The Dialectic of Modernity: Fragments of a Post-Modern Vision

By David Pederson ’12

“Modern times.” – Once attributable to the birth pangs of a new epoch, or the sting of sunlight on the eyes of those who had known only darkness, the pain of modernity has shown itself to be not a mode, but the substance of modernity itself.  Even its splendors, dancing through the caliginous shadows, are only crepuscular, shining with the soft glow of a twilit sky or the beauty of a flower that, plucked from its stem, soon withers into nothing.

But annihilation, the simple inversion of being into its opposite, is not the proper form of modernity.  If poetry is impossible after Auschwitz, it is only because it was rendered impossible before it.  The aestheticized politics of fascism drew its strength from the radical diremption of subject and object that spurred into being “authenticity,” its cult, and its jargon, with the truth of Being spiritualized through a new kind of gnosis and the world of matter denuded of intrinsic value.  Annihilation is possible only through alienation of man from man, man from nature, and man from himself.

Multifarious and overlapping, the sources of this threefold alienation, the mark of modernity, have sedimented into the layers of history.  An instrumentalist stance towards the world, the atomistic structure of the liberal nation-state, a pervasive capitalist mode of production, and the rise of individualism all compenetrate modern society; even social milieu where divergent values enjoy a fragile existence are subsumed as parts into a totalizing whole.  But the whole is the false.


“Unhappy consciousness.” – That alienation is the truth of modernity cannot be denied.  It is affirmed by the deeds even of those who, though denying it with their tongues, run through the streets seeking meaning where it may be found.  But such meaning, because merely a function of consciousness, offers no place for the weary to rest; it is a mirror in whose glass one sees only oneself seeing oneself.

Thus sexual desire, once proclaimed from the hilltops as the liberation of our time, has become necrophilic and narcissistic.  In accordance with the adamantine rule of the image and law of consumption, what is dead now mediates the relations of the living.  Pornography is not the sublimation of sexual desire, but its repression.  And in sexual intercourse, desire, instead of being expressed into a realm outside itself, is turned inward.  In the sphere of the interpersonal, pleasure becomes the primary term and the truth of the other is relegated to the status of appearance, a mirror in which one’s gaze finds only itself.  Post-coital exhaustion is no longer the satiated equilibrium of sexual satisfaction, but rather the silent emptiness of a solipsistic ego.

Thus also is it unsurprising that the unborn – the uncomfortable intrusion of the real into the fantasies of “liberated” consciousness, and therefore, because lacking consciousness, accorded the status of “less-than-real” – should be thrown into the gruesome abattoir of abortion.  To invert Hegel, that the unreal is the irrational and the irrational is the unreal may be taken to be the maxim of modernity.  In the days of old, the sacrifices of children to Moloch, though hideous, at least signified meanings of social and cosmic importance, reaffirming the bonds between the immanent and transcendent orders.  Now children are slain on nothing greater than the altar of consciousness, which, enthralled to its own powers, becomes the sole arbiter of meaning.

But consciousness, because not anchored in anything beyond itself, can have no ground by which to pass its judgments.  Whereas nature once served as the mediator of values, containing within itself a meaning from which prescriptions could be derived, consciousness must now mediate itself, supply the very content of its own judgments.

That this burden of consciousness to build a solid edifice of ethics from the thin air of thought must be consigned to failure is certain; that this failure has already been realized in history is even more so.  The magicians of modernity, Kant and Mill, have proven to be only cheap impostors.  A black hole in the midst of pure reason, the categorical imperative swallows up no content without remainder, without gaping holes through which consciousness may escape the imperated command.  And rooted solely in the vagaries of the mind, its desires and pleasures, any principle of utility, because ruptured from the realm of the real, provides no royal road to judgment and, since consciousness cannot judge itself, infinitely displaces the problem of arbitration to its further modalities.  In positing itself absolutely, the blinding explosion of subjectivity has destroyed the objective correlate on which it depended.


“Against psychologism.” – That the most trenchant critiques of modernity have not gone unnoticed would stand to modernity’s credit, were not the truth of those critiques turned into their opposite through their assimilation into consciousness.

