A (ahem) “Modern” Look at Modernity

What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.

-“All Apologies,” Nirvana

“All Apologies” is a song that’s been going through my head a lot lately. I don’t know why, because the content isn’t terribly relevant to anything that’s going on in my life. I’m not terrifically unhappy or terribly regretful of my actions. I don’t feel trapped by marriage. Nothing like that. Perhaps it’s just a catchy tune with an inflective, though ultimately depressing, feeling to it. God knows I’m a sucker for little ditties like that.
But with this song going through my head, sometime in the past few weeks, as I often do anymore for music and other cultural ideas from this time period of my life, I looked up the song’s entry on Wikipedia. The Wiki world has become an interesting place to acquire totally superficial information on popular culture topics. Of course, being the nerd that I am, I’ve found it quite interesting to look at cultural pieces that are anymore so engrained in my mind through past experience that they’ve become just a “given” in my life. Certainly, such entries, troublesome though they might be for accuracy and precision, do provide a kind of temporal and cultural context for pieces that have become too familiar to separate.

Call it a little bit of autobiographical scholarship.

Indeed, to reflect upon this fuller, I have to delve into my own autobiography to provide the proper context for this exploration. Nirvana has always occupied a strange place in my personal history. Though I enjoyed their music at the time of release, I certainly wasn’t as obsessed with them as many of my own cohort nor those immediately older. Yeah, by the time Nevermind made it to the midwest, I was an 11 year-old, awkward-as-fuck kid in the sixth grade. I only knew of them from the videos on MTV and the music on the radio. What I heard, I liked. Our relationship really went no deeper at the time… the shallow nature of this ultimately revealed a couple school years later when Kurt Cobain offed himself and I had no idea who he was, much to the derisive entertainment of my more knowledgeable peers. But then, my relationship with most music went no deeper at the time. I listened, I liked or disliked, and if I liked I listened again. The surrounding cultural trivia was just that to me: trivial, and pointless to waste time on… especially when I could waste that energy and time on playing SimCity. Why would I care about context if the music blaring in my ears pleased me anyway?

But even though the relationship I had to Nirvana at the time was shallow, the band has remained in effect a benchmark for the cultural aspects of my life, an “event” that evokes “pre-” and “post-” labels. In this case, Nirvana just represents an era, a point in my life where I began to pay more attention to so-called “modern rock” and other related forms of popular culture. In some sense, it was a band that marked my “coming of age” as a teenager, someone who by apparent definition is more interested in such cultural and ultimately capitalist pursuits…. and by apparent definition less interested in anything related to the generation of my parents.

But whatever. One of the things I noticed significantly from the Wikipedia page, a category I already briefly alluded to, was that the song reached number one on the Billboard Modern Rock as the best-selling single in the country f0r one week in January 1994. Now, that’s an odd conundrum, isn’t it? Something that’s now 16 years old being considered “Modern Rock.” What is “modern rock?” Wikipedia isn’t much help for this. In fact, one point the Wikipedia entry fumbles around is that, by some definitions, “modern rock” is considered an antiquated term, originally signifying radio stations that played music without exposure, but is today mostly synonymous with “alternative radio.” It also states that “modern rock” was used as a term to differentiate music from “classic rock,” a classification inherently flawed because of the fully relativistic binary of linguistics that it deployed. The article credits the commercialization of “modern rock,” and its adoption by the mainstream corporate radio interests to Nirvana’s success with Nevermind. Indeed, Nirvana served as my introduction to “modern rock” as it did for so many from that time period. Autobiographically, that point is without dispute, and it was this introduction that led to my later musical interests throughout the remainder of the decade. How does something “modern” have such a big influence starting so far in my past? Is Nirvana still, then, “modern rock?”

“Modern” is a pretty loaded term. We can do the typical thing and look the word up in the dictionary, and most of the definitions we find have to do with temporal definitions. These are, of course, fluid, especially when the time referred to is the “present.” I mean, there’s no such thing as the present, really. There’s only the future and the past, and once we talk about a time as the “present,” it’s already past. Is modernity, then, the future? Certainly not. That which is modern has to both simultaneously be part of the past, yet somehow different from it.

1. of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote: modern city life.

Present and recent time…. what about 16 years ago? Or does scale matter? Is an old lady’s modern a young man’s classic? And does technology make a difference? Nirvana is neither ancient nor remote to me. All I have to do is open iTunes and there it is, amongst music ranging from the 1920s to present. In this way, technology seems to eliminate any effect of temporality. I wonder, though, if Nirvana is classified as (shudder) “classic rock” in the iPods of my young students. And if to be modern is to be in the present, that means that modern is always in the past.

I’m already getting a headache…

2. characteristic of present and recent time; contemporary; not antiquated or obsolete: modern viewpoints.

Characteristic of present and recent time…. well, most “alternative rock” music that I’ve been exposed to lately still sounds like the fifth permutation of grunge music. And most college freshmen, though they cannot remember Nirvana existing, cannot remember Kurt Cobain swallowing lead nor the embarrassment of having no clue what this meant, yet still seem to know well many of the songs that Nirvana released as singles. Technology plays a role here, too, because certainly many of these kids have been able to illegally download the Nirvana discography, and have been given that desire by playing the many rock and roll performance video games out there. Doesn’t this widespread notoriety make it characteristic of the present — er, recent past — if it’s still considered relevant? (Of course, by this definition, Shakespeare would be considered “modern” to some…).

