The Songbook inevitably has to analyze modernity, precisely because it is interested more in what rock reveals about our overall sociological and spiritual situation than it is in rock itself. So what follows are two organizing posts concerning this. Here, I’ll quickly lay out my basic propositions about my “three stages of modernity.” The second post is where I’ll really explain and describe them.
A. I’ll begin by asserting that American society from about 1776 to about WWI was shaped by a mix consisting of a) modernist Lockean/Cartesian principles, and b) various pre-modern inheritances, Christianity particularly.
B. Granting that, for American society there seem to be three main stages:
1) quasi-modernity –approximately 1776 to 1918
2) intermediate modernity –approximately 1919 to 1965
3) full modernity –approximately 1966 to the present
C. What de-moderated our modernity was the sexual/cultural revolution of the 60s: it claimed there was little need any more to restrain ourselves with respect to sex, scarcity, and conformity. It largely won, although a culture war continues, at least in America, to try to restrain it, and to partially return society to some of the codes and decencies taken for granted in the 1950s.
D. It may be that the culture war is better thought of as an effort to move forward, to a yet-to-really-arrive fourth stage, one in which real effort to practice postmodern conservatism will be made by society, doing its best to partially revive lost things, informed by many decades of experiencing the awful consequences of full modernity.
E. The schema is necessarily drawn very sharply. Many qualifications and quibbles can be made. Certain aspects of the timeline differ between the American and British experience of them, which become even larger if we compare these to the French, German, and upper-class Continental Europe experience of them, but broad parallels remain. Even with respect to the American stages we could quibble about dates, perhaps preferring 1912 to 1918 (so that Progressivism matters more than the war), or 1962 to 1966 (so that the more elite experience of the sexual revolution outweighs the more common one).
F. These are stages in our sociological situation, taking “sociological” in the widest sense. This can remind us of various stages applied to the history of philosophic thought, such as Leo Strauss’s “three waves of modernity,” but that sort of analysis is not what we’re seeking to do here. Rather, we want to consider the sociological stages as experienced by the larger culture, without saying with any certainty which thinkers have the most responsibility for them. The emphasis is thus not upon modernity as experienced by intellectuals, but as experienced by society as a whole. My more sociological stages of modernity DO NOT necessarily parallel Strauss’s intellectual waves of modernity. And there are reasons, as we will see as the Songbook unfolds, why I am reluctant to part with the term “modernity,” despite the confusion with Strauss’s schema this invites. For one, when the Modern Lovers talk about the “Modern World,” I want to tie songs like that to my sort of analysis.
My immediate motive for providing this schema was prompted by a difficulty concerning Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” but as mentioned above, the larger motive comes from the nature of the Songbook project itself. The Songbook proposed, you may recall, that one of the potentially redeeming features of rock artistry is its attempt to resist or at least bear witness to the destructive pull of modernity. Insofar as modern life becomes dehumanizing and isolating, rock has sung about this, tried to carve out artistic refuge from it, or otherwise sought to explore how one must deal with it. At its best, this is what rock has attempted.
A problem arises for this proposition, however, from the several stages of modernity. There are many songs that attack modernity in the name of various solutions that, whether they know it or not, are actually intensifications of modernity. Shades of Rousseau and Marx. “Sounds of Silence,” for example, is a song that attacks a feature of modernity, conformist inauthentic speech/reticence, that to some extent spans the entire period of modernity but which seems particularly strong during one stage of it, that of intermediate modernity. Because we have advanced beyond that stage, we have not had reason to be particularly worried about the “silence” the song comments upon, and so the song doesn’t speak to us as powerfully as it did in 1965. Its implicitly recommended remedy, self-expressive authenticity, now seems both less urgently needed and more questionable in itself. I more fully elucidated these points towards the end of my analysis of the song.
That is but one example of how I see my stages-of-modernity-analysis, and particularly its full vs. intermediate distinction, working with rock. The Songbook will contain many more. Understanding the character of intermediate modernity is in my view key, and that is what the next post will seek to more fulsomely sketch.