Jazz Thoughts

Basic mechanics of modernity

Notions of "the modern" continue to fascinate today, but what is modernity? Is it a coherent idea? What does it mean or indicate? This discussion proposes to approach modernity first as a historical period, a period with both a beginning & an end — however imprecise those might be. Historical periods are sometimes inaugurated or terminated by specific high profile events, but are often perceived only retrospectively, according to various differences that can seem to take on broader significance with more distance. (This is sometimes called "the long view.") What sort of differences are these? Simply put, these are differences in how people think & behave. "The modern" is associated with particular sorts of thinking & behavior, thinking & behavior that emerged over the course of a particular time period, centered on a particular region & in turn how that region interacted with the wider world. Indeed, the basic "period" of modernity is the period of European imperialism, the colonization & subjugation of the globe. One might take its high profile inaugurating event to be the voyage of Columbus in 1492 [1], but the Portuguese had already been active in Africa, and European domination was not consolidated overnight. Similarly, the successful movements for colonial independence that swept the globe in the second half of the twentieth century do not have a clear beginning or end: One might even question what supposed "independence" really means under a regime of neoliberal globalization that might also be termed neoimperial. Nonetheless, this discussion, following so many others [2], observes a historical break around 1968. The intervening five centuries (or so) are then, temporally speaking, the modern era. How might one characterize the thinking & behavior of so many people over such a broad time period?[3]

The proposal here is then secondly, but not secondarily, to say specific things about thinking & behavior in the modern era, thinking & behavior that indeed persists, perhaps in modified form, into the current post- or neo- (however one might prefer to complete one or both of those prefixes) period. The proposal is not to describe how everyone in the world thought or behaved (or felt), but which notions — what mechanics — made modernity distinctly what it was (and is).[4] What forged modernity? What facilitated its replication? In short, what made it possible for a relatively small group of people to impose their will so widely? This is not simply a story of military technology, although it is also a story of staggering violence, but one of motivation: Not everyone will seek to dominate their neighbors, whatever "opportunity" might exist for it, and so one must ask why.[5] (Unhelpful notions of "the inevitable" are thus to be purged from this discussion.) Further, this analysis concerns the mindsets & structures that propagated modernity rather than those that opposed it: Such forces interacted & continue to interact, but what critical contours emerge? Can one isolate notions — mechanisms, relations, forces, articulations... — that allowed modern imperialism to function? Beyond merely allowing it to function, what made (and makes) capitalist imperialism so seductive? After all, there are still modernist dreams & collaborators galore.

Many readers will associate modernity with something other than subjugation & violence, and so one must trace how seemingly separate notions of modernity interact & relate to the basic thrust of the period. Whereas many modern ideas or situations likely seem desirable — if not "true" per se — make no mistake: That the "early modern" period was inaugurated with Columbus & others, or that the "postmodern" was perceived in the wake of widespread colonial independence, is not coincidence. Nor is it coincidence that capitalism emerged in the early modern period & was reconfigured around neoliberal fundamentalism after the loss of (outright, i.e. modern) colonies. All of these ideas, particularly those of the so-called Western Enlightenment, must be considered together. (The "enlightenment" itself was a period of intellectual consolidation during the middle of the larger modern period: One might say that it articulated the lessons of early modernity into a format for continued, more thorough application & replication. In other words, under the guise of critique, it further supported & glorified modernity.) Of course, such consideration does not imply that one must either embrace or reject modernity as a unified whole, and indeed many readers will presumably want to be selective in what they oppose or support [6], but it does mean that the items on such presumptive checklists are not independent of each another. What we find desirable about modernity is tightly linked to what we find undesirable. (And what we might consider to be the past continues to inflect the present.[7])

This will be a carefully limited discussion.[8,9] It will be relatively brief, part summary, part introduction.[10] So is anything to be gained from such brevity today? "Grand narratives are out of fashion for good reason; the various detailed differences of everyday life are what matter." The point is not to disagree with such a double summary, but rather to situate all summaries: That one is postmodern. If one is to interrogate modernity then, one must allow it its own historical coherence, even as that coherence falls apart today. (Or does it?) Will such an approach yield anything worthwhile?[11] What might one do with a greater mechanical understanding of modernity, if such can be obtained? Critically, if one understands the historical forces & assemblages that continue to operate today, one can more readily support or oppose them — rather than remain ignorant & at their mercy. In short, one can adopt a more informed political position, particularly in the rather confusing context of neoliberal globalization & its characteristic sense of multiculturalism.[12] It remains to be determined whether the specific mechanics outlined below will continue to serve such a purpose in the future, or if further inquiries will be necessary. Whereas it's easy to say that further inquiry is always necessary (or at least worthwhile), contemporary politics — with its many urgent issues — must ultimately be conducted in the present. One can't simply read & write forever.[13] One is always already acting more broadly, politically, if only by omitting politics from one's concerns.[14]

  1. My own work focused on medieval music for much of two decades, before returning to more of a contemporary orientation, and so my habitual date for inaugurating modernity became the beginning of music publishing in 1501.

  2. My thoughts on both the beginning & end of modernity, as well as the historical development of capitalism, were strongly conditioned by Fernand Braudel.

  3. There is a productive ambiguity lurking here, one that will be maintained in tension: Whereas, on the one hand, I must insist that everyone is in the same time, i.e. that we are in fact (and obviously so) contemporaries, on the other hand, I am describing specific mechanics of modernity that not everyone shares — or at least that not everyone forged or spread, even if everyone is ultimately affected. In that specific sense, some people have not been modern, although they have always been contemporary. In short, such differences in thinking & behavior (& attitude, feeling, etc.) cannot be given an order on a temporal axis: They happen(ed) at the same time; sometimes they even condition(ed) one another. However, not everyone spoke or acted according to the mechanics to be described here.

  4. Bruno Latour has addressed similar questions, oriented on the notion of mode. My thinking overlaps considerably with Latour's, including as derived from time spent working in scientific research, but we do approach the situation differently: I had already interrogated the "economic" break with the medieval era in Remède de Fortune before noticing Latour's anthropology of the moderns, although I've likewise taken an anthropological approach at various points in this project. (Latour is mentioned there only in the more restrictive context of science studies.) Perhaps I should have read more of Latour's work before writing Remède, but I did proceed to critique (some of) his ideas on modernity more explicitly in Morality as aporia. Moreover, in summary, I consider his followup "reset" concept or impulse to be too conservative, i.e. too oriented toward preserving European modernity. The present discussion, although brief, will elaborate that disagreement — plus a bit more. (I should probably add that, for the most part, I do appreciate Latour's work.)

  5. Readers fully steeped in modernity will likely view such domination as inevitable: Exploitation is the (cynical) rule, not a special inclination to be explained. Such a (modern) interpretation suggests taking the evidence that no one had created a global empire previously to mean only that no one was capable of doing so. Perhaps it would be helpful to fold notions of inclination into notions of capacity. Nonetheless, desire to conquer cannot be assumed. Might not some societies have simply restrained (psychologically, emotionally) their potential malcontents more effectively? Europe let them rampage around the world.

  6. Offering any criticism of modernity per se is often taken as a strong political position. Perhaps it is. However, my task here is not to determine what one should or shouldn't appreciate about modernity, but rather to articulate the linkages between its (machinic) components. In that sense, this article simply takes modernity as a given, i.e. as something that has already happened & is to be described.