3. of or pertaining to the historical period following the Middle Ages: modern European history.

This is somewhat irrelevant, right? We’re not in Europe, we’re in North America… so basically EVERYTHING is post Middle Ages. Yeah, that means that Shakespeare’s modern once again! But that brings us back to the point: does scale matter? What’s modern in Europe certainly may not be modern in the United States or Canada, and what might be modern in Massachusetts certainly isn’t in Nebraska.

4. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of contemporary styles of art, literature, music, etc., that reject traditionally accepted or sanctioned forms and emphasize individual experimentation and sensibility.

Maybe we’re getting somewhere in the dictionary, finally? Yes, we’ve still got that temporal term, “contemporary,” but finally we get something beyond temporal in the definition: the rejection of tradition in cultural expression and the adoption of emphasis on individual experimentation. So in order to be modern, you have to reject the paradigm.

That seems to hold true with Wiki’s original definition of modern rock, and even the more contemporary definition provided in the same article. Something that rejects the paradigm, the mainstream, which explores individuality. Indie rock, perhaps?

Modern rock is considered by some to be a specific genre of alternative rock. […] Some modern rock stations even play a small amount of indie rock, alternative hip hop, electronica and other genres not normally found on traditional rock stations.

Nothing like the exceptional formality of language found in Wikipedia articles. Go you. And by you, I mean everyone that edits this stuff. Last I heard, the Wikipedia editorship was as anti-intellectual as the Republican party. But that’s a topic for another post.

More to the point, with definition four, and following with the Wiki world’s wandering-until-lost exploration of modern rock, doesn’t this mean the following: that by these definitions, Nirvana was modern rock only until it was taken into the mainstream, at which point it ceased being modern rock and was something else entirely? And certainly by the time that “All Apologies” ranked number one on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, it wasn’t modern anymore. What’s more, Billboard, just recently, finally dropped the “Modern Rock” name from its chart, replacing it with “Alternative Rock.” Something as commercial and out-of-touch as Billboard has apparently declared that modern rock no longer exists.

Perhaps the trickiest part of “modern” comes from the word’s very fluidity, and its use to describe music is no exception. Classical musicians all fondly remember that moment in Amadeus when Emperor Joseph came to watch Mozart’s opera rehearsal after having decreed that no ballet could be performed. As the dancers moved about the stage without music, he turned to his advisors and asked, “is this modern?” Yes, the script-writers had given us musicians a little inside joke, the fact that modern works are so difficult to understand, so obtuse, as obtuse as dancing without music in the middle of an opera. Strangely enough, the actor who played Joseph (and later the principal on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) would later become a convicted sex offender… much like my high school orchestra teacher. Again, another topic for another post.

While the cultural attributes given in the fourth definition are generally applicable to pieces classified as “modern” literature, “modern” art, “modern” music, “modern” dance and “modern” architecture, the time frame for when these characteristics arose in each are drastically different. Literature, art, architecture, and to a lesser extent, music, have all been privileged to create material products, or more simply, artifacts. If we want to study modern architecture, we can still go to a city and examine modern buildings. If we want to experience modern art, we can go to the proper wing of an art museum. If we want to indulge in modern literature, we can go to the library. Each of these things have been formalized through material, and to a point, made semi-permanent. For many of these cases, modern works constitute a more concrete time span: art from the 1860s to 1970s, architecture from 1920 to the 1980s-ish, American lit from 1946 to 1970ish, classical music from 1900 to 1975ish. The whole thing is counterintuitive to the definition of modern being a temporal timeframe that reaches the “present.” But in some ways, this way of looking at modernity is far cleaner.

Did these forms of modern culture diverge greatly from the norm? Well, they must have, or we wouldn’t have called them “modern” in their own day, and wouldn’t still call them “modern” now. God knows I’m no cultural critic, so take this with a grain of salt. Really, take everything I say on any topic with a shaker of salt. But, there was definitely some weird shit to come out of the modernist movements in these fields. Like John Cage’s “4’33″” in modern classical music. Take a listen, I know you’ll enjoy it. Or Josef Albers’s famous “Homage to the Square” series in the visual arts. It sure is something to behold. To me, it just makes both Cage and Albers seem like egocentric jackasses, but I’m a traditionalist at so many things… which is, of course, the opposite of modern. Or even Marina City in Chicago, a supposedly classic example of modern architecture. Weird, right? It’s still weird, even looking back from this uberconnected all-knowing, all-seeing clusterfuck society called “today.” At the time, I can’t imagine how weird it must have looked in the Chicago skyline when those towers were being built. Harder to imagine is the sore-thumb nature of the Seagram Building in New York in 1958, attributed by many as the first skyscraper to exhibit truly “modern” architectural design. Today, it just looks like the architect was… well, boring, and maybe lazy. Every unimaginative skyscraper in the world looks like this now, right?

