To begin, modernity believes that there is a knowable and stable self. This self is both conscious and autonomous. It is also rational and only knows itself through reason.
Reason is valued within modernity because modernity posits that it represents the highest form of mental functioning. This is because, supposedly, reason is the only objective form of thinking. If a modern individual rationally explains something, it should be objectively verifiable according to modern values. This empirical mode of knowing through reason is also known as “science.”
Modernity holds that science can provide universal truths about the world. This knowledge and truth that is gained through science supposedly leads to society’s “progress”, which is the ultimate goal of both the Enlightenment and modernity. As a result of the premium placed on rational knowledge, all human and societal institutions can be analyzed by science and allegedly improved.
Linear progression was one of the most important beliefs of modernity since philosophers posited that humans are on a path of progress that will lead them to a better future. In this way, the goal of human existence was to study, know, and “conquer” the world. Knowledge was equivalent to power. In turn, the most “knowledgeable” in society were able to create oppressive modes of controlling populations without physical force because their knowledge gave them inherent value to modern society. For example, markers of a “good life” were created and used as a means to control certain populations. Appropriate time frames for marriage, childbirth, and retirement were outlined and still influence the Western world today. Therefore, modern knowledge production has shaped the very way non-Europeans live even now.
This unwavering commitment to progression also led to physical violence and contributed to the power dynamic of colonialism. If progress was the goal, then conquering less progressive civilizations was the method. British colonialism, specifically, is a byproduct of modernity since the British sought to conquer India for economic and national gain. In this way, capitalism is also a product of the Enlightenment — industrialization and a drive for profit are rooted in Enlightenment logic that privilege development and improvement over anything else. The image of constantly moving forward combined with a value of human autonomy led to the logic of individual and national advancement through any means. This “advancement” often came in the form of the marginalization and killing of populations designated as Other. As Gayatri Spivak suggests, these “othered” communities do not have access to individual improvement and knowledge production within the modern framework of colonialism. Hence, neoliberalism — an ideology which values individual political, economic, and social capital gain — is the birth child of the Enlightenment.
Furthermore, modernity claims that reason is the preeminent judge of what is true, and therefore, what is “good.” Modernists believe that truth and goodness are synonymous; there is no conflict between these terms. Since reason guides truth and goodness, it also guides the legal and ethical principles of modernity. For example, laws created by reason should uphold freedom and accordingly be followed. “Common sense” and “human nature” — two accepted principles within the legal system — are constructed but are taken as “real” because of the authority given to reason itself and the social structures and psychological shifts reason produced.
Since modernity posits that science is both “objective” and “neutral” because it is “rational,” science is the paradigm used for all knowledge that is considered socially useful. Like reason, it is highly valued in modern society. Scientists construct knowledge by using reason, wielding substantial power that influences all Euro-American discourse and philosophy. Therefore, scientists themselves must be free to produce this knowledge, and not motivated by other concerns. Since scientists are then seen as incapable of having bias or being self-serving, they are free and valued in society, able to produced different “objective” modes of measurement in order to achieve this knowledge. The telescope and microscope are both examples of inventions made in order for modern scientists to produce “truth” and knowledge. 18th century writers like John Gay and Matthew Prior articulate this shift of consciousness in knowledge — their poetry and prose describes the diversity of urban life and excitement of the new age, echoing the values of modernity.
The last tenet of modernity is that it believes language must be rational and transparent. Language produces and disseminates all knowledge that is created through reason and science, so it is important that words convey clear meanings. According to this ideology, there must be a firm connection between a perceived object or idea and the words used to name that object.
These tenets of modernity help to explain modern structures and institutions themselves. These structures include the laws, science, ethics, and aesthetics of modernity. Take the concept of “democracy,” for example. The concept of democracy existed prior to the Enlightenment, namely in Greek and classical philosophy which heavily influenced many Enlightenment values. Western civilization, though, did not begin to valorize and prescribe societal meaning to it until the Enlightenment.
