So when is the modern anyhow?

March 24, 2004

Later today we will talk about optimism at the end of the nineteenth century.

The text labels the period 1850-1880 the Age of Optimism, 1880-1914 is the Belle Epoque. Both are marked by a mainstream opinion of, well, optimism and faith in progress. Both are eras of planning and systemized knowledge - these were the years when academic social science departments developed and when social scientists began to try to improve and alter the condition of urban residents.

And, these are also years that can be labeled modern, especially the period from 1880 or so to 1940 or so. The problem with the word Modern is that it has too many meanings and sub-meanings. On the one level modern means right now. On the other hand, modern refers to several points during the past when people who were doing things used the word for "right now" to describe what they were doing at the time. So we have modern literature from the late 19th century onward, modern architecture in the 1920s, modern art with Picasso and the boys, and so on.

Today's class is about the Age of Optimism, and I keep wanting to talk about modernity as I do so. I should resist that urge and keep the focus before 1880, but I use optimism to set up the Great War and I feel the need to argue that the prevailing tone from 1850 to 1920 was optimistic, with a constant undercurrent of pessimism and despair especially from the artistic worlds.

To my mind, the predominant culture of the turn of the twentieth century was an attempt to grapple with, for lack of a better word, modernity. On the one hand this was done by mastering knowledge - if we can measure it, study it, we can know it, and if we do it professionally rather than like the enlightenment dilletantes, we can use this knowledge to shape the world. The Enlightenment has long long legs. On the other hand there was an attempt to accomodate to modernity by denying some aspects of it, whether the brutal medieval fantasies of fiction, the movement to gothic architecture, or the rise of therapeutic culture that attempted to alleviate the stresses of urban living and rapid transition. Jackson Lears calls this second aspect anti-modernism in No Place of Grace but it is modernism all the same.

Modernism as such belongs next week when we do the turn of the twentieth century, but I think I will talk about it twice.

Posted by Red Ted at March 24, 2004 09:56 AM | TrackBack