Geometry of Modernity

I have not yet encountered a satisfactory definition of modernity. Maybe one does not, or even cannot exist, due to the relational – or more exactly, perceptual – character of this term. Modernity is in the eye of the concept’s framers and users. They do the perceiving and make the decision whether something – be it a phenomenon or a period of time – is deemed as ‘modern’ or not. In this, the term is highly evaluative and connected to the even more ideologized concept of progress. In this line of thinking, all that is ‘modern’ must be ‘good and progressive,’ while the phenomena and times that cannot be or that habitually are not labeled as such appear to be ‘backward,’ ‘underdeveloped,’ ‘regressive,’ ‘pre-modern,’ even ‘medieval’ and any other opposite of what ‘progress’ is declared to be. That is why, in Soviet textbooks of history, the time before the October Revolution in the non-European parts of the Soviet Union was referred to as ‘feudal.’ It had been this revolution that ‘ushered modernity and progress’ into the country.

Modernity being so much pegged on the present is an inherently moving target. Hence, the heydays of modernism – or the cultural and philosophical movement that aspired to shape and simultaneously reflect modernity – took place in the interwar period, that is, soon a century ago. The tragic caesura of the Second World War, culminating in the Holocaust and the atomic bomb explosion cut short the innocent – or rather misguided – faith in the intrinsic goodness of modernity and progress. Modernism became tainted, and its subsequent transformation gave rise to ‘postmodernism,’ whose high tide arrived in Europe, following the events of 1968: the social and intellectual revolt in the West and the Prague Spring squashed by the subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion. Postmodernism as the fashionable intellectual approach for analyzing the ‘modern world’ or a way to oppose the official marxism-leninism in the East, became strongly connected to the Cold War years.

However, the cold struggle between the ‘Free World’ and the ‘fraternal people’s democracies’ came to an abrupt end with the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. A new epoch opened, the era of postcommunism and systemic transition. The old certainties faded, and among them, postmodernism, too. This brand-new modernity caused less self-conscious postmodernists to call this new time ‘post-postmodernism’ in an ironic and at the same time jocular fashion. Those given to gravity scoffed at the pun and proposed that rather the label of ‘late modernity’ would be serious (or ponderous) enough.

But the internal logic or tension present in this collocation begs to know how late this late modernity must become before it has been transformed into something completely new that is bound to follow. Can late modernity last longer than for a few decades before it is emptied of any useful meaning? In 1999 and 2005 the West got vastly enlarged in Europe with the eastward enlargement of NATO and the European Union, respectively. The year 2014 marks a quarter of a century since the end of communism. An entire generation was born and came of age without experiencing communism, the Cold War or postmodernism. They are the generation of late modernity, who may wish to obtain a new label for the forthcoming world of their adulthood in which they will decide about culture, politics and economy. Proposing that the new generation will live in some ‘late-late modernity’ – a term coined by the direct parallel to the short-lived popularity of the term post-postmodernity – seems a bit daft, if not altogether farcical and misguided.

The dilemma gives a rise to the question for how long will people in the West agree to call the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries as a variously inflected modernity? Perhaps, in the coming decades future cohorts of historians, artists, philosophers and intellectuals will come up with new labels to break up this potentially three-hundred-year-long undifferentiated mass of modernity. On the other hand, it is not altogether impossible that they may settle for a relational labeling of the past with the term modernity constantly reserved for the last three to four decades that overlap with the span of one currently living generation broadened to include its active adulthood, that is, middle age. Furthermore, should the world’s center of cultural, political and economic gravity move from the West elsewhere, the new non-Western intellectual elite of the globe may wish to distance itself from the trappings of Western periodization, including its very labels. Possibly, they would propose new names for the present and different periods of the past, in line with their own theories and political needs.

But the future is a foreign country, unknowable. Let us then return to ‘modernity’ that, I presume, now does not look as obvious as it usually appears in the course of our everyday perusal of books and newspapers.

For practical purposes modernity seems to be the present, the time in which we live now plus the recent past with which we choose to identify, which we consider ‘ours,’ or ‘modern,’ for that matter. In the human perception, the relentlessly future-oriented ‘movement’ of the present through time produces the past. In the West, this nature of time is coupled with the spatial metaphor of movement, of ‘going forward,’ ‘progressing’ that coalesced into the very idea of progress. In one way or another, this word is connected to walking, travelling, heading forward, that is, where our face is directed to. (For instance ‘progress’ in Czech is pokrok, composed from the particle po- for ‘one after another,’ and the noun krok for ‘step,’ which you produce when you move one foot in front of the other.) Time travel is not (yet?) available to us, so in the term progress we equate, in a wishful-thinking manner, walking through space with travelling across time.

