In All That is Solid Melts into Air, I define modernism as any attempt by modern men and women to become subjects as well as objects of modernization, to get a grip on the modern world and make themselves at home in it. . . . They are moved at once by a will to change--to transform both themselves and their world--and by a terror of disorientation and disintegration, of life falling apart. To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction, a life characterized by the uninterrupted disturbances of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation which have been part of modernity for two hundred years.
If we think of modernism as a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world, we will realize that no mode of modernism can ever be definitive.
I believe that communication and dialogue have taken on a new specific weight and urgency in modern times, because subjectivity and inwardness have become at once richer and more intensely developed, and more lonely and entrapped, than they ever were before. In such a context, communication and dialogue become both a desperate need and a primary source of delight. In a world where meanings melt into air, these experiences are among the few solid sources of meaning we can count on. One of the things that can make modern life worth living is the enhanced opportunities it offers us--and sometimes even forces on us--to talk together, to reach and understand each other.
[In response to postmodernism's absolute dismissal of all grand narratives.] Have we really outgrown the dilemmas that arise when "all that is solid melts into air," or the dream of a life in which "the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all"? I do not think so.
[There is] a widespread and often desperate fear of the freedom that modernity opens up for every individual, and the desire to escape from freedom [Erich Fromm] by any means possible.
There is a mode of vital experience--experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life's possibilities and perils--that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience "modernity."
Berman goes on to say that his desire in this book is to recover the history of modernity so that our own contemporary experience will be enriched and perhaps guided into the future. The experience of previous generations with modernity, both positive and negative, has been far richer than our own, he argues. We need to re-examine our situation and come up with better, more hopeful solutions. For example, in the past people understood the danger of being circumscribed by technology and the overwhelming power of social forces of organization, "but they all believed that modern individuals had the capacity both to understand this fate and, once they understood it, to fight it. Hence, even in the midst of a wretched present, they could imagine an open future. Twentieth-century critics of modernity almost entirely lack this empathy with, and faith in, their fellow men and women. . . . Modern man as a subject--as a living being capable of response, judgment, and action in and on the world--has disappeared. In the opinion of the modern intelligensia:
The masses have no egos, no ids, their souls are devoid of inner tension or dynamism: their ideas, their needs, even their dreams, are 'not their own'; their inner lives are 'totally administered,' programmed to produce exactly those desires that the social system can satisfy, and no more. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobiles, hi-fi sets, split-level homes, kitchen equipment.
Berman sees this opinion as a rejection of earlier visions of history as restless activity, dynamic contradiction, dialectical struggle and progress. The responses tended to simply into three groups based on attitudes toward modern life as a whole: affirmative, negative, and withdrawn.
All these visions and revisions of modernity were active orientations toward history, attempts to connect the turbulent present with a past and a future, to help men and women all over the contemporary world to make themselves at home in this world. Virtually no one today seems to want to make the large, human connections that the idea of modernity entails. Hence, discourse and controversy over the meaning of modernity, so lively a few decades ago, has virtually ceased today.
The modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our own roots. They can:
(1) Help us connect our lives with people throughout the rest of the world who are living through the trauma of modernization.
(2) Illuminate the contradictory forces which inspire and torment us, such as
(a) our desire to be rooted in a stable and coherent person and social past which conflicts with our desire for limitless growth (economically, socially, psychologically, etc.) a growth which enriches the future while destroying the solidities of the past.
(b) our desire for clear and solid values to live by which conflicts with our desire to embrace the limitless possibilites of modern life and experience which often call such values into question, producing a constant negotiation of personal and political allegiances and hostilities.
This entire series can also be read as a single document.
Marshall Berman; modernity; Erich Fromm; freedom.