Monday, February 15, 2010

About modernism

Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present in a history of central Eurasia that anyone interested in the wider patterns of world history will profit from reading. It is a book with the “barbarians”, the steppe nomads, at the centre. In reconfiguring Eurasian history Beckwith, almost as an afterthought, puts European imperialism in the context of Eurasian history far better than anyone else I have read—even those who were deliberately, even ostentatiously, trying to do so.

I will have more to say about Empires of the Silk Road in a later post. It is Beckwith’s specific analysis of Modernism that interests me here.

In his preface, Beckwith has a wonderful denunciation of the effects of Post-modernism, particularly on historiography. He puts this denunciation in the context of a wider critique of Modernism that is developed later in the last two chapters of the book and associated endnotes. When one first comes across the brief gesture about Modernism, it is intriguing, especially when he casts religious fundamentalism as a manifestation of Modernism (p.x, n8).

Modernism one notes, not modernity.

Beckwith writes:
According to the Modernist perspective, the old must always, unceasingly, be replaced by the new, thus producing permanent revolution. The Postmodernist point of view, the logical development of Modernism, rejects what it call the positivist, essentially non-Modern practice of evaluating problems or objects according to specific agreed criteria. Instead, Postmodernists consider all judgements to be relative. “In our post-modern age, we can no longer take recourse to [sic] the myth of ‘objectivity’” (p.ix).
Beckwith is not having this, and is wonderfully scathing in explaining why.

Beckwith stands, instead, with the view Norman Geras defended when he wrote:
If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Stated less simplistically, if truth is wholly relativized or internalized to particular discourses or language games or social practices, there is no injustice. The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes.
Beckwith thinks a profound historiographical injustice (and plenty of historical ones) has been visited on the “barbarians” and he is very firm that the weapon to reveal and correct this injustice is the truth of what happened, to be determined by careful scholarship.

Good on him.

Beckwith comes across as a particularly grumpy version (when he is letting fly) adherent of the sceptical Enlightenment—the stream of thought that holds that human nature exists, is remarkably constant across time and we need to apply our reason to understand ourselves and history in that light:
The consistency of human behaviour over such great expanses of space and time can clearly be due only to our common genetic heritage. Viewed from the perspective of Eurasian history over the past four millennia, there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio-political structure during this time period—that is, down to the present day—and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too, regardless of whatever cosmetics have been applied to hide it. To put it another way, in my opinion the Modern political system is in fact simply a disguised primate-type hierarchy, and as such is not essentially different from any other political system human primates have dreamed up (p.xi)
Not one for democratic triumphalism, then.

At the end of Empires of the Silk Road, in Chapters 11 and 12, Beckwith returns to his critique of modernism in much more detail, explaining what he means:
The core idea of Modernism is simple, and seems harmless enough by itself: what is modern—new and fashionable—is better than what it replaced. … But Modernism was not merely a finite sequence in which something new (the industrial and urban) replaced something old (the aristocratic and rural) and that was that. If only what is new is good, it is by definition necessary to continually create or do new things. Full-blown Modernism meant, and still means, permanent revolution: continuous rejection of the traditional or immediately preceding political, social, artistic, and intellectual order.
Permanent revolution meant that what went before, including any previous evolution (and its products), was bad and had to be rejected. Even Reason—free enquiry, independent thinking, logic, questioning—was identified as one of the old ideas and practices of old aristocratic intellectuals (p.289).
He regards “religious-political fundamentalism” as “a particularly pernicious form of Modern populism” (p.289 n.69).
Beckwith puts the blame within the Enlightenment, specifically the ideas flowing from Rousseau (p.290). Which is to say, the radical Enlightenment, the stream of thought focused on the notion that even humanity itself could be transformed by human action. For if human nature is regarded as a constant, then there are lessons and value to be had from past experience. But if human nature itself is a work-in-progress, then the past is just the dross arising from fettered or untransformed humanity. The sceptical Enlightenment constructs the US Constitution based on a “failure analysis” of past republics. The radical Enlightenment produces Leninism, whose ultimate evolution (and stunting of the human) we can see in North Korea and its society of “racist dwarves”.

Beckwith sees Central Eurasia as suffering with particular intensity from the impact of Modernism, hence his concern. He deals at some length with the effect of Modernism on the arts because:
Even after the worst of the terror was over, Modernism in the arts continued to spread across Central Eurasia, especially via architecture, because the foreign rulers tore down traditional Central Eurasian-style buildings and replaced them with Modern buildings. The physical appearance of Central Eurasian cities changed drastically, and the cultural heritage of the region was impoverished accordingly (p.289, n68).
He sees Modernism not as a mere wrong turn in culture, art and appreciation of beauty but an attack on, and denial of, culture, art and beauty: as things rooted in, and carrying truths across, time. For Modernism, the new is always better, it is always more “truthful”. But the notion that there is no truth, beauty, knowledge or understanding embodied in the past which can be as powerful and profound, or more so, than new productions, is a nonsense that can only be sustained by attacking the very notions of truth, of beauty, of art and of culture. Beckwith’s claim that Postmodernism is just a hyper manifestation of Modernism (p.317, n26) seems to get to the heart of what is going on.

