The Four Post-Modernizations

Third Question:
Were They Born in California in the 1960s?

Certainly one can find precursors to all the post-modernizations before then. They even form as a linked set in what has been called the ``first Modernism'', strongest before the First World War: Cubism, Futurism, and all their kin. They were fascinated by the new powers and potentials of technologies ranging from airplanes through ferro-concrete to movies; contemptuous of a past already dead and irrelevant outside the Academy and the bourgeoisie; confident that their art was the Revolution, that it would transform the world; intoxicated with speed, violence, and change. ``We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure and by riot; we will sing of the multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the virbrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons.''

Bertrand Russell, for one, saw such tendencies with clarity and a decided lack of approval. In 1943 he wrote:

The most important effect of machine production of the imaginative picture of the world is an immense sense of human power. This is only an acceleration of a process which began before the dawn of history, when men diminished their fear of wild animals by the invention of weapons and their fear of starvation by the invention of agriculture. But the acceleration has been so great as to produce a radically new outlook in those who wield the powers that modern technique has created. In old days, mountains and waterfalls were natural phenomena; now, an inconvenient mountain can be abolished and a convenient waterfall created. In old days, there were deserts and fertile regions; now, the desert can, if people think it worth while, be made to blossom like the rose, while fertile regions are turned into deserts by insufficiently scientific optimists. In old days, peasants lived as their parents and grandparents had lived, and believed as their parents and grandparents had believed; not all the power of the Church could eradicate pagan ceremonies, which had to be given a Christian dress by being connected with local saints. Now the authorities can decree what the children of peasants shall learn in school, and can transform the mentality of agriculturalists in a generation; one gathers this has been achieved in Russia.

There thus arises, among those who direct affairs or are in touch with those who do so, a new belief in power: first, the power of man in his conflicts with nature, and then the power of rulers as against the human beings whose belief they seek to control by scientific propaganda, especially education. The result is a diminution of fixity; no change seems impossible. Nature is raw material; so is that part of the human race which does not effectively participate in government. There are certain old conceptions which represent men's belief in the limits of human power; of these the two chief are God and truth. (I do not mean that these two are logically connected.) Such conceptions tend to melt away; even if not explicitly negated, they lose importance, and are retained only superficially. This whole outlook is new, and it is impossible to say how mankind will adapt itself to it. It has already produced immense cataclysms, and will no doubt produce others in the future. To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time.
A History of Western Philosophy, pp. 728-729

While I shall have occasion to return to Russell's observations, careful study of ``The Hitler Myth'' has shown that ideology, in one important case at least, was not as important as pre-existing cults of the Leader in generating mass support for these, pardon the expression, ``proto-post-modern'' movements. Ideology was crucial to the Party proper, to unifying the people who created and controlled the mass movements, but this was a small segment of the population, frequently drawn from its dregs.

None of this was true of the Californian case. Ideology was the major issue and unifying force of a mass movement; there was no Leader; and the participants in the movement were the educated elite-to-be of the globally dominant society. (Given that last, it is rather ironic how popular ``Fight the Power'' has become as a slogan among their successors today, for in the global perspective they are fond of invoking, they are the Power.)

There are other vivid differences. First, post-modern neophilia is easily the most extreme ever. Its early twentieth century precursors were obsessed with history. That, whether Bolshevik, Modernist or Fascists, they wished to reject it and all its works, shows they thought it important; no one despises that of which they are oblivious. This spirit survived in some ofthe revolts of the sixties, but not their aftermath. The ``compleat Maoist'' can not only identify the May Fourth movement, but explain all its ideological failings, and trace them to its relationship to the prevailing modes of production; today's western campus radicals think feminism was born in the sixties, if they think about such things at all.

A second distinguishing feature is that technology looms much larger for the post-moderns than it did for their predecessors, and their technology is much closer to the cutting edge. Today, perhaps as a substitute for salt, we sprinkle ``cyber-'', ``techno-'', ``eco-'' and ``virtual'' over everything. The Futurists, after the Great War, became similarly fond of ``aero-''; thus ``aeropoets'', ``aeropainters'', ``aerobanquets'', etc. The point is not plus ça change, though that is a good one too, especially when someone starts talking, yet again, about ``art and technology''. The point is that, as J. B. S. Haldane said at the time, this was twenty years behind the vanguard of research. The Futurists were unusually advanced in this regard; doubtless the reader recalls the arresting definition of Communism Lenin gave in 1920, ``Soviet power and electrification of the whole country.'' Today post-moderns see salvation or disaster in nuclear power and digital communications, genetic engineering and biotechnology (``wetware''), artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. They are still behind the vanguard, but gaining. This is a natural consequence of the fact that post-modernization has taken root in the most educated and technically advanced part of the species. These techniques were either being born or perfected in California in the 1960s and 1970s, whence they migrated across the globe. The post-modernized are also even stronger technological determinists than the Bolsheviks: print or TV or videotape by themselves determine consciousness, computers must lead to a police state (an older model, being replaced by "computers must lead to a distributed anarchy"), biotechnology will change everything, space exploration will change everything, some or all drugs are the next step in evolution (what was the last?). A post-modern Lenin would not bother to mention the Soviets.

Third, drugs had not even a fraction of their current importance beforehand, and certainly not in association with the proto-post-moderns. There were, of course, addicts and experimenters millennia before LSD and Medellin became household words, but on nowhere near the present scale.

The four post-modernizations may not have been born in California circa 1967, but it was their that they assumed their current strength, prominence and distinctive form, and it was thence that they spread explosively.