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Hope and Modernity

Philippe Lemoine examines the question of the existence of a sense of history through the evolution of modernity. After World War II, modernity was marked by the belief in peace and growth, but events such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima challenged these promises. The attack on the World Trade Center, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and economic crises have contributed to a sense of uncertainty and precariousness. The text questions the future of humanity and the meaning of history.

It also evokes a rupture in the history of modernity, marked by three factors of change: the status of the individual which evolves towards the notion of personhood, the questioning of universalism, and the transition from belief in scientific and technological progress to reflexivity and awareness of risks.

The text emphasizes the importance of acknowledging different modernities and taking into account the diversity of viewpoints, especially with regard to issues of gender, ecology, and non-Western cultures. It also mentions initiatives to rethink freedom, support social movements, and reformulate political concepts to address current challenges.

Ultimately, Philippe Lemoine calls for reflection on modernity as an evolving process and the search for reasons for hope for the future.

Is there still a sense of history? After the Second World War, despite Auschwitz and Hiroshima, people continued to believe in the promises of modernity. Two themes crystallized hopes: Peace and Growth. They made it possible to continue to count on a march of humanity made up of individual emancipation, universal understanding, technical progress and democracy.

The atmosphere today is quite different. Since the arrival of the World Trade Center, there is no longer a corner on Earth that can be considered completely safe. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, war has returned to Europe. Peace is once again only a transitory state. As for growth, the crises of 1973 and 2008 had cracked its strength; Climate and ecological change is now challenging the principle. For several decades, our house had started to burn down and we were looking the other way. Denial is no longer possible. The memory of the Titanic reminds us of what happens to an ocean liner where people continued to drink and dance, as if nothing had happened, after the collision.

The horizon is now blocked. Sometimes we hear that new narratives should be formulated. Every year, a few publications try to roll the dice and draw new dystopias. There is no room for hope, except in the modest form of a hope of survival. Survivalism thus takes on the appearance of a guide to good practices to resist disaster. Collapsology goes beyond this and tries to find, if not meaning, at least serenity, in the acceptance of collapse. Are we facing a curse? Should we trust in Divine Providence? If we want to chart a new path of hope, we cannot avoid the debate on the meaning of history.

Post-modernity or new modernity?

The facts seem to condemn us to these sinister wanderings. What kind of eyes could still turn away from the IPCC reports? However, it is not the facts alone that have transformed our representations of the future. Even before the scientific alert, there had been a cultural break, heralded by the cry of the artists. In 1976, the Sex Pistols’ song “Anarchy in the UK” electrified England. The following year, their second single made the message explicit: “There is no future in England’s dreaming”. No future: it was the beginning of the punk movement! In 1978, Starmania’s song “Banlieue Nord” proclaimed: “There’s no future on Earth / What are we going to do?… Without faith or law / Without fire or place / I want to live and die… In my suburbs / I broke everything / I have no past / I have no future.”

In France, this crisis of the future prospered in particular and took the form of a theoretical clapperboard, announcing the very end of the notion of modernity. As early as 1979, Jean-François Lyotard published “The Postmodern Condition”. In it, he announced the death of modernity and the two metanarratives that had structured and carried it: that of the emancipation of the rational subject (the Enlightenment, Kant, Rousseau); that of the history of the universal spirit (Hegel and, in some ways, Marx). Philosophers rushed into the breach, to the point of arguing with Alain Finkielkraut on “the defeat of thought” (Gallimard, 1987). As for economists, they seized on the hypothesis to raise again the periodic spectre of a “French decline” (cf. for example Nicolas Baverez, “La France qui tombe: un constat clinique du déclin français”, Perrin, 2003).

