How to be Discontent with Modernity?

by zunguzungu

This is not really a post about Avatar, but Avatar is a nice way of thinking through why the distinction between “modernity” and “primitive” will always fail us when we try to think about global inequality by reference to it. To crudely oversimplify, Avatar’s thinking goes like this:

  1. “We” are modern.
  2. Our society kind of sucks.
  3. The opposite of modernity is nature.
  4. Nature must be awesome!
  5. “They” are the opposite of us too.
  6. “They” must be natural, and therefore awesome!

The logical fallacies of this are less important than the what is, I think, the upshot of this reasoning, a broad tendency which Avatar merely demonstrates: good others become a means of displacing our disappointment with our own society, a disappointment which, to the extent that its trauma gets registered by reference to “the machine,” necessitates that the only alternative that “others” can occupy is “not the machine,” or nature defined as machine-less.

Richard wrote a post some time ago that nicely put into play this failure of our intellectual vocabulary. As he put it:

“I look on the history of modernization with unease and from a historically privileged standpoint. I want to ask questions about the overall justification of that modernization. We hold onto its inevitability and necessity as a matters of faith. We are conditioned to tacitly accept, if we don’t always come right out and say it explicitly, Marx’s characterization of the “idiocy of rural life”. Modernization is seen as necessary in order for freedom to truly exist, in order, indeed, for us to be in a sense truly human. And yet, I am not automatically given to anti-modernism. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in a rural, unlinked environment. I love big cities, I like basic dentistry, I like refrigerators, ice cubes, regular electricity, running water, rock music and jazz, movies, the telephone, email, etc and so on and on. I have a hard time conceiving of myself living in a different time, so used to the amenities of modern life am I.”

My version of Richard‘s intellectual dilemma would be the “ah ha!” moment I had, in my first year of grad school, when I first realized that what literary critics mean they say “modernism” and what African studies people mean by “modernization” are irreconcilably different concepts. The first is almost always a kind of apocalyptic disillusionment with civilized society, the legendary Guernica moment, for example, where Picasso discards what had been taken for granted as the civilized proprieties of artistic form so as to reflect the West’s descent into the barbarity of dropping bombs on a civilian city. Yet this use of “primitive” aesthetics (the African mask in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example) is hard to distinguish from the barbarity of fascism against which he is reacting with horror; Guernica is a beautiful painting, but it’s also deeply, deeply horrible one. “Modernization,” on the other hand, is the ten year old Tanzanian boy a friend was telling me about yesterday, who hid in the back of a bus until it arrived in a city, his desperate leaving his family behind to grab hold of something better, the dream tragically deferred that James Ferguson so powerfully records in his Expectations of Modernity. Such stories, both the small one and the big one, are not just common, they’re the fabric of thought through which so much “third world” life is lived, itself a geographical category which exists precisely because of the “underdevelopment” by which poor societies are understood to have either not yet achieved “modernization” or to have had it pass them by.

Because Picasso’s modernity was fascism, bombs, and a stultifying Bourgeois, he had no fear left over for the “idiocy of rural life,” and no particular imagination devoted to why, precisely, rural life tends to be so idiotic. His Guernica (or that of the broader liberal European society who saw its destruction with such horror) is a pastoral fantasy of orderly middle-class society — and a fear that it might happen here — and much less an expressed solidarity with the rural home of a Basque society whose desires for independence had everything to do with its subjugation as much political and economic as cultural. Guernica could, after all, be seen as conquered but resistant territory being bombed because Franco wanted to consolidate greater Spain, destroyed, in a certain sense, precisely because the Basques wanted to be modern in the first place, and had been denied it.

I’m not so much making this argument — it’s not my field — as noting that such possibilities are precluded by the questions we are capable of asking. When we don’t allow material inequality to be part of how we understood “modernity” to signify, we become incapable of recognizing that a desire for modernity and a hatred of modernity are quite often reactions to the same structures of accumulation by dispossession that gets badly translated as “primitive accumulation.”

Years before Marx coined the term, though, Thomas Paine was already playing with the concept. As he put it:

“To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe. Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures. The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

Avatar is, I think — along with Tarzan of the Apes, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Melville’s Typee, and Conan the Barbarian (as Dan C nicely points out here) — what you do when this distinction has been categorically precluded for you, for whatever reason. Its noble savage fantasy is a symptom of what it can’t let itself know about the spaces outside of capitalism, their incorporation precisely as excluded outsides.