The confusion about modernity, alongside its useful vagueness and the attraction of this concept, arises when we forget about its metaphorical character and the connection to one of the basic human activities, namely, to walking.

Modernity as we construe this term – in a largely unconscious manner – geometrizes time, collapses it with space. In this way time is humanized, cut down to how we perceive and are able to perceive the world and what we expect of it from our own – very limited – human perspective. As a result, time appears – quite falsely – to be controllable in a way similar to that in which we shape and ‘master’ space on the surface of Earth’s habitable landmass through agriculture, sprawling urban areas, or through the construction of roads that span – however impermanently – some continents. Hence, the concept of modernity is a bold posture, an attempt at playing gods in order to forget the real condition of humanity, wholly vulnerable to a speck of cosmic matter colliding with Earth that would easily extinguish any multicellular life on the planet, leaving no traces of any civilization or progress.

Modernity allows us to forget that we cannot ‘walk to the future’ even in the metaphorically geometrized sense. Earth is a lump of matter hurtling through space, and irrespectively of how long we would walk, we would never be able to leave it, we would still remain in the very point of our departure. The concept of modernity (alongside many others) makes us blind to this – some would say – hopelessness and limitedness of human existence, but on the other hand lets us enjoy our lives without constantly remembering about the final and inescapable doom, that is, our individual death and the eventual extinction of the entire human species. If we did remember about this unavoidable end, we would succumb to depression in no time, and human life would be extinguished in the span of a single generation.

In the past, religion played the role of a might antidepressant, but in this secular (at least in the West) age, it is no source of consolation any more. Modernity, progress and the ultimately irrational belief in a better brighter future took over in this function from religion. Scholars are humans, too, but I propose that the ideals of what they aspire to do, namely research, require them to try to see through this illusion, however painful the process might turn to be.

But let us return to the idea of modernity. If the proposition on the inherently spatial character of the metaphor that underlies this concept holds, it should be possible to define modernity through referring to space. As a point of departure, I propose to take ‘nature,’ or the things as they were before humans came about changing them, mostly on Earth’s surface only. In the next step, nature could be contrasted with modernity as a catch-all term for panhuman civilization (or culture), so intensively globalized during the last two centuries. This contrasting of nature with modernity, conducted in spatial terms, should allow for teasing out salient, defining features of the latter term.

From the vantage of geometry nature seems to be best described in a formal mathematical manner by fractals. The self-similar geometrical infiniteness and repetitiveness of fractals – occurring at all levels, macro, medium and micro – mimic the complicatedness, ruggedness and irregularity of natural phenomena. Taking geometry as the litmus test, products of human culture appear to conform with Euclidean geometry. It is a geometry of special cases: straight lines, right angles, squares, rectangles and circles. Their translation from the two-dimensional to three-dimensional space yields cubes, cuboids, spheres and regularized crosses of them. We immediately recognize human culture in these special case objects that extremely rarely occur in nature.

On this premise, it can be proposed that progress (and by extension, modernity) means such ‘Euclid-ization’ of nature in this part of space that is accessible to humans and pliable to transformations effected by them. In the course of such ‘civilizing process’ increasingly more of Earth’s inhabited land surface is changed, so that its fractal character is replaced by a Euclidean utopia. In these geometrical terms, modernity is achieved when the Euclid-izing drive is, to a degree, standardized, encompasses the entire human ecumene and involves (directly or not) a considerable majority of humans. Modernity is inherently Euclidean and anti-fractal. Obviously as with all human concepts, these are ideal types, and a lot of grey zone remains between them.

Antoni Gaudí’s cathedral of Sagrada Família in Barcelona, so enchantingly unusual in its idiosyncratic architecture is a prime example of a human product that straddles this middle ground between Euclidean and fractal geometry. Although the architect is classified as a practitioner of modernism, his buildings, in which he aspired to reflect nature, have more in common with the boisterousness and disorder of baroque architecture and art than with modernity. But culture to be culture it must not be part of nature. Euclidean geometry is excellent at construing, creating and maintaining this divide between culture an nature. If modernity is seen as a quickening terminus of Euclidean culture that rapidly expels the remnants of fractal nature from Earth’s inhabited landmass, then a Gaudían-like merger of culture and nature would mean the dissolution of the former in the latter, because when compared culture is the tinniest of droplets, while nature a boundless, inexhaustible ocean.

Hence, such a merger, heralding the conquest of culture by nature, would also spell the end of modernity. But only, if we continue to think about the world as a binary opposition between culture and nature; and see the geometrically construed encroachment of the former at the expense of the latter as progress, modernity. The choice is ours.

May 15, 2014