Though recognized by modernity, the need for meaning, for community, for thick milieu is made over into a psychological pathology whose treatment requires a correspondingly psychological cure.  Hence the “communitarian” impulse to “community spirit,” whose essence consists only in a feeling, is the palliative offered to this malaise of the mind.  Otherwise merely ineffectual, such an impulse becomes perilous when, blinded to its own sheer subjectivity, it refuses to acknowledge that the cure has not in fact operated according to its magical law, and that, if the problem of meaninglessness in modernity were only psychological, a simple shift in consciousness alone could erase such melancholia.

When Marx critiqued the alienation and exploitation of capitalist society, it was not from the superficial standpoint of consciousness.  To be alienated or exploited is non-identical to alienation or exploitation in truth.  And if alienated or exploited, then to feel otherwise, through a “cure” of one’s masters, is only a subtler mode of oppression.


“The style is the man.” – What the philosophers once knew as the art of living has, through the instrumental rationalization of society, become only a means of better serving the demands of production.  That the rise of morality over ethics occurred at the precisely the moment when the nation-state was being birthed from the womb of the Enlightenment is therefore no historical accident.  Those who would sever these historical ties, who would desire Enlightenment politics without the false pretensions of Enlightenment epistemology, betray their avowed intentions by their relapse into the very conceptual schemes that they reject.  Hence the Kantian subject, which was supposed to have been altogether banished by the deconstructive practices of the previous century, reappears once again in thought.

To be modern is to be unable to utter a truth without, in the very moment of utterance, not also believing it to be false.  Yet a more venerable tradition stretches back into antiquity, one which has become not wholly assumed into the engines of culture and which still remains innocent, at least potentially, of the spell of “moral obligation.”  But this is not merely the propositional antithesis of any modern morality, in which case its indictment of modernity would fall short because it would already have acceded the central point that the good life is reducible to a code.

Critique must operate obliquely.  Although true in any age, today, in the reduction of ethics to a morality in the domain of consciousness, this means that critique must be critical not in its content, but rather in its very form.  Those who would point out the contradictions between what modernity offers and what it actually delivers must become practitioners of a technique whose meaning is inseparable from the manner of its enactment.  That giving style to one’s character is the “one thing needful” has become timelier than Nietzsche could have ever envisioned.

It is true that the concept of “style” today has already been rendered trivial by the indefatigable industry of culture, and that, having been made equivalent to subjectivized taste, style is now only an instrument of capital that mediates the relations between individuals.  Any attempt, by means of style, to break free from the tyranny of production would seem to be already incorporated into the processes of that tyranny itself.

But in spite of all this, a negative possibility still lies open for thought to cut through the coercion of “morality.”  Such a possibility, which stands outside the oneiric logicism of modernity, consists simply in a return to agape for its own sake.  The crucifix, which may be taken as both the symbol and reality of this negative possibility, and whose “stylistic” value undermines the saccharine cult of authenticity, is the only sign of contradiction whose own power explodes the false magic of a cheap moralism.  “As a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.”


“Conservative dialectics.” – Lukács was right: “Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic.”  But while the intent of such a statement was to reaffirm the primacy of the base over the superstructure, the situation of modernity today reveals in it a truth that Lukács did not foresee.  If materialist dialectic is the motor of revolutionary change, it is not primarily because material conditions are the determinants of society, but rather because the sphere of ideology itself, once taken to be merely an epiphenomenon of materiality, now shows itself to be a totalizing force of domination in its own right, with the only possibility of escape from its grasp being a truly material critique.

What stands today as the vehicle by which such material critique may revolutionize society is neither liberalism, whose subservience to ideology renders it impotent, nor orthodox communism, whose ideological positivity frustrates its aims from the start, but rather conservatism.  Often erroneously identified with various “fundamentalist” ideological movements, conservatism is in fact the negation of ideology itself, with its center of gravity lying not in propositional content, but rather in tradition and praxis.  If capitalism, atomism, and the desiccation of secularism are to be overcome, then it must come about through conservatism.  Yet such it must not be, as Burke conceived of it, a conservatism based upon the “feeling” of community or tradition, which would serve only to psychologize the objective problems in need of resolution, but instead upon the subversive ground of thought thinking against itself, through immanent critique and the priority of praxis.

Conservatism is revolution.