Beckwith’s claim that religious fundamentalism is a form of Modernism seems a bit odd at first, until one realises that religious fundamentalism is typically a rejection of evolved religious tradition in favour of the revealed Word. Its adherents essentially claim a direct connection to truth, one that is outside time and so remakes the faith, and the world, anew. Fundamentalism also includes attacks on science: thus on reason and truth applied to the world as it is, rather than as it is imagined it could be. That Christian fundamentalists build churches that are typically very Modernist in style is more indicative than one might think.

Beckwith sees the consequences of the French Revolution, the development of mass warfare, the industrial revolution and its accompanying urbanisation as leading to Modernism by undermining the social carriers of traditional ideas (p.292). As he writes:
The socio-political stripping of the elite aristocracy’s hierarchical position above ordinary “commoners” and the institution of populism was thus mirrored in intellectual and artistic life by the elimination of the dichotomy between the elite, which strived for perfection, and the ordinary, which strived for the commonplace (p.293).
This leads to an extended denunciation of the effects of Modernism on arts and culture (Pp293-301) even more extensive and scathing than his early critique of Postmodernism in scholarship. The reason for his passion seems clear enough in his concluding statement:
By the end of the twentieth century, the evil done in the name of Modernism and “progress” left Central Eurasians bereft of much of their past (p.301).
Which Beckwith holds a great injustice: his book is very much about reclaiming that past for the peoples of Central Eurasia. The concluding Epilogue of Empires of the Silk Road is a sustained attack on the notion of “barbarian”.

Reading this passionate attack on Modernism—including populism—I have a worry that the book will not have the influence and impact it deserves since these views are so dreadfully unfashionable: particularly as Beckwith’s rejection of modern “democracy” (as he invariably shudder quotes it) is so sweeping. There are definite indications of that being a problem among the comments on on the book.

Why Modernism?
It is worth taking a step back and asking what is the attraction of Modernism and populism.

Part of it, surely, is that there has been an immense expansion of human understanding and capacity. The notion that there was more truth in the new and to be had in the future was far from a silly thing. Even in ordinary life, there were lots of new things that just worked.

Much of these new understandings did call into question a wide range of past apparent verities. Starting with the impact of Charles Darwin’s analysis of biological existence and the acceptance of geological and cosmological time of millions and billions of years rather than scriptural time of thousands of years.

As human capacities expanded, so the possibilities down the social order expanded. Much of the history of the last couple of centuries is driven by the way the expanding circle of social capacity became an expanding circle of social engagement and involvement. People could do much more for themselves, either directly or through their chosen agents.

Some form of “populism” was surely inevitable. Beckwith’s tendency to let various monarchies off rather lightly—notably, the last Shah’s regime in Iran and the role of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg and Romanov dynastic regimes in the outbreak of World War One—seems to result from him being too aware of the downside of the new and not enough of the failures of the existing.

Which is not to deny that there was a great deal of destruction of what was still valuable, true, valid, viable and so on, in the name of things that turned out to be none of these things. The dreadful idea that human nature itself was being, or could be, transformed by all this—the wars against humans as-they-are in the name of humans as they were deemed-to-ought-to-be—led to all sorts of horrors.

Expanding capacity could certainly expand faster than sense, understanding, institutions, norms could keep up with, and did. But avoiding changes in politics that involved and engaged the mass of the population was surely unavoidable. The only live question was whether this would be done well or badly. Often it was done badly: sometimes megacidally badly. We are still in a collective learning process that is by no means complete.

That much of the intellectual classes have embraced ideas that elevate themselves has meant that their role has often been useless or actively disastrous in all this. The desire to seem “cutting edge” and superior to the mass society around them have made the seductions of Modernism very appealing. They are often the last people to think helpfully about what is going on and how it could genuinely be done better.

But it would be wrong to see Beckwith as some grumpy reactionary. He finds hope in popular music (including rock music) as new art forms unpolluted by the Modernism of the academy and the intellectual, artistic and literary elite. As he writes:
Although it is not yet possible to call it “high” art, at least it really is music; perhaps one day it will develop into an elite art (p.318)
Among the bright lights he includes:
… technologically the Internet, which has had a powerful enlightening influence (p.319).
He sees hope in new art and art forms because they are art, where ‘new’ is just an adjective (p.318).

Beckwith’s discussion of Modernism, however passionate, is only a small part of the effort in historical reappraisal involved in Empires of the Silk Road. But it has implications much wider than his specific subject matter and makes one look at our own societies, and the wider trends of human history, in a more critically enlightened way.


  1. Christopher I. Beckwith is simply brilliant ... I love to read his books and articles. I lei Empires of the Silk Road ... It's great .. Very interesting exhibition on modernism.

  2. Yes, I must post that promised review of the book soon!