Opening the morning paper or browsing the web, routine actions for us all, rarely if ever shake our fundamental beliefs about the world. If we assume a naïve, reflective state of mind, however, reading newspapers and surfing the web offer us quite a different experience: they provide us with a glimpse into the kaleidoscopic nature of the modern era that can be quite irritating. What, after all, are we to make of the fact that a report on shark attacks figures next to news about recent elections, that stock exchange rates follow a feature on pollution in China — and that the horoscope, weather forecast, cat pictures, and news on scientific discoveries are all part of the same paper or social media feed?
Exposing oneself to the ever accelerating, dispersed flow of information is like moving too close to a pointillist painting. Inadvertently, we feel the need for form, structure, and meaning — for distance to create the ‘bigger picture’. Indeed, the search for unity, cohesion, and some underlying principle or ‘meaning’ is perhaps the single most fundamental challenge of modern societies. In a sense, we could write the history of the past two centuries as a history of bringing order to an exploding complexity.
Not just to understand the past but also to understand where we stand today, it is worth discussing how past generations have addressed the issue of ordering and finding meaning in a modern era that is “sick and out of joint,” as British author Thomas Carlyle put it in an essay in 1829.
In fact, the gaze into the depths of modernity was much more dizzying in the ‘long’ nineteenth century — the years between 1789 and 1914 — when humans were first catapulted into a restless age of energy and acceleration. Skeptics like Friedrich Nietzsche perceived of modernity as penetrating the eyes of people with “too much light,” causing ignorance in the more simple minds and disgust in the more subtle ones. Others like James Joyce or Marcel Proust attempted to come to terms with modernity by exploring its myriad aspects and contradictions. They produced beautiful prose, leaving their contemporaries in awe but with little sense of direction. In turn, urban planners and state bureaucrats, themselves modern creatures, increasingly used science and modern technology to reshape modern society along more coherent or ‘rational’ lines. Reconstructing cities, building up armies, and ‘inventing’ nations, they sought to press the conundrum of modern society into the rigid structures of grid plans, battalions, and perennial human cultures, civilizations, or races.
In the political history of Europe, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 constitutes the apex of this quest to a coherent, unified, and meaningful modern world: leagues of experts compiling data on ethnographic settlement patterns, geographical features, and social structures in order to create a coherent set of borders and nation-states. Their gospel was the principle of national self-determination, according to which every ‘nation’ was entitled to choose its own form of government and statehood. The idea was to re-order Europe in a coherent way, but complexity struck back. Self-determination had to adapt not simply to the diverse local contexts, but also to the varying political coalitions and geostrategic interests of the great powers. Most often, it was reduced to statistics of language and religion. Having started with high hopes for bringing order and coherence to modern Europe, many diplomats, statesmen, and experts considered the result utterly disappointing. As this disappointment took hold in the coming years, it would soon provoke new quests for re-ordering — in the less sophisticated and significantly more violent fashion of the 1930s and 1940s.
Almost a century after the Paris Peace Conference, modern society has still not given up on the quest for the great synthesis of modernity. ‘Big Data’ represents the new spiritual principle of our time, merging science with the belief in algorithms and aggregates. We expect nothing less from the accumulation of huge masses of information than answers to how we should understand and order modern society, and what the meaning of all of this is.
Most recently, British writer Tom McCarthy has transposed the quest for meaning and order to a twenty-first century setting. In his novel Satin Island, the narrator, called ‘U’ — perhaps an allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses or Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities Ulrich — is an ethnographer employed by a global corporate group to write the ‘Great Report.’ That report is supposed to lay bare, systematize, and explain all the intricate and hidden ways on which our modern age is based. Tellingly, the highly self-aware, post-modern narrator dreams and fantasizes about, but never actually starts writing or even outlining the ‘Great Report.’
As the examples of Big Data and Satin Island indicate, our own age is not simply post-ideological and pragmatic, with reason, democracy, and liberalism gradually taking over the globe. We may have become better in ignoring complexity and avoiding ideological commitment, but we have not yet succeeded in leaving behind the spiritual quest for order that plagued Nietzsche, Joyce, and the experts at the Paris Peace Conference. Recent phenomena like Donald Trump, nationalist backlashes in Europe, and the rise of global terrorism indicate that it is not only futile but dangerous to shy away from finding answers to what people still care about: social cohesion, collective identity, and ‘meaning.’ If we pass over the discrepancies of our own age in an act of misguided pragmatism, we risk the ghosts of the past, ideology and fanaticism, returning with a vengeance.
In a time plagued by multiple international crises, global warming, and mass migration, we should certainly not copy past attempts to ‘restore order.’ But past enthusiasm for principles and meaning should encourage us to re-consider the non-committal skepticism of our age.