Here’s the basic schema I laid out in #26 :

1) quasi-modernity –approximately 1776 to 1918

2) intermediate modernity –approximately 1919 to 1965

3) full modernity –approximately 1966 to the present.

Now, for some flesh upon these analytic bones.

Everyone knows WWI and the 20s represent a real break. Even apart from the leaps made in communications and transportation, it is obvious that various modern trends in psychology, art, fashion, mores, and social theory that had gathered strength all through the 1870s-1910s became socially triumphant at that time, even in an America conservative enough to enact Prohibition and put Wilsonian Progressivism on hold. In his fine book A Thread of Years, historian John Lukacs puts it this way:

“By 1923 something more important and more lasting than the many political revolutions of the previous years, including the Russian one, was happening: a drastic breakaway from the past, on so many levels and fields of life, ranging from automobilization through architecture and art and music to verse and speech and behavior, from new mental clothes tried on to clothes worn or not worn . . . ”

While the 20s breakaway itself was more than a bit wild (the footage used in Zelig captures this well) things did get regularized by means of a more self-restraining “oligarchic” spirit, as they had to be given the Depression and War, and even in the 20s, given the corporate Business that everything modern still rather obviously depended upon, basic respectability had to be maintained.

So, the upper manager of the company would arrive at the supper-club with his glamorously dressed and likely younger wife. Of course there would be cocktails and jazzy dance music, and yet no-one would think of writing a song wryly commenting upon the cynically-used powers of a woman’s Brand-New Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat . Rather, beautiful songs would be written about These Foolish Things That Remind Me of You and of taking one’s Sugar to Tea . And indeed, that jazzy and romance-infused dance music was one of the great joys of the era, whose quality we for some reason cannot begin to approach today. For while of course the glamorous dress had to be sexy, it could not really be Cher-like sexy, Janet-Jackson-like sexy, or Gaga-like sexy and still really be glamorous . As many, including that degenerate French novelist, have borne witness, those years pulled the tension between aphrodisia and eros very taught, but afterwards, the string was loosened, and all the threads lead to sex too-easy to even be sexy.

Well, back to the sociology. To speak in Tocquevillian terms, while the quasi-modern America of 1776-1918 was as Cartesian, and as under the thrall of Common Opinion, as it was Christian and otherwise pre-modern, much of its success in preserving real liberty and avoiding recurring revolutions was due to its distinctive compartmentalization of the modern/democratic imperatives. They would be largely confined to the spheres of commercial and political life, wherein all except the basic rules (the sanctity of property, contracts, Constitution, etc.) would be in frenetic flux, while the spheres of domestic life and religious/philosophic life would remain largely settled, governed by a common acceptance of monogamous marriage and Christianity, and all the mores necessary to sustain the former and respect the latter. Those mores included, for non-elite Americans, an ethic of thrift, which the literary critic Malcolm Cowley would label Puritan, but which we can also call Franklin-ian. This ethic was embraced both by necessity and by choice, a choice to keep “idle hands” occupied. Cowley shows in his excellent Exile’s Return how that ethic largely gave way in the 1920s, before a dual onslaught of fashionable Bohemianism and a new sort of consumption-encouraging mode of American capitalism.

If Tocqueville was right about America and democracy’s modern work within it, then it seems what happened in these years can be explained, to quote a really great dissertation, by the following:

“First, even though democratic society ends the encouragement of extra-marital affairs caused by the aristocratic system of arranged marriages, its love of equality must also work against the defined gender roles and the heroic tinge given to female self-sacrifice that in Tocqueville’s account are crucial supports of the American marital system. Second, democracy stokes the ‘great current of human passion’ that ‘carries everything along in its course,’ namely, the love of material enjoyments.(II, 2.10, #18) True, this democratic passion hasn’t much of the aristocratic flair for ‘sumptuous depravity,’ but it seems likely to find ways to regularize such enjoyments and make more manageable the revolutionary penchant for erotic variety and disorder seen at the first stage of French democracy. Overall, these mores are too obviously susceptible to giving way for Tocqueville to think, as his rhetoric can suggest, that constituted democratic society provides a reliable anchor against the currents of erotic/hedonistic restlessness. A more advanced stage of democratic character with respect to sexual matters that is enjoyment-craving, change-loving, gender-equalizing, doctrinally materialist, and radically individualistic is quite visible by his lights.”

Intermediate modernity doesn’t bring in this advanced attitude towards sex and pleasure about—that awaits the 60s advent of full modernity —but unlike the 19th-century stage of quasi-modernity, it actively longs for it, and it is no longer  dependent on an institution like the brothel to indulge from time to time. In the large urban centers freely-entered-into affairs are becoming much easier. Women are no longer continually under the eyes of home and town society—they are freed, we might say, to learn about the potential viciousness of the double-standard as never before.

