Is Modernity an Attitude?

Between Triumph and Doubt

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We live in the modern age. That is not only alleged colloquially, but also asserted by the social sciences. But what does that mean? On closer inspection, the statement appears either meaningless or misleading. In general, the term “modern” means nothing but “current”. In this sense, all those living today are “modern”, and there’s no need to emphasize this. In reference to societies, the term “modern” is usually used in relation to its institutions: democratic politics; neutral, regulated administration; market economy; autonomous science; and art. In this sense, today many—if not all—societies appear modern. But quite often, similarity in form overlooks differences in practice. Or, in other words: the spirit that animates many institutions is often in stark contrast to the principles that should guide them. In order to recognize this, one need not travel far.


Image: © Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014; Courtesy the artist Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, Dépendance Gallery, Brussels
Ed Atkins (born 1982) is one 
of the most famous artists 
of his generation. His work is comprised of HD video and texts which seek to interrogate and undermine conventions.

bauhaus now

This article is from the first issue of the magazine ”bauhaus now”.

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It is more fruitful to understand modernity as an attitude. As an attitude towards the world and one’s own being-in-the-world. When Immanuel Kant spoke in 1784 of “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”, he demanded the development of a new attitude and not the construction of “modern” structures and institutions. The enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution brought with them a revolution in social consciousness, which is far more important for the understanding of modernity than contemporary—and at first glance comparatively moderate—political developments. 

This new attitude towards the world has often been regarded as triumphant. Modernity has been equated with the ability of people to make the world new and better according to their will. Their belief is that as soon as humans begin to make full use of their freedom and their intellect, no obstacles will remain that could inhibit the mastery of nature, other people, or even their own selves.

Individual freedom and instrumental reason, in this view, constitute the modern attitude, whose propagation would bring humanity onto a path of steady progress. Often overlooked is that there is also a sceptical, doubtful attitude of modernity. When Bartolomé de Las Casas developed the concept of universal human rights, it was because the seafarers voyaging on behalf of the Spanish crown had created a problem. Their unexpected clash with the inhabitants of America raised the question of how to deal with these beings. If one acknowledges their humanity, according to Las Casas’s new reasoning, that immediately means they have rights that cannot be violated. 

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Las Casas was a pioneer of modernity, much like René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, whoses position in the political philosophy of modernity is much less controversial. All three have in common the fact that they were driven by fundamental and seemingly unsolvable problems of a kind that were regarded as absolutely novel. What for Las Casas was the encounter with the unknown other, was for Descartes and Hobbes the destruction of cosmological security, which up to that time had subsisted on the unity of the Christian church in Europe. The Reformation—the anniversary of which is currently being celebrated by Lutherans nation- wide—and the religious wars had destroyed this certitude. The schism within the church was the background for Descartes’s radical doubts that did not even spare the intentions of its own creator. It remains one of the most striking expressions of a modern attitude: how Descartes strove to convert this scepticism into con dence that an inquisitive person could recreate the world from doubt. 

Image: © Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014; Courtesy the artist Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, Dépendance Gallery, Brussels
Atkins’ video installation “Ribbons” was shown 2014 in the London Serpentine Sackler Gallery for the first time.
It deals with the ambivalent relationship between real
and virtual objects in real and virtual circumstances.

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In other words, modernity was born out of doubt, but people tend to turn doubt into a new and triumphant certainty. This sequence was destined to be repeated several times in history under changing circumstances. Where Descartes sought certain knowledge, it was peace and order that constituted the problem for Hobbes. As for Descartes — and in another way for Las Casas— the individual, and his or her capability for understanding, was the only source from which new hope could be drawn, now that old, common guarantors of peace had become implausible as a result of military campaigns.

Descartes and Hobbes are often described as founders of the (political) philosophy of modernity in a history of unstoppable progress. It would be more fitting, however, to regard their radical and critical thinking as a result of the urgent need to find new solutions for new problems. Doubt was an indispensable method for them. The application of this method opened up new paths of thought, but it was not a source of new certainty—and certainly not of the triumphant certainty of nding answers that would be superior to all earlier ways of thinking.

The triumphant attitude did not intensify until the 19th century, which is largely regarded as the period when modernity made its breakthrough. The world exhibitions that had been held since 1851, for instance, are an expression of the expectation of sustained progress that would constantly improve people’s living conditions. This assumption is also re ected in the exhibition architecture: from the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 to the Grand Palais in Paris in 1900, every building aspired to go beyond everything that was previously possible. In this context, the emerging social sciences also gave rise to the idea that the modernist revolution was less about an attitude towards the world than about the transformation of social structures.

Prof. Peter Wagner (Barcelona) is a social scientist and one of the world’s most renowned theorists of modernity. 

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Looking closer, one can see why this was so. The European societies of the 19th century were hardly built on the freedom of the discerning individual, upon whom Kant and the other philosophers of enlightenment had placed their hopes. The hierarchical social structures of the Old Regime remained mostly intact after the revolutions. It was instead the rise of Europe to attain global dominance, the political-economic decoupling of Europe—and subsequently of North America—from the rest of the world, that formed the backdrop for triumphalism. The increase of wealth and power was, for many, an indication that in Europe, things had been done better and more appropriately than elsewhere.

Image: © Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014; Courtesy the artist Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome, Dépendance Gallery, Brussels
“Ribbons” deals with the way we percei-ve, lter and communicate informati-on. Atkins’ videos combine superimposed images with incomplete or interrupted elements of spoken words, vocals, and graphics.
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