Monday, November 4, 2013

Commensal Modernization vs Pure Modernity

The Second Industrial Revolution in steel, concrete, electricity, chemicals ,which lasted from about the 1870s to the 1960s ,led to a worldwide process called modernization.

Its key characteristic was a greatly increased intermingling of foreign human beings and their cultural objects (tangible and intangible) into every country on earth , with vast numbers of everything coming in and over supposedly sacrosanct national borders with greatly increased velocity.

Another word for the intimate co-mingling of small and big, willy nilly, is commensality (in the controversial sense in which biologists use this ancient concept).

Tourists, immigrants, ideas, ideologies, artists, manufactured goods - they poured in and out , at such a great speed and in such great numbers , that everyone felt at least a little overwhelmed.

More, faster and deeply intermingled : that was the impression the effects of modernization had on the first generations impacted by its initial stirrings.

Others felt a great deal overwhelmed indeed and not a little threatened : they were usually each nation's traditional elites, using to having their say pass unquestioned.

Now new competitors were threatening their hegemony and the national elites had both time, money and control of the key academic and media centres of influence to successfully fight back : fight back ideologically.

Today we call their counter attack on the commensality of modernization "Modernity", but they themselves never did.

They probably tended to regard their ideas as simply matter-of-fact ideas about Progress , Science and Modern times.

They certainly went to their graves not aware that their supposedly up-to-the-minute modern ideas were really a rearguard reaction against modern reality.

Because they claimed to be truly modern was to see stability, gradualism, simplicity, purity, the few and the big as what was found in Nature.

And moderns should seek and desire the same in Human culture to be truly happy and prosperous.

All this - and more in their ideological repertoire - could be reduced (itself a favourite modern term !) to the claim that reality is basically stable and simple.

A pure substance has fewer ingredients - it is simple.

For a given amount of anything - say the potential biomass on Earth - the bigger the portions it is made up of, the fewer there are of them - fewer is also simpler to keep an eye on.

And big things, by their size and complexity are less likely to move easily or move quickly.

If they move, they move gradually and slowly. Slow change is also simpler to keep an eye on.

And big things are hardly invisible and hardly capable of sneaking in below the radar are they ?

Reductionism, another core value of Modernity, is the claim that matter is all made up of a very few fixed building blocks and with them you can build up everything from a simple molecule to an entire Universe , just like Lego by simply adding more and more and more blocks.

Purity meant no co-mingling of human loins either : being called a half breed was about the worst epithet in the modernist lexicon.

They liked things big, clearly visible, few, simple, pure, slow moving , unchanging ; they hated things that were tiny (and thus "many") , fast moving, invisible, fast changing, flexible, mixed and complex, things mixing in other people's space without their permission or even them being aware of it.

What they disliked sounds like a textbook description of germs , particularly commensal germs, and Germ Theory.

No wonder then that everything human the Moderns tended to hate and fear and demonize they choose to call human germs or an equivalent words like human virus, bacilli or pathogen.

WWII, Modernity's own war , was all about the big picking upon and fearing, the small.

This war upon the small was not incidental to the main action of WWII --- it was the main action.

Now you know what Henry Dawson was up against in his wartime penicillin efforts to defend the small against the big......

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