The enlightenment, the French Revolution and industrialization changed social consciousness in a way that permeated all spheres of life. From then on, people’s ability to think and act was considered a guarantor for a better future. But what has resulted in an unprecedented technical and social renewal has also become the cornerstone of a fatal hubris, says the author of “Modernity as Experience and Interpretation”, Peter Wagner.

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. / 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. / 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

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.

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. 

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. 

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. / 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. / 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

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.

“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. / 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. / 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

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.

Even sceptical observers—such as Max Weber—saw a “rationalism” at work that radically recast Western societies. (It should be noted brie y that the post-colonial criticism of modernity that has been evolving since the 1960s often refers much too one-sidedly to triumphant European self-perception and views this as the only possible attitude of modernity.) Weber, however, recognised at the same time that the “steel housing” of “modern capitalism” left little room for personal self-realization. The attitude, the spirit that rst brought about modernity, “escaped from this housing”—that is how Weber described that which we can call a paradox of modernity. In retrospect, we can see that their mindless triumph had led the European elites of the 19th century to a dead end. To understand modernity as an “institutional design” with which one could raise oneself above nature and other people and subjugate them, had proven to be a huge misunderstanding.

The First World War made this obvious. The experience of it was so deep that modernity had to be rethought from the ground up. Europe, which had complacently viewed itself as modern, fell into a long-lasting bloodbath that involved not only the military but all of society. Thus, as in the 16th and 17th centuries, the necessity of new thinking did not arise in a moment of triumph, but in a moment of great despair. It was not the fear, but the catastrophe that had already occurred, that gave rise to new thinking. The common starting point of the numerous artistic, intellectual, political and economic initiatives of the interwar years was to free itself from 19th century Europe, from the burden of the past and of tradition. In many areas—painting, literature, architecture—this led to such an explosion of creativity and innovation that nowadays, the term “modern” is used for the works of a time that is very much a thing of the past.

The situation at the end of the First World War differed from the preceding moments of modernity because of its radical nature. In many areas, one can speak of a radical breakthrough of modernity, at least in relation to this moment. The rapture affected all aspects of society—aesthetics, politics, business—and for the first time, the entire population was directly involved in the upheaval experience. This situation suggests the possibility of designing equally comprehensive projects that would to point to the future. An important prerequisite for this breakthrough of modernity was an understanding of why the promises of the new age had not yet been realized. The debates of the interwar period were manifold and cannot be easily summarized. But if one concentrates on the crisis diagnoses and the responses to them, contours become visible against the backdrop of the earlier expectations of progress, which were founded on human beings’ freedom and their capacity for reason. One interpretation was to link “modern” reason with the rational organization of life, for which industrialism had set the example.

The problem with this point of view was that the Europe of the 19th century had not given enough space for rationalism. On the other hand, the expectation that the attainment of individual freedom would automatically lead to better forms of coexistence had not been fulfilled. On closer inspection we see there were two reasons for this: for one thing, the Europe of the 19th century had denied the “masses” the right to freedom without being able to provide justifiable reasons; and for another, the entry of the “masses” into society, which had already begun, appeared to inevitably lead to losses of personal freedom.

The reorientation of modernity saw a complete rationalization of human life as the only way to avoid the mistakes of the past as being a complete rationalization of human life. A new combination of function and aesthetics played a role here, as did the creation of a society in which it was no longer the individual, but rather the collective— whether the nation, a class, or a combination of both—that created the conditions of selfrealization. Elements of this view can be found in most, although not all, social renewal projects of the interwar period, and certainly in those that would temporarily prove most dominant.

The European interwar period is one of the historical time spans that was experienced as particularly complex by its contemporaries. The passing of time, however, makes it possible to make distinctions, and one of these distinctions concerns the different attitudes of modernity that were expressed in various individual projects. They reveal that some of the projects of that time were developed with a claim to absoluteness, while others were characterised more by a radicalization of thoughtfulness. For some of the protagonists, as with Descartes, the challenge was to emerge from the rupture with new certainties. For others, by contrast, it was a matter of finding a way to constantly deal with uncertainties. 

The desire for newfound certainty was so great in the crisis-ridden interwar years that, in the end, the acceptance of uncertainty is not what became dominant. At that point in time, the failure of 19th century Europe was reason enough for a complete break with the past, and for the longing for a completely new society that would also bring about New People. The idea of total revolution emerged. It found its most striking expressions in fascism, National Socialism, and Stalinism. In places where these regimes were able to temporarily establish themselves, the triumphant attitude of modernity created a societal synthesis of the arts based on collective voluntarism. This attitude, however, was not limited to regimes that we have since deemed totalitarian. Eugenics is an eloquent testimony of a widespread desire to apply progress to everything, up to and including the nature of the human being. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and later George Orwell’s “1984”, are not the portraits of existing totalitarianisms. They are criticism of a tendency of the time.

