[-empyre-] forward from Christiane Paul: Is Modernity our Antiquity? - introductory comments

From: <Christiane_Paul@whitney.org>
Date: March 1, 2006 3:21:37 PM PST
To: <empyre@gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Subject: Is Modernity our Antiquity? - introductory comments

I must admit that Roger Beurgel's statement on the Documenta topic for March -- "Is Modernity our Antiquity?" (for reference, I posted it again at the end of this message) -- came as a bit of a surprise to me. That we might still be operating under the specter of modernity to the extent suggested by his statement hadn't really occurred to me. Granted, any society is shaped by its history of philosophy, art, science etc. -- which, together, shape culture (another contested term I guess) -- and no "movement" or school of thought is ever entirely surpassed but survives in responses to and modification of itself. Nevertheless, I had been (mostly) operating on the assumption that contemporary culture is struggling to define its current climate of "whatever came after postmodernity." Then again, this is what makes the "modernity as our antiquity" question interesting.

I don't think one can use the term "modernity" without being very specific about the context in which it is framed. "Modernity" and "Modern" describes a broad range of periods, starting between 1870 - 1910 and reaching into the 60s, depending on context. (My original background is in literature where the understanding of modernity covers a shorter time frame and differs quite substantially from the concept of modernity in art.)

If one checks Wikipedia, one finds a dizzying array of (sometimes contradictory) classifiers for defining aspects of modernity, including: "Bureaucracy, Disenchantment of the world, Rationalization, Secularization, Alienation, Commodification, Decontextualization, Individualism, Subjectivism, Linear Progression, Objectivism, Universalism, Reductionism, Chaos, Mass society, Industrial society, Homogenization, Unification, Hybridization, Diversification, Democratization, Centralization, Hierarchical organization, Mechanization, Totalitarianism, and so on."

Some of them are still applicable to contemporary culture, even though their meaning has changed today (Commodification, Hybridization, Diversification etc.); others seem to be less pertinent (Centralization, Hierarchical organization etc.) or at least one would need to acknowledge that there is a pronounced tension between centralization / decentralization, hierarchical / networked organization in the age of information technologies.

So what is the relationship between modernity and present societies? Are we still living in late modernity, a variant of it (hypermodernity), or a sub-category (post-postmodernity)?

We are looking at an increased movement of goods, capital, people, and information (that has resulted in both diversification and various symptoms of "globalization"). At the same time, parts of the world seem to be in a phase of returning to pre-Enlightenment stages of de-secularization and the irrational. I don't think that these tensions and splits can be still adequately captured by the poles of modernity / antiquity.

All of my work -- as a curator, teacher, writer etc. -- evolves around "new media" and information technologies, and I can't say that contemporary artistic practice in this field comfortably fits under an umbrella of late or hypermodernity. To be discussed…

Roger Beurgel, the artistic director of Documenta 12, has posted this new formulation of the Documenta topic for March,
"Is Modernity our Antiquity?

This is the first question. It is fairly obvious that modernity, or modernity’s fate, exerts a profound influence on contemporary artists. Part of that attraction may stem from the fact that no one really knows if modernity is dead or alive. It seems to be in ruins after the totalitarian catastrophes of the 20th century (the very same catastrophes to which it somehow gave rise). It seems utterly compromised by the brutally partial application of its universal demands (liberté, égalité, fraternité) or by the simple fact that modernity and coloniality went, and probably still go, hand in hand. Still, people’s imaginations are full of modernity’s visions and forms (and I mean not only Bauhaus but also arch-modernist mind-sets transformed into contemporary catchwords like “identity” or “culture”). In short, it seems that we are both outside and inside modernity, both repelled by its deadly violence and seduced by its most immodest aspiration or potential: that there might, after all, be a common planetary horizon for all the living and the dead.

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