In the early 2000s, however, this national confinement in a declinist and postmodern language was singular. In the company I led, LaSer, we were among those who saw that the Internet revolution was changing so many things! From our Demonstration Centre, The Exchanger, we witnessed a certain breath of optimism that dared to travel through Western economies once again. We then decided to engage in a collective reflection around a different hypothesis: not that of the end but of a rupture in the history of modernity. To explore it, the choice was to take a step back and straddle 1979, comparing the social landscape emerging in the 2000s with that of the 50s, at a time when we thought we had a clear grasp of what modernity meant. Different criteria led us to focus on the year 1954 and to select seven very diverse signs, seven emergences analysed at the time by the best minds because they seemed to them to be the height of an advanced modernity:

  • Political modernity: the inauguration speech of Pierre Mendès-France, a true “political discourse of national accounting” according to the expression of Simon Nora, analyzed in a penetrating way by François Fourquet in “Les Comptes de la Pouvoir” (Edition Encre);
  • Imaginary modernity: the arrival of Brigitte Bardot at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, an emblematic figure of the star system and its breast renewal, analysed by Edgar Morin in the founding text of the French sociology of the media, “Les Stars” (1957);
  • Entrepreneurial modernity: the creation of the FNAC (L’agitateur d’idées) and the Édouard Leclerc centres (L’épicier de Landernau), which, along with Decaux and Club Med, were at the heart of a brilliant analysis of service innovation by Michel Crozier;
  • Playful modernity: the appearance in 1954 of rock on the one hand and the trifecta on the other, significant events in Paul Yonnet’s analyses;
  • Symbolic modernity: the announcement of the DS (Goddess!) at the Paris Motor Show, a central phenomenon, alongside the action of Abbé Pierre during the winter of 1954, of Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies” (published in 1957, but written between 1954 and 1956);
  • Ontological modernity: Georges Bataille’s reflection on the caves of Lascaux, discovered during the war and which he visited at that time, questioning what they reveal about man’s refusal to represent himself, a major moment in his thought on the birth of Art;
  • Computer modernity: the death, in May 1954, of Alan Turing, the father of computer science, in particularly challenging circumstances, four years after publishing the founding text of Artificial Intelligence, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (Mind, 1950).

Each of these events was revisited, fifty years later, either by their commentators of the time (Edgar Morin, Michel Crozier, François Fourquet, Paul Yonnet) or by new perspectives (Éric Barchechath, Jean-François Perret, Dominique Wolton, Alain Touraine). In isolation, each fact analysed could lead one to believe in continuity; Connected to each other, you could see how much everything had changed. The published text was the basis of the Forum d’Action Modernités. It was entitled: “1954-2004: From one modernity to another” (Éditions 00h00, 2002).

Three Breakups

The approach we followed overlapped in some respects with Jean-François Lyotard’s approach: we did indeed identify a bifurcation on the two levels of the Rational Subject and Universalism. But our conclusions were based on a completely different corpus from those of the philosopher. His work was originally a “report on knowledge in the twentieth century,” commissioned by the Quebec government. Our modest approach was much more pragmatic and diverse: political, imaginary, entrepreneurial, playful, etc. Only one chapter was indirectly related to epistemology: the one on Turing. But it was not approached in the same light at all.

Rather than the “end of two metanarratives”, our analysis led us to identify a rupture on each of the two faces of modernity: the Individual and the Universal. Indeed, in the course of the examples, we first observed a shift in the order of the Subject, leading to a passage from the classical notion of the Individual to a notion still in the making, that of the Person. When we explore the democratic rhetoric of Pierre-Mendès-France or the service innovations carried by André Essel or Gilbert Trigano, we see the “atomic” notion of individual (Individuum: one among the number) enriched by the notions of decision-maker and actor, while the “stars”, analyzed by Edgar Morin, are half-god half-man characters, already descended from Olympus to announce the march towards a galaxy of ever more different looks, ever more unique, ever more like oneself. The world is populated by avatars and doubles. The key concept becomes that of person, in the double sense of Personna, the mask of Greek theatre, and Person, the transcendental unity of Being.

