The condition of modernity: limited consciousness


“So they are all a single people with a single language!” said Yahweh. “This is only the start of their undertakings! Now nothing they plan to do will be beyond them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so they cannot understand one another.” Yahweh scattered them thence all over the world…
— Genesis 11:6-8
The biblical quote, a fragment of our western heritage, our collective consciousness, is for some, the truth as revealed through the word of God, for others, the imposition of a slave mentality, a binding of the herd, and here in this paper, not only a creation myth, but the creator of modern consciousness. Why are there different languages? This mystery is explained by our ancestors as the work of God. The fragmentation and scattering of a divinely sourced original unity as revealed in Genesis 11 still informs our conception of the modern world. The following paper will provide a synthesis of four contemporary texts on modernity and communications. The readings in this limited set, in different fields and towards different ends, are all histories of the emergence of the modern world. Interestingly, or in keeping with the paradoxical quality of modernity, the texts with the least mention of ‘modern,’ and its variants are the most instructive and it is with these texts that a critique of the conception of modernity is launched.  The limited set of sources referenced in this paper help recreate the condition of modernity, which can be defined by its limited consciousness.

What is modern?
Kumar(1995) begins with the word ‘as one should.’ Let us take his suggestion and explore some definitions of the word ‘modernity.’  Kumar tells us the word is an invention of the Christian Middle Ages, originally used as an antonym to antiquus. For these Modern Christians there was a pagan world before, their world after Christ and the future return of Christ. Christianity gave time purpose and direction.  At the end of the seventeenth century, time was secularized in the wake of works by Montaigne, Bacon and Descartes. Following this period, the Enlightenment thinkers gave birth to the concept of progress understood as modern today. Kumar makes a distinction between the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘modernism.’ He defines ‘modernity’ as the intellectual, social and political changes that brought about the modern world. The cultural critique of modernization in the west at the end of the nineteenth century is ‘modernism.’

For Harvey(1989) modernity is characterized as a ruthless break with historical conditioning – a never ending process of internal ruptures and fragmentations within itself.  In this characterization of modernity ‘ruthless’ is echoed from an earlier quoted historian Carl Schorske: “Not only producers of culture, but also its analysts and critics fell victim to the fragmentation.”(p.10) Harvey presents a ruthless, victimizing modernity. Kumar’s distinction between modernity and modernism is not made or used by Harvey.  “In 1945 the belief in linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders under standardized conditions of knowledge and production was particularly strong. The modernism that resulted was positivistic technocentric, and rationalistic at the same time as it was imposed as work of an elite avant-garde of planners, artists, architects, critics and other guardians of high taste.” Modernism in the Harvey piece is not a cultural critique; it is the expression of the momentary dominant consciousness limited by its interests.

Thompson(1996) takes a different approach. The distinctive features of the modern world are for him the result of cultural and institutional transformation. This way of seeing the problem of defining modernity differs conceptually from the two previous modes of inquiry. When Harvey writes, “modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish,”(p,11) modernity becomes something that pours, like God scatters. Thompson’s picture of modernity is on the surface very different from Harvey’s. Thompson describes the feudal society as fragmented and shows the institutional transformations that characterize the modern world as an attempt to consolidate divergent populations. Thompson mentions a number of specific transformations and then focuses on changes in the realm of symbolic production. Where Harvey looks at the whole world to understand the meaning of modernity, Thompson investigates the specific instances of institutional change that make up modernity. Using the approaches of Thompson and Heyer(1988) we can explore the intellectual political and institutional changes that constitute modernity. And more importantly, as Heyer’s work suggests, we can acknowledge the different and numerous lines of struggle, practice and thought since the enlightenment.

The problem with defining modernity in the manner Harvey uses, is that modernism is reduced to the dominant consciousness. Kumar reminds us that industrialism provided the material conditions of modernity and that modern consciousness is split by distinguishing between modernity and modernism, but this approach while still helpful is reduces the modern to expressions of dominant consciousness.

How modernity?
Modernity as defined by Thompson, Kumar and Harvey is the result of a process. These processes are most concretely described by Thompson. Thompson suggests that the uncertainty concerning the process of cultural transformation stems from the fact that social theorists have been looking in the wrong place for the signs of systematic cultural change. He discusses Weber’s themes of the differentiation of spheres of value, the rationalization of action and the disenchantment of traditional views. To this Thompson adds the economic development of the nation-state and the subsequent ‘development of a new means of communication which enabled symbols and ideas to be expressed and diffused in a common language.’(p.51) Thompson’s focus on material process, as opposed to shifting values and philosophy, increases the complexity of the discussion of the modern world, while reducing the confusion expressed by Kumar and Harvey.

