Modernity and the Representation of Subjects

So, can one sustain any notion that postmodernity is a more fundamental matter than modernity? Is the enthronement of univocity in postmodernity not just a more advanced stage of "modern" representation? Somewhat parallel considerations apply in the cultural domain. One might focus upon such things as individual rights, bureaucratic formality, and abstract economic equivalence as characterizing "the modern." By contrast, one might take an emphasis upon style and the subtle conformity of fashion as denoting "the postmodern." However, from the outset modernity concerned the rise of civility as a substitute for "liturgy." All that is occurring in our own epoch is the increasing slide of fixed manners into temporarily fashionable idioms of behavior. But in many ways this augments the formal lack of underlying rationale and shows an equally increased need for surface reliability, rendering what goes on behind the surface not so much irrelevant as nonexistent.

From the outset of modernity, moreover, civility undergirded rights etc. just as univocity undergirded representation. The "representation" of subjects as formal bearers of equal rights was possible only once their humanity had been abstracted out from their creaturehood without any concomitant advance toward deification: a movement strictly in parallel with the Franciscan shift toward an immanent leveling of perfection terms. Whereas, in the Middle Ages, deification involved, among other things, a cultivation of the virtue of "cleanness," which for both monks and knights encompassed spiritual purity and physical integrity with bodily hygiene, from the Renaissance through to the eighteenth century the "human being" became increasingly a literally dirty bearer of an abstract, nominal, spiritual essence of detached reason and indeterminate freedom. Included within the continuing medieval "Platonic" practice of preventive medicine was the continued devotion to the Roman practice of bathing, sometimes indeed within old Roman baths. In the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by contrast, public bathing started to be viewed as a threat to morals and water as itself possibly contaminated. For the generalized "baptism" of lustration was now substituted the frequent change of clothes and resort to cosmetic concealment: a bodily equivalent of the art of dissembling which the new civility was specifically recognized as concealing and which is culturally equivalent to the perspective of ontological anarchy opened up by the formal distinction.

The medieval "clean," universal humanity, just as it reached down into the body, also reached up into transcendence. With St. Paul, after Christ, there was now a universal humanity and no longer just Greek and Jew, male and female, slave and free, because all human beings were no longer merely human, since God had entered humanity. Therefore, human beings became human beings only by elevation beyond humanity, just as to recognize the good (prior to Bonaventure and Scotus) was to advance toward God in one's substantive being. But, by contrast, within modernity, human beings could be human beings without transformation: as simply thinking (representing) or willing (positing values). This new mode of formal recognition implied a shift in social ontology. No longer was society seen in terms of the liturgical body of Christ (Lubac 1949). Initially, it had been only by this mythos of divine descent ("the glory of God is humanity fully alive") and theurgic ascent ("the life of a human being is the vision of God," to complete Irenaeus' couplet) (Williams 2002: 21) that general human interrecognition was first established. But now, with the advent of civility as liturgy, a general humanity was given merely in the uniform practice of empty formal codes. So, to sum up: once upon a time there was only generality beyond locality via universal myth and ritual. Later there was only generality where all styles were measured in conformity and equivalence with one another and in the same ever-dictated and appropriate circumstances. And today? Today there is a general humanity where all wear the same back-to-front unmediable styles in the same spans of time.

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