The defining feature of Modern culture

Modern culture is a direct derivative of and at the same time antithesis of co-existence with nature. The defining feature of Modern culture (adopting the Herder’s definition as “the practices and beliefs which form the self-identity of a tribe” and not the Humboldt’s version of distinguishing common and high cultures)(Scruton 2) is its increasing distance from the nature and its attempts to understand and divulge the secrets or facets of nature, hither to left unappreciated or not understood.

In the history of human civilization (ironically, Civilization means the history of city dwelling population) the pace at which technology improved has grown exponentially since the late 19th century. This growth in technology has spurred the redefining of central values attached to human life. The beneficiaries of the technological advances, the huge sections of societies, seldom bother themselves with the philosophical depths of questions that the increasing use of technology and the alienation form nature poses to their central core.

However, the tension that resonates between nature and technology is a legacy of inherited historical human values pitted against the negation of the basis of these values in technology. Technology seeks to explore and lay bare while a co-existence with nature demands a certain amount of surrender. Since these two approaches have to be combined in the modern life, there is ambivalence in the approach people are forced to take to their existence.

As George Simmel mentions in his work “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, the deepest problems of modern life are because of the attempts of man to maintain his individuality in the face of changing historic and technological perspectives. (Simmel 11) One basic shift in the modern life to the other forms of society which had a greater correlation with nature is the change in approach to Life in general. Modern life, with it increasing use of technology aims to quantify everything while co-existence with nature left a lot of qualitative and subjective parameters in place.

The resultant void is generally seen as the force that generates the tension between nature and technology. (The dismantling of the religious structure by socialist countries without placing an alternate belief system in place, which saw a huge spurt in religious activity once the socialist structures themselves, crumbled, is an example of a void based on qualitative beliefs and necessity of such beliefs).

Modern culture instills a sense of measurement to everything involved in daily life, while co-existence with nature demands suspension of reason to a certain extent. There is an Indian Proverb which roughly translates to “Plucking the petals of the Rose will not reveal where its beauty lies”. Same is the case with the stimuli caused by nature where suspension of reason is a primary requisite to respond to them. A magnificient sunset is a visual pleasure accorded by nature which cannot be deciphered by any technological quantification measures.

“Whilst Man involuntarily moulds his Life according to the notions he has gathered from his arbitrary views of Nature, and embalms their intuitive expression in Religion: these notions become for him in Science the subject of conscious, intentional review and scrutiny. ” (Richard Wagner, 73). In trying to explain the basic differences between Nature and technology Wagner also indicates almost accurately at the reasons for conflict. When viewed in the light of Simmel’s description of man’s emotional responses as he says “Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.

e. his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those that have preceded. ” (Simmel 325). But the rapidity with

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which a person part of the modern culture is accosted by such stimuli is what differentiates his responses. The increasing proximity to his species and in a way that would not have been possible to any of his preceding generations creates a sense of detachment from most stimuli and prevents him from reacting with the same intensity compared to only a few generations earlier. In short, modern culture forces man to react with his head than his heart.

This, Simmel argues creates a blase attitude – a defining characteristic of modern culture. “…incapacity to react to new stimulations with the required amount of energy constitutes in fact that blase attitude which every child of a large city evinces hen compared with the products of the more peaceful and more stable milieu” Simmel 14 Advancement in technology creates increased urbanization where people are removed from nature and so closely compressed with one another that their nervous stimulation is hyper excited to become blase.

This leads to a state of denial to all other impulses accorded by nature, which are inherently non-quantifiable. Wagner articulates this alienation of Science and nature in more vocal and less scientific terms. Technology, as mentioned earlier is a result of efforts to understand and harness the energies available in nature, acquires arrogance through its practitioners that it tries to rob the soul of all human interactions with nature. “And truly Science, in her overweening arrogance, has dreamed of such a triumph; as witness our tight-reined State and modern Art, the sexless, barren children of this dream.

” This tension between nature and its instincts as expressed in human emotions and the increasing needs of rational responses conditioned by a technology-driven society are reflected in the probing questions of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century literature and art forms. Kafkaesque depictions of society not recognizing its traditional pains and bonds due to the demands of the modern culture are common in most art forms. To drive the point home, in his novella “Metamorphosis” Kafka paints a picture of the emptiness of modern existence.

Seen by many as the gateway to modern literature, it justifies Simmel’s views that the values of modern culture create certain bluntness to responses to stimuli. While it is important to acknowledge the tension between technology (or the changes in life due to technology) and nature as an essential part of the modern cultural set up, it is a learning to understand how this disparity or tension is dealt with. The creation of the modern idiom is largely an effect of the interplay between nature and technology. Additionally, the increased integration of technology has made people more used to viewing their renewed values in a different light.

In fact most surviving sensibilities are modern in nature and the exotic feel accorded to romantic art of the previous generations is precisely the result of the contrast. Besides, modern art does adopt the modern life and especially urban living aspect of modern life more readily than was anticipated by the early proponents of modernism. As Wagner argues, Art as an expression of man’s interaction with nature and the resultant emotions – awe or aversion, hope or despair, love or revulsion, harmony or agitation- has in fact been aided by the modern culture. In his typically poetic prose Wagner describes,

“ This did the life-force, the life-need, of telluric Nature nurture once those baleful forces – or rather the potentiality of those alliances and, offspring of the elements – which blocked her way in giving true and fitting utterance to the fullness of her vital energy”(Wagner 9) He also seems to say that the potential for abundance brought on by the revolutionary availability of technology affords the luxury of pursuing art for art’s sake for people pf the modern era – all the while remembering that art is the truest form of depicting or connecting with Nature, both internal and external.

Besides, a fuller and more complete appreciation of Nature as a separate entity and an ally has blossomed after the initial years of tension with Technology. Though initial years of modern culture and civilization were alarming in the fact that the alienation with nature was at once complete and seemingly irreparable, yet the situation has changed. As with everything and as Darwin would have proudly pointed out, mankind has adapted quite well to this dichotomy of Nature and Technology and has realized the necessity to keep both these aspects of his existence in good humor – all the time.

Though it can be argued that most ailments of modern society, like the environmental degradation, lack of trust in human interactions, increasing and pointless violence, or the break down of civilized society in some pockets are essentially the manifestations of the tension between a nature-embracing living and Technology dependent living, it is the way forward. As Man has learnt continuously from all his endeavors both successful and perilously unsuccessful, modern culture has given a unique perspective to watch Nature in all its glory and make it an ally in pursuing higher spiritual goals.

Works Cited Wagner, Richard. The Art Work of the Future. Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004 Simmel, Georg & Kurt Wolff. The sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated by kurt Wolff Washington DC: Free Press, 1950 Scruton, Roger. Modern Culture. NewYork: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007

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