Intellectual Currents By Pecora, Vincent P.

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO2-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 17 April 2024, from


This section focusses on the historical, sociological, philosophical, economic, political, and scientific context of modernism. Entries cover individuals, coteries, movements, and events. The primary criterion for inclusion is the salience of the topic either for the production or the reception of modernism. The list is not intended to be encyclopedic in terms that would meet the needs of a student of philosophy, economics, sociology, and so forth today. Instead, keeping the student of the various modernist arts in mind, this section aims to be a rich, if necessarily incomplete, survey of the period within which modernism took shape. While modernism was very largely a European product, the entries in this section also try to reflect its global context.

It is a commonplace that the period between the Franco-Prussian War and World War II was exceptionally violent, even without considering the global catastrophe of the latter, and it is tempting to allow violence to define the intellectual character of the period as well. (Indeed, even in Friedrich Nietzsche’s prophetic vision of the century to come, violence was emphasized.) Colonial atrocities, political revolution, war so massive that many thought (or perhaps hoped) it would end all wars, economic disaster so severe that it seemed to mark the end of liberal capitalism—all contributed to a sense, registered by some major works of modernist art, that (in W.B. Yeats’s famous words) “the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Even if many did not share T.S. Eliot’s subsequent verdict that culture in the twentieth century had become a Waste Land, his sense that the period represented wholesale decay, argued at length by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West four years earlier, could not be ignored even by the optimists. Europe was more sharply divided than ever between the violence of those who believed in the promise of a revolutionary path to egalitarian utopia, and the violence of those who wanted to undo the leveling effects of democratic reform and restore an order built on old hierarchies ratified by popular custom, heritage, and race. Both of these groups would be bitterly disappointed by mid-century, but it is crucial to note the all-or-nothing character of the battle if we are to understand modernism at all.

Yet it is a mistake to remain fixated on the violence, especially when much that was intellectually radical in the era illuminated, and often changed, the human condition for the better, or was at least intended to do so. Fully one-half of the European and American population—women—had been allowed almost no political role before the twentieth century, and had been relegated for centuries (as Virginia Woolf observed) to second-class status. Extending the franchise to women was the start of a social transformation. World War I was a true horror, but it marked, however problematically, the death of privileged dynastic empires that had ruled for centuries. The discovery of the germ theory of disease—perhaps the single most significant public health event in history—finally made medical doctors more beneficial than pernicious after 1900, while Eliot registered the rise of anesthesiology and Thomas Mann that of radiology (though both did so with great irony). Within a few decades, astronomy and physics radically altered the perception of space, time, motion, matter, and the universe itself. The burgeoning interest after Darwin in the origins of civilization included much about the human propensity for violence. But it also demonstrated that so-called primitive, myth-oriented societies and modern, scientific ones were far more alike than earlier Europeans tended to imagine, something that two formative ballets, Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (danced to Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Rite of Spring displayed to great effect.

Freud’s theories of the human psyche also depended on seeing the persistence of primal experience, whether ontogenetic or phylogenetic, in modern humans. His elaboration of the unconscious mind and a “talking cure” for psychological distress reoriented the understanding of emotions. Economic upheaval in the free market was painful, but it eventually prompted a clearer understanding of the role of the state (see J.M. Keynes). Perhaps the most ambitious intellectual achievement of the period—Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—bridged the gap between materialist and moral philosophies and laid the foundation for sociology itself. Philosophy had in many ways come to follow Kant’s admonition to abandon metaphysics and focus on the question of knowledge. Logic, language, and behavior all emerged as intimately rule-based, reducible to simple if repetitive mechanical operations (thus grounding the computer technology to come). Yet for many, consciousness appeared to be far more richly puzzling than ever. Religion was subjected to withering disenchantment, and then oddly became all the more fascinating as a result. Sir James Frazer illustrated at great length the evolution of magic and myth into modern religious belief and then into science—a perspective, like that of Émile Durkheim, designed to replace authority and revelation with empirical scholarship. But while Frazer’s work on myth, like that of other anthropologists of the era, was embedded in an imperial world view, it also explored a remarkable range in human ways of being against which increasingly little seemed truly foreign.

Still, it is true that the era’s liberating advances often had unintended, or unexpected, consequences. Advances in the science of sexual reproduction after Darwin laid the foundation for modern genetics. But one of the first offshoots of this new knowledge was a pseudoscience called eugenics, embraced across the political spectrum, that aimed to suppress the physically and socially “unfit” in order to breed a new golden age into existence. Karl Marx’s prediction that economic development would lead inexorably, via mounting crises, to utopian communism found a testing ground of sorts in Czarist Russia, but Leninist-Stalinist social organization was undoubtedly among the most dystopian in history. Finally, Nietzsche turned the entire Western moral tradition upside down. He was not the first to label the Christian conviction that “the meek will inherit the earth” a trick played by priests on the powerless. But Nietzsche was the most important champion of the idea that this trick was the fundamental error of Western civilization. His radical suspicion of everything that civilized society had come to call good and evil reinvented for modernism the Romantic idea of the Promethean (or Napoleonic) individual, one heroically willful enough to discard the comfort of the civilized herd for the risky, unpredictable, self-creating, and amoral mythology of a new humanity. Like Marx’s, Nietzsche’s ideas percolate throughout the era. And they possessed an enormous potential for being put to unholy use. Nietzsche traced the error represented by Christianity to the priestly culture of the Jews—and, as in previous epochs, European societies sadly needed little encouragement to conclude that Jews were to blame for civilization’s ills. The intellectual culture of the early twentieth century was nothing if not iconoclastic, shattering one idol of the tribe after another in its quest for authenticity. As Thomas Mann observed in his retrospective anatomy of the era and its arts, Doctor Faustus (1947), that hubris came with a heavy price.

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Pecora, Vincent P.. Intellectual Currents. Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/intellectual-currents-subject-overview.

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