  7. My approach to archeology (or genealogy), or for that matter, to the historical unfolding of structures of thought, was strongly conditioned by Michel Foucault. In particular, one is to situate what an era believes to be true, but without reference to a supposedly transcendent "truth."

  8. Perhaps some readers will be quite hostile to what I'm articulating. Nonetheless, I intend to describe in straightforward terms, and not spend time articulating via traditional (i.e. modern) styles of proof. First, such a demand is circular: If modern thought is to be the standard by which one explicates modern thought, then not much can be learned via appeal to (its own) truth. Second, I've learned that people who don't want to listen are not going to listen, and obeying their demands for a particular style of presentation will not change that. On the other hand, if a reader wants to follow what I have to say, then I will attempt to make that easy to do. Hopefully it is, but do take your time. Third, I & others have already articulated these points in much more detail, and in many more ways. (So please see my other writing, or the bibliographies referenced below, for more.)

  9. Some other writers mentioned here might (also) feel hostile toward the way I characterize their work: I am here to articulate what I think — whether one might describe such ideas as properly "mine" or not — and not, specifically anyway, what someone else thinks. (If one wants to understand some other writer's ideas, then one should consult that person's writing. This seems obvious to me, but apparently it needs stating.) I mention the work of others for two basic reasons: Further discussion can be helpful in a variety of ways, such as illuminating stakes or contexts, and I want to give people credit (or blame?) when their ideas prompt or inspire me. The latter desire can be a little more tricky, since I often modify the ideas as well. I intend to do less of that in this specific discussion, but using others' writing as "mere material" (to evoke François Laruelle) is not always popular. So be it. Since I'll want to say what I want to say regardless, the alternative is not to mention those who influence me, and that strikes me as a worse approach.

  10. As I've articulated in other articles, starting from Hierarchy as rupture, an exposition is always already arbitrary: There is an arbitrary "cut" necessary to begin, and then the various contingencies of how one expresses & in what order. In some sense, the linear format of reading itself always already conflicts with ideas I seek to express. (My extensive use of numbered notes can thus be viewed as highly contradictory: I could omit the numbers, even the whitespace, but the sequence would remain. I've also worked on using a computer to present ideas in random order, but those formats have not yet been satisfying.) In this sense, such expositions are always compromises.

  11. Immersion in medieval thought, particularly via medieval music, might not seem very useful for contemporary politics. Maybe it isn't, but my work in medieval music & its associated concepts (which span much of the thinking of the era), particularly together with my work in world musics & their associated concepts, has given me a particular perspective on modernity. (And I reflexively think about the music of a time & place when attempting to situate other cultural production, even casually.)

  12. Although I will be discussing the mechanics of modernity mostly from an "interior" perspective, such a discussion is certainly not intended for Western readers alone. Indeed, many or most of these mechanisms will likely be familiar to readers from elsewhere — whereas many in the interior will have been trained not to notice. I hope that tracing these mechanics proves to be helpful in resisting neoimperialism.

  13. Well, one can read & write forever, or at least for one's entire lifetime, but my premise is that something must be done. To what extent that implies passivity for some, and it might, remains to be seen. (In other words, some of us really do need simply to get out of the way so that others can more readily act.)

  14. Refusal to acknowledge politics is always — at least implicitly, perhaps quite intentionally — support for the status quo.

I. Discovery

"Voyages of discovery" are strongly associated with the beginnings of modernity, but of course such discovery happened from a particular perspective: Bluntly, other peoples already knew about themselves & their lands. Nonetheless, respect for other perspectives does not mean that no one was discovering anything: Indeed, many other peoples discovered Europeans, for better or worse, when the European explorers arrived to make discoveries they claimed as their own. Although the focus of this discussion is not on the origins of modernity, but rather its internal mechanics, it's worth noting three significant factors prompting & then conditioning those voyages: In chronological order, they were the fall of Constantinople & accompanying shift in Levantine trade [1], the success of the Reconquista in Spain & consequent "momentum" there [2], and the Protestant Reformation.[3] Desire for trade (& profit), geographic expansion [4], and an epochal religious shift thus correspond in early modernity. Together, these events provoked a self-conscious sense that something truly novel was happening [5], such that "the modern" (which simply indicates "right now" etymologically) has come to imply the new.

That modernity has the "feel" of novelty, that it has the feel of opportunity [6], continues to resonate. Modernity thus produces, or is produced by, an attitude toward history: It invokes a specific historical telos [7], a telos of "progress" that suggests that the best is yet to come.[8] (In this sense, the modern comes to be definitionally "good.") Such a telos derives from Christian eschatology, salvation & last judgment. Under humanism, salvation is no longer about the divine, but about human action.[9] Yet an orientation toward an indeterminate, but better future remained critical to the modernist view: Things progress, evolve.[10,11] If imperial conquest seems unpleasant now, well, it will only be for the best in the future. Get with the — modernist — program! (And modernity is a form of life that, much like that of monasteries, cares very much about people getting with programs.) That modernity involves a specific ideology of history cannot be emphasized enough, and moreover it involves a textual attitude: Discovery is about narrative & documentation (i.e. history [12]), about legal rights perhaps administered from afar. (In that sense, modernity makes history synonymous with discovery.) Discovery also produces otherness, an otherness deriving first from physical (or other) distance, but then refigured temporally as distance is dissolved. Such figuration assembles history as an archive, and by fetishizing progress, modernity fetishizes history: Salvation is at stake [13], even if we are never to achieve perfection.

So although modernism often takes pains to distinguish itself from religious ideology, it derives from Christian eschatology (& indeed monastic thought [14]). This is typical of the way older ideas "fold" into newer ideas, often disappearing from conscious consideration along the way. Christian doctrine had sought to move authority beyond earthly rulers, to ameliorate brutal impulses by positing a higher authority, in effect to transcend earthly hierarchy.[15] Such transcendental authority came to be encapsulated in (textual) principles, and the very transcendence of those principles implied their universality.[16] So whereas not everyone was Christian, everyone would & "should" be subjected to universal Christian authority — perhaps converted, wherever that seemed practical. Christian transcendence thus installed "unhelpful notions of the inevitable" that continue to haunt modernity.[17] Christianity also posited the superiority of mankind over all other earthly life & non-life, such that what constitutes "man" became one of the liveliest debates of the modern era. Moreover, the discovery of a "new world" prompted a renewed millenarian impulse, a desire for the end (or completion, as some say) of the world, i.e. reinvigoration of a traditional eschatological position that soon came into conflict with the (perpetual, ongoing) modern telos: Opposition to modernity accompanied modernity.[18]

However, reformation quickly followed discovery [19], and although much of the "new world" was to become Catholic, much was not. Reacting to institutional abuses & greed, Protestants advocated for a more interior [20], scriptural religion: One was not to be judged according to one's "works" (how Catholics describe what one actually does), but according to the contents of one's soul.[21] Whereas the former might be judged by the curia, not to mention the general public, the latter could be judged only by God. Regardless of the intent of its inventors, such a shift proved to be a significant boon to exploiters: Accumulating wealth came to be seen as proof of God's favor, i.e. to be meritorious by itself. Thus, many Protestants had no need to convert others in order to glorify themselves, but could simply annihilate or manipulate people & take their wealth. (Or perhaps that's a sort of conversion.) Wealth was now glory, and so protestantism forged the ideology of a new, capitalist form of exploitation accordingly: What mattered wasn't the souls of others, which could be treated with indifference (as interior to those same others, if such souls were even thought to exist), but rather their wealth & resources, and thus an "interiorized" religion came to dominate the (exterior) globe. Whether modernity needed protestantism or vice versa is incidental here: They arose together. More recently, with little more to discover, at least not in geographic or (human) population terms, the basic pull of novelty that had animated modernity became weaker [22], leading to the forging or "discovery" of new (meaningful, postcolonial) differences & with them, reconfigurations of authority.