The base for this new means of communication or change in the institution of symbolic power was the rise of the nation-state through economic development. “As the scale of military conflict increased, these states which could extract the resources to establish large standing armies and to maintain them in the condition of war-readiness for extended periods of time had a material advantage.”(p.49) Expanding nation states forcefully incorporated diverse populations into their sphere of influence. The historical picture Thompson describes of the modern state’s developmental process completely contradicts the conceptual modernity with its eternal character.

The concept of universal and eternal modernism was imposed on a militarily encircled and dominated population. Harvey details the three shifts that allowed the national institution of symbolic power to unify diverse regional characters. Harvey tells us that prior to the expansion of nation-state power medieval Europe had been colonized by the Roman Catholic Church which after the collapse of the Roman Empire provided ‘a loose normative framework throughout Europe and established a system of monastic schools which specialized in teaching the skills of literacy and in transmitting sacred knowledge.’ The church was helpful in the early stages of modern state formation. Alliances between church and political elites helped legitimate the new state powers and the church helped maintain order in the newly dominated areas. But as the political power became more rooted, the church was marginalized.  Further reducing the Catholic Church monopoly on political and symbolic production was the rise in the 16th century of sectarianism. A second and simultaneous shift that reduced the Catholic influence was the emergent disciplines of scientific knowledge. The third major shift in the social organization of symbolic power, which Thompson says has received less attention than the other two shifts, is the shift from script to print that led to the development of the media industries.

For this look at modernity, it’s important to consider in Thompson’s account how recently these developmental changes have taken place. Thompson presents the complexity of modernity through an exploration of a relatively fresh historical record. Thompson doesn’t fall into the confusing trap of attempting to apply a conceptual modernity to the material record as in the Kumar and Harvey chapters. To be fair to Kumar and Harvey, the confusion they create, and here I’m stepping outside the confines of this paper, and into speculation, may be a rhetorical device for the presentation of the condition of post-modernity they are preparing in their respective chapters. Thompson’s account allows us to think about modernity in material terms as opposed to the material in terms of modernity. The argument that is here being drawn out of the Thompson and Heyer texts is that the material of modernity hasn’t been properly conceptualized.

Both Kumar and especially Harvey base a good part of their discussion of modernity on a quote from Baudelaire’s 1863 essay ‘The painter of modern life.’ Baudelaire writes, ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable [‘immovable’ in Kumar’s translation.]’ The conception of modernity may be secularized but it is conceptually identical to the image of God in the world. If being modern is looking at the world through the secularized God concept, this may explain the modern inability to conceptualize the material world. This may explain why the rabidly anti-modern Nietzsche was able immediately to articulate the meaning of Darwin’s discovery, a meaning the modern world continues to find incompatible with both its God and secularized God concepts of eternal unity. Along with the improperly conceptualized modernity of the historian, sociologist, etc., we must also consider the limited consciousness of modernity itself, and ideological consciousness unable to conceive of disunity and variation.

In the early stages of nation-state development Thompson tells us the populations tended toward fragmentation. Considering that in 1490 there were about 500 state-like entities which have since been reduced to about 25 nation states, we can imagine the contained diversity. The word fragmentation, used here by Thompson, but with frequency by Harvey and Kumar, betrays a conceptualized underlying unity. Viewing an expression of difference in the modern state as a fragment, is to ignore the historical multiplicity that the modern state forced itself upon. Connections did exist between the diverse populations before they we militarily united by the modern state. And these pre-print communications networks, the Roman Catholic Church, political authorities, the business community and travelers and entertainers, made the links later exploited by the growing systems of colonial administration.  Once these systems were in place they continued to develop in the form of postal communication, printing and in the 19th Century the railroad sped up the movement of written communications. Also in the 19th century systems of education were introduced by many European states, providing a set of nation–specific frameworks for the inculcation of a range of basic skills, such as literacy in a standardized national language. All these technologies consolidated and diffused administrative power. This nation building developed simultaneously with mercantile capitalism, which conditioned the development of a public sphere and changed institutional forms of political power. The new public sphere, closely resembles the modernism defined by Kumar in that it was a space where the activities of the state could be confronted and subjected to criticism.

Compressing the lines of development toward the modern state, in a brief overview like this, reduces the reality of the struggles and unintentionally suggests a terminal state of modernity. How do we speak of modernity in a way that conveys the multiple lines if struggle, coexistence, and expression that continue through to this moment? How do you infuse the concept of modernity with the multiple powers in conflict and cahoots to dominate and the creative response struggles and momentary freedoms of those so dominated? The lines of developing print and literacy described by Thompson reveal at once both a means of control, a unifying, standardizing and nationalizing force, and an insuppressible form of expression that blossomed under state censorship. Thompson sees through print the emergence of plurality. We should see the re-emergence of plurality. In Thompson’s own history we see a unifying system of administration imposed on a divergent population.

