A question was asked about references for the material that we’re discussing. I’ll post a list of references at the end of the discussion so that you’ll have some other sources to look at. We’ll call it a recommended reading list.
The development of Modernism
As with most social movements, modernism developed in response to a series of changes in the world. More appropriately, it developed as a series of "fed ups", meaning that the response to a set of negative circumstances generated the developments. This is typical of just about any facet of life, especially since satisfaction has not been known to generate the desire for change. It is typically dissatisfaction that brings about the desire for improvement.
Societal Change and Gravsian Thinking Systems
It is easier to understand the concept of societal change if we zoom out a little bit and try to look at the big picture. Looking too closely at world history reveals thousands upon thousands of data points to factor in, and that’s just too tough. A system that I advise for us is the Thinking Systems evaluation that was developed by Clare Graves. Graves’s approach had to do with complexities of behavior. As humanity develops, new and more complex behaviors will develop. This will come as a result of innovation and advancement, but also because the problems created at one level of behavior require more complex thinking to solve than they do to create. For example, nuclear proliferation was complex but it requires much more complex behavior to negotiate the reduction of nuclear arms around the world.
Since Graves’s theory is based on complexity development, we can easily see the development of society in 8 simple phases, only 3 of which have any bearing on the current discussion. Each phase, or system, develops in part as a response to the former. Here’s a brief look at the ones that matter to us for our discussion:
- System Two – Just above the "caveman" stage, system two has two prime focuses: clan and unknown. Keeping the family together, safe, and fed is of utmost importance. There is an acknowledgment of the existence of the unknown, so rituals to appease the "spirits" develop so that the unknown can be satisfied and safety can be won. These tribal civilizations will often have two important leaders: the chief and the priest. As societies changed into System Three, there was an odd throwback to System Two. The firstborn among the leaders would become king, the second born would become a priest.
- System Three – System Three developed as a response to the fear of the unknown in System Two. When appeasing the spirits no longer worked, conquering became the primary response. The primary motto is "Might Makes Right". The one in charge makes the rules, and these rules are enforced with brutality if necessary. This transition occurred as tribes gave way to kingdoms and kingdoms eventually gave way to larger governments ruled by power and control. One of the most famous System Three leaders was Hitler, who gained office through election but used force and fear to stay there and advance his twisted cause.
- System Four – System Four developed in response to one sided brutality of system three. The answer was systematizing conformity through the passing and enforcing of laws and rules. Slavery was a problem, so it was outlawed. Rulers like Hitler were a potential threat, so international bodies were developed to oversee the world. No one person could be trusted with all the power, so new governments developed a series of interconnected branches to serve as "checks and balances" over the others. If anyone got out of line, the rules and regulations were there to take care of them.
Modernism and Gravsian Transition
If you are thinking that there are a lot of similarities between the description I gave of modernism and the description of System Four, you would be correct. They overlap in almost every facet. That is why looking at the transition into Modernism is so easily facilitated by Graves’s model.
The advancements made in technology from the 1500s through the 1700s (the enlightenment) made an incredible impact on society. The dark ages waned, and humanity took giant steps forward in discovery and education. For a time, this made things easier on the rulers of the day. Eventually, however, the increased education led to uprisings all over the world.
From the late 1700s through the early 1900s a change occurs in war. At the beginning of this period the wars are almost entirely about conquering land from your neighbors and subjecting them to your rule (a very System Three thing to do). As soon as new land was discovered, it was immediately being fought over by power nations of the day (Britain, France, Portugal, etc.). As you progress through time, the wars become less about conquest and more about freedom. Even within the well established countries, citizens wanted freedom.
Probably the first significant "revolution" was the American Revolution in the 1770s. This was followed by the French Revolution in the 1790s and then a flurry of wars as colonies and conquered countries began to throw off their oppressive leaders. System Three was on the way out, and System Four was on the way in.
Modernism is the culmination of the transition from "might makes right" to "legislated societies". Following the American Civil war, modernism began to flourish in the United States and was cemented as the main system of thought following World War I. Our response in World War II was clearly a response of a modernist nation against those with a lower behavioral complexity (system four takes on system three).
The great thing about modernism is its stability. It provides safety to the members of its society and looks out for the common good. It is predicable and reliable. Modernism does face some problems, however. Because of its fear of system three behavior, anyone trying to advance themselves can be seen as a potential problem. Those who rock the boat are looked down upon, unless of course they rock the boat by enforcing well established rules. Perhaps the most troublesome is that modernism cannot "feel", it can only "know".
What happens when members of a society begin to realize that the stable society that provides them safety is not perfect? What happens when the current structure no longer answers all the questions? As with other occasions in history, society develops movements that respond to the status quo. Our next entry will look at some of the major features of postmodernism and the reasons why they developed.