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4 thoughts on “The Dialectic of Modernity: Fragments of a Post-Modern Vision

  • March 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    I would probably agree with much of what is said in this article, if I understood what it meant. As it stands, it conveys very little meaningful information to me. I was provoked to comment here because, in the print version, the sentence beginning “To be modern is to be unable to utter a truth” was proudly quoted in large print. That sentence actually contains a triple negative and conveys exactly the opposite of what (I assume) the writer intended. I think that raising these philosophical issues is great, but for a useful discussion to take place, the writing must be intelligible to non-philosophy majors.

  • March 12, 2011 at 5:36 am

    You are quite right, princeton14, to note that the style of writing in this article is quite obscure, oracular, turgid, etc. But this is very much intentional. While clarity in writing has its merits (and all of my previous articles for the Tory have been, by comparison, quite clear), obscurity also has its place. The reason is that this article is primarily an attempt to match the form of the article to its content. And what the content of the article mainly concerns is the cultivation of a kind of thinking that breaks free from the narrow confines of modern rationalism; the piece thus firmly plants itself in the postmodern tradition (in particular, in the tradition of Adorno, Horkheimer, and other Marxist theorists). In this sense, clarity here would be a failure of argument – or, at least, would go against the emphasis on form that this article advances. Whether such an emphasis or such a formalist project is desirable is another question.

    It is true that much of what is said in this article could be worded much more lucidly, and that many of the points that I make are rather straightforward. But because language shapes our view of the world, trading in concepts, phrases, and styles of diction that have become standard often serves only to reinforce the status quo. To change the way in which we see the world, then, it is sometimes necessary to change the way in which we use language. This article is an attempt to do just that, however successful or unsuccessful it may be.

  • May 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm


    It’s always refreshing to see Frankfurt-influenced critical analysis making its way into the world, and intriguing –to say the least– to witness your attempts to graft this analysis onto some kind of political conservatism. As far as I know, it’s never been done before; while Adorno has occasionally been accused of closet conservatism by more doctrinaire Marxists, I’ve never heard of an actual conservative embracing him into the fold.

    Nevertheless, I use “grafted” in the strongest sense here; it seems to me like you’re taking two disparate and quite possibly opposing things and trying to force them together, with the result –despite being exceedingly well written– risking some sort of unworkable Frankenstein. Critical theory as both a method and a project is directed towards the radical transformation of society; conservatism in its broadest sense seems directed towards the preservation of tradition. It remains unclear to me how you intend to resolve (dialectically or no) these two opposing “movements” -opposing in both an ideological and a directional sense- and your last paragraph doesn’t do much more than baldly assert their synthesis. How does conservatism escape ideology? You seem to value the “subversive ground of thought thinking against itself,” but what does one subvert other than tradition? Perhaps most appositely: what conservatism, exactly, are we talking about?

  • May 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm


    Your last sentence gets to nub of the matter straightaway: What, precisely, is “conservatism”? This is an important question, but unfortunately it’s one to which there is no clear answer. For some, conservatism is closely tied to free-market capitalism (and to the Republican Party); for others, it embodies an ethos of “social conservative”; and for yet others, it is a certain intellectual stance in favor of only gradual social reform.

    The way in which I use the term “conservatism” is in the latter two senses. Conservatism, for me, embodies a commitment to “traditional” values (community, family, etc.), as well as a resistance to radical revolution. (And in fact, it’s the conjunction of these two senses of conservatism that leads me into a position similar to Adorno’s. On the one hand, my commitment to social conservatism makes me critical of free-market capitalism, for the latter directly undermines the values that (social) conservatives hold dear. But, on the other hand, my commitment to the third sense of conservatism makes me wary of, say, endorsing a communist takeover. Like Adorno, I’m wary of – and perhaps against – attempts at hastily and radically reforming the system.)

    You also ask: “[W]hat does one subvert other than tradition?” That is, how is critical theory (which aims at the critique of society and tradition) reconcilable with conservatism (which aims at their preservation)? The answer is, in fact, quite simple: critiquing a tradition is not incompatible with preserving it. Only if one is a Burkean conservative – where conservatism means an uncritical adherence to tradition – is this so. But this isn’t the only way we can see conservatism. For traditions are living only to the extent that they are subject to constant critique from those within them. A tradition that is only passively received and transmitted is a dead tradition; living traditions are traditions full of conflict. So, insofar as we as conservatives follow “tradition,” to that extent we have a duty to subject tradition to critique, to bring out its contradictions and develop it further. And in this sense, Adorno and the rest of the critical theorists, with the critical apparatuses that they developed, are allies.


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