What is "the modern condition" ?
April 10, 2009 5:21 AM   Subscribe

What is "the modern condition" ?

What does this phrase mean when used colloquially versus academically? Where can I see the modern condition in art, film, and literature. (Chaplin's Modern Times seems too quaint to get at the heart of it, don't you think?) Does the modern condition still apply to us, living today?
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Without looking at Wikipedia, or the dictionary, or asking someone else: if you were to ask me of the "modern condition" facing man today, I might say our collective loss of an actual understanding of what it is to be a human being—not just what it presently means.
posted by trotter at 6:07 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I heard this new Morrissey song recently and thought it summed up the modern condition perfectly, but that may not be the type of thing you're looking for and I am, admittedly, a grumpy old cynic.
posted by goo at 6:13 AM on April 10, 2009

It seems that it is now we are far beyond the "modern condition" according to The Onion.
posted by chiefthe at 6:39 AM on April 10, 2009

The work of Kafka sums up the modern condition better than anything else: a fruitless search for meaning while you are persecuted for nameless offenses, all while working in a fucking office with a terrible boss.

See also: Office Space
posted by milarepa at 6:43 AM on April 10, 2009 [10 favorites]

What does this phrase mean when used colloquially versus academically?

I don't understand this question. I have never heard the phrase "used colloquially" and find it hard to imagine it so used ("Hey, Fred, another scorcher today! How's Betty and the kids? Hey, it's all part of the modern condition, right?"). Can you give an example of the kind of use you're talking about? Without any specifics, it's just a phrase meaning "the way things are these days." What further explanation are you looking for?
posted by languagehat at 6:44 AM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Cadiovascular disease, stroke and malignant neoplasm.

Well, they're the modern western major causes of death, which I think makes them the modern condition.

(Less vague question = more helpful answer)
posted by Coobeastie at 6:56 AM on April 10, 2009

Lyotard coined the term The Postmodern Condition in his book and in the process defined what postmodernity was (along with Fredric Jameson and a whole bunch of other people). If you're talking about the 'modern condition', it's probably in opposition to this postmodern condition the same way that modernity is seen to be opposing postmodernity.

Roughly speaking, Lyotard's postmodernity is seen as a denouncing of metanarratives, of grand singular explanations for events that claim to speak for us all; instead, there's a fragmenting and a pluralism of 'micronarratives' that exists instead. In response, then, you could see 'the modern condition' as an overarching and sometimes even simplistic understanding of the world as operating in a very certain way. Look at mid 19th to pre-war 20th C art/literature/film, perhaps.
posted by suedehead at 7:05 AM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: to be less vague, as requested, I've heard people say this phrase in reference to work. Tom: "I didn't get any work done today but I was 'at work' all day." Betsy: "Well, that's the modern condition." That is a colloquial use I've heard. I wonder if it means additional things.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 7:18 AM on April 10, 2009

Regarding the OP's last comment, in that sense, I take it to mean something not far off what is suggested by the reference to Kafka above: the modern condition being a sysiphian struggle, where the "work" is done but nothing is actually produced. The worker is alienated from his or her labour and (to connect it to early in the industrial revolution) has no purpose but to produce nothing, or at least, nothing tangible. The modern condition is performing the motions of being but without actually being--sort of a life of going through the motions without any particular end in sight.

Note that this is I guess a particular perspective; the "modern condition" is itself abstract enough as to support multiple meanings.
posted by synecdoche at 8:09 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe see Chaplin's Modern Times as another take on it.
posted by synecdoche at 8:10 AM on April 10, 2009

Where can I see the modern condition in art, film, and literature.

Wolf Parade has a song called Modern World (video | lyrics) which strikes at a pretty key piece of our condition being tied to machination.
posted by tybeet at 8:19 AM on April 10, 2009

Marshall Berman wrote a book (All That is Solid Melts into Air) in the early 1980s about the experience of modernity. He makes the point that modernity isn't characterised by any particulary technological advances, but bysomething more timeless--the tension between old and new, maybe, or the difficulty of finding identity in a constantly-changing context. He ties his ideas about modernity to Marx, Faust, Baudelaire, Russian literature, and city planning in New York. It's a great, thought-provoking book and I recommend it all the time. It's old, but I think a lot of the ideas are still relevant.
posted by aka burlap at 8:40 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

On the academic side, here's a blurb for Anthony Giddens' The Consequences of Modernity. (I haven't read the book, or anything by Giddens; I found it by doing a search on Google Scholar.)
What is modernity? The author suggests, “As a first approximation, let us simply say the following: ‘modernity’ refers to modes of social life or organization which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence.”

We do not as yet, the author argues, live in a post-modern world....

Modernity is a double-edged phenomenon. The development of modern social institutions has created vastly greater opportunities for human beings to enjoy a secure and rewarding existence than in any type of pre-modern system. But modernity also has a somber side that has become very important in the present century, such as the frequently degrading nature of modern industrial work, the growth of totalitarianism, the threat of environmental destruction, and the alarming development of military power and weaponry.
The timing ("seventeenth century onwards") would suggest a contrast with medieval life, which was much more local, traditional, hierarchical, and centered on the Church.

Major developments include belief in the power of human reason, and the decline of religion; the flowering of science and technology; industrialization; incredibly rapid social change; the destruction of traditional ways of life.

In the nineteenth century, people believed in social progress, the idea that history has a direction and that civilization would naturally develop and spread. The twentieth century demonstrated that this isn't the case, that civilization is capable of destroying itself. There's a whole literature analyzing the connections between social disruption and political fanaticism. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer; Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom.) Combined with the industrialization of modern warfare, the development of nuclear weapons, and competition between nations for scarce resources, we're in extremely dangerous territory, and still struggling to determine how to go forward.