The problem of periodization
The problem of periodization is in its conceptualization. As we will see in Heyer, periodizing history creates conceptual divisions that rarely exist as sharply and completely in the records. As well as interrupting continuity, conceptual periods unify what cannot be unified, or should not be unified. Heyer reminds us of bacon(?) sertion that the truth is found in the world, not the word. Modernity as we can see in these four text has come to mean many things over the years. The word modernity is at once signifying, countersignifying and asignifying. Where Thompson and and Heyer are looking for terms in the world, Kumar and Harvey look at the world through terms.

Kumar’s definition of modernity encompasses all the movements, counter-movements and syntheses in over two hundred years. Individuality, Freedom, Capitalism, Communism, Nationalism, Socialism, and National Socialism are all modern concepts, movements and institutions. He limits the historical and ideological scope of modernism in his use of the term, but Harvey places no such limits on the word. Harvey doesn’t give a definition of modernism, but for him modernity is a condition (p.10) and he uses modernism to describe the expression of that condition. The problem with periodizing,    using one term to describe an epoch, is the singularity. By looking through a unifying term the difference is removed or essentialized. Changing the term doesn’t solve the problem. Ascribing a single term to the character of an epoch makes monogeneous what could have only have been and what is multiple. Like the biblical passage quoted at the top of this paper where the multitudes are reduced to a single people of a single God, the many struggles in the modern era, the multiple creative social forces are reduced to a character, a condition.

Heyer is highly aware of the reductive nature of periodization. He writes of the eighteenth century, which while temporizing a period allows for the multiplicity of human activity in those years. And when he does use a term like the enlightenment it is only to locate his topic in the body of historical work. He quickly removes the boundaries of the term: “No historical period has ever produced a uniform theoretical world view divorced from anticedent thought.”(p.4) Heyer, while never explicitly stating this purpose, is correcting an error in thinking about history. “Writing about related topics they were in frequent disagreement.” “Overlapping subject matter and differing perspectives” Repeatedly Heyer makes it clear that the enlightenment can not be summed up. Heyer makes this point by adding a philosopher to the cannon. He devotes seven pages to James Burnet, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) as much to include him in his history of communications as to make a point in the discipline of history. Monboddo appears, according to Heyer, in almost all comprehensive histories of the concept of evolution.  Of Monboddo’s two major works Heyer writes, “In these texts we find one of the most comprehensive discussions of Western thought on the nature, origin and history of language, and an appraisal of the philosophy of classical antiquity with few eighteenth-century parallels, in breadth if not in accuracy.” Heyer goes on to comment on the historical cannon, “This legacy, coupled with the frequent discussions of Monboddo’s work in his own time, and his acknowledged niche in the history of biological thought pertinent to evolution, make omission of an entry on him in a recent eight-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy a major oversight.”(p.31) Heyer includes Moboddo because he realized that improving communication technology does not necessarily improve human communication. But he also take the opportunity inclusion of Moboddo provides to comment on the selection process in periodization. “For any discipline in search of ancestral figures an inevitable problem arises regarding what to do when someone like Monboddo turns up who yields insights centuries ahead of his time, yet commits blunders that throw doubt on his basic common sense. Should he be exalted as a seer or dismissed as a buffoon? We are not yet ready to pass judgment. Therefore we must preserve the legacy.”

Preserving the legacy adds to the diversity of thought, but also for Heyer more realistically presents an era. It’s clear from Heyer’s repeated remarks in regards to keeping the diversity of opinion in mind when contemplating the enlightenment, that he sees the tendency to reduce and streamline thought. Harvey’s modernity mutates with the dominant elite. It trembles with the nervousness of a class that can no longer control the conception of a class that controls the world. Harvey tells us that Nietzsche plunges through the elitist unified-through-exclusion conception of modernity to reveal the disordered world that surrounds. Kumar notes that Nietzsche is heralded as both the prophet of modernism and post-modernism. It must be remembered that Kumar defines modernism as a reaction to modernity. What is notable in both Kumar and Harvey’s discussion of modernity is the omission of Darwin. Modern consciousness brings what it can into unity, this is often called totalizing modernism, but it must be remembered that much more exists outside this totalizing consciousness than within it. The trembling psychotic paranoid modernity that Harvey characterizes, is as much a result of its selective consciousness as that which can’t be unified. Modernity is a dominant consciousness that fuses everything into one, keeping outside consciousness anything that threatens this unity. How does Darwin’s conception of a divergent evolution based on variation fit into modernity? Following Heyer’s example, to answer that question we need to follow the lines of thought and preserve the legacies.


Harvey, D. (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heyer, Paul. (1988) Communications and history: Theories of media, knowledge, and civilization. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Kumar, Krishan. (1995) From Post-Industrial to Post Modern Society: New theories of the contemporary world. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thompson, John, B. (1996) The media and modernity: A social theory of the media. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.


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