Chapter 2: “Modernity: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” by Marshall Berman
Marshall Berman is not a postmodernist. You could argue that he is a modernist and a Leftist but you cannot argue that he is affiliated with the postmodern project. Since this is a postmodern reader this is interesting but rational, as his piece from his 1983 book All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity serves as an excellent bridge between Foucault’s attitude limit and between the more rigorous critique.
Berman calls modernity a vital experience. According to him it has been in development now for several hundred years (53). It has been the tradition of destroying traditions in order to relocate people to centers where material growth is concentrated. The problem is, however, that in relocating these people to new arenas they are felt to appear helpless and as though they are the only ones enduring the spectacle of dislocation.
Why is this movement a spectacle? Because modernity makes it so with its relentless technological, social, communicative, economic, and national undertakings; the issue lies at its root: “on the other hand, as the modern public expands, it shatters into a multitude of fragments. (54)” So there is this cycle, as seen in the ever producing amount of fractions, of ‘doing one thing’ yet ‘promoting another’. Ergo, this is why thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche often wrote in a dialectic which began by promoting a thesis yet ended by anticipating its antithesis. One could call this mode of thought a promotion of the ‘modern man’ type of rationale, of the type of man needed in order to survive the modern epoch.
Even so the modern man dream is but that- a dream. Because many individuals individuate themselves through the expression of mediocrity, the law of self-liberation and emancipation only goes so far. This is seen most prominently in art and literature. This is where Berman asserts that “[Modernity’s] twentieth century successors have lurched far more towards rigid polarities and flat totalizations (59)” then their precursors; in other words, the contemporary stream of thinkers have very little to say about the past, present and future. This is why the Futurists degenerated in militarism and fascist apologia, why the revolutionary Left tried to find means of liberation which existed ‘outside’ that of the One-Dimensional Man paradigm, and why the ‘affirmative’ , ‘negative’ , and ‘withdrawn’ tendencies of the 1960 have either faded into obscurity or regrouped under postmodern labels. (60-4)
A diffusion like this is why even great thinkers like Michel Foucault have slumped into becoming obsessed with institutional constructs and are unable to give a non-pessimistic outlook on politics and social interaction without invoking ‘discourses on power’. (65) Berman explains that “Foucault offers a generation from the 1960s a world-historical alibi for the sense of passivity and helplessness that gripped so many… in the 1970s.” Understood this way, Berman offers his own dialectical view of modernity which he says can help examine modernism as giving “us back a sense of our own modern roots, roots that go back over two hundred years. (66)” In the end this will allow us to re-connect with our fellow man, man who is in the process of being traumatized by modernity in the same sense of seeing all that he knew melt into air.