It’s surprising that we’ve recruited four historians to write about the meaning of modernity, and in four lengthy responses — now five — no one has yet dropped the name of Michel Foucault. I am curious whether doing so will advance the discussion any, particularly because Foucault’s story of modernity, like Davies’, also proceeds from elite power.
Foucault, notably in the book The Order of Things and in his essay “Governmentality,” proposed that the modern way of thinking can be understood as proceeding by a certain style of mental ordering — of number, demography, and territoriality. To be modern is, literally, to measure.
In the modern world, techniques both in government and in private life are ordered, systematized, and increasingly described in mathematical terms. For example, how does one make a modern headache medicine? Apply many different compounds, to many different subjects, using many different delivery mechanisms. Catalog the effects they produce. Perform statistical tests. The winner is your medicine.
This way of thinking replaced an older approach, one which took its cues not from number and measurement, but from semblance and contagion. How does one make a pre-modern headache medicine? Grind up some walnuts, which resemble the head, complete with a brain inside. Apply them directly to your noggin: Headache medicine!
The epistemic shift to modernity took place all across human knowledge, from medicine, to economics, to physics, even to politics. Modern man is the product/inheritor of it all — encompassing both the “engineering culture” that Jack Goldstone (in my view rightly) praises, but also Foucault’s governmentality, a far more sinister force.
Foucault found that pre-modern states were typically likened to families, with the ruler as father and the subjects as children. The modern populace is understood quite differently, not as a set of possibly fractious children, but as — we might say — a data set. It’s much easier to be inhuman to a data set, and something of modern systematization almost seems to demand it. We don’t make examples of lone miscreants anymore. We identify all miscreants, and we hide them away forever. When people cease being fictive sons and daughters and instead become points in a data set, it is easier to imprison them by the millions, to send them to death camps, to march them off to the slaughter after we know that the Armistice is signed.
Much has been made of Foucault’s insight, at least among academic historians. Yet it’s possible to overstate the case — even given the industrial-scale horrors of the twentieth century and the unparalleled destructive power of the engineering culture’s new weapons, one’s worldwide chances of dying violently during the twentieth century were considerably less than those found among supposedly “noble” savages.
But, a Foucauldean might say, what about all of the rest? What about forced conscription, forced taxation, forced medical treatment? What about the more rigorous policing of behavior, speech, and even thought? Are we not more oppressed? Are we not more confined? Are we not more obedient, more sheep-like? Foucault clearly believed that we were.
The key dilemma of modernity is how to win the benefits of the engineering culture, including advanced technology, free markets, mass literacy, and all the rest — while denying the state the more sinister aspects of governmentality. This seems to be a genuinely new problem in human history, and it shows the magnitude of the change we have experienced.
Are the benefits and the drawbacks at all separable? Or not? Governmentality seems important to this discussion particularly if Steve Davies is intent on using cultural and political elites as a driving force in his story, as Foucault himself certainly was. For Foucault, however, elites usher in modernity for the sake of the power it grants them over the habits, the mentalities, and ultimately the bodies of others — not for their productiveness or their freedom. It’s not always a modernity worth wanting.