Modernity is an all-encompassing term referencing simultaneously changes in social organization, mode of thinking, political organization and the cultures associated with these wide-ranging transformations. It is a term largely associated with Europe; in this class we will try to distinguish between western modernity and vernacular modernities and if we get really ambitious we will try to provincialize western modernity.
In its most general usage, the term refers to a post-enlightenment society (post 1650), one marked by the rise of secular society and the decline in religion as an organizing principle of social life. Modernity also refers to the changes in society heralded by the rise of capitalism, the birth of the nation-state and the move from feudalism. For the purposes of this class when we use the term modernity we invoke the cultural and intellectual movements starting in the late 15th century. In short, modernity refers to a conglomeration of ideas/processes that mark a clear separation between the present and the past, an assertion that life in the present is fundamentally different from (and better) than life in the past.
Martin Jay’s reading specifically identifies the late 15th century as the time associated with a shift in scopic regimes. But as the piece points out the rupture is never very clean and while Cartesian perspectivalism may have dominated, several other scopic regimes existed simultaneously. By the late 19th century, these “minor” scopic regimes not only challenge the dominant form but become the hegemonic scopic regime.
If the Enlightenment marked a significant break from medieval society, these changes are further clarified by the end of the 19th century. Apart from the technological changes heralded by the industrial revolution, this era is marked by a range of new concepts, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the consolidation of capitalist economies, and the rise of democratic nation-states and, paradoxically, the consolidation of colonies.
Modernity has come to stand in for a certain set of attitudes towards the world — especially the human capacity to control and transform the world/nature — one which is often characterized as a rational, scientific approach. The European history of colonization plays an important role in the formation of these structures of feeling. Modernity is marked by the emergence of new technologies of communication and transportation, such as the railroad and telegraph, which in turn engendered a new sensibility towards time and space. According to some scholars, modernity is marked by an obsession with evidence, visuality and visibility. Other ideas held to be symptomatic of modernity are bureaucracy, rationalization, alienation, commodification, decontextualization, mass society, homogenization, and so on.
The term scopic regime was coined by the film critic Christian Metz and refers to the culturally specific ways of seeing that replace the traditional definition of “vision” as a universal and natural phenomenon. It signals an awareness that technology and culture interact to shape our regimes of representation. The term “scopic regime” emphasizes that ways of looking are not natural, but constructed; that they have a history; that they also vary synchronically as Martin Jay reveals in great detail. Scholars identify three scopic regimes associated with modernity: the panorama (a 360 degree view with the spectator at the center), the diorama (the world moves for the spectator who remains immobile) and the panopticon (a one-way gaze facilitated through architecture; the observer remains unknown and can thus regulate/survey the observed)
Charles Baudelaire is credited with coining the term modernité to describe the experience of living in an urban meteropolis and how this subjectivity is reflected in aesthetic movements.
More arcane description of modernity (more philosophical):
Modernity is predicated on a notion of time and history. It is a form of time consciousness (Husserl): the sense of being modern is predicated on a concept of the now as breaking free from the bonds of tradition and premodern belief systems. But just as it refers to a certain consciousness of time, a sense of newness about the present, modernity embodies also a system of knowledge about the world. To be modern implies a manner of apprehending the world such that its present possibilities and element of change are seized upon toward fuller development. Within modern philosophy associated with Locke, Kant, Hegel, Marx etc, the modern person (i.e. man) is understood to be an individual in and of the present, whose powers of reason confer upon them the moral duty to make use of all their rational abilities toward self-betterment and the improvement of society as a whole. In this line of thought, modernity refers to an historical consciousness that directs itself toward the realization of universal reason and progress.