  1. The Ottoman Turks took a dim view of capitalism. (As did the Chinese, among other large-scale empires of the time.) Whereas trade caravans through Ottoman territory were safe, attempting to profit while there was not.

  2. Although the Reconquista certainly involved violence, including the infamous Spanish Inquisition, directed to ensure Christian orthodoxy in former Arab & Jewish communities, the Spanish crown also inaugurated a variety of "progressive" policies, such as tax-free cities designed to encourage (economic) expansion. Such concessions attracted profit seekers, and were quickly applied to trade with the Americas.

  3. For those readers who prefer a more technological orientation to modernity, the invention of the printing press was indeed critical to the propagation of protestantism & its call for individuals to read the bible for themselves.

  4. Europe entered an expansionist phase in part because of population pressures resulting from amelioration of the Black Death. The fourteenth century had been a period of actual population decline there.

  5. A sense of novelty was heavily conditioned by geographic discovery: This was also the era of the "Renaissance" & its renewed interest in ancient thought. In other words, the early moderns themselves might have otherwise viewed the events of their lives as part of a historical cycle. (These two notions collide in the example of the expansionist Roman Empire.)

  6. Since "the modern" is not simply what is happening now, but rather implies the new, it further implies that things are changing: It is such changes that then bring "opportunity" according to this ideology. (This will be an entrenched attitude for many readers, and so difficult to perceive. It suggests basic dissatisfaction, or in some interpretations, perpetual crisis.)

  7. Even though — at least according to the periodization adopted here — we are no longer in the modern era, the "modern telos" continues to function in various contexts. (It becomes enfolded in postmodern concepts.) Along these lines, Eduardo Kohn notes that historical telos itself can function as a cause. In other words, notions of modernity still prompt people to think & act.

  8. Anna Tsing notes that notions of progress also condition "tales of ruination," i.e. situations in which "the best" does not come. In other words, a progress ideology is used to circumscribe its own failures.

  9. Particularly in its earliest days, humanism was thus a straightforward transposition of Christian thought, albeit eliding God. Most of its forms & relations remained, and remain, in common. (Basically, what is otherwise the same transcendent hierarchy had its very top — its head or crown or halo? — lopped off.)

  10. Such a notion of progress is manifest in music too, for instance: Much of European music history in the modern (and particularly early modern) period is characterized according to its supposed (technical) development of what would become the classical (& then romantic) style. In other words, musical production is judged retrospectively according to whether it "leads to" such a style. Unsurprisingly, such a notion of "musical progress" was abandoned in the later twentieth century, just as modernity itself crumbled. "New music" as it came to be called — and do note that the "modern period" in art is defined differently than it is in history, and I'm oriented on the latter here — is more often described as reprobate by modernists today. (Hence, "modern music" — and, again, that term indicates something different within the field of music itself — is something of a package too. Perhaps idiosyncratically then, but according to principles that are hopefully becoming clear here, I locate the beginning of modernity in music with the machinic regularization of imitative practice — what would become "common practice harmony" — that accompanied the invention of music printing.)

  11. I want to emphasize, once again, that if one accepts that everyone evolved from the same ancestor (which is what the theory of evolution posits), then everyone who is or was contemporary is exactly as evolved as each other. There are different experiences of evolution, different outcomes, because there are different environmental (in which I'll subsume "cultural") contexts. However, everyone living today is exactly as evolved.

  12. One might also ask what characterizes the modern "historical mode" in Latour's terms: Perhaps it's a crossing of fiction & reproduction? (I'll leave that to others.)

  13. Salvation remains very much at stake according to an ongoing modern telos. (Perhaps I should note that the related term "teleology" has been used more widely.) One need look no farther than belief that "scientific progress" will solve environmental concerns. (In other words, the suggestion is not to stop doing damage, but rather to continue pressing forward, i.e. to find a novel cure for damage done.)

  14. After all, monasteries formed the first corporations....

  15. It was a trend of the medieval era more broadly (through much of Europe & Asia) to emphasize a transcendent position (deity) beyond humanity, thus decreasing the authority of rulers, or at least positing another authority to which they must (eventually) answer. (Such an observation is associated with Karl Jaspers.)

  16. Judith Butler suggests that an urge toward universalization is the primary masculinist trait. (Patriarchy, of course, was dominant in both the European medieval & modern periods. It bridged that shift in thought.)

  17. Paolo Virno suggests that whereas capitalism feeds on history (continues to feed on difference, according to my own analysis), religion veils history. Thus it unleashes a telos of inevitability. (And so religion comes to define the "always already" & I invoke my own earlier remark.)

  18. Millenarian opposition in the New World was, in significant part, Franciscan, but also Dominican, etc. (So one can observe these particular strands of early modernity colliding once again in the current papacy.)

  19. One might say that (theological) revolt & discovery, for a time anyway, resonated together in opposition to orthodox Christianity — which had mainly resisted both.

  20. I have already used the term "interior," borrowed from Peter Sloterdijk, to characterize the world of those who receive the material benefits of capitalism. That the term also describes the basic protestant shift (or installation, as in "installing God inside the individual") is worth noting. Moreover, with e.g. the Puritans, such interiority came to project a locus of guilt, yielding a distrust for ordinary pleasure, a joyless glory that haunts USA to this day.

  21. Tangentially then, Martin Luther King Jr. thus reprises, although with some difference, a specifically protestant orientation in his famous "I have a dream" speech. (Note that I do not mean to normalize the term "soul" by repeating historical usage. I trust that this will be clear.)

  22. The modern impulse for novelty is sublimated into such arenas as fashion & marketing more generally. (Such "differences" are what continue to fuel capitalism.)

II. Nature

Modern notions of discovery greatly exceeded geography: Christianity had already posited mankind as separate from & superior to the remainder of "creation," and the moderns entrenched that constitutive cut, as well as their own sense of differentiation & superiority, by instituting their characteristic empirical knowledge practice upon its resulting duality — often figured as mind-body.[1] Indeed, for many readers, "science" (which simply meant knowledge) will have been the dominant narrative of modernity. Everyone — and not only humans — has knowledge practices, but Western science is distinguished by its rigid subject-object duality: There is a human observer separate from his object of study, which is often called (some subset or type of) nature. Rigid separation folded into a principle of repeatability [2], for which the subject of observation should be interchangeable. However, "algebraically eliminating" the subject in this way (perhaps paradoxically, although with intent) leaves the object mute in its absence: Science came to mean that humans speak for non-humans (along with peoples figured as non-human), even as subject position itself is placed beyond scrutiny [3] — at least until it became the object of another science. In other words, the (properly) human subject is placed in a quasi-transcendent position with respect to its object of study, perhaps most iconically in the "God's eye view" of the Cartesian plane.[4] In yet other words, Western epistemology came to posit a particular ontology, an ontology based not only on differentiating an object ("nature") to be exploited, but on hierarchical (typological) schemas and machinic (parts assembled to wholes [5]) analyses. Such a typology of nature thus proceeds from a generic, transcendent subject-observer linearly [6] (i.e. via rigidly nested sets) to diverse objects of exploitation, and then returns "upward" again via their mechanical assembly. (Hence the "mechanics" of the present inquiry.) As the Cartesian plane illustrates, such an epistemology prioritizes ontological legibility — & indeed purity [7] — particularly from a visual perspective.[8] The "natural world" became a machine, the parts of which were to be discovered, separated, manipulated & perhaps reassembled.

