Sunday, March 3, 2013

Marshall Berman: All that is Solid Melts into Air

At the climax of Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1904, the whole "mighty cosmos of the modern economic order" is seen as "an iron cage." This inexorable order, capitalistic, legalistic and bureaucratic, "determines the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism ... with irresistible force." It is bound to "determine man's fate until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt out." Now, Marx and Nietzsche-and Tocqueville and Carlyle and Mill and Kierkegaard and all the other great nineteenth-century critics also understood the ways in which modern technology and social organization determined man's fate. But they all believed that modern individuals had the capacity both to understand this fate and, once they understood it, to fight it. Hence, even in the midst of a wretched present, they could imagine an open future. Twentieth-century critics of modernity almost entirely lack this empathy with, and faith in, their fellow modern men and women. To Weber, his contemporaries are nothing but "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; and this nullity is caught in the delusion that it has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind." Thus, not only is modern society a cage, but all the people in it are shaped by its bars; we are beings without spirit, without heart, without sexual or personal identity ("this nullity ... caught in the delusion that it has achieved ... ") - we might almost say without being. Here, just as in futurist and techno-pastoral forms of modernism, modern man as a subject - as a living being capable of response, judgment and action in and on the world - has disappeared. Ironically, twentieth-century critics of "the iron cage" adopt the perspective of the cage's keepers: since those inside are devoid of inner freedom or dignity, the cage is not a prison; it merely furnishes a race of nullities with the emptiness they crave and need.

All That is Solid Melts into Air

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