Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Rambling thoughts, unedited/unfinished

What is the new modernity to be?

I've been reading Mark Fisher's work recently. It is terribly sad to have just discovered his insights only to then discover his death a matter of days later. One of Fisher's central contentions appears to be that without a sense of 'the modern' then the world is stuck in an aimless trough, repeating itself endlessly, suffused with a vague but essentially meaningless nostalgia.

This idea has nestled quite deeply in my mind, reading several commentators describing the reasons for the seemingly seismic political events has also led me to feel that it is the inability of people to summon up an optimistic vision of the future which leads them to turn away from the centrist liberal ideas with such surprising vehemence.

I have no desire to explore Brexit or Trump. It is what it is. What I think I do want to do is wrestle with this notion of modernism and modernity. They aren't the same thing on a level of academic discourse, but I don't especially want to have academic discourse. I want to probe a topic, to prompt a similar probing in others and I'd like that to be a broad notion, an easy to stomach concept that doesn't need a history or philosophy qualification.

Modernism is, to me, a sense that the lot of the human race can be improved by intelligent application of technology to the problems of living. It is a question of thinking fresh thoughts, or redesigning things to be explicitly different than the past. It is many things, but it is not nostalgic or sentimental. When it visits the past, it quotes it, as opposed to recreating or aping it.

Modernist thinking brings us redefined living spaces, it brings us are which recycles the form of previous styles but with a fresh purpose. It is a movement which does not accept that they way it now is the way it will be tomorrow, because we can do things different, use things differently, build things differently.

This is what has died over the course of the last 50 years. It's the belief in a radical social vision, a belief in change on a big level. You can see it everywhere you look, from the housing estates peddling identikit homes which show no real changes in design since the 1960s, to the complete disinterest in solving transport issues, to the steadfast refusal of TV executives to put on anything that might challenge, confuse or frighten people in it's form or content.

We are in a period of stasis. The change might feel radical but really, it's just a retread of old ideas. There is, of course, a modernity in our social attitudes towards individuals. There is a flourishing culture of ideas around gender and identity in particular. This is positive, but this is also fragile. In order to protect the social advances we've made, we have to think radically as the politics of the individual rely on the society around it. In short, I think what I'm saying, is: If acceptance and liberality (on a social level) is to flourish, we have to question what are hings we want and need from a broader society, what are the universal (or near universal) requirements of our people to achieve a sense of contentment and happiness.

Slavoj Zisek is much maligned, but he is spot on when talking of a desire to here what happens in 'V for Vendetta 2' - how does society reform itself 'after the revolution.' In other words, the progressive, the leftist, the radical, the discontented has to not simply oppose the force of darkness but act as if the revolution is here, now. It has to set forth radical notions which appeal broadly to people because they are intrinsically good ideas which improve the lot of the human being.

For a long time, the rhetoric of the above group has been simply 'more opportunity, more fairness, more kindness' - essentially, the same thing but softer, nicer, more thoughtful. Whilst on one hand the progressives have created a more open, tolerant and frank society, on the other, they have done little address inequality or economic freedoms. They've also failed to stop the dismantling of the apparatus of the state, the erosion of workplace representation or the saddling of the nation (both the nation as a literal state and the individuals that constitute it) in debts accrued by a tide of baseless, thoughtless consumerist recklessness.

So here we are. It is modern in the sense it is now. What is it? An echoing mall filled with bawling voices shouting hate and obscenities at each other about things they only half understand. A strange matrix world, where we lie suspended in our bubbles, fed on a soylent green-esque diet of reaffirming opinions and lifestyle jealousy. A kitch sitcom where we dress like 80s kids or 50s kids and laugh knowingly at our in jokes and lay out our clever cultural signifiers of own unique reference points without ever quite knowing why they are funny or clever because irony or something until one day shit gets real and actually we wake up and actually we're in ALDI and we're living in late era the Soviet Union really for all the difference it makes but with better cars and worse schooling.

So yeah, that's now, maybe, maybe not. Who cares, who wants really to analyse, this subgroups cultural significance, or the self referential nature of this or that. What we need, what we must do is move beyond the navel gazing about 'what it all means' towards a sense of what we can DO. What can be BETTER.

Where do we begin?

First of all, we change the rhetoric. We don't need opportunity as much as security, as stability. Opportunity is a word which has become synonymous with employment. I want opportunities to socialise, to congregate, to celebrate, to muse, to wander, to travel, to discuss, to exercise, to play, to learn and so on. I want opportunities which time brings. Which security brings. I want a freedom from anxiety and the precariousness of every modern existence. I want more than two days to drag myself out of a semi comatose state, into a feeling of possibility. This is opportunity, every bit as much as the opportunity afforded by employment which generally runs counter to these desires.

Secondly, I want to see technology harnessed for social good. I want to see everything become easier, better, quicker faster and universally available. There is an incredible opportunity to radically rethink so many things, from work, to the notion of citizenship, to education, to the way we live and the places we live if technology is embraced and invested in in a massive way. There is no earthly reason to build a project like HS2 when there is such deep inequality of access to information and culture. This could be addressed in so many ways. Maybe we don't need libraries. Maybe we do. But the fractured and ad hoc approach to digital culture, in which we have invited corporations to control the very network and access points, to curate the way we explore it, to choose what we see, to advertise to us through the content of our 'private' messaging is disturbing. We could do much better. Much, much better than this.

The single biggest failing of New Labour in terms of promises versus actuality is the question of transport. Here, we move far beyond the question of nationalised or privatised rail. We need to make car ownership feel like what it is. An anachronistic burden. We need to give opportunities for travel in quick, clean and spacious surroundings, moving seamlessly from mass transit, to smaller vehicles. Again, technology offers some hope here, but are we actually building the world around this possibility, are we enthused and romanced by this potential vision? There are so many ways in which this could be about equality, about a levelling and crucially, a levelling of something that doesn't matter. There is no reasonable argument that could suggest that it is infringing on someone's human rights or basic freedoms by building a super fast transport network which only utilised standardised vehicles. Which gave everyone the same access to those standardised vehicles. Surely in such an instance, the enormous benefits to the majority outweighs the classic white elephant of choice.

In media, we decry the 'dumbing down' of television, the 'nasty right wing' press, but what do we offer instead? Do we create, fund, support, write, submit? Do we have a vision of what we want the media to actually be? Do we make the noise that disturbs or seduces? Are we arguing for or arguing with?



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