Christian transcendence thus invoked a subject-object separation [9,10] that was further entrenched via both geographic & visual distance: Such a priority on (multiple, coincident) distance is critical to modern thought, which tends to reject immanence as too messy. However, long before the "age of discovery," dualism had figured e.g. women as (natural) objects rather than (properly thinking) subjects, and so people who were "discovered" could be treated likewise without any particular innovation: With people figured as objects in a dualist ontology, biologism came to haunt Western thought, most directly in (especially late modern) evolutionary rhetoric, but even in the basic mechanics of the dialectic (where two different terms collide to produce a third). Moreover, distance both figured the biological (and sometimes the non-biological) into "exotic objects of desire" & entrenched typological concepts such as race: Other people were to be not only objects for the moderns, but tools [11], as everything & everyone was placed in a (simple, linear) hierarchy. One can now perceive modern disinhibition as based on a constituent duality & sense of transcendence: Just as a scientist might dissect a biological sample, the moderns imposed their will on nature while (supposedly) discovering it. Such disinhibition had a practical, violent, military component as well: If the biological samples did not get with the modernist program, they would be subdued by force. Conveniently, an instrumental approach to science & nature also produced the (technological) means to do so. So, much as protestantism & modernity per se had intertwined, subject-object dualism — as applied to nature — provided both means & motive.[12] (Modern criminals needed to look only for opportunities.)

Whereas protestants had (supposedly) rebelled against institutional corruption, unleashing the modern machine on the entire globe involved substituting desire to obtain personal glory (to be figured via wealth) for a (perhaps hypocritical [13]) injunction to love one's neighbor.[14] The result has been perpetual war.[15] As modernity rejected old habits & rituals, it thus acquired new ones [16]: Indeed, channeling its own biologism, one might say that modernity evolved to fit the new environment that it itself was forging: It performs its own reproduction via the mechanics described here. In that sense, modernity forged a new environment for most everyone, an environment in which modern forms of authority not only reigned [17], but continue to condition senses of the new.[18] Even as its authority becomes strained, modernity continues to project power, not only the power of its violence, but of its constituent duality per se.[19] Under the modern telos, transcendent distance haunts the contours of (a scientific) epistemology, so as to impose a Christian structure on reality, and (in particular) a protestant structure on social relations: The world is still said to be for individual, interiorized subjects & should support their quest for a comfortable life of stability, even as nature & its "climate change" (not to mention its resource exhaustion) proves to be far more than a passive object for study & exploitation. (Nature thus comes to mirror the constitutive violence of its own separation.[20])

  1. Whereas European thought had long distinguished man by his ability to think, the moderns (exemplified in the person of Descartes) established mind-body dualism as foundational. It came to format all related dualities during this period.

  2. Repeatability is then figured as (Christian) inevitability, i.e. as final truth (or salvation).

  3. Late modern science was forced to problematize rigid subject-object distinction, perhaps most famously with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle & theory of relativity, both of which acknowledge that (perhaps due to a quality, such as speed) the observer cannot help but affect the object of observation. In other words, "scientific progress" became impossible, at least beyond a certain point, but within a particularly iconic discipline, while maintaining rigid subject-object duality.

  4. One might also figure "rights administered from afar" via the image of the Cartesian plane. (Such a view from "above" is then how the historical archive is figured according to its modern mode, i.e. as access to separate, legal evidence of discovery.)

  5. A cut or separation is what differentiates a part from a whole: We learn to differentiate (& ignore some of) our own sensation, for instance, which would otherwise consist in vast wholeness. (Moderns don't actually have a standard term for the latter, due to emphasis on separation, although e.g. people on the autism spectrum do describe performing such differentiation differently.) A cut is an ontological operation, particularly as it facilitates (combinatoric) legibility & extensibility via discrete finitude. (A popular combinatoric example is binary logic — although some mathematicians might not appreciate the way I've phrased that.) Such cuts thus condition a machinic epistemology that readily becomes obsessed with (what might well be arbitrary) components.

  6. Simply put, linearity is posited, and then (simultaneously) imposed, for reasons of legibility. Such legibility works both ways: As the saying goes, when one has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (In other words, positing linearity is convenient.) However, when an object, as subject, sees a hammer treating it as a nail, it begins to relate like a nail. It changes, even if the hammer doesn't. (Homi Bhabha uses the circumlocution "less than one and double" to describe the perspective of the nail in such a situation.)

  7. Prominent among notions of purity, "racial purity" was a significant modern example forged according to concerns of scientific legibility: It was devised in order to support a clear, hierarchical typology per the mechanics of the previous two notes. (Such a scientific stance has since been retracted.)

  8. Moreover, Christian art became increasingly visually erotic in the early modern period, as noted by Fredric Jameson, Bifo Berardi & others: The visual legibility of (two-dimensional, confined area) painting — and to this, one should add the renewed fascination with geography & maps — is sometimes said to have figured early modern philosophy per se. One might say that suffering was placed at a safe distance, allowing it to be eroticized in the other, thus forging & reinforcing the sublimated libidinal content of Western ocularcentrism. (If this seems to be a non-observation, modern readers might want to consider the erotic qualities of touch, smell, sound, taste, etc.)

  9. Even as some moderns (such as anthropologists) learned more respect for other peoples, dualism was generally retained: Different people were viewed as having different "cultures" that conditioned their subject positions with respect to a (single, common) object, nature. Philippe Descola & others have critiqued this entrenched duality extensively.

  10. Subject-object can be refigured via separation itself, i.e. by considering its posited distance as a third term & asking how such distance might be traversed. Such is method (as in Latour's "reference" mode, and indeed his emphasis on "hiatus").

  11. Slavery was thus conceived according to machinic components, i.e. as both motivated by & a prompt for (further) technology. According to Tsing & many others, sugar cane plantations were therefore the very model for modern industrialization. (Not only did the hypothetical speaking commodity already exist, per Fred Moten, so did the futuristic speaking machine.)

  12. One might say that performance justifies itself — or in Butler's terms, that acting claims the power to act. I'll gratuitously quote Laruelle here: "Every victorious force that considers its victory to be sufficient is criminal." What then are the responsibilities of victory, of action, if indeed such is to be undertaken? (Modernity has been full of criminals in these terms.)

  13. I continue to believe that urging people to love or respect one another, despite various abuses that can & do occur, brings better results than having no such injunction. How can it not? (What is our analogous, secular injunction today? Make enough money that you don't need "safety net" services?)

  14. Further, Sara Ahmed notes that protestantism brought an increase in parental authority, specifically that "breaking the will" of children became common practice. (One might say that children were figured as natural.) So love & violence became increasingly intertwined — much as they might coincide in e.g. love of biological study.

