CMNS 310: Introducing Modernity

London, 1940s, Colour

London in Modernity: Taken using the now extinct colour format, KodaChrome, this photo provides a rare and stunning glimpse upon modern urban life in London in the 1940s. With Modernity came a new mediated, commercialized culture of consumption, seen clearly in this amazing cityscape.

Media and Modernity examines the place of human communication in western social science from the 18th Century to the early Twentieth Century. The course begins with a general discussion of the concept of modernity and the role played by communications media in the making of modern western societies. We will then examine the importance of communications with respect to a number of important concepts and debates in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examples include: liberalism, ideology, alienation, mass society theory, the public sphere, propaganda, and formalism.

-CMNS 310 Course Outline

As a student of Communication, coming to grips with the tensions and complexities of Modernity, Modernism, and Modernization is an essential part of your education. It is in the Modern moment when the roots of consumer society, advertising, ideology, and cultural exchange begin to flourish in a way never previously seen. Marx’s sprawling Capital is published, human experience begins to be mechanized through industrialization, commercial visual media expands and draws us into its fold, fascism and totalitarianism and the wars fought against it shatter nations and generations, and the world we know today is forged by the furnace of the urban factory system. We have compiled a set of complementary media resources to clarify some of the fundamental concepts introduced in the course, as well as provide deeper analysis of some authors than the confines of 13 weeks will allow.

What is Modernity? How is it different from Modernism and Modernization?

Broadly speaking, Modernity can be defined as the cultural moment and accompanying social experiences rooted in the intellectual and scientific flourishing of the Enlightenment, continuing through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries, arguably reaching its conclusion in the late 1960s. Modernism may be defined as the cultural, aesthetic, and artistic response to the experience of Modernity. Modernization may be defined as the processes by which the former two came into being, wrapped up in which are the realities of industrialization, rationalization, and mechanization that characterized the period. For a brief explanation of Modernity in a conceptual sense, take a look at this video, which introduces how, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, a “new way of thinking about the world” took root that was fundamentally different from all that had come before.

Modernity, though immensely complex in itself, is often talked about in terms of its relation to Enlightenment philosophies of scientific rationalism and empiricism, which, when combined with advances in mechanization and industrial technology made in the 19th Century, began to create a society in which immense faith was placed in the emancipatory potential of new machines and modes of production. The influence of a faith in the mechanical is seen throughout the culture at the time. Domestic and industrial design, fashion, cinema, as well as architecture adapted to the logic of the machine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as cities were electrified, and homes became, in the words of famous Modernist architect Le Corbusier, “machines for living.”An interview with Le Corbusier regarding one of his installations at the Capitol Building in New Delhi, India:

Note Le Corbusier’s heroic tone: his repetition of the height of the hand, his belief in the ability for a monument to capture, without equivocation, what is “real,” and the ability for a rationalized construction to profoundly shape discourses of governance in our society. This is the Modern spirit exemplified. Through a faith in construction, rationalization, and streamlining, humans can come to know, comprehend, predict, and, in turn, control the world.

Further Examples:

Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with the Movie Camera celebrates and deeply internalizes the rhythms of urban, modern life as forces capable of forging new ideological realities, and rebuilding cultural languages from the ground up in the interest of creating Socialist revolution. Watch the entire film below.

The fashion of the early 20th Century demonstrated a new attempt to streamline the body and human forms, an attempt to do away with the curves and excess of the premodern, and reconstruct the human as part of a mechanized, linear cultural reality.

1920s Fashion: Reshaping the body in Modernity

For a summary of some of the distinctions between Premodern and Modern societies, take a look at the comparative chart below.

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