I'm not sure that I'd say "bureaucracy" is a defining aspect of modernity and the modern condition; it may turn out to have been transient.
posted by russilwvong at 8:54 AM on April 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

if you have to ask then you suffer from it...
posted by Postroad at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2009

It's laziness on the part of the writer/sayer.

Lazy thinkers love love love attributing things which are timeless or universal to "this modern world," "western society," or some other bogeyman, in the hopes that the audience will smile and nod without actually giving it any critical thought.

It's so vague that it could mean anything, and so it means nothing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:11 AM on April 10, 2009

a fruitless search for meaning while you are persecuted for nameless offenses

Really? I have a lot of meaning in my life. And granted I am lucky enough not to be a Guantanamo inmate or Russian political dissident, but the only offenses I have ever been persecuted for had really good names, like "82 in a 65."
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:14 AM on April 10, 2009

An older version of modernity, from Tess of the d'Urbervilles:

"Ah--so have I, very often. This hobble of being alive is rather serious, don't you think so?"

"It is--now you put it that way."

"All the same, I shouldn't have expected a young girl like you to see it so just yet. How is it you do?"

She maintained a hesitating silence.

"Come, Tess, tell me in confidence."

She thought that he meant what were the aspects of things to her, and replied shyly --

"The trees have inquisitive eyes, haven't they?--that is, seem as if they had. And the river says,--'Why do ye trouble me with your looks?' And you seem to see numbers of tomorrows just all in a line, the first of them the biggest and clearest, the others getting smaller and smaller as they stand farther away; but they all seem very fierce and cruel and as if they said, 'I'm coming! Beware of me! Beware of me!' ... But you, sir, can raise up dreams with your music, and drive all such horrid fancies away!"

He was surprised to find this young woman--who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates--shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases--assisted a little by her Sixth Standard training--feelings which might almost have been called those of the age--the ache of modernism. The perception arrested him less when he reflected that what are called advanced ideas are really in great part but the latest fashion in definition--a more accurate expression, by words in logy and ism, of sensations which men and women have vaguely grasped for centuries.
posted by dizziest at 9:26 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Along with languagehat, I've never heard this term used outside of its academic sense, in which is is a reference to modernism or modernity in general. In literature at least, modernism is a reaction both to the increasingly urban and industrialized world and also, stylistically and philosophically, a reaction to realism. But it's far from a term with a universally-agreed-upon definition, which is why books expounding on the subject are so plentiful.
posted by wheat at 9:30 AM on April 10, 2009

I'm pretty sure it's what all the goth/emo/whatever-they-are-called-this-week kids are suffering from. Largely, in my opinion, it could be summarized as too much time on their hands. And get off my lawn!
posted by _Skull_ at 10:21 AM on April 10, 2009

I've heard the expression a fair amount. It's always been used to describe the myriad consequences associated with living life in a complex, uncertain, technical world in which individuals sees themselves as autonomous and responsible for the state of their own lives. A perfect description of life in the U.S. 5 days before taxes are due, don't you think?
I don't think postmodernism does much to undermine the meaning of the phrase. "The modern condition" is practically inescapable if you live in western civilization.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:11 PM on April 10, 2009

One more thing, you could think of the phrase as referring to the problem of having to make choices all the time.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:14 PM on April 10, 2009

Despite Sōseki writing about a century ago, I still think his ideas on the difficulty of finding purpose and meaning in modern life are quite relatable today. This relates back to the idea of having too much free time, being lazy, following others, etc. I think reconcliing modernity with nature is significant to the modern condition, as well.

As far as seeing the modern condition in film, I have a few ideas (and I would appreciate hearing what others have to say in response to these).

Miyazaki's belief in the need for balance between technology and human action seems relevant to the modern condition. Miyazaki is obviously not the only example of this, but he is well known.

I think the themes of longing, of what could have been, of ephemeral moments, and so on in the films of Wong Kar Wai are important parts of the modern condition, too. I don't mean to say these are new—they're obviously part of human emotions and thought and have always impacted people. But I do think we've hit a point where people are especially aware of history, of choices, of missed opportunities, etc and what these men to our modern lives.
posted by Camel of Space at 12:22 PM on April 10, 2009

I think that the notion of an overarching "modern condition" stems from the belief that other times throughout history have had conditions that might be easily summed up, therefore we should search to identify our own condition in the present as it differs from times previous. We tend to have difficulty with nailing down a single "modern condition" because, being stuck right in the middle of the present we are able to see all the nuance and contradictions that make it impossible to just sum up. I would imagine that if we lived in other eras of history we would be similarly unable to define the condition of our time. For example, someone might say that the renaissance was a time of great advances in art, technology, and government. To the vast majority of people living during the renaissance however, those words may never have been used to describe their own "modern condition". I guess I'm just trying to get at the possibility that the majority of people throughout history have had pretty much the same condition - getting by amidst forces that overwhelm them. Only a lucky few have been able to move beyond that long enough to develop a unique "modern condition" for their own times. So in one sense, perhaps the "modern" condition is the same as it's always been. Carmody's Prize says that it refers to "living life in a complex, uncertain, technical world in which individuals sees themselves as autonomous and responsible for the state of their own lives." That is what I generally think of when I hear the expression, but I think that while many of the people who use AskMefi might see themselves as "autonomous and responsible for the state of their own lives" there are more billions of people in the world who don't. Having said all that, there must certainly be a higher percentage of people today who do fall into that category of self-determining automatons than there was in the past, so maybe that ratio makes our "modern condition" different from those of the past.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 6:26 PM on April 10, 2009

"Not knowing how to love."
posted by cmyr at 12:52 PM on April 11, 2009

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