On the birth of Modernism

It’s beautiful to see how more often than not, technological advances have affected the way humans communicate directly and indirectly. The shifts present in modernism revolve specifically around that notion. I still have trouble wrapping my head around the birth of Modernism however. In the series of assigned reading, there seem to be two overarching notions which both intertwine and lead to an unprecedented shift in societal structure.

The thread of a notion I’d like to start unwinding is a great (in scale) relativization of the human race.

In Heart of Darkness, Annihilation of Time and Space and Primitive Survivals there is a distinct acknowledgment of one’s natural surroundings: “The uniformitarians believed that earthquakes, volcanoes, erosion, and other forces must have gradually shaped the earth […]” (Solnit, The Annihilation of Time and Space). Collaterally many maritime explorations led to reach land which had not been encountered yet, in it live different tribes of primitives. “Ugly. Yes it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough, you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest response to the terrible frankness of that noise [you] could comprehend” (Conrad, Heart of Darkness). The confrontation with primitives pushed many “modern” humans to ponder upon and assume more “modern” evolutionist views. The point isn’t to say it was agreed upon everywhere, only to say these were thoughts present in the modern era.

The “great” relativization happened both in space and time. Presumably brought about by the advent of the steam engine and factories, which itself, changing the speed at which things move, what things move and how much move facilitated exploration. The second thread I would like to inspect is technology in that time period. It could be argued that two instrumental technological inventions of that era were the camera and the train.

I have trouble wrapping my head around the relationship between the the two notions, did one precede the other, was one coincidence and the other only a matter of time? There is a undeniable contextualization in time and space of the human race, started by the human mind but accelerated by the advent of technology and explorative endeavors, which leads to more contextualization with later on the exploration of space…

I think it’s clearer now, the inquisitive drive has always been present, but paired with such a significant leap forward in technology, its acceleration in pace in the early 1800’s, makes it seem as if it had almost been inexistent prior to that date. This brings me to the final point, the most interesting one to me.

The relativization factor changed the structures of many countries. In France for example, authors like Marcel Pagnol have described the rise of secular education and how it was fueled by a desire to learn and dismantle blind faith. Collaterally, industrialized production becomes capable of generating surplus which itself caused more and more people to distance themselves from internal, personal perceptions by fear of not “knowing” the ultimate truth or the ultimate trend: “She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiments” (Flaubert, Madame Bovary).

I will now close by skipping ahead two centuries. Now that we are neck, if not, ears deep into the consumption of surplus, I would like to close with the words of Jean Baudrillard in “Consumer Society” on the subject. I am paraphrasing, but it goes something like this:

In the past decades, we have observed that many indonesian “primitive” tribes would see the white planes fly over and wonder how to attract them. They found out that the “whites” could indeed attract them and decided to look at how they did it. Soon after they tried replicating a landing pad. They assembled some palm branches, laid them out into a rudimentary tarmac, lit up some torches, and waited.

Nowadays, in our consumer society, many are fed happiness. So they decided to replicate such visions by buying, consuming, artifacts of happiness, create their own version of a tarmac and then wait for happiness to land.

I love this analogy for its simplicity and accuracy. As a product designer, I often feel responsible for making such things available. Now instead of designing products, or nicely packaged consumable contents, I try to design tools (metaphorically) which will empower consumers (participants?), to act, feel, do things, see the value in exploring once again.


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