But it was the experience with these instances of totalitarianism that first led, after the Second World War, to a parting from the great ambitions of modernity—at least in Europe. The seemingly consolidated modernity of the second post-war period was not a big project, but a vague yet temporarily viable compromise among liberal, national, social and democratic ideas. In France, one spoke of the “thirty glorious years”, but also of the “end of ideologies”. With economic and political stabilization, complacency grew again, but this time without again becoming triumphant. These were most likely the years when the spirit seems to have slipped away from modernity. Now one could be modern without having an attitude towards modernity—so at least it seemed.

The late 1960s witnessed a revolt flaring up against modernity’s lack of spirit and intent, but it was only when the flames were quickly extinguished that this became, for some, the occasion to pronounce the end of modernity. With the collapse of Soviet socialism a few years later, the only grand alternative to Western modernity—as undesirable as it may have been—seemed to have disappeared, and even the end of history seemed to have been reached. 

The crisis-ridden developments of the past two decades have badly shaken the credibility of these assumptions. Whether nancial crises and economic stagnation, increasing social inequality, the growing tangible consequences of climate change, terrorism, or the decline of statehood, problems arise or recur, and their consequences accumulate because of a lack of genuine solutions. There are growing voices that call for people to once again stand up for something in order to actively defend the achievements they already have. In other words, they are now asked to once again adopt an attitude towards modernity.

Max Weber, who has already been quoted, speculated more than a hundred years ago that, in reaction to the insipidity of modern institutions, old ideals might be reborn or new prophets might arise. These words are widely forgotten, and when recalled, most observers think of religious fanaticism or temptations of collectivism. But as much as they are stylised as the greatest opponents of Western modernity, neither Iran nor Cuba, nor the self-proclaimed Islamic state or Venezuela, present the greatest challenge we face today. 

The central problem is instead presented by the attitudes towards modernity that are now resurfacing within European societies following decades in which no stance has been taken. The most visible of these today is national populism— which is indeed a rebirth of old ideals. It mobilizes by drawing distinctions, defining borders and excluding others, without even starting to take a look at the causes of critical developments. Its forerunners were two concepts that recall the triumphalist attitude of modernity without using the bombastic rhetoric of the early 20th century.

On the one hand, this is the notion that all problems will disappear as soon as the social institutions that limit the actions of individuals are abolished. The ideological heyday of neo-liberalism is over, but economic-political thinking is still guided by the dogmatic idea that impediments merely need to be removed in order to increase the prosperity of our nations. On the other hand, this is the expectation that people can also nd appropriate technical solutions for all the problems they have created. This technicism was at work when people began to use energy from nuclear power plants, and accepted, without question, that it would be possible to control the waste from those plants for tens of thousands of years. Today, it manifests itself in the assumption that it will be possible to use technical means to safely reduce temperatures on Earth after causing those temperatures to rise over the past two centuries through industrialization.

The ideas of freedom and reason, so central to the enlightenment, are mirrored in the combination of ideological individualism and technical rationalism. Even in their present forms, these views are based in crises and doubts—specifically in the crisis of the social-democratic welfare state and in the ecological crisis. But as in the past, these attitudes battle the doubts with dogmatic new certainties. Ultimately, this certainty is rooted in hubris—an erroneous belief in the omnipotence of human action. And it will also end in a triumphalism that usually reaches its climax shortly before the catastrophe.

Modernity as an attitude emphasizes man’s ability to think and act. Not only can people solve their problems themselves, they must do so, because the solutions will not come from elsewhere. In his re ections on Immanuel Kant’s essay, “What is enlightenment?”, Michel Foucault observed that, for too long and too often, enlightenment criticism led to the “afirmation or the empty dream of freedom” and thus led to misunderstood “projects” that want to be “global or radical”, without leading to a convincing analysis of the problem or casting doubts on one’s own omnipotence.

Abstract individualism and instrumental rationalism are ways of thinking that can look back on a long history, but which have today achieved planetary power. In opposition to this power we now witness the rise of dull reactions, the consequences of which can be just as serious. To counteract both, there is only one solution: the radicalization of thoughtfulness and globalization of e orts to reach agreement on the most urgent problems of our time. “Il faut être absolument moderne.” Rimbaud’s claim remains true. But in what way? We must find out.


[PW 2017, Translation: DK]