Defending modernism and visions of the future

In Politics of Fear, Frank Furedi discusses risk-taking as essential for autonomy and central to the Enlightenment motto of sapere aude, dare to know. The matter here can be said to revolve around visions of the future. The Enlightenment looked forward, and – as in Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History”- this was not unqualified. Thinking towards the future was bound to an idea of responsibility. There was a gravity to the decisions one had to make. Agnes Heller in A Theory of Modernity gives us various versions of modernity and postmodernity, with the vision of the postmodern that she considers worthwhile being the only version I could imagine myself having some sympathy for. She gives us the metaphor of the railway station, as a means of explaining modernity, where it represents “the absolute present tense” [p. 7]. This is experiencing the present as a transitory state. The present of modernism/modernity, according to Heller, is a “‘just now’, an insignificant moment which always transcends toward an infinite future”. Now, while this gives us the modernist too much in the mode of Dr. Pangloss, it is not totally objectionable. What follows, however, is.

Heller continues: “‘high modernity’ legitimated modernity with the future, not with the future of the present but with a distant future which is allegedly incipient in modernity itself from its gestation onward.” [p. 8] My problem with what is being approached here begins in the formal distinction being made. If there is an unreflected postmodernism which is rejected by Heller (which is that strange beast we popularly dismiss as “pomo”), she certainly has not rejected the straw man of modernism that emerges here. It is to suggst that postmodernism can be sufficiently nuanced that it comes in varieties, but modernism can only ever be bought as one-size-fits-all. What happens from this point on in Heller’s text is not a reading of modernism, but rather a reading into of modernism.

Return to Furedi. In his book we read that “just as the right no longer defends tradition, the left no longer embraces change […] Society is uncomfortable with itself and invariably experiences change as a destructive process.” [p. 10] The reasons for this discomfort are legion, but they reduce to an inability to think ourselves forward, a fear of speculation, an unwillingness to dare. In the terms of Zizek/Lacan, the superego has taken over modern culture in a huge booming voice, commanding THOU SHALT NOT. Furedi calls this the conservatism of fear. He goes on to skewer micro-politics and the non-thought of Hardt and Hegri et al. as participating in this treason of the intellectuals. It is an intentional myopia whereby we use the watch-words “local”, “grass-roots”, and “bottom-up” to escape the responsibility that goes along with bigger thinking. This too boils down to a profound distrust of our ability to think in the future tense. As such, we can see that when Heller reads into modernism, there is no mention of the difference between the approaches taken.

The modernist looks forward. The postmodernist looks backward so that they never try to look forward. They can even regard the present, but no further. The past is safe because one can wail and gnash teeth and one risks nothing. One knows we are terrible. History tells us so. To move beyond this is an impossibility from such a perspective. The postmodernist quite simply lacks the orientation to do it. For Furedi, the talk of micro-politics and grass-roots movements is vapid rhetoric which has supplanted politics in the grand style. This may go too far, but I think that surely we should be concerned that the parish-pump politics of the local councillor or TD/MP/etc. promising to fix a pothole in a road can very easily be co-opted by this postmodern focus on micro-politics, only that now the potholes are replaced by organic allotments and motions of solidarity that amount to little in terms of actual engagement. This is the world of right-on ritualism, making a show of how liberal we are, beacons of light in a benighted world.

Back to Heller, and she delivers what she believes is the coup de grace: “The legitimating philosophy of modernity was realized […] Indeed, the fast trains ran toward their final destination – and the names of the terminal railway stations were Auschwitz and the Gulag.” In case we missed the point being made here, Heller helpfully adds “- the stations of extermination.” If ever hyperbole masqueraded as philosophy, this is it. It is all too tempting to invoke the charge of Reductio ad Hitlerum here, and so I will resist. What I will note is that in discussing the above in rhetorical terms, I am being kind, and indeed it is a kindness which Heller rejects, stating that “this is not a figure of speech”. We will agree to disagree. I will point out that this is not a valid metaphor, indeed that it is terminal as figures of speech go, because it is dead on arrival. A metaphor ought to reveal alternatives to us, if we will use it in philosophy, and this is not what this metaphor does. The above deserves some unpacking.

