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From Contemplation to Impatience and Boredom

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This book is a commentary on the emergence and evolution of the modern condition. Over two centuries ago a number of societies, initially in the West, began to forge the urban, industrial apparatus that, gradually but inexorably, came to replace the largely rural and agricultural framework that had shaped the human experience for several millennia. The apparatus foregrounded factories and power-driven technology, but it also recast family life, work, leisure, even sexuality—indeed much of the content of daily activity and personal meaning. Modernity would entail huge changes in government policy, the role of science, the nature of war—a variety of macro developments. But this inquiry deals more with the daily, even ordinary aspects of modernity, often on the more private side of life, which is where many of the nagging issues and conundrums nest. Even here, there’s no intention to explore all the details or phases of the establishment of modern life, but rather to focus on key directions and the ways in which contemporary challenges flow from the broad process of modern social change.


Modern developments introduced some unanticipated new problems that emerged on the heels of the resolution or partial resolution of older issues. They also provoked some responses that have turned out to be inadequate and open to review. Both the problem generation and the false starts warrant exploration, for they all contribute to the sense of potential unfulfilled.


Another vantage point is crucial here: the effective recency of the whole current of change that so vividly connects contemporary trends— like the latest iterations of discussions over what constitutes a successful modern childhood—to the first signs of disruption to agricultural patterns over two hundred years before. Though a two-century-plus span is a long time, when considered in terms of the magnitude of the changes involved as well as the deep roots of prior agricultural patterns, it’s barely the blink of an eye. We’re all still adjusting to basic shifts such as the separation between work and family or the decline in the omnipresence of death or the growing dependence on commercial purveyors of leisure for so much of what we see as the fun of life. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with novel problems modernity generates, such as the unprecedented challenge of obesity, or with first responses to modernity (like retirement as the solution to the issues of modern old age) that probably need a second look. We hear a lot about the “postmodern” or postindustrial, and of course new directions arise within a modern framework. But the fact is that we’re still in the early stages of a more fundamental social order—the modern—that may (if past precedents are any model) last for many centuries. This is why most of the adjustments in ordinary daily life remain a bit tentative. This is why it is not at all too late to take hold of the reins of modernity, using the analysis of recent history as a partial guide, and shape it in ways that might work better for us than present patterns do.


A final complication demands attention as well, though more in the West, and particularly the United States, than in modern societies generally. While the dominant process of contemporary history centers on the construction of modern social institutions and experiences, a second process, a bit less familiar, highlights a mounting pressure to seem (and, if possible, to actually be) cheerful and happy. This process also began to take shape in the 18th century, and this meant that many of the really difficult adjustments to the modernization of social and personal life were surrounded by an unprecedented tide of secular optimism from a number of persuasive sources. Here, too, clear connections link contemporary patterns with the earlier directions of change, creating an ongoing relationship between the happiness imperative and the outcomes of modern, industrial transformation. Indeed, the cost of measuring up to intensifying demands for cheer, even while dealing with the inherent complexities involved in constructing modern childhoods or death rituals, has almost certainly gone up in recent decades. Here, too, is a revealing history to be explored not for its own sake but for what it shows about the sources and shadows of the present. The burdens of modernity are compounded by the need to keep smiling.


Combining new requirements for cheerful ebullience with the creation of modern social experiences has not always been inherently contradictory, which is why, at various points, the most starry-eyed optimists have been able to skirt the problem altogether. Elements of a progressive vision have not only come true but have indeed, as pundits predicted, removed or reduced age-old burdens in life in ways that can make it easier to be happy. There is far less untimely death to mourn, to take a leading example, than once was the case. But fulfilling happiness demands could itself be a strain, as several insightful scholars have pointed out, and the context encouraged the development of new expectations rather than the enjoyment of older problems resolved. Here is a set of relationships that has not been fully explored and yet is central to the satisfaction gap that so obviously defines key aspects of modern life.


Any prospectus that tosses around the word “modernity” as often as I already have must offer a few other explanations. “Modern” and “modernization” are terms that have been frequently misused, and much criticized. There’s no reason, in my judgment, to back off from the proposition that a cluster of changes has occurred—around new technologies, the rise of urban centers, and the relative decline of agriculture and agricultural forms—that can be accurately and efficiently summed up as modern, but there’s also no question that some further, if brief, definition is essential.


