American Civilization

March 23, 2009

Modernity and the Falcon

Filed under: modernity — equiano @ 4:06 pm
Tags: ,

The trailer for the 1941 film version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel and arguably the first film noir. As you read the book over Spring Break pay close attention to its style and keep in mind that we’ll be discussing this classic crime novel in terms of modernity.

“Modernity must be understood, in part at least, against the background of what went before. Industrial society emerged only patchily and unevenly out of agrarian society, a system that had endured 5,000 years. Industrial structures thus took much of their characteristic form and colour from the rejection, conscious or unconscious, of preindustrial ways. Industrialism certainly contained much that was new, but it remained always at least partly an idea that in both its theory and its practice was to be understood as much by what it denied as by what it affirmed. The force of the modern has always been partly a reactive force, a force that derived meaning and momentum by a comparison or contrast with, and by rejection or negation of, what went before.

Considered at the most general level, this point suggests a view of modernization as a process of individualization, differentiation or specialization, and abstraction. Put more concretely: first, the structures of modern society take as their basic unit the individual rather than, as with agrarian or peasant society, the group or community. Second, modern institutions are assigned the performance of specific, specialized tasks in a social system with a highly developed and complex division of labour; in this they stand in the sharpest possible contrast with, for instance, the family in peasant society, which is at once the unit of production, consumption, socialization, and authoritative decision-making. Third, rather than attaching rights and prerogatives to particular groups and persons, or being guided by custom or tradition, modern institutions tend to be governed and guided by general rules and regulations that derive their legitimacy from the methods and findings of science. In principle at least, they are not the agents of particular individuals, such as a king or priest, endowed with divine or prescriptive authority, but act according to the rational and impersonal precepts formulated by “experts.”

These contrasts by no means complete the characterization of modern society, nor are they the only ones that might be drawn. Nevertheless, they do illustrate the dependence of the concept of modernity on past structures that form the basis of comparison and exclusion. Indeed, it is such a set of contrasts, not necessarily carefully distinguished, that most people have in mind when they speak of modern as opposed to traditional society.

With regard to the more positive features of industrialism, industrial society can best be thought of as consisting of an economic core around which other, noneconomic structures crystallize. In Marxist terminology, this is rendered in the more deterministic form of an economic base conditioning a noneconomic “superstructure.” This seems unnecessarily rigid and misleading. The relation of the economic to the noneconomic realm is mutual and interactive, as can be seen by considering the impact of scientific ideas on economic and technological development. Still, it is true to say that, fundamentally, it is the economic changes that most dramatically affect industrial society.”

— Encyclopedia Britannica

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