  15. The United States, in particular, has been at war almost continuously for its entire history, first & still (e.g. Standing Rock!) with Native Americans, but increasingly with various groups around the world. Indeed, according to its own logic, the US military has not only been fighting "insurgents" for its entire history, but has trained for "foreign wars" via its experience in "Indian country."

  16. Gayatri Spivak notes (prompted by Jacques Derrida) that as European language conquered the world, (seemingly paradoxically) its own science became dissatisfied with that very language, and invented a new system of signs. To what do we owe this displacement, if not a simmering feeling of inadequacy in the face of the wider world? Or perhaps it was simple vanity. (Such a juxtaposition prompts Sloterdijk to question whether a sense of wonder prompts science — & indeed philosophy — or is suppressed by them. Is scientific knowledge not a "cure" for wonder?)

  17. In particular, Moten notes that the modern logos — literally "word," but suggesting both divinity & logic — figures the scream itself as inarticulate & therefore meaningless. The most horrified personal protest possible thus becomes nothing — proof of its own impossibility. (And modernity remains inevitably, definitionally good.)

  18. Spivak further notes that, even in the postcolonial period, emergence (as in "emerging nations," etc.) means assimilation to the (prior, modern) dominant.

  19. Tracing premodern thought, Giorgio Agamben posits "use" as equivocating subject-object duality, particularly via "use of the self," and thus as critical to forging new fundamental political relations. (Max Horkheimer had advocated a similar role, according to Marxist principles, for labor per se.) For Agamben, according to (medieval) Franciscan principles, subject-object duality is "deactivated" in use: With the thought of Francis of Assisi then, we can exit the symbolic domain, and the horse simply eats the oats.

  20. Nature had always been capable of initiating or returning violence. However, our faith in subduing it has waned in the face of that increasing return.

III. Political economy

That other people were "more natural" also meant that they were (supposedly) less human: They were to be exploited as natural resources, yet in distinctly human ways, starting from their labor. (They were to be exploited, that is, unless they were to be exterminated instead.) Christian dualism had already figured the body as inferior to the mind, such that the laboring body occupied one of the lowest stations in the social hierarchy, and so conquerors "naturally" began to organize labor for exploitation. That such hierarchy was imposed externally, and over a short time period, rather than arising organically, meant that labor could be approached as already alienated, an orientation augmented (or at times displaced) by importing (by force, of course) workers from elsewhere. Such alienation yielded a machinic approach to labor that was to lead eventually to more "actual" machines via industrialization, and then to (explicitly) scientific management. However, one can perceive these nascent trends in the early machinations of modernity: By the time that the discipline of "political economy" was invented in the "enlightenment" era, such mechanisms were already operating around the world. So political economy, which proposed to forge or recognize a unified system of production & allocation for an entire (imperial) nation — i.e. political body (per the term) — according to the principles of (household) economics [1], was typical of enlightenment thought in that it "articulated the lessons of early modernity into a format for continued, more thorough application & replication." Indeed, political economy was not only an apology for existing imperial activity [2] — "proof" that such activity produced wealth, figured as a general good — but the conceptual machinery that consolidated the modern nation-state as a new form of governance. Such consolidation also reflected application of imperial principles to domestic labor: Simply put, with an easily exploitable labor force overseas, capitalists had less "need" for domestic workers (i.e. peasants), and so new concessions — new forms of exploitation — were unilaterally imposed. Surely this sounds familiar to readers in the contemporary era! The early modern period was thus also the infamous era of famine in Europe [3], as well as of e.g. the second serfdom in Eastern Europe.[4] Everyone suffered for the enrichment of a few.[5]

Labor remained the primary engine of wealth generation throughout the modern period, and so governance (i.e. population management) was critical. Long before notions such as disciplinary power, biopower, liberal governmentality etc. were articulated, traditional sovereign power nonetheless engaged in such management: Since labor directly produced wealth for the modern machine, increasing the supply of labor became a priority, and not simply by conquest (or e.g. the slave trade), but by increasing birth rates. The moderns thus conspired with religious officials to suppress & criminalize knowledge of birth control [6], and exponential population increases soon became the norm. (An emphasis on the domestic production of life also elevated hierarchical, filial principles further ahead of more egalitarian social affinity.[7] In other words, it strengthened patriarchy.) Moreover, emphasis on production brought moralizing messages (particularly protestant messages) about "hard work" — and in turn more marginalization for people with disabilities.[8] Emphasis on "economic growth" was thus intertwined with biology, which was increasingly figured & organized so as to increase production & therefore wealth [9]: Everything was to expand, and smoothly, continuously. Alienation facilitated such a machinic mentality by eliminating entanglements & "freeing" economic factors (such as labor) to become interchangeable. As peasants were forced to urbanize, whether via privatizing land, enticements, or ordinary pressures of larger families, they were more thoroughly alienated — or "atomized" [10] — for this purpose, thus facilitating the increasingly mechanized industrialization for which modernity came to be known. Although formal "industrialization" occurred only later in the period, continuity with earlier (less obviously technological) machinic practices is important to note, particularly as a vector of increasing mechanization not only operated throughout the period, but continues to operate today.

While the imposition, and then justification-consolidation, of modern political economy was critically tied to population management practices & therefore biology, it entailed other values & practices as well: Native North Americans, for instance, enumerated what they perceived to be the values of (modern) Europeans: These were profit, private property, debt, accumulation for (only) a few & slavery.[11] As noted, because of the (highly profitable) extensibility & disentanglement available via alienation & atomization, slaves became the model for modern workers more generally.[12] Private property (i.e. "enclosure") facilitated this process by forcing peasants off the land in Europe, and by providing incentives for ordinary people to fight against e.g. Native Americans.[13] (Private property thus became a mechanism of extermination, and continues to be a pillar of necropolitics.) Debt is another powerful mechanism of control, a mechanism that (because of "interest") only expands [14]: Debt thus tracks the biological, providing a ready means of subjugating an expanding population. Western accumulation is supported, moreover, by a regime of inherited wealth — the inverse (dual) of a regime of "inherited" debt.[15] Such values are particularly associated with the bourgeoisie (i.e. burghers, or wealthy city dwellers) or "middle class," and indeed another iconic feature of modernity was its middle class (or "liberal") revolutions: Although early modern accumulation of trading wealth outside of direct aristocratic control had been a concern (for aristocrats), a concern that e.g. Adam Smith specifically addressed in his defense (& hence forging) of economic liberalism (with its canonic "laissez faire" exhortation), the trend did continue & was to lead to a grand power shift away from the hereditary (divinely ordained) aristocracy & toward wealth-oriented businessmen.[16] Such revolutions distanced themselves from explicit Christianity as well, such that one can regard political economy as becoming secular. However, placing profit-seekers at the top of the social & political hierarchy, optimizing "wealth" per se, has served to erect "economics" as itself politically transcendent: That the "political" has been dropped from the term "political economy" further symbolizes the extent to which the economic domain of (mechanical) production & allocation has colonized & captured modern politics.[17] In other words, monetary power has overwhelmed the short-lived modern democracies.

