Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Middle Modernism

Jane Jacobs is the Mother of all Jedi (and yes Gladwell is one of the Skywalker twins)

The medieval European doctrine, "City air makes free," is quoted by Jane Jacobs in her book Economy of Cities, more recently in Stewart Brand's Whole earth Discipline, and in Steven Johnson's latest book Where Good Ideas Come From. This isn't just a coincidence. Jacobs is the mother of New Urbanism; Brand and Johnson are both diehard urbanists and admirers of Jacobs. But Jacobs is also the God mother of a new strain of Modernism that Brand and Johnson are examples of. Jacobs cites Brand in her last book, Dark Ages Ahead. (Not her best book, but still how cool would that be?) Jacobs was writing in response to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (even cooler), where he made his case for a "genuine science of human history." Kevin Kelly who co-curates the Long Now seminars with Brand and did a Book tour with Johnson late last Year is another new Modernist, I would add to the list Gail Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, David Bell, Helen Fisher... the list goes on. These are not the sorts of writers that are cited in academic papers, these are the sorts of thinkers one finds searching airport book stores or giving TED talks.

These new Modernists are the most recent expression of an vulgar intellectual strain that threads through modernity from it's earliest moments - a strain that is usually disparaged as Middle Brow. High Modernists, like Virginia Wolfe and Clement Greenberg romanticized Low Brow or folk culture (High Modernists love adobe villages), but saw the "ersatz culture" of the middle brow as a threat to their high minded view of modernism (Greenberg lumped tap dancing and tin pan alley with Soviet propaganda and Nazi spectacle). The new Modernists are best described as Middle Modernists, not only because they occupy the dreaded middel of Kitch, but because unlike the High Modernists, who believed that they knew Modernism in its full flower. Middel Modernists share an understanding that we are deeply embedded within modernity, that its final shape is far from being expressed. The origins of Middle Modernism are equally distant and far more modern than the pseudo-aristocratic elitism of High Modernism.

Stephen Hawking writes that "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science." Galileo is remembered for his astronomy, but his greatest contribution was applying mathematical rigor to physical experiments. In his Dialogo, the book that brought him before the inquisition, Galileo made the curious choice to write in Tuscan Italian instead of Latin. The book is centered on dangerous idea that the earth revolved around the sun, but also writing about science more broadly making a case for what he believed to be good scientific practice. That Galileo used a vular dialect instead of the language of scholarship to communicate his ideas is the most modern element of his Dialogo.  Instead writing for an elite, he chose to write for a broader audience. 

When Karl Marx wrote wrote his comrade Friedrich Engels endorsing Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species, he did so "although it is developed in the crude English style." In his short accesible book on Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, Angels and Ages, Adam Gopnick points out that The Origin was written for a general audience:
Darwin was a writer among scientists and a scientist among writers; though he didn't think he was a natural writer, he published his big ideas in popular books. A commercial publishing house published On the Origins of Species along with novels and memoirs, and The Origin remains probably the only book that change science that an amateur reader can still sit down and read right through for pleasure while being told mostly true things. 
The effect of Galileo's popularism is difficult to feel at this great distance, but Darwin's is not. Gopnick points out that "There is no more point in calling evolutionary biology 'Darwinism' than in calling the theory of gravity 'Newtonism' or that of relativity 'Einsteinism.'"But that "Darwinism is more than a set of claims; it is an entire epoch in human thought and feeling. His habits of mind - fairness, popular adress, and the annealing of courage with tact - are worth revering even if scientists abandon or revise half of his tenets. The power of his example  - an appetite for seeing joined to a capacity for seeing past, a love of observation enabling a gift for rigorous inference - would be right even if his ideas were wrong."

The High Modernists made a fetich of genius and celebrated the timelessness of masterpieces, the Middle Modernists don't. Johnson writes about the importance of networks, Kelly about the redundancy of discovery, Gladwell writes, not about the success of great men, but how we can succeed as a group. There are New High Modernists as well. David Brooks is a Sith who's anti-urbanism is a return to the patronizing Modernism the twentieth century. The Neo Cons with their grim bunker political architecture of Jersey Barriers and guard booths justified with bellicose rhetoric belong to the paranoia and violence of the Cold War. Middle Modernists are not all Leftists however, Francis Fukuyama should be counted among the Middle Modernists as well.

There was a Low Modernism as well. It was invisible to the High Modernists. The art critic Max Kazloff got thrown out out of the artist Robert Irwin's car in the middle of the desert for refusing to acknowledge that hot rods were folk art - Irwin could see a Low Modernism Kazloff couldn't (at least not durring that drive). Star Wars was Modernism hot-rodded. 

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