Changes in work that force us to act

The other rupture concerns the Universal, in the sense of a harmony that is built on the logic of the One. The fact that the Subject escapes the indecomposable representation of the Individual-atom compromises in itself the vision of a mechanics gravitating around this Center. “I am an Other,” Rimbaud said. Extending Paul Yonnet’s reflection on rock, we questioned the appearance of this tear in modernity that had constituted the punk aesthetic. Inspired by Greil Marcus’ magnificent book “Lipstick Traces, a Secret History of the Twentieth Century”, we showed how punk was a reappearance, in rock, of the Dada revolution. This change of perspective is by no means the end of modernity. As early as 1975, the sociologist Henri Lefebvre wrote: “To the extent that the word modernity has a meaning, it is this: it carries within it, from the beginning, radical negativity, Dada, that event that took place in a café in Zurich.” And in 1954, at the very beginning of our history, the first issue of Potlatch, the journal of the Lettrist International, the future Situationist International, was entitled: “The Cathars were right.” Reason because, believing in the Devil and the double, they refuted all logic of the One. In the heart of modernity, it is this plural vision, that of the Cosmos, which replaces the Universal.

Crozier, Morin, Touraine, Wolton, Yonnet…: our investigation led us to tour the biggest names in French sociology. But at the time we published our essay, this question about modernity had no status in France. First of all, there were misunderstandings: what are you looking for behind this theme of modernity? Modern, doesn’t that mean contemporary? Or maybe you’re interested in Modern Art… Is that right? Moreover, despite certain allusions made to us by François de Singly or Jean-Claude Kaufmann, few people knew that this debate that we wanted to launch was already taking place in several foreign countries: in the United Kingdom in particular, with Anthony Giddens; also in Germany, with Ulrich Beck. Personally, we didn’t know that. It was during the exchanges following the publication of the book that we read and then met these two great sociologists.

We then realized that these intellectuals had in common that they had read Lyotard and the French theses on postmodernity, but that they had not stopped there. They, too, had found it more pertinent to assume that classical modernity had been succeeded by another modernity: a second or advanced modernity, according to Giddens; a reflexive modernity, according to Beck. And they, too, had identified the two factors of rupture, the status of the Individual and that of the Universal. In “The Consequences of Modernity” (Cambridge: Polity, 1990) and, even more so, in “The Transformation off Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies” (1992), Anthony Giddens makes the profound transformations of intimacy an essential marker of the change in modernity, with the shift from a society where individual identity is inherited to one where it is cobbled together. As for the crisis of universalism, it is sketched out in Ulrich Beck’s famous “The Risk Society: On the Road to Another Modernity” (Aubier, 2001) and developed in “What is Cosmopolitanism?” (Aubier, 2006). In the vocabulary itself, our work met theirs.

There was, however, one plan that we had put forward less and which nevertheless constitutes a third factor of rupture in the history of modernity: the belief in a Progress of scientific and technical origin. In “The Society of Risk”, Beck clearly shows how classical modernity saw Progress as a train pulled by the scientific-technological locomotive, whereas, since Hiroshima and Chernobyl, modernity is based more on the ability of a society to anticipate and control the risks generated by Science and Technology. It is this attitude of anticipation and feedback that Beck calls “reflexivity.” As a stakeholder in the debates on the computerization of society, it seemed essential to us to add and analyze this third rupture in depth. On the one hand, even though they had co-authored a book on “Reflexive Modernity,” Beck and Giddens were not in perfect agreement on this point, the former being an intellectual inspiration for the German Greens and the latter the theoretician of Tony Blair’s social-liberal “Third Way” and a fierce opponent of political ecology. On the other hand, having worked with Edgar Morin and familiar with the questions raised in “The Method”, we were aware of the internal transformations in the world of Knowledge and Knowledge that meant that these notions of anticipation and feedback were no longer exclusively societal but that, since cybernetics and systems theory, they inhabited technology itself. It was necessary to dig deeper and go deeper.