As the modern era made wealth increasingly synonymous with power & "value" per se [18], given that their positions were not explicitly hereditary, and as truly new opportunities for global exploitation (i.e. "discovery") declined, bourgeois leaders sought to guarantee their future wealth & status: They became increasingly risk adverse (while continuing to deploy rhetoric suggesting that risk is what legitimizes profit), such that suppression of chance or "fortune" became a significant trend of the modern period. Whereas a traditional sovereign, secure in his own position, could strive for increases in wealth for the population as a whole, a bourgeois "aristocrat" must ensure that it's his wealth that increases: Such a shift leads to suppression of total wealth in favor of retaining (hierarchical) differentiation.[19] Moreover, grounded in the debt regime (and its dual regime of inherited family wealth), and further facilitated by fiat currencies, modern "finance" yielded an ability to make money out of nothing: This was & is biologization of money, i.e. money reproducing money. (Thus, once again, the moderns sought to capture biology.) Such a regime not only accelerates "naturally," but "feeds" on time, refiguring even the temporalities of other peoples as economic fuel.[20] (Such automatic accumulation is a modern form of inevitability. Again, as the moderns rejected some habits, they acquired others.) Automatic financial gain does not involve reciprocity, thus disembedding it from other social relations (which it nonetheless claims to transcend & dominate): As modern capitalism is increasingly gripped by fear, as it retreats from & destroys its own characteristic sense of optimism, total destruction becomes a possible outcome of the urge to establish risk-free accumulation. (This would not be the first society to destroy itself in the name of remaining safe. One might observe that as risk is pushed to the fringes, it actually comes to loom larger overall: Such are the mechanics of suppression.) While the debt regime continues to produce an urge toward quittance, rather than further developing relations, there has been no quitting the modern accumulation (& stratification) machine: Capitalist "business," mechanized resource extraction & accumulation, dominates global life. Anything else has been relegated to lower status.

  1. In ancient Greek thought, "economics" specifically concerned household management, and was rigidly separate from affairs of the polis, or politics. Such a distinction was largely obliterated in the modern era — first justified in part by the Christian notion that everyone is a member of a single family under God. (Thus, the modern era already enacted major shifts in what was considered to be public or private.)

  2. As it so often does, "apology" (in the sense of "apologia") involved creating new language & coopting old language, i.e. new or realigned symbolism employed to justify & extend an existing condition. In other words, thoughts & actions were decontextualized, and then assembled into new (theoretical) relations. Consequently, e.g. Maurizio Lazzarato notes that a genealogy of political economy is inseparable from a genealogy of morality — both Latour & Adam Smith obviously agree: What modern activities became "moral" simply because they contributed to personal or national accumulation? Such an apology, then, was ultimately a justification for violence — violence that would only accelerate in its wake.

  3. Famine might be considered as a direct outcome of species alienation, i.e. the mechanical imposition of mono-crops from elsewhere, both (supposedly) to increase yield & to reduce species entanglements, i.e. pests etc. However, one can observe that early modern optimizers optimized away resilience in the process of such a quest for agricultural legibility & disentanglement.

  4. Western aristocrats came to have very profitable colonies, but their family members in Eastern Europe did not. So that the latter could continue to match the standard of living of the former, increasingly onerous measures were reimposed on peasants, including tying them to the land again, after what had been a long period of improving conditions. (Germany was caught in the middle of these developments, creating a situation that would erupt later in the modern period.)

  5. Even the free market, as it was defined at the time, largely disappeared over the course of the early modern period: A market was a location, and a "free market" meant (in Europe) not only that everyone could attend, but that everyone could see what everyone else was paying. Secret deals, i.e. those transacted away from the marketplace, slowly came to dominate the economy in the seventeenth century, and were widely lamented as heralding the end of the free market. (Today, of course, such a term means something very different.) In other words, "markets" became less public & more private — inspired by the captive markets of imperialism.

  6. The "witch hunts" were thus an assault on what had been the feminine sphere of reproductive knowledge. They further entrenched patriarchy in the period, including by providing a means for seizing property owned by women.

  7. My specific (queer, political) critique of filial versus affine orientations can be found in the second supplement (section 7) to Practical listening.

  8. It's not that people with disabilities can't do anything, i.e. can't produce, but rather that they resist standardization (more or less by definition) as inputs to the modern labor machine. Hence, "being different" was figured as already deficient according to the demand for normalized machinic labor (as it was, per the previous note, according to the demand for increased biological reproduction). In other words, ableism has a specific horizon: Able to do what?

  9. One can consider the (economic) nexus between allocation & production more generally: Rather than produce so as to allocate, modernity came to allocate so as to produce. In other words, traditional economic priorities were inverted by the moderns. (I have previously interrogated this situation according to a notion of "allocation games," in order to emphasize the increasing role that "game theory" plays in allocation techniques.)

  10. An "atomized" worker is a worker with minimal social entanglements, one who is hence more interchangeable: One might think of a geometric point, rather than a more complex figure, and how such "points" can be realigned freely into a wide variety of arrangements & in turn figures. (Within such a scheme, other values, i.e. human entanglements, become mere obstacles to machinic deployment. In this sense, atomic alienation can be more thoroughly deterritorializing than a "nomadic war machine" — as refigured positively around contemporary subjectivity by Rosi Braidotti — as the former spares no relation from being instrumentalized via capitalist reterritorialization.) One might further describe these developments according to mathematization of human relation: Mathematics needs to simplify reality in order to become applicable, and from there, is employed to dictate an ontology.

  11. This list was specifically cited by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, but similar thoughts appear in a wide range of material.

  12. Although moderns like to boast about ending slavery, let's not forget that they (re)instituted it in the first place. It would be more accurate to say that they (eventually) reconfigured the exploitation of labor into a form more effective than slavery.

  13. The "American Dream" is thus a dream of displacing others: Likewise, fascination with gun ownership in the United States emerges from not only a history of slavery, but of violent encroachment to seize & hold land. That the US government found an incentive — in the Indian Wars — to offer property ownership to settlers, provided that they would "protect" & exploit it economically, is thus a significant factor underlying the contemporary regime of (real) property law. (In other words, nothing about this situation is as "natural" as it might seem.)

  14. As discussed extensively by e.g. Lazzarato & David Graeber, primordial debt (to God, to one's parents) had already been a feature of Christianity, and so was not a specifically modern mechanism of control. Nonetheless, modernity did e.g. remove (Catholic) restrictions against usury, and so instrumentalized debt to a new degree. Regular debt forgiveness, a feature of e.g. the Roman Empire, also became unthinkable.

  15. So whereas the rhetoric of modernity emphasizes "social mobility," the dual debt & inheritance regime has operated against such mobility. Of course, the "inheritance regime" partially predates modernity: There was basically no "mobility" into a hereditary aristocracy, but the emerging middle class came to embrace inheritance according to that inspiration, and extended it to far broader — albeit less rigid — circumstances. (The debt regime also predates & was reconfigured by modernity, per the previous note.)

  16. Today in the United States, i.e. in the country most strongly associated with liberal revolution, there is a major push to reestablish hereditary aristocracy via the cumulative effects of inherited wealth (per the the previous two notes). Such a situation might seem ironic (and is widely denied), although it might simply be a long-term response to a power vacuum created by the American Revolution.