Compare the structure of time delineated for modernism. The past is “necessary” in that it cannot be changed, and the present is that “insignificant moment which always transcends toward an infinite future”, thus:

Modernism (according to postmodernism)








Heller does not disagree with the picture of the past assumed here, but she does add emphasis in articulating how terrible everything was. What changes is the present. “Now” is not a fork in the road any more. There is no choice. The necessity of the past gives us the necessity of not doing anything now, because “all final destinations are unmasked as harboring disaster.” [p. 9] So, change all the smiley faces into their opposite, or, even more succinctly:







This is the essence of the Homeric “never try”. Heller continues her metaphor, saying “postmoderns accept life in the railway station”. My response is…fine! I can’t say I care all that much for the view that coming out with non sequitors such as “the future of the present is the present” is valid and valuable philosophical discussion. Nor do I really care to describe in any great detail how saying ‘disaster awaits us no matter what’ ought to liberate us to take some risks, but no matter. (cf. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, [p. aix] and “indifferentism”)

My concern is rather the perversion of the modernist and Enlightenment position. As presented by Heller (fig. i) it is untenable. To claim that thinking the future is unknown as groundbreaking, as Heller does, is without merit. To assert that “one cannot be in charge of an unknown and unknowable future” [p. 10] is nonsense, and dangerously irresponsible nonsense at that. To try to replace thought with half-baked metaphors and scary stories is a resignation of one’s responsibility to try for the better (a desire which Heller arrogates to postmodernists alone). In effect we are told, “listen to me, I have no hope in you, your ability to think, or your motives.” Erm, why should I? If you can’t even get off your (figurative) ass to try to ascertain where those trains of disaster are headed – for at least the hope of doing something – then we can safely dismiss your contribution as unwelcome.

The modernist at least has a vision of the future, and it was not all rosy and LOL-saturated. That great projects such as the New Deal were possible [Furedi, pp. 134-5] shows the value and power of having such a vision, a regulating ideal. It is valid to criticize the failings of past ideas, but it is not valid to claim that these ideas should henceforth be forbidden. If figures as diverse as Furedi, Zizek, Teilhard de Chardin, can think that we are missing a trick with our cynicism (much of which today derives from the presuppositions of various postmodernisms), then perhaps we are. The challenge is to develop an approach to future thought, future thinking, which is not a dead-end. As such, we can profitably look to the past and consider where we might have gone wrong, but the next step must be to seek actively to learn from this, and to think of the next step, and the next one, and the next…


[Aside: By no means is it to beassumed that modernism is correct in all things, but it cannot be denied that it is at least a position with which we can engage. It encourages such engagement and discussion. I might even be so naughty as to accuse the postmodern of a kind of parasitism on the fecundity of the modernist position. There is a kind of kind of performative contradiction that the postmodernism commits when they seek to dismiss modernism, given that such a dismissal is predicated on the modernism’s grounds. The postmodern must come clean and engage with modernism because it is a fertile nexus of ideas unto itself, not because it is a stepping stone to postmodernism. I should also note that I do rely heavily upon these words, modernism and postmodernism, because these are words that mean something. The rejectionist thesis is that nobody has a right to put anybody in a box.  This is why so often it upsets people when they are called postmodern. Fair enough, it is often used as an insult, but I am willing to stand up can call myself a modernist because at least then my interlocutors can relate me to a constellation of ideas, and engage with me accordingly. Refusing all labels is slippery and shows an unwillingness to converse. Co-opting a myriad to assume a hyphenate identity of post-materialist-queer-knowledge ecological-anarchism on the other hand is basically an extended-reading-list-qua-fuck-you. It too is an exclusionary gesture.]

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2 thoughts on “Defending modernism and visions of the future

  1. Pingback: The philosophy of information in Lyotard and Gadamer: postmodernism and hermeneutics « Wetwiring

  2. Pingback: Defending modernism and visions of the future | promod

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