Musings on Modernity

I have, as of late, been especially attune to the complexities and turbulence modern individuals must endure and in turn, must embrace and cherish. The thrust of my thought are coming from my current reading of Marshall Berman’s cultural history “The Experience of Modernity: All That is Solid Melts into Air”. This is a read suggested to me by a close friend and I thank her for it! It is quite thrilling to feel so reengaged intellectually with the world around me and this thought rings especially true as I currently reside in one of the most completely modern cities in the world. The title of this book is actually a quote from Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (…no I’m not Communist (but probably farther from conservative than most of my Southern friends and family would be comfortable with)) and is used to analyze the self-destructive nature of modernization as it refers to the constantly changing thoughts, attitudes, landscapes, economies, lifestyles and everything else man-made and how, just as some ideas or ways of life come into existence and are incorporated into everyday life in an instant (solidifying), they are just as quickly ousted (melt) for a newer, better, more economical, healthier and/or more innovative way of doing, being and living. Essentially what Berman demonstrates through extensive reference to several landmark philosophical writings (not only the Communist Manifesto) is that, the old way of doing things had to be tore down and destroyed in order to usher in the new way, which in turn must be not just improved upon but wholly revolutionized and recreated yet again in an eternal cycle of turmoil and unrest. This is the process of modernization.
One of the things that got the cogs in my mind turning, attributing so many of the things Berman wrote about back in the early ’80s and tying them to current events and conditions is that for centuries men have toiled to tame the shores of New York City with seaports, piers, Robert Moses‘s grand vision of encompassing Manhattan Island in a cocoon of seawall and roadway (FDR and Westside Drive). Now, industrious men and women work to revitalize the riverfront finding opportunities where they can to reintroduce habitat and greens space for people along the rivers. I find myself working with a kayaking group and boathouse in Long Island City to restore and activate a small cove that has somehow been passed over (not completely developed) in the previous industrialization on the banks of the East River. Landscape firms are constantly being awarded commissions to green up the defunct piers and create aquatic habitat around them. This flies in the face of nearly everything that was done in the prior two centuries. Yet it is proving a successful (and widely popular) endeavor, employing designers and construction workers while giving people and wildlife a place to go.
Another NY example is Randall’s Island just East of Manhattan. A friend of mine (and founder of the aforementioned LIC Boat House) Erik Baard was telling me some of this island’s recent history and how the island has been slated for redevelopment. Not redevelopment in the skyscraper, concrete and and other typical urban ways one would think about for New York City. This island is to be home to the many cities recreational sports facilities. It recently hosted the temporary Cirque de Ovo tents and performance spaces. It is also full time host to the Icahn Stadium, where track and field events take place. There are also tennis and golf centers and 60 sports fields, with over 40 in construction during the summer of 2010 alone! This is all great and will provide citizens a wealth of active sporting opportunities. Unfortunately, and ironically, in order to bring all this green space to the city, the island was essentially clear cut, removing thousands of mature trees, a veritable forest, in order to make way for progress. Now, along with all the fields and such, the city is required to replant a certain percentage of those trees in order to meet its own tree replacement land development regulations. In fact, I volunteered with a new friend and Earth Day New York, to replant some trees in the island back in May. To me, this all seemed absurd, but in fact, as I read this book and truly understand the facts of the matter, this is quintessentially the modern condition.
I would immediately ask how this deconstruction in the name of development will effect the natural environment. I would only think it could be negative and in fact it will initially be so. But after the second and fourth and many other subsequent permutations with a back and forth between nature and the built environment will mother nature be both exalted and raped. Only through constant tearing down and rebuilding can modern man continue to progress into the more and more brutal future we have designed yet have been unable to envision. I further look into Randall Island’s past will shed an even more ironic light as the southern portion of the island has housed, “a burial ground for the poor, a poorhouse, a House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents, an Idiot Asylum, a homeopathic hospital, an Inebriate Asylum, and a rest home for Civil War veterans” (Wikipedia). Perhaps it is a testament to our new found understanding and appreciation for recreation (literally the re creation of oneself and ones spirit) that we now place these two seemingly disparate uses (sport parks and psychiatric centers) next to one another. In reality they are the same use, only for different times. We don’t usually acknowledge this fact but it still remains true. What we once committed individuals to a life of shock treatment and psychotherapy we now can prescribe fresh air and physical activity. Surely in the future we will revert to prescribing some designer drug and a telephone consultation with a audio persuasion guide, well I guess we are halfway there.