But is it really as clean as all of this? Am I to expect that this ad for a 1952 Lincoln is suggesting that their car is capable overthrowing of everything that is “traditional?” Seems unlikely. In fact, it seems in this case that “modern” is considered more stable, more in-line with the reasonable trajectory of what traditional has brought us.

What is modernism, then? Most sources seem to agree that the modernism is a movement that came about to criticize traditionalist thought as being incompatible with 20th century political and social conditions, and the continued influence of industrial technology. Modernism is, in a way, the ability to mass produce, whether in architecture, science, art or anything else. Modernism stresses objectivity, science, and sharp classifications of phenomenon. The odd irony is those sharp classifications that modernism seeks are nearly incompatible with the concept of modernism itself.

Theodor Adorno was my philosopher du semaine at one point back in like 2006, which undoubtedly earned him a citation of some sort deep in the mass that is my dissertation. I may have added him to the Wikipedia page on modernism, though I don’t remember if my exceptionally brief obsession with him was during the time I bothered to mess with Wikipedia. But this quote stuck out to me when thinking about modernity:

Modernity is a qualitative, not a chronological, category. Just as it cannot be reduced to abstract form, with equal necessity it must turn its back on conventional surface coherence, the appearance of harmony, the order corroborated merely by replication.

Modernity is categorical, scientific, replicable, objective. Modernity is human civilization at its height, with human beings subjugated by order and technology. And of course, human beings being subjugated by other human beings. It is the concept of “modernity,” barely disguised as “civilization,” that was used to justify the oppression and enslavement of hundreds of millions of people through colonialism by Europeans.

Another cultural critic that I’ve found to be fascinating and influential to my own work, Edward Said, wrote extensively about this kind of thought in Orientalism. In this masterwork, Said didn’t specifically call the justification of oppression as a civilized vs. uncivilized binary (that’d be a bit too modern-ish for Said), but instead noted that people in the “east,” the “orient” were portrayed as weaker because of its difference:

My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.

Certainly, the main difference between Europeans and the rest of the world at the point of colonizing was that Europe had more powerful weaponry, partially bolsters (at least post-1800) by more efficient means of large-scale industrial production. But this was enough evidence for them, and meant that conquering the uncivilized hordes throughout the world was, if not simply acceptable, their duty as the world’s father-figure. If that’s not a reason to critique modernity, I don’t know one better.

It is the very fact that modernity has faced critique which further confuses the concept again. If modernism is the height of human civilization, and the present, what in the world do we make of post-modernism? Of course, crucial to remember is that the “post-” in any movement isn’t necessarily chronological, but critical. One could argue that modernity has been critiqued for generations, from Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein: The MODERN Prometheus) to Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin (or even The Marx Brothers…? Okay, fine, that maybe a stretch). But the stretching part aside, these are all critiques of modernity, and they are all, in turn, critiques of capitalism.

There was a nifty fad back in 1999-2000, before planes flew into buildings, of some post-modernist movies hitting hard in the mainstream. I would contend that those planes flying into buildings pretty quickly quieted this fad. Sure, you still get a wide-release dystopia every now and again, but there were three big ones right in a row: Fight Club, The Matrix, and American Beauty. In each of these films, the modern paradigm is disrupted to a varying degree. In Fight Club, the numbness of modern living and commercial accumulation of meaningless goods leads a Tyler Durden into a dueling personality, which leads to lots of fighting, then Project Mayhem, which destroys all grantors of credit, freeing everyone of corporate slavery. The Matrix is even less subtle, in which technology — the very indicator of modernity — has literally enslaved humanity as a power source, and the fight against this oppression continues inside the technological dystopia created to stimulate the minds of encapsulated human “batteries.” In American Beauty, the scale was much smaller but the message was the same. Lester Burnham tries to escape the oppression of the modern world, and is ultimately killed by that very world he’s tried to escape (perhaps I’m stretching again, but remember that if Colonel Frank Fitts hadn’t killed him, both Carolyn and Jane/Ricky were considering it as well). There were some others that cycled through that I found less memorable, like Magnolia and Memento, but I think my point is clear. We had some movies around 1999-2000 that urged us to look beyond the conveniences and entrapments of the “modern” world, and to seek a life that was more important, more “real,” less numb, and more meaningful. And the message is put away within a couple of years time, not to reappear until after the splintering of media. Thanks to a new modern technology, the internet, wide-release movies far more meaningless and generic, because riskier fare can be relegated to “indie” forums such as film festivals and online outlets. It’s more difficult to offend the pious this way.

Yet, oddly enough, that’s a similar message to what we’ve found in Nirvana’s music found some seven years before. A rejection of the meaningless, a befuddled and disenchanted reaction to how technology and modernity had made life seem so empty and meaningless. Cobain, a genius in his own right — like Adorno and Said, like Dickens and Shelley, like Lang and Chaplin — didn’t understand how people and humanity had become so unimportant. And like many of the fictional characters that would come in films later in the decade, Cobain died captive to a world that made little sense to him. With that thought, we’ve come full circle, back to “All Apologies”:

“All in all is all we are.”

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

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