‏The Modern, Foucault and the Google Glass aesthetic

This is a blog in response to our recent lectures with Stuart Walker covering the Modern and the Post-Modern.

I am struggling with the "modern" concept. Which is to say I am thinking about how do we talk with a degree of honesty about a historizesed concept as loaded with power as "modern". To be clear at the moment, I am not referring to modernism as an artistic or literary movement but rather thinking about a "Modern" ideal classified for shorthand by four main values: Progress, Industrialisation, capitalism and liberal democracy.

To start I want to talk mention the Holbein Portrait "The Ambassadors". (1533)


The painting incorporates several of what in the sixteen hundreds were developing into the Modern Sensibility. The separation of the Arts and the scientists, the removal of god, from the world (note the crucifix to the side). Aside from some of the more obvious observation of the painting, I think it is worth noting what objects (and therefore disciplines) are represented on the upper table vs the lower table. This is a portrait where power, the hierarchy of science, exploration, mathematics, business are raised above he arts, church, music and even a precise sense of geography. The men in the painting are men of power and influence - showing the Calvinist combination of faith and earthly success. If there is something that can be classified as a 'Modern' ideal here then this ideal comes from power and wealth. It is said that the victor gets to right the history books and this appears to be what is happening here, the meaning of this portrait that has endured is one of a faith in commerce - led by science. One of the reasons I find a discussion of this painting difficult is that that the terms I want to use are anachronistic - We can not talk about capitalism, or even the free market as these concepts were developed several hundred years after this portrait was completed. A Modern concept of democracy, of industry, of progress, although easy to see in the portrait aren't they for more a reflection or projection of the the contemporary viewer. We see the Modern in this painting because we look upon it with 'modern' sensibilities.

On the other hand a Foucauldian perspective may shine a different light upon the picture. Foucault begins his book "The Order of Things" with a description of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez.jpg (1656)

This painting from more than a 100 years after Holbien depicts a different kind of social order. But that isn't really the point. Because, the danger of looking at past objects with modern labels is to mistake the symbolic labels for the symbolic imagery. Foucault uses Velázquez to begin too talk about the 'classical epeistimé ' - which I find a more useful way of seeking understanding from the symbols of the past - for Foucault the 'Modern' does not start until the the 18th century. The kind of symbolism found in both paintings would indicate hallmarks of the a Foucauldian 'classical' epestime. Which leads to a question, how do you pin down the transformation from epoch to epoch - does modern begin when the relevant ideas are first germinating (as we see in the Holbein) or once they have taken over every aspect of social life - so say with the publication of the "Wealth of Nations". Surely at any point some ideas are moving in and others have taken hold and still other are moving out.

The teaching of the german media philosopher Siegfried Zielinski show that there is danger of getting caught up in labels or time frames. Zielinski teaches an 'anarcheology ' of drawing connections out of deep time (or across time). Which is to say that there may be a connection between a contemporary modern aesthetic that we look back at Holbein with, and the 'modern' aesthetic of that time, but that is not to say that the sense of modern started there or ran chronologically through time. It is worth looking toward the arab world such as the work of Al Jazari http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Jazari for a much older sense of 'modern'. Which is to say that 'modern has always been there and has never been there. For me it is time to embrace 'post-structuralism' or even a form of new materialism. Zeilinski is critical of any academic who claims to study this century or that - because all such distinctions are arbitrary. The thing classified has something done to it - it is changed by the observer - the observer forces their own will upon the object. In other words the classification says more about the observer than the observed. To see Holbein as modern is only to betray ones own modern sensibilities. Every technology is only a symbolic representation of a million steps, a million individuals and a million components, to name something is to classify to classify is to project ones own identity on to the world. This is why it is crucial to listen to the words someone uses very closely - for all language is a symbolic representation of self identity.

To finish with a final image:

I want to compare the two oil paintings to a more contemporary image, not to make a direct comparison but to begin to think about the ideas I have raise thus far.


The image of the newest technology is raised above the audience, the high priests of google, dressed in ceremonial black, instruct the masses in the uses of the new artefact which will soon be among them, a gift for the most worthy from the corporate gods.

Is it the contemporary ethic to believe there is more to see than what is in front of our eyes, only accessible to the privileged few?

© 2013 HighWire, The LICA Building, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YW Website Design by Fat Media