  17. Although I appreciate Latour's interrogation of the practice of Western science, and the modes into which he disarticulates it, I find his similar disarticulation of "the economic" into three modes to be much less satisfying. However, I do appreciate his description of the economy as "second nature" (with many of the same conceptual issues as the first), and his further observation concerning materiality (which he critiques extensively while disarticulating "first" nature): Whereas (scientific) "matter" produces possibility, "economic matter" produces impossibility. It's a great quip concerning contemporary economic rhetoric (i.e. suppression of politics), but it's of specifically contemporary relevance: The modern regime did not apply economic rhetoric so as to create impossibility, but rather toward accumulation (i.e. "growth"). It is the failure of the modern growth regime per se that has produced a contemporary feeling of economic impossibility.

  18. With the hegemony of neoliberalism, (liquid, i.e. monetary) wealth would become absolutely synonymous with value, as its fungibility supposedly allowed all values to become commensurate. In other words, everything has its price, and all prices can be compared. (Classic liberalism had still accommodated, perhaps uneasily at times, multiple kinds of values.) Mathematization continues to seduce with its promise of simplicity.

  19. First, at face value, optimizing for particular wealth, rather than general wealth, means that the latter is not being optimized. That's a very straightforward observation — but one that moderns still seek to deny. (I guess they still believe that the "invisible" hand of God provides this service somehow.) Second, moreover, such a particular priority requires more "energy" than simply letting wealth "fall" where it may. This is basically an entropic process, and more constraints generate more entropy (per unit of total wealth). Indeed, since "climate change" can be framed according to entropy, these notions align. (Bernard Stiegler, for instance, specifically advocates for economic incentives to reduce entropy. One might also frame such a situation according to notions of speed: Modernity always seeks to increase speed, a priority that has only intensified in the contemporary period.)

  20. Temporal alignment is mandated by e.g. industrial inputs & outputs, particularly when these cannot be readily inventoried. The temporality of others thus came to be figured as deficient — or in these terms, "not modern" — relative to the demands of capitalist exploitation. So financial capitalism came to forge & maintain its own "universal" time, the time of interest accumulation that it imposes on everyone else. (Unsurprisingly then, so-called "developing countries," those figured as "behind," supposedly owe a lot of money.)

IV. Aesthetics

Modern subjects irrupted from mind-body dualism so as to dominate nature as object [1], and in turn to be managed (in populations) according to new principles of political economy. Via such rupture & management, modernity produced "individuals," i.e. instantiations of its characteristic "liberal subject." This conception of subjecthood is likely deeply ingrained in a modern reader's (sub)consciousness, and so difficult to interrogate, but what is an individual? Beyond suggesting that proper (biological) division of populations occurs at the skin [2], an ideal modern individual is an atomic laboring unit, stripped of relations for easy machinic deployment. (Generically, an individual is a component of a population, to be separated & distinguished in some manner. Individuation is thus another ontological operation.) However, the specifically liberal subject also emerged from the middle class & its bourgeois values, and therefore "owns" itself as subject of (implied) emancipation — such that it may retain (some) particular relations.[3] Self-ownership has come to imply increasing responsibility toward entrepreneurship [4], but is always already forged according to broad social processes of individuation.[5] So whereas modern subjectivity celebrates its own independence, it arises from historical factors [6]: Such factors include a (disinhibiting) orientation toward performance & production over allocation & providence [7], both figured according to machinic rationality & a sense of (inevitable) progress, as well as a mandate to be happy.[8] For the emancipated, liberal subject such happiness soon found itself in tension with risk-averse demands for (mechanical) security, already yielding to romantic laments about boredom & further demands for symbolic creation.[9] In short, the modern world became "too full" for its subjects, who were increasingly tasked with listening (i.e. being educated or entertained) — & with polite civility [10] — rather than speaking. (One might in turn figure machinic emancipation via tracing new forms of audience subjugation, particularly around sensory integration that prioritizes the visual mode.[11]) Expression of personal preference came to be not only a reward of liberal emancipation, but a mechanism for forging one's boundaries & contours as an individual subject: One's sensations, only some of which may be chosen, in turn condition one's future choices in an intense feedback loop of individuation.[12] The new discipline of "aesthetics" was then invented so as to critique (& bolster, per enlightenment norms) the modern subject as proper locus of personal choice & therefore individuation: Its distinctiveness emerges out of the sorts of (modern) choices in which it is immersed — i.e. out of the modern ecology.

Prefiguring the discipline of marketing that was to be invented & quickly come to dominance in the twentieth century, distinctly modern notions of fashion & "personal taste" arrived to herald the early modern period.[13] In keeping with modern priorities, such "taste" was to be evaluated according to hierarchical, universalizing principles: Some people had "good taste," i.e. correct (aesthetic) choices that were to be admired, and some people did not. (So these were not exactly choices, at least not according to modern transcendental epistemology.) Moreover, universalizing aesthetics further dualized modernity's outcomes: As social (& biological [14]) reproduction was posited to proceed according to the interior's standards of "beauty," which were the standards of beauty, violence & suppression (somehow!) increased elsewhere. The discipline of aesthetics developed so as to blind modern subjects to the operation of this gap, i.e. to bathe modernity in (a distracting) glory: "Individual" choices were disarticulated from collective outcomes, as e.g. desire for pretty white piano keys was disarticulated from intent to harm elephants.[15] (Aesthetics hence reprised notions of an enchanted world without consequences.[16]) Unsurprisingly, the choices on offer continued to follow the modern groove, such that supposedly personal preferences were always already in alignment with imperial politics: Modern aesthetics nonetheless claimed to capture inscrutable personal whim, which it implicitly directed toward glorifying modernity per se via its universalizing tendencies. (The notion that "there is no accounting for taste" came to obscure this operation, i.e. to direct arguments back to universal categories rather than interrogating specific preferences & possibilities.) Such a tight feedback loop functioned (and functions) to isolate liberal subjects from the consequences of their (aesthetic) preferences.

As (modern) aesthetics implicitly traces & captures emotional response, it simultaneously universalizes & individuates that response according to modern norms.[17] (Such a process of aesthetic capture is called secularization by moderns.) The contradiction between individual & universal, constantly obscured by (modernist) glory, is also exemplified by mechanical reproduction of "art objects" per se, as well as aestheticization more generally: Modernity posits that personal taste is inscrutable, but the messages (& objects) of "taste" are everywhere, yielding a saturated contemporary regime of "fake" choice: One is endlessly asked to make meaningless (aesthetic) choices, so as both to sustain one's specific individuation within the modern hierarchy, and to render invisible the latter's constituent violence — thus eliminating the possibility of "really" choosing otherwise. Hence modern aesthetics both revels in & resists complexity & change, constantly retracing familiar subject positions in the name of individuality [18]: A world that is "too full" of sensation, thus mandating (carefully scripted) personal choice regimes, a world that is always at one's personal whim, provided that one makes a choice consistent with modern glory, yields a world in which issues cannot be addressed at an ecological level of interaction: There are only the personal & the universal [19] — always already in alignment, at least according to the norms posited by modernity itself. And now, as ubiquitous marketing & propaganda continue to spew contradictory personal-universal glory, faster & faster, the resulting torsion shatters the (modern) subject.

  1. The iconic statement of modern subjectivity is "I think therefore I am." (As with so many modern pronouncements, note that it posits an ontology via — a somewhat strained, implicit — epistemological move.)

