Seven markers of modernism

Sass catalogs seven traits that compose the ideal type of modernist sensibility (enfolding “postmodernism” as an offspring or sibling of modernism):

1. Avant-Gardism: “alienation from tradition” (30). As theorized by MacIntyre, this is of course fundamental to the “Enlightenment project” as a whole, and so at the heart of modern epistemology; consider the opening lines of Kant’s “Was ist Aufklarung”: “AUFKLÄRUNG ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. Unmündigkeit ist das Unvermögen, sich seines Verstandes ohne Leitung eines anderen zu bedienen.”


2. “Perspectivism and Relativism”: anxious sensitivity to the inadequacy or limitations of any given outlook upon the world, and a tendency either to self-consciously marginalize a particular perspective, or to unite many perspectives in a relativist cacophany (31). Sass notes that this perspectivism is effectively just an intensification of Kant’s epistemological subjectivism in the Critique of Pure Reason — the notion of the modernist (=postmodern) as rupture needs to be nuanced, because it clearly intensifies some aspects of the “Enlightenment project.”

3. “Dehumanization, or the Disappearance of the Active Self,” experienced either as formless, Dionysian subjectivism, or frigid, Apollonian detachment (32) — the fundamental unity (or tendency to collapse one into the other) of Dionysus and Apollo (as theorized by Nietzsche) is brought out clearly by David Hart in the Beauty of the Infinite.

4. “Derealization and the ‘Unworlding of the World'”: think of Nietzsche’s remark about wiping away the horizon with a sponge.

5. “Spatial Form”: Within such an aesthetic, “it is no longer possible for narrative structure, with its presumption of meaningful historical change, to serve as a central unifying principle” (34); cf. Robert Jenson’s reflections, roughly contemporary with Sass’s, in “How the World Lost Its Story.” Interestingly, Sass sees the principal ambition of the turn from narrative as the attempted annihilation of time (this would not surprise Jenson, of course) — however, as Griffiths has recently argued, Christians also should hope for the annihilation of a particular mode of (metronomic) temporality, its subsumption into the redeemed time of the “systole.” Here then, we might find particular affinities between “postmodern” and classically Christian sensibilities.

6. “Aesthetic Self-Referentiality,” the exultant embrace and adornment of the inner theater (34), a dramatic “turn inward.”

7. “Irony and Detachment,” “undermining all faith in the ideals of sincere expression and authentic feeling” (36).  This is, I take it, a fundamental corollary of the self-referentiality mentioned above

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This entry was posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, David B. Hart, Madness and Modernism, Modernity, Nietzsche, Paul Griffiths, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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