Monday, 11 April 2011

The other end of the spectrum.

I spent most of the last week talking about market research and very businessy, practical things relating to my writing, but I don't want this blog to be just about that side of the enterprise. I also want it to be a blog about my writing and the ideas behind it. With that in mind, this week (yes, my weeks start on Sunday; I'm not a practicing Christian, but Sunday's usually my most free day so it's a good time to kick new themes off), I'm going to be talking about something much more abstract.

I will, of course, report on the common sense test as and when it happens - having only been home for about seven hours, there hasn't really been time to get organised yet, though it is lovely to be back and to have such nice weather for exploring my parents' excellent gardening efforts.

The theme of this week is, if you'll excuse the horrible jargon, neomodernism. You don't have to know in advance what this means - I'll be explaining in detail what neomodernism is over the course of the week. The reason I'm talking about neomodernism is because I recently discovered that I am a neomodernist (though I really hope I can find a better branding than that in time).

Let me explain by means of a brief introduction to the concept of neomodernism, along with modernism and postmodernism. Simplifying grossly, neomodernism can be seen as an attempt to modify modernism to take account of postmodern ideas. That sentence by itself doesn't help very much, but bear with me.

'Modernism' here refers to a view of the nature and destiny of the human species (and yes, it's a stupid name for a philosophical theory or movement). Modernism has its roots to a certain extent in the enlightenment, and to a certain extent in the work of philosophers like Hegel and Marx. Its defining trait - at least as it was explained to me - is a utopian vision of the future; a belief that mankind is naturally progressing towards an ideal society of contentment and luxury. You can see some of this belief in things like the hippy movement in the 60s.

There's some debate over the difference between 'postmodernism' and 'modernism', but essentially as I understand it, postmodernism throws the modernist idea of progress out the window. Postmodernism holds that while there can occasionally be a sense of motion about human society which leads to the appearance of progress, actual progress in a non-technological sense is impossible. Whatever our technology, it cannot fix the underlying problems of the human condition. If modernism is defined by a utopian vision, postmodernism is defined by dystopia. Blade Runner is archetypal postmodernism.

There are a whole lot of trends associated with postmodernism with which we're all familiar - referentiality and self-referentiality in art, for example, the distrust of science as leading towards 'truth', and moral relativism (the idea that what is 'right' or 'wrong' for someone to do is defined by the culture in which they live and no culture has a right to make moral judgments of another). One particularly insidious phenomenon which I think is a product of postmodernism is cultural irony; we have become a culture of cynics, sneering haughtily at anyone who shows any real fervor for an ideal. It's hard to express a serious passion for something without being regarded as a little bit weird.

I hate - and have hated for a long time - all these things, except some kinds of self-referential art. There is no doubt that postmodern skepticism of modernist optimism has some justification - after all, it may be the future, stupid, but we still don't have the flying car and we haven't eliminated war or even hunger - but it has gone too far and engendered too much pessimism.

This is where neomodernism comes in. Neomodernism acknowledges the postmodern evidence that the modernists are wrong about the inevitability of utopia, but denies that utopia is impossible. Neomodernism holds that progress - real, deep-running social progress - is possible, but only if we work at it and have faith in the project. Progress, says the neomodernist, requires us to stop being so endlessly negative and cynical about everything and actually think long, hard and sensibly about how to fix stuff.

Imagine the following conversation:

Modernist: Soon we shall have peace on earth and good-will to all. It is a historical inevitability!

Postmodernist: Oh shove it, you Bible-thumping, preachy moron. We're not going anywhere fast.

Neomodernist: (throws up hands in frustration) Dammit, you two, I'm sure we could achieve the ideal society if you two would just stop arguing and put your minds to it!

Anyway, every element of the neomodern credo which I've come into contact with so far (which may not be much, but to the best of my ability to tell it is as yet a small movement) has resonated with me at a very deep level. I only discovered that the label existed two weeks ago, but the beliefs which make up my neomodernism are all things I've held for a long time. Neomodernism is a perfect fit for me, and elements of the neomodern credo which I'll be discussing in the coming week form the philosophical background for my writing. I hope that doesn't put you off ;)

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