I often wonder how different my world view would be if I had never left Mississippi. If I never even had the urge and wanderlust that provoked me to leave in the first place. I believe I would still be aware of the modern condition without being thrust into such a completely modern environment. But I can remember arguing with my father, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, that Hattiesburg (my hometown) isn’t THAT small, and it isn’t…compared to Petal or even Starkville or nearly any other sleepy Southern or Midwestern town. I remember my first realization that Oak Grovers where considered suburbanites by Hattiesburg residents (that would make Hattiesburgers urban dwellers). Both statements are laughable but to some degree of scale, true nonetheless. As I read Berman detailing the story of Faust (a personal representation of all humanity as we began moving from Feudal, pre-industrial societies towards the globalized world of constantly connected, instant information, megabrands we live in today) and his rebellion against the quaint and humble world of his childhood, the old world. I drew parallels with my own life and my journey (long hair aside). Faust went through different stages on his way toward forming a state of modernity, plucking only the most beautiful things from the old way of life only to watch them wither and die in his newly imagined world order. At the same time the entire world that was once known could no longer thrive or even survive in this new modern age. So, even the small towns of today are modern, even the aboriginal and native tribes and peoples have been modernized, nothing has been left untouched by the hand of modern man.
I see it in so many things. My favorite analogy as of yet has to be that found in food. Food used to be so simple. Men hunted, women foraged and gathered. Then we all farmed and raised livestock for our own families. Then many of us farmed for some of us. After-wards, we acquired slaves and “they” farmed for most of “us”. After the industrial revolution we employed machines to do most of the work to feed us. After the WWII and the “green” revolution we increased production yet again with the use of leftover chemicals from the war effort, poison gasses and explosives, to make pesticides and fertilizers respectively. Now less than 1% of Americans claim farming as their occupation. This is all well and good (not really but it IS “progress”) but we now are faced with another revolution and unlike the back to the land movement of the 60’s where young hippies “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” by moving back to the pastoral farms and suffering isolation and depression while trying to feed themselves and live off the land, today the creative class is staying in or moving to cities. In these urban environments they are planting gardens in their communities and backyards, potted gardens on their rooftops and fire escapes, vertical gardens in their windows, hydrophonic gardens in their closets, starting small farms on the fringes, in schoolyards and on industrial rooftops. These are not farmers by occupation these are eaters who are sourcing their own nutrients. They demand organic, GMO-free, safe, fair and clean food. If it isn’t coming from the usual suspects it will come from their own making.
This is all in response to what we currently have. Rebelling against the system we have built for ourselves we are now demand that it be dismantled. As a society we have built up huge infrastructure to supply us cheap, easy food. The TV dinner with it’s highly processed and preserved, frozen contents packaged in disposable plastics liberated housewives across America (and helped make more palatable bachelorhood). Multinational corporations with their branding on every shelf in your local supermarket continue to bring us the modern marvels of food like substances. The American government subsidizes grains used in feed lots so your favorite fast food “restaurant” can serve you a value meal in the convenience of our automobiles at an unbelievably low price. But now, all that work and effort, all the legislation and politics, the streamlining and automization, for us to simply change our minds. We don’t want what you are selling. Furthermore, we don’t want to buy it from a big box chain store. In fact we don’t even want to support anything that your multinational company stands for with our consumer dollars, our investment dollars OR our tax dollars. I heard a political pundit saying how we are turning our backs on the growth machine in America (corporations) just when we should be praising them and letting them rebuild America’s economy. Really?!?  I guess if it ain’t broke don’t fix it right? Well it’s broke! Progress cannot be made without destruction. Or, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs (as Robert Moses often quipped). Again, in order to continue to be a modern civilization we must tear down what we have built up and re-imagine and reinvent everything anew, “everything solid melts into air”.

I hope that putting these idea out into the blogosphere prods me to look at them again and redefine, reinterpret and revisit them again in the future. All these ideas are rough and very unrefined. If you are reading this I hope you have found some insight and I would welcome any of your thoughts your comments. It is my hope in fact that some of you out there will pick and scratch at these ideas and eventually completely tear them apart, forcing me to see things differently and becoming a true modern.

by Gil Lopez on Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 2:14am … I posted this on another site last Summer, but I thought it worth repeating here as I am using this as my temporal launchpad nowadays. I hope you enjoyed.

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