First: where, geographically, will this book focus? “Modern” is an encompassing term, and the roster of societies moving into the modern orbit is expanding rather rapidly. Many societies now are modern, in terms of basic urban and industrial structures, with life expectancies and educational levels to match. But modern frameworks, though important, can be variously implemented. In this study, the focus is on the United States, but to carry the analysis through properly some comparisons are essential. Figuring out what has been distinctive about American encounters with, for example, a rapidly falling death rate or the regularization of food supply, and what has been a standard part of the process whether in the United States or Japan, sheds light both on the global present and on the national particulars. The unusually heavy demands of American cheerfulness, which foreign observers noted already by the early 19th century and which have multiplied in recent decades, also transpose a widespread modern dilemma onto a distinctive national canvas. There are a few cases, as well, in which experiences elsewhere in handling modernity seem clearly superior to homegrown models, which is where comparison is practically as well as analytically essential despite a considerable national reluctance to admit any need to learn from abroad.


Issues of evaluation loom at least as large as geography in invoking modernity. Too often, in some social science literature, “modern” has been equated with good or desirable; but since much of the purpose of this study involves assessing the quality of the modern, we can surely hope to avoid this trap. It’s precisely because traditional arrangements often worked so well in many respects that the modern becomes more problematic than is often realized; and the fact that several modern societies emphasize happiness in new ways must not lead us to assume that premodern people were actually less happy. Indeed, to anticipate, it’s virtually certain that for some people less insistence on happiness would permit greater actual happiness. So the problem, modern=better, can be addressed without too much anticipatory agony.


Overgeneralization within a modern society is another challenge. It is vital to acknowledge a welter of diverse situations and responses. At various key points, and to an extent still today, the two genders have experienced aspects of emerging modernity differently, and the same applies to social class and other common dividers, including extent of religiosity. American responses to modern childhoods, for example, have been hugely contingent on whether traditional ideas about original sin were cast aside or re-embraced. On the class side of things, it has been easier but also more imperative for middle-class folks to try to measure up to happiness demands than for workers or farmers to do so, though by the later 20th century the huge expansion of the self-professed American middle class qualifies this point at least nationally. While on the whole the happiness push has tended to make expressions of outrage or anger more difficult—which was one of the reasons the whole theme gained so much manipulative attention—this doesn’t mean that everyone clusters around a ubiquitous smiley face, even in the United States. The complexities of the modern experience amid overt pressures for happiness demand assessment, but accompanied by recognition of varied subgroups and personality styles. Many people make a good thing out of modernity through some commonsense personal adjustments in expectations; many people are angry or resentful about modern standards and pressures; many fare adequately but amid more anxieties than they think they should have to face. The mixture challenges any glib generalizations about modernity.


This book is not intended as an attack on the modern condition— another evaluative posture that would not be helpful. Modern change has brought all sorts of benefits, and where down sides have emerged, they may yet be more successfully addressed.


It is clear as well, even as we turn to the unexpected constraints on modern happiness, that few people would willingly choose to return to a premodern framework. From the early 19th century onward, periodic experiments offered people the chance to go back to a somewhat idealized past, through bucolic, craft-centered communities. The outlet was important to a few individuals, and it did shed light on the pressures of modern change, but the communities always foundered and never posed a serious alternative to modern, industrial reality. The same judgment applies to the commune movement of the 1960s, briefly hailed as a wave of the future. A few small ventures survived, a few people stayed rural and anticonsumerist, but for almost everyone else modernity quickly resumed its forward march, incorporating a few countercultural trinkets mainly as consumer options. Modernity’s triumph over traditional values certainly reflects a lack of imagination—with so many people following the modernist herd—and no small amount of brainwashing by corporate culture, but it also builds on the very real advantages of having access, say, to modern birth control or health care.


So there is no reason to indulge in antimodern fantasies or indeed to overglamorize a premodern past when life was often, to parrot Thomas Hobbes, rude, brutish, and short. The challenge is establishing a more sophisticated balance. If modernity often seems inexorable to most people, at least in the advanced industrial societies, a popular sense of certain kinds of loss provides the basis for a more rounded evaluation—an evaluation that can grant real progress but also expose the countercurrents.


