World Cultures General Glossary
Modernity / Crisis of Modernity

Enlightenment Glossary
Progress

General Glossary
Tradition
World View
   Modernity is simply the sense or the idea that the present is discontinuous with the past, that through a process of social and cultural change (either through improvement, that is, progress, or through decline) life in the present is fundamentally different from life in the past. This sense or idea as a world view contrasts with what I will call tradition, which is simply the sense that the present is continuous with the past, that the present in some way repeats the forms, behavior, and events of the past.


   The "crisis of modernity" is the sense that modernity is a problem , that traditional ways of life have been replaced with uncontrollable change and unmanageable alternatives. The crisis itself is merely the sense that the present is a transitional point not focussed on a clear goal in the future but simply changing through forces outside our control (this idea that the present is characterized by directionless change we call the "postmodern").

   How do we experience modernity in twentieth-century America?

First, we experience change as either progress or transition, that is, we view our historical situation and our lives teleologically , that is, as deriving meaning and value in some unrealized future.

We experience modernity as a proliferation of alternatives either in regard to lifestyle or historical possibilities; future directed behavior (as opposed to tradition) tends to accelerate the proliferation of alternatives. Traditional cultures see themselves as repeating a finite number of alternatives in the present; in modern cultures, the future opens up a vast field of historical and lifestyle choices. This proliferation of alternatives is a source of great anxiety and often results in cultural attempts to restrict alternatives in the face of this anxiety. Let's keep in mind that it is not the alternatives themselves which create this anxiety, it is the sense that the proliferation of alternatives has become unmanageable.

Modernity has created a world view in us that is primarily abstract, that is, we experience the world as composed of discrete, fragmented, and separable units. Abstraction is a difficult word to define; for our purposes, it is the idea that areas of existence and culture can be separated from, that is abstracted out of , other areas of existence and culture. In addition, we form social groups that are largely based on abstractions (corporations, nations, economic classes, religious preferences, race (which is really an abstract rather than a physical or biological category), sexual preferences, etc.) rather than real or biological relationships; as a result, membership in social groups tends to be unstable and transitory as one can easily move between social groups. This, again, creates a high sense of anxiety and tension; this anxiety results, on the one hand, in attempts within these abstract groups to define to define themselves as real , that is, "not abstract," and on the other hand, in attempts to limit the possible social groups, that is, to manage the alternatives. In distinction to modernity, traditional cultures tend to experience the world as whole and integrated; separate areas of existence and culture are seen as integrally related to other areas of existence and culture. In addition, social groups are based on real, biological kinship ties, so that social relations tend to be stable and permanent.

Finally, we see ourselves as having lost tradition, that is, that our behavior patterns, our rituals, etc., are all new and innovative, that we are not repeating the past. But in fact, the experience of modernity is, in fact, to live in traditional ways and to repeat tradition in unrecognizable forms. Modern cultures still perform traditional rituals, such as sports (which are originally religious rituals) or shaming rituals, yet the origin and original meaning of these rituals have passed out of the culture. Modern cultures still repeat ways of thinking in the past—in fact, the bulk of modern culture is based on traditional ways of thinking repeated relatively unchanged—yet modern cultures tend to view these ways of thinking as innovations. Although we base our social groups on abstract categories, the structure and content of these social groups repeat the structure and content of kinship groups, in other words, we base our abstract social groups on principles derived from real, biological relationships; we do not, however, experience these social groups as real, biological relationships. So, in sum, modernity—the sense that the present is discontinuous with the past, is an illusion—and this illusion creates modernity itself. What has changed is social memory ; we have disconnected most of our practices and ideas from our collective memory of their origins and meaning.

Richard Hooker



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1995, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97