“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have Now Exited Modernity

I've been talking about it in my recent talks around and about, but it seemed important to share it as I reflect on the astonishing events that have taken place in Egypt and that are now taking place throughout Algeria and previously in Tunisia, and many other places too in the so called Middle East.

I can't help thinking that there is some congruence between the following phenomena:

1) Imperialism of the West, starting roughly 1800 (direct control of countries by European powers)
2) Correlationism, idealism and attendant nationalistic ideologies (“we” are the true bearers of the burden of history, the other is primitive or stupid or corrupt and lacks history and thus must be correlated to our way of seeing things, but forever “unavailable,” exoticized / or the inverse version in which the other is outside of history and that's a good thing, or the other is radically unknowable and we are stuck in some kind of Eurocentrism or whatever)
3) Modernity with attendant industrial capitalism giving rise to ecological emergency

I thus can't help thinking that we have now exited the moment in which these phenomena develop—let's call it modernity for short. Three counter-phenomena point to this:

1) Revolutions in the name of universal human values from which the orientalist West excluded the other for two centuries, thus making those places such as Egypt suddenly emerge in front of the West
2) The rise of anti-correlationist forms of speculative realism
3) Global warming and the emerging reaction to it as a genuine nonhuman entity that is not simply a product of a human gaze. (It's not just the stuff of charts and simulations, but is a huge object comprising sun, biosphere, fossil fuels etc.)

I expect some readers will decide that I'm saying that somehow writing philosophy is as important as starting a revolution. I'm not going to assert anything of that sort yet. And yes you may think of me as a self-centered arrogant guy. I won't deny it. I will still even think this congruence holds!

What's particularly interesting is that each of the counter-phenomena are paradoxical:

1) You might have thought that Islamic countries had no strong democratic tradition (neoconservatives for instance hold this absurd view very strongly)
2) You might have thought that deconstruction and postcolonialism would be the intellectual movements that got us out of modernity
3) You might have thought that seeing ecology as connected feedback loops would undermine and overmine all entities on this planet into systems or material processes

In other words the counter-phenomena all share a certain form: the emergence of something surprising, counter-intuitive, real.

If you'd asked me last year I would have said, no, we're still in modernity. To all intents and purposes this is still the Romantic period. We have the same historical and philosophical issues, only slightly different hairdos.

Of course there may be some hot air from modernity still around. But the door is open and some of us realize we're out.

Yes, ladies and gents, it looks like we are out. So place your tray tables in an upright and locked position, this is going to be interesting.


skholiast said...

I'd rather say that the illusion of modernity is losing its last shreds of plausibility. More (a lot more) here.

Timothy Morton said...

That could be right! I shall take a look at this great-looking post.