Few thickets are more tangled than that in which the idea of modernity has become enmeshed, few topics less likely to inspire confidence than the question of its relations to the ‘postmodern’. Not least of the problems concerns the character and status of the concept of modernity itself. For it is far from clear that the main figures in recent debates have been writing about, and disputing, the same set of issues when the term has been used. This is of course, in one sense, precisely the point: it is the meaning of ‘modernity’ that is in dispute, and the argument is hardly just terminological. Nonetheless, there remains considerable scope for reflection about what kind of concept ‘modernity’ is, and in particular for a more systematic consideration of the relations between its various uses. What follows is offered as a preliminary contribution to this task.footnote

I shall concentrate on three distinct but connected approaches to the problem: the ideas of modernity as a category of historical periodization, a quality of social experience, and an (incomplete) project. Underlying and unifying my account are a concern, derived in large part from the writings of Benjamin and Koselleck, with modernity as a distinct but paradoxical form of temporality, and a reading of the modernism/ postmodernism controversy as a dispute in the politics of the philosophy of history.

I take as my starting point and thematic perspective Perry Anderson’s critique of Marshall Berman’s ‘recovery’ and celebration of modernity, All That is Solid Melts into Air.footnote1 Berman’s book offers, I believe, the most immediately appealing general account of modernity currently available; whereas Anderson’s critique strikes at, but only partially hits, what I take to be both the main problem with the concept and the source of its enduring strength—namely, its homogenization through abstraction of a form of historical consciousness associated with a variety of socially, politically and culturally heterogeneous processes of change. The key to the matter will be seen to lie in the relation between the meaning of ‘modernity’ as a category of historical periodization and its meaning as a distinctive form or quality of social experience—that is to say, in the dialectics of a certain temporalization of history.

Anderson’s objections to Berman’s account of modernity are fourfold. In the first place, he is seen to have produced an egregiously one-sided version of Marx’s account of capitalist modernization, which falls prey to an uncritical, because undifferentiated, concept of historical time. This is reflected, secondly, in an abstract and ‘perennial’ notion of modernism that fails to register the historical specificity of aesthetic modernism as a portmanteau concept for what is, in fact, a set of distinct if conjuncturally related movements, which are in any case now definitively over. Thirdly, his modernist ontology of unlimited self-development, although apparently derived from Marx, is actually based in an idealist form of radical liberalism which, from a materialist standpoint at least, is self-contradictory. Finally, Berman’s account of modernity as permanent revolution removes from the concept of revolution all social and temporal determinacy, robbing it, in particular, of its temporal specificity as a punctual event. ‘The vocation of a socialist revolution,’ Anderson concludes with characteristic flourish, ‘would be neither to prolong nor to fulfil modernity, but to abolish it.’footnote2 What are we to make of this critique? And how does it relate to the fundamental issue of what ‘modernity’ is (supposed to be)?

The first point to note about Anderson’s critique is its oscillation between two quite different senses of ‘modernity’: (1) as a flawed and misleading category for the identification and analysis of historical processes which are better understood in quite other terms; and (2) as the legitimate designation for a historical phenomenon, the theoretical comprehension but not the identification of which is contested. The difference is difficult, but crucial. Anderson equivocates. He seems, in general, to adopt the first sense: he offers a Marxist critique of the discourse of ‘modernity’. Yet his conclusion emphatically presumes the second: modernity is a historical reality, capable of ‘prolongation’, ‘fulfilment’ and ‘abolition’. The connection resides in the reflexivity of historical experience itself: ‘modernity’ has a reality as a form of cultural self-consciousness, a lived experience of historical time, which cannot be denied, however one-sided it might be as a category of historical understanding. It is the texture of this reality of cultural form that Berman sets out to re-create in the name of its admittedly contradictory emancipatory potential. For Berman, in other words, modernity is in some quite basic sense a historical given. For Anderson, on the other hand, whilst it might be given as art ideological form (a mode of experience produced and reproduced by the rhythm of the capitalist market), it is ‘given’ in this specific, restricted and ultimately derogatory sense only. It is a misrepresentation, a form of misrecognition. We are thus offered in its place an alternative, Marxist account of historical development, based on a periodization of modes of production, the rise and decline of classes, and ‘a complex and differential temporality, in which episodes or eras [are] discontinuous with each other, and heterogeneous within themselves’.footnote3