For the very vigor of modernity’s march can obscure any sense of options, at least within self-styled paragons of progress such as the United States. Individuals create successful adaptations, and important minorities like religious evangelicals preserve or construct more elaborate supplements or alternatives. But a larger sense of the way modern frameworks might be rethought, or of where initial responses to the whole modern process have proved less than optimal, occurs infrequently at best. The effort is all the more desirable in that some modern responses may not yet have congealed, given the recency of many key social changes.


By the 21st century, modern life has generated an almost frenzied sense of compulsions—to keep up with consumer standards, to maintain a vigorous pace of work, to keep track of often overscheduled kids. Modernity itself tends to distract from contemplation, replacing it with a barely concealed impatience or fear of boredom (two relatively recent products—boredom as an identified state is only a bit over two centuries old—that are not the most attractive products of the modern condition). Yet a meaningful life, whether modern or not, deserves to be examined, and an understanding of the historical legacy of modern change and the pressures of happiness opens a path to this examination. The process is at the least interesting and revealing, and at best it offers an invitation to explore some alternatives to contemporary modern extremes.


The assessment of modern life and the happiness gap does not, for the most part, feed into the most pressing of today’s political concerns. Specific responses, like retirement policies, do come in for comment, but we are not in the main dealing with problems for which the government should devise a response or that feed a clearly partisan agenda. The target is a more personal grasp of where modernity has taken us, and where as individuals, or as guides to our children, we might think about some adjustments or enrichments in the process.


The following two chapters flesh out key aspects of my argument, by offering evidence about the surprisingly incomplete correlation between modernity and professed happiness and by tracing the emergence of the happiness imperative itself. Three chapters then deal with key problems that have emerged as modernity unfolded. Chapter 4 sketches measurable deteriorations under modernity’s shadow, capable of at least recurrently affecting resultant overall satisfaction. Chapter 5 explores more subtle issues, where modernity generated initial reactions that were off the mark, causing ongoing divisions and adjustment needs that affect social and personal experience alike, from gender disputes to perceptions of one’s own body. Chapter 6 tackles the disjunctures between modern work and both traditional standards and progressive forecasts, a persistent contributor to the gap between modernity and happiness. The final section, with its own three chapters, confronts the clearest spoiler, in terms of garden-variety modern tensions: the way new and demanding expectations quickly erased any realization of the gains modernity had brought. The last of the chapters in this section deals with consumerism, where unfulfilled hopes became almost built into the modern process, not only illustrating the satisfaction gap but acquiring much of the spillover from other modern disappointments.


Historical analysis has often shed light on current concerns by exploring past analogies with contemporary patterns or by highlighting revealing contrasts between now and then, or simply by applying perspective to very recent trends. The explosion of historical research on the wider ranges of human behavior expands these opportunities. Increasingly, groups of historians concerned with aging, or emotions, or childhood, though still genuinely interested in developments in the past, work even more explicitly to show what combinations of changes and continuities reveal how the present has emerged from the past. My effort to explore the reaches of modernity sits squarely in this vein: my central concern is to offer a vantage point on current behaviors and attitudes, rather than simply to examine these behaviors and attitudes as static artifacts or to look at past contrasts for their own sake. Too often, history’s public service beyond the classroom rests on museums and heritage entertainment, but more can be offered.


More historians—and again, their number has been growing—need to be involved in reaching a wider public by demonstrating that history can be a source of discovery and contemporary insight, not just a way to avoid repeating the past. For their part, more elements of the public need to expect new things from history: not just battles, biographies, and ancestries or lots of engaging anecdotes or familiar boredom. History can now provide not only cautionary tales and good stories, enlightening as well as entertaining, but also a commitment to exploring and explaining change and through this the conditions of modern life. The extensive grasp of modernity, as an accumulation of changes that have taken us from past to present, translates that commitment in particularly relevant fashion. We can move what we expect from history to a higher level.


This book depends on the twin beliefs that tracing the trajectory of significant contemporary patterns is not only possible but revealing and that improved understanding is a good in its own right and a goad to debate and to action. When we can see current behaviors and assumptions as the product of change, we are best positioned to consider further change— or to confirm the status quo with greater assurance. Thinking more systematically about modernity’s development and impacts—and this means thinking historically—is the basis for managing modernity better.


Peter N. Stearns, Ph.D., Provost and University Professor at George Mason University, has authored or edited over 110 books. He has published widely in modern social history, including the history of emotions, and in world history. He has also edited encyclopedias of world and social history, and since 1967 has served as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Social History.


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