The shift to a greater societal meaning of democracy was a result of the Enlightenment because it is aggressively individualistic, upholding the belief in human progress. Political philosophers like John Stuart Mill argued that democracy leads to comparably good laws and a better quality of life for citizens as opposed to monarchy. His arguments were considered both rational and logical — values that stem from modernity. In fact, his logic of comparison and intrinsic value follows a pseudo-scientific approach that many philosophers adopted during this time. Political knowledge prior to the modern era stemmed primarily from birthright logic. With the birth of utilitarian calculus — undoubtedly a result of the Enlightenment — philosophers began to question basic assumptions and calculate which governmental systems were rational and logically better for citizens.
Utilitarian calculus and “science” also led to a belief in empiricism which maintains that all knowledge comes from sensory experience. Utilitarianism — the belief to do the most amount of “good” for the most amount of people — uses empiricism to calculate the best action to take in any scenario. This type of calculus also created a shift towards quantification in order to keep track of trade which increased drastically as colonial empires expanded. Therefore, there is a direct link between “knowledge” produced by science and the economic, social, and political control of people and places subject to colonial rule.
Ultimately, modernity is all about making order out of what was perceived to be chaos. The value of reason and rationality produces order because it is “objective” and “neutral.” Using “common sense,” connections, relationships, and systems can be created by using modern reasoning. This order supposedly leads to a better functioning society for the same reasons. For example, “civilizing” colonial subjects, rationalizing racism and sexism through pseudoscience, and physically controlling the archives of history stem from the modern belief in order.
Juxtaposing order with disorder led to the creation of binary oppositions because they are rational and easy to understand. The imposition of binaries makes the progression of society “smoother” because there are clear guidelines as to what is rational, true, and good versus irrational, false, and bad. Of course, this process of smoothing comes at the price of atrocities like colonialism that spurred “progress.”
These strict binary oppositions are why feminists are interested in modernity. Binaries lead to the privileging of certain groups and ideas in society like white, heterosexual males, while women, queer people, people of color, and poor people are consequently devalued. Modernity led to the creation the binaries of good/bad, West/Other, heterosexual/queer, abled/disabled, white/black, man/woman.
The focus of rationality in modernity led to the construct of men as rational and women as irrational with the binary of man/woman. Men are associated with the mind and woman are associated with the body because of this construction. Similarly, femininity was thought to oppose science and logic. Even a quick consideration of these binaries explains why feminists criticize them, since there is clearly a premium placed on one specific group.
Modernity was a distinctly masculine movement which painted femininity as dark, unknowable, and irrational. This period reinforced the patriarchy since it justified the privatization of land through a patrilineal system of passing down land to the male heirs. In turn, society had to control women’s reproductive functions to maintain and trace male inheritance. Moreover, this system of inheritance led to the accumulation of capital, making it possible for mercantilism — a precursor to capitalism — to thrive.
There are lasting remnants of modern ideology everywhere. For example, the judicial system follows modern logic. If a person violates a “rational”law, they are “bad.” Therefore, this person must go to jail. Laws that target certain populations and continue the reign of the prison industrial complex are justified because the foundation of law is “truth” and “reason.” Since these “rational” laws fall into the binary of good/bad, certain bodies are targeted more than others and life in prison or even the death penalty can be justified. This arbitrary punishment process is a result of the rational and binaristic thought processes of modernity.
Additionally, the “value of an education” and consequent de-valuing of uneducated individuals is a result of the modern belief that knowledge and progress is the ultimate goal. Academies, primarily composed of white people, literally disseminate and produce the Euro-American understanding of history. Furthermore, the standardization of education is determined by certain “markers” like reading comprehension and math capability which are justified by modern notions of what knowledge is. Unsurprisingly, the “highest achievers” within this education system are middle class, predominantly white public and private schools who receive an unequal distribution of wealth and resources to promote their education.
Modernity means more than science fiction come to life: sleek cars, high speed internet, space travel. Rather, modernity is defined by the ideas and attitudes adopted from the Enlightenment like rationality, knowledge, and freedom. To live in the modern world is to live within the structures and institutions created by modernity itself. What began as a belief in individualism and reason led to the creation of a far-reaching and global system of neoliberalism, and there is no telling where we will next “progress.”