Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Modern Period as Cultural Takeoff

 It seems that I am constantly revisiting my own past.  For this essay I am digging out an old paper from 1995 called “Studying the Modern Period” [1].  To understand postmodernism, or as I prefer to call it, 21st century romanticism, it is important to place it into a larger cultural context.  And that context is the Modern Period (MP).   Within the MP twentieth century modernism (ca 1890-1990) gets followed by postmodernism (ca 1960-present) with the overlap being the Awakening.

And yes, in broad terms, there is a fractal relation between the MP and its sub phases.  The MP is generally Apollonian, although some of the sub phases can be strongly Dionysian.

Inside the MP there are three important cultural cycles operating.  These are:
    1. The cycle of Apollonian, Awakening, and Dionysian phases.
    2. The cultural seasons cycle—Awakening, cultural high, culture wars/unraveling, and secular crisis. 
    3. The generations cycle—prophets, nomads, heroes, artists.

These are the rhythms of American culture.  I have previously discussed 1 and 2.  The generational model is still to come; it is based on Strauss and Howe.

I use the term period in the archaeological fashion.  It is a box bounded in time and space.  The time covered is roughly the mid 15th century to the present.  The space starts out being Europe, including Russia, and then rapidly spreads globally.  Today the influence of Western Civilization is found everywhere.  I’m not saying it is dominant everywhere but the influence is there.

This is not a Eurocentric perspective (culture warriors bite your tongue).  I am looking at cultural changes on a large scale and one cannot ignore the 800 pound gorilla during the period in question.  In North American archaeology there have been several cultural expansions that have been studied.  In the west there is the expansion of Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples out of Mexico into the US desert west and inter-mountain region, leading to a Numic Spread, concluding in the Shoshonean migration onto the plains, the last wave being the Comanche.  There are similar studies done on all the major Native American language families. 

Similarly, Alaska has long been a cross roads for expanding cultures.  In the late 1800s Americans from the lower continent went north into the gold fields and turned the land into an American territory.  Prior to that Russians had moved across Eurasia into N America in their pursuit of furs.  Prior to that Aleuts had come across from Asia. Prior to that Eskimos had come across and they got all the way to Iceland where they fought the Norse.  Prior to that Athabascans had come across and some moved south all the way to deep Texas to become the Lipan Apache.  And, of course, archaeologists debate the number of and timing of prior migrations.  The important idea is that these migrations changed the cultural landscape significantly.  They were transformative processes affecting certain regions.

Not all explorations or cultural encounters are transformative.  The Norse briefly had an outpost in Newfoundland (here) and the Polynesians appear to have hit the California coast and left a small bit of cultural “diffusion” upon the Chumash and Gabrielino (here & here).  But no one will claim these events to be transformative processes.  

The European expansions during the MP have been transformative in that wherever Europeans went they significantly changed the cultures that they encountered.  On some continents they completely overtook the native populations (N and S America, Australia) while in other areas they spread their influence but could not completely dominate (Afghanistan, China, Japan).   European languages (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, German, and Russian) were spread all across the globe, and all that comes with it, religion, material culture, politics, etc.

The European expansion was a global process, not one confined to certain regions. There is no evidence that Neanderthals made it to N America or that the Mongols rode their ponies here.   Only the European expansion touches all corners of the world. Thus, it has to be viewed as the largest expansion in human history.

Moreover, the expansion was fueled by and still carries with it incredible cultural change.  From the perspective of cultural evolution, the transformation of the world in the last 500 years is equal to or greater than the domestication of plants and animals during the 4000 years of the Neolithic Revolution.  As I wrote in 1995:

The Modern Period is characterized by rapid cultural change.  In evolutionary terms the last five hundred years can be described as a period of "cultural takeoff” [2].   No other period in the human time line has the pace, scale and intensity of cultural development than does the Modern Period.  The world changed from consisting of fragmented local and regional economic, political, and social networks to being interconnected via international ones.  During this change, many new ideas and ways of life were created, to include:  progress, science, specialization, industrialization, humanism, professionalism, capitalism, communism, development, underdevelopment, advanced technology, the nation state, individualism, democracy, rationality, and modern medicine; just to name a few [pp. 119-120].

Rapid cultural change is the defining element of the MP, not capitalism, not science, not technology—those are fuel for the flame.   Within postmodernism there are those who call hyper-modernism progress thinking that they are continuing the tradition of modernity.  Others see it as being on a roller coaster ride that is impossible to exit.  The endless ups and downs stress the psyche and soul--it is a distortion of compressed time and that life  is no longer experienced at a human scale.  Not everyone enjoys it. 

At the macro level the postmodernism critic is like the break-man leaning hard on the break to slow down the express train, hoping to avoid a train wreck of humanity.  Arthur Versluis defines anti-modernism in this way:  It is…

the awareness of decline.  If the essence of “modernism” is progress, a belief that technological development means socio-economic improvement, the heart of antimodernism is a realization that “progress” has an underbelly—that technological industrial development has destructive consequences in three primary and intertwined areas:  nature, culture, and religion

The warnings of the antimodernists are often dire, but the best among them also affirm a vision of a better society—a more ethical way of life—and remind us of our spiritual purposes and responsibility.  Antimodernists, far from representing a purely negative or pessimistic current, advance a critique of the society in which we live in order to call us toward a better one. Our future quality of life, perhaps even our survival, may depend upon whether we begin to heed their warnings [3].

Those are fine words.  However, 21st century romanticism has been a trickster.  Instead of giving us a break it has rushed us further into hyper-modernism and excessive greed.  It's Apollo on steroids. Western Civ is insolvent (here) and those who pay attention get only lies.  Instead of being wise and ethical Dionysus is on a rampage under the illusion of Rational Man. 

And yet, I’m hoping that the “best among them” shows up soon, in force, because we could sure use some ethics in today’s corrupt world.

1.  L. Moore, Studying the Modern Period: Expanding the Perspective of Historical Archaeology, Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 11 (1995): 119-124.
2.  The term is generally attributed to Marvin Harris who uses it in many publications and in several ways.
3.  Arthur Verslius, Antimodernism, Telos 137 (2006): 96-130.  Quotes on pp. 98 and 130.

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