So all in all, intermediate modernity is a period dominated by the City and by a certain greater-than-usual reliance upon hypocrisy. It is less about moderation in any classical sense, than it is about control and appearances: it is modernity on a leash, a modish version of Plato’s oligarchic soul. This is because unlike the earlier stage of quasi-modernity , there is less a sense of a harmonious-enough mix (built-better-than-they-knew) than there is one of clamping down on a potentially explosive element. Mrs. Robinson is going to fool around with The Graduate , but she is damn sure going to keep it from the kids and make her daughter marry conventionally.

To keep speaking cinematically, intermediate modernity is the modernity of the wires and automobiles encroaching upon the old quasi-aristocratic house of the Magnificent Ambersons, strutting its stuff in Mad Men or The Apartment, and feeling smugly-cynically sorry for itself in the pulpy world of film noir . It is a frenzied world of constant busyness, advertisement, and entertainment ordered by customs like the Hollywood Code, but always tugged at by an undertow towards the lowlife as illustrated in Gypsy or in the nightmare-sequence of mainstreet-gone-sleazy in It’s a Wonderful Life.

If you want a non-fiction example of this last point, look to the “Hustler” chapter of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which illustrates just how much vice was in demand in the NYC of the 40s, hidden just out of sight. Still, it’s only towards the end of intermediate modernity that elite intellectuals like those on the Supreme Court begin to bamboozle themselves about how to define pornography and whether it’s really wrong or not.

We see the man in the gray flannel suit, or maybe a trench coat on a dark rainy night, moving in an urban setting of train stations, cabs, and streetlights. Is there a flask of liquor under there? A little Bible or crucifix? Sales pamphlets? Or some combination? Surely there are cigarettes, at least. If things are going well with him, he rides in from a suburb and goes into a sky-scraper, hopefully one as beautifully moderne as those portrayed by Jacques Tati’s Playtime. In any case, he has left, actually or in spirit, the American town of Porcher lore: if he remains there, he is not terribly happy about it, and he seeks with his fellow Rotarians or such to make this town ever more metro and convenient. Only angelic intervention could make that Jimmy Stewart character realize that life in that town could be wonderful.

The times are dominated by a horrible War and a bad Depression, but the 20s, the 50s, and the early 60s are prosperous times, and apparently pretty good ones for raising families in. Marriage is taken for granted as the elementary brick of social life, even as Divorce has become a basic fact in the lives of the sophisticated and as Single Motherhood has begun to creep up amid blacks and others of the poor.

While few now deny the gross injustices done in those years to gays, blacks, ethnics, and women too, all four could regard them as times of progress, even if all four, and blacks particularly, at times faced discouraging backwards-heading or injustice-entrenching developments. More generally, we cannot deny that Authority and Conformity held many prisoners of the soul in the era of intermediate modernity, even if ours are now times in which we sometimes miss the various ways its old manners and trusts gave us civilization.

You simply cannot understand Rock, particularly the template-setting Rock of the 60s, without understanding that intermediate modernity really could be awful. Yes, for many, it was a fine time, containing the perennial mix of human failings and achievements, and plenty of drama as well. But if you were brought up in a more dysfunctional-than-most family, and one wedded to several of the more blatant hypocrisies of the era, then Modern Civilization could seem a pretty bleak thing, something to be discussed with the likes of Freud and Marcuse, or Charles Mingus . And even if you were raised by a fairly normal and prosperous family to be “happy” and “well-adjusted” by the lights of modern psychology and leisure-consumerism, it could seem an ultimately empty thing. One might be ready, with a David Bowie, to claim that one’s whole unhappy (and now rebellious) life was living proof of Churchill’s lies . Or one might be ready to sympathize with the Dustin Hoffman character in the Graduate , stranded directionless in a wasteland of swimming pools, leisure, and plastics. One might be ready to hear modern society’s inauthenticity and individualism described by a song as a growing cancer . Tested Ways of handling the Arrival of the Modern, say, the Sober-Suited “Churchillian” Way, or the Well-Tanned/Entertained Suburbanite Way, were no longer tolerable.

The Songbook is particularly interested in rock artists of the 60s/70s, such as the Zombies and the Modern Lovers, or those of the 80s or later such as Joy Division and Blur, who either early or late recognized that the 60s cultural revolution was not really the solution to modern civilization’s sicknesses, but actually, the ultimate flowering of modernity. But of course, the bulk of rock artists, and particularly the boomer ones of the 60s/70s, have exhibited a dogged devotion to what they call “idealism,” to a conviction that one absolutely has to, and one soon will, get past or escape from or find a sociological solution to the modern situation. And of course, a limitless despair is the typical flip-side to this. For these artists, the modernity they denounce is often basically that of the intermediate stage, although the more honest aspects of their songs may well betray and reveal their actual unhappiness with the fully modern one as well. The Songbook is interested in the witness of both types of rock artists about the character of the modern, even if the more typical witness just described is freighted with much confusion and heart-hardened rebellion.

Show 0 comments