  2. How else might one segment humanity (& for that matter, non-humanity)? That the "human being" is defined by its skin — the enclosure of its physical body — ignores various relations both larger & smaller than such a unit. Parts of our bodies have particular relations with non-humans such as microorganisms (which inhabit us), while the same or other parts might relate externally according to machinic processes (such as salivation, famously). Moreover, people might be grouped according to larger bodies such as tribes, genders, families, nations, voting blocs, etc. (Whatever segmentation is posited, boundaries are maintained according to "immunological" processes, that is, via nonlinear feedback of inclusion & exclusion. Hence, a contingent boundary can become quite resilient, and conditions its own particular politics accordingly.) There is also more recent fascination with gene "pools," plus continuing interest in other forms of corporate collectivity....

  3. The "nuclear family" is hence a compromise between broadly situated relations & the modern demand for atomization. Consequently, modern conceptions of "the private" (and so "privacy") are closely linked to the nuclear family. (Canonically, of course, privacy concerns sexual reproductive activity, or maybe e.g. family finance.) The family, which increasingly might be as small as one person, becomes the specific scene of the private. (However, the "compromise" continues to involve negotiation & intervention, and some family configurations are proscribed.)

  4. Étienne Balibar suggests that Locke invented the notion of the self as a kind of possession, via circumlocution of the adjective "own." (I had already noted that "the world is still said to be for individual" subjects, and that notion is according to their entrepreneurial mode: Such an orientation has only become more intense in the contemporary era.)

  5. Stiegler (following Gilbert Simondon) posits three basic sorts of individuation: psychic, technical & social. Accordingly, the self can become a fraught territory of impinging forces, i.e. can arise from (or amid) contradiction — and usually does. Kohn suggests that the self is a product of semiosis, a trait it shares with life in general. Whereas such processes do not necessarily align a priori, modernity posits general alignment, grounding the self in the transcendent (Christian) hierarchy — according to which ultimately there can be no confusion about what is or isn't a self (and therefore about salvation), because all perspectives align in the "mind of God" as proper superset. (Such transcendent hierarchy is not then an ecological means of alignment, i.e. is not the result of overlapping & impinging semiotic methods.)

  6. Perhaps I should remark that, at least according to the specific temporal boundaries posited early in this discussion, I never actually lived during the modern era. It is the past for me, but unlike e.g. the medieval era, it is a past with far more contemporary presence: Many people remember the modern era, and its ethos continues to operate aggressively & self-consciously today.

  7. According to Sloterdijk, the notion of "reality" itself was invented by enlightenment thought in order to coerce the individual subject into performing: Reality was a harsh substitute for divine providence.

  8. Ahmed has interrogated the modern notion of mandatory happiness, and in particular, what happens when one fails to comply. One might note that happiness can be rationalized, and that mandatory happiness is always already rationalized. (Since modernity figures rationality as the opposite of emotion, such an injunction obviously circumscribes emotional response.)

  9. This is the "administered world" of Theodor Adorno, a world of excess interpretation & what Stiegler calls symbolic misery: The latter insists, in turn, that people must have a continuing role in creating their own symbols (i.e. that such participation is required for healthy individuation in the modern mode).

  10. In "civil society," then, vulgar language is proscribed — much as one should not discuss politics or religion. In other words, necropolitics accelerates, but the real outrage is bringing violent acts into "polite conversation."

  11. Well prior to the late modern spectacle, early baroque music had sought to abstract affectivity per se, freeing "musical affects" to circulate in the absence of (feeling) bodies. A "visual" notion of distance was thus applied beyond early modern erotic art. (One might analogize florid baroque abstraction to postmodern collage techniques, as decontextualized figures came or come to be arrayed in contrasting proximity. So if the baroque arose in the wake of new forms of global exploitation, does such neo-baroque sensibility arise from renewed exploitation?)

  12. One might think of the individual subject as something of an "eddy" in a much larger flow: It's not quite a part of the flow, but depends upon it for its existence. (Such an image also problematizes boundaries.)

  13. Trends in clothing, i.e. canonical "fashion," became a distinctly European phenomenon (as noted by Braudel). Further, universalist aesthetics continues to be haunted by the notion of "taste" per se (i.e. that of food), as noted by Sianne Ngai & others (e.g. Adorno): This haunting marks the basic origin of liberal aesthetic practice in explicit consumption, rather than in transcendent "art objects." (Ngai traces such haunting around a revealing contemporary aesthetic category, "cute.")

  14. Stiegler further posits three types of economy: political, libidinal & symbolic. (He goes on to suggest that the organization & circulation of libidinal energy became the main problem of capitalism. Note that such a typological emphasis reflects a modern orientation more generally.) Intertwining economies further suggest a sexual nexus for aesthetics, as its forms intertwine with those of biology: Beauty becomes a means of reproduction, and the modern body is constructed accordingly (for seduction). Biological & social reproductive concerns are hence fused in order to produce a characteristic, composite (symbolic) vector of modern sexual relation. In other words, modernity produces strong (contextual, hierarchical) messages about who is or isn't sexually appealing.

  15. Of course, doing the physical harm is left to others. (These others are frequently in positions that do not accommodate much "choice.") Specific examples aside, tangential to the outcome-intent dual interrogated here, i.e. the gap obscured by aesthetic glory, Graeber notes a means-ends dual — a duality he says emerged from (modern) bureaucracy. Are means a sort of economic intent? (Means might not be sufficient to ends, or warp the latter in some other manner, but I digress....) Indeed, Latour preaches a "kingdom of ends" in his disarticulation of second nature.

  16. Universal, transcendent notions of beauty thus posit "another" world (a figurative heaven) into which the modern subject might escape — and such notions continue to operate. (This is one means by which modernity refigures spiritual urges within a secular paradigm: Modern reenchantment comes to forge an art-intellect-eros nexus via abstraction.)

  17. Whereas modernity's characteristic demands for simplicity & legibility have been applied to emotions, its increasingly complex situation has multiplied possibilities for contingent response. In other words, our emotions become more limited, involve fewer gradations & categories (or affects), but are arrayed over far more situations: Emotional response is complicated by various contextual factors, while affect itself is simplified. (In these terms, emotion is collision between affect & context.) These are machinic priorities: Not only does such figuration support extensibility, but also incommensurability across populations: Affective response can then be assembled into large (supposedly populist) movements, while still retaining limited sympathy for others, i.e. those who respond from different contexts.

  18. I discussed the aesthetic operation of (& much more regarding) the familiar-unfamiliar dual already in What is familiar?. With the familiar, one can continue to trace the us-them mentality that sustains the modern interior & its choice regime.

  19. In a world of discovery, there is always faith that a new universal can appear. (We might discover more about nature such that it will return to obeying our whims. Or so moderns continue to suggest, perhaps while invoking space travel.)

Related items

Although "one can't simply read & write forever," the following series is planned:

  1. Basic mechanics of modernity (this article)
  2. Notes on the value of (human) life
  3. Further notes on fascist aesthetics
  4. Concepts of contemporary authority

In other words: This initial, introductory article is to be followed by two relative brief supplementary appendices on specific topics, and then by a companion piece from an explicitly contemporary (political) perspective. Titles are provisional. Links will appear here.

I made a handful of spontaneous syntax corrections to this page on June 28th (i.e. after finishing the series). Evidently, I felt some nervousness about the project.


Please see the Morality & Listening appendix bibliography for an ongoing bibliography related to this project. (As noted there, these subsequent projects also draw on the somewhat longer — at least to this point — Fortune & Familiarity series bibliography.) No separate bibliography is planned for the current series.

Todd M. McComb
17 April 2017