Modernities in the plural, modernities with an “s”

The Forum d’Action Modernités was born out of these debates. From the beginning, we chose to call it “Modernities” in the plural, Modernities with an “S”. First of all, it was a question of indicating that we rejected the French ideology of postmodernism and that we found it preferable to affirm that history still had a meaning, but that it was only decipherable by supposing a break in the history of modernity. Refusing the death of modernity meant affirming a succession of several modernities. But this plural does not have a simple chronological meaning. It also means that the issues that have plagued classical modernity are revealed to be such that modernity is now a matter in the making, a “work in progress”, requiring everyone’s contribution. In order to be enlightened again, the horizon presupposes that a rich coherence emerges from the confrontation and aggregation of multiple visions. The new modernity can no longer be the victory of a restricted rationality, embodied only by the white males of the developed West.

The current period is marked by a multitude of works rehabilitating and valuing the role of remarkable women in the history of the City, of Science, of Thought, and a whole current of feminism emphasizes that there is a specificity of the feminine, the forgetting of which generates a risk of hemiplegia. Beyond what we wrote about Turing, the advance of Artificial Intelligence also raises questions about the limits to which the human mind condemns itself when it essentializes an immutable division between two sexes and ignores the contribution of LGBTQ+ and queer. Other works insist on the intellectual fecundity of Enlightenment other than the Western Enlightenment. They show how a different expression of modernity is being sought in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Following in the footsteps of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola, anthropology admits that several ontologies coexist, several representations of Man and Nature. Cultural representations of indigenous peoples can play a critical role in humanity’s future resilience.

In its debates and in its work, the Forum d’Action Modernités defends this plural conception. He is wary of the temptations to retreat that the current controversies over “wokeism” conceal. If we want to ensure the future of the key concepts of modernity, those of universalism and secularism, for example, we must do so by drawing lessons from what we learn from the change in the regime of modernity. Three areas in which the Forum is committed illustrate this approach. First of all, the work to “Rethink Freedom” (Descartes & Cie, 2022): at the heart of this collective work, there is the conviction that it has been a terrible mistake not to bring the concept of Freedom to life, outside of a reflection on individuals and the market, left to economists alone. In the age of Chat GPT and automatic face recognition, there is so much to say… The consequence is a lack of arguments and a weakness in the ability to lead when it comes to responding to the rise of populism and authoritarian regimes. Even when Putin’s Russia invades Ukraine, the West has a hard time convincing the world that what is at stake is values, democracy and freedom…

A second emblematic project is that of the Iranian people’s involvement in the recent uprising. Two evenings in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement were organized with a specific collective, the Barayé collective: on December 12, 2022 at the Trianon (visible on the CultureBox replay) and on April 17, 2023 at the Châtelet (visible on the TV5 replay). As has been stated, the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” is in itself a trilogy relevant to the twenty-first century. Woman, because as Edgar Morin, the Forum’s Honorary President, said, it is the first large-scale social movement in the history of the world, where women have systematically been at the forefront. Life, because the stakes of ecology are very much present, but not in an atmosphere of eco-anxiety but rather, in the words of Farhad Khosrokhavar, in that of a social movement of joie de vivre. Freedom, because in substance and form, the Iranian movement illustrated all the new issues of Freedom that we had been able to explore in our book.

A third project is that of a reformulation of the structuring concepts of the political debate. A text is published in this collection on current immigration issues. An article published by Esprit in February also questioned the terms of the debate on climate and ecological change. “What is the planet?” we asked. What are we talking about when we try to elevate the debate to a defense of the common goods of all humanity? It seemed relevant to us to shed light on this question by deepening the analysis of this famous third rupture of our regime of modernity. While major changes have occurred over the past several decades in our model of knowledge, reasoning in terms of complexity, systems and self-organization remains abstract and cut off from representations. A thinker like Bruno Latour wrote that there was an urgency to land. The hypothesis we proposed is that the scale of the planet is an attempt to connect the two ends of the chain: that of new principles of knowledge and that of lived experiences.

It is only by reconnecting the threads of our modernity in the making that we will find reasons for hope.

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