Savoir: the cul-de-sac of pouvoir

A Sociology of Modernity:
May 12, 1995

Peter Wagner presents modernity as an inherently and irreparably controversial project, torn apart right through its heart by incompatible demands/promises/hopes of autonomy and order, emancipation and normativity, freedom and discipline. The history of modernity told by Wagner in a thorough, grindingly systematic style is a dramatic, often tragic story of renewed attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. One project rebelled against the other, its marriage partner in theory yet adversary in practice - only to intensify the other's attractions and/or spur the other to new efforts, with woeful consequences to its own chance of success. The greatest of modern wars has been waged inside modernity itself, and the chances of armistice are as dim now as they were two centuries ago, since the enemies can neither coexist peacefully nor survive without each other.

From time to time a crisis is bound to emerge: this happens when the evidence accumulates that the hopes are unfulfillable and the efforts vain - that the social world is neither shapable at will nor intelligible; this amounts to modernity's self-doubt, since the feasibility of modern life has been grounded from the start on the assumption that the social world can be moulded by design, and that with due legislative and cognitive diligence it may become also transparent. The first crisis was associated with the collapse of the sanguine (and for us, baptised as we have been by world war and totalitarian fire) naive liberal project, and the slow yet terminal agony of the liberal utopia. Today we are in crisis again; once more we doubt that the social world can be understood, let alone kneaded into better shape; this time, though, mindful of the great reshaping experiments of a Stalin or a Hitler, we also doubt whether attempts to remake the world by design would yield anything able to redeem the disaster that must surely follow.

Today, "the very possibility of social knowledge of entire societies is denied, and social practices are considered as so incoherent and open to multiple interpretation that the consequences of interventions can in no way be anticipated". But there is also a new element, absent at the times of the first, post-liberal and liberal-born crisis: "the space from which such an intervention could be undertaken, previously held by the state, is seen as non-existent or empty". We now feel fully the import of "Hannah Arendt's problem - of "the emptiness of political space". Not only are we in two minds about the desirability of planned and global intervention, but we suspect that it does not matter much whether and how we make up our minds in the end, since the void that gapes where mighty political agents once were casts in doubt the feasibility of all concerted, let alone effective, action.

Present odds are enormous. We know now - and lest we should forget, Wagner relentlessly piles up historical reminders to prompt our memory - that liberty cannot feel secure in a thoroughly privatised and deregulated world, yet we know as well that organised attempts to make it feel secure result more often than not in security of the graveyard kind. Rightly and in timely fashion, Wagner warns against allurements of "communal home", of imagined community, postulated community, hotel-style community, now-in-now-out community, shouted or whispered about by so many as the secure replacement for the admittedly insecure and now bankrupt bid for universality. There is no cruelty among those committed under the auspices of universal order that cannot be committed in the name of local "communal" orders. Timely warning indeed, at a time when so many intellectual descendants of the courtiers of Versailles eye hopefully the mini-courts of tribal warlords for new employment of their legislative skills. But what would the alternative be? "A minimal requirement of political practices should be a communicative process about what it is that various social groups, spanning the globe or dwelling in neighbouring villages, have in common under current social practices, and to find out whether they have to commonly regulate the impacts of these practices". Easier said than done. Whatever "various groups" may have in common crumbles under the load of what sets them apart - unless buttressed by the prop of a superior power imposing the common and suppressing the separate. "In that case though" - Wagner warns again - "this transformation will not meet the requirement I would want to insist on" - the requirement being human autonomy and self-realisation - "it may be marked by coercion and oppression, exclusion and extermination". No wonder that "almost any argument for collective action and deliberation appears discredited from the start". George Steiner once wrote wistfully that Voltaire's or Arnold's privilege was their ignorance. Comte thought savoir is the royal road to pouvoir. It seems knowledge we have amassed through the history of modernity incapacitates instead of enables. To act boldly, ignorance needs to be deep. We are less ignorant than our ancestors were, and for better or worse (better, rather than worse) find it difficult to forget what we learned.

There is nothing new about the contradictory, nay self-cancelling nature of the modern adventure. What is new is that this nature is now news - that we know and talk about it. We are aware that the messiness of our social world is here to stay, that we can proceed only through the never-ending chain of trade-offs, that there are side-effects to every medicine and prices to be paid for the solution of every problem. Perhaps it is precisely in this loss of hubris, in this lifting ourselves out of the state of self-intoxication, in the new and unfamiliar humbleness of expectations, that the hope for responsible action can be rooted? Agnes Heller wrote that the need to re-forge contingency from blind fate into a consciously embraced destiny is a major, perhaps the major challenge of our times.

Wagner's historical sociology of modernity makes fascinating and highly illuminating reading. It can be treated as a prolegomenon to all future modernity/postmodernity discourse. It is erudite, thorough, closely argued and lucidly structured. It is carefully balanced and steers clear of bewailing the modern bliss now gone and enthusing about the post-modern bliss yet to come. The inventory of issues any sensible interpretation of our times must consider is virtually complete, while the list of patented solutions is kept - laudably - empty. Closing the book, the reader is wiser than at the moment of opening it, with that kind of wisdom which only a responsible thinker can confer.

Zygmunt Bauman is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Leeds.

A Sociology of Modernity:: Liberty and Discipline

Author - Peter Wagner
ISBN - 0 415 08185 8 and 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £13.99
Pages - 267pp

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