Modernity and Tragedy

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When I talk of the tragedy of modernity, I don’t want to form the impression of the total destruction of the meaningful whole and the thread of hope that it contains. On the contrary, it opens up the vistas for the possibilities of deliverance of the project of enlightenment. This is done by critical insight into the current situation by making it clear that this critical thought is beyond the current historical situation and hence being utopian. It is looked as a concrete utopia because the normative point of departure of critique is set out of the concrete historical situation.

The discussion of tragedy has no better point than the one outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics. In his Poetics, Aristotle divides the Greek tragedy into three parts viz., 1) anagnorisis, 2) peripeteia and 3) pathos. By anagnorisis, Aristotle means the transition from ignorance to knowledge. After this sudden enlightening, the tragic hero enters peripeteia, wherein the happiness turns into suffering. The last phase namely pathos makes katharsis possible, by which Aristotle means a state that arises in the reader or a spectator when she witnesses the humiliation and suffering of the tragic hero. The end of the tragedy can be either happy or unhappy, but the spectator or the reader gets purified. The primary aim would be to go beyond Aristotle and study the stopping of the dialectical process of the modern history. This is because modern history characterizes itself at a standstill.

This is achievable by analysing modernity in both sociological and philosophical aspects. Sociologically, modernity refers to the last great epoch of humanity characterized by phenomenon like scientific and industrial revolution, economic and political re-organisation of societies around the capitalistic forms of production. The process of modernization has produced material and cultural resources for the development of accomplished individuality. On the one hand many of the technological innovations help people make lives easier and on the other humanity has become more and more one-dimensional culturally where even free time is mapped out to its most meticulous detail. And to add to the woes, the process of globalization has made the exploitation of the third world extremely bitter and has brought about the world on the brink of ecological and social catastrophe. This is referred to as the tragedy of modernity. On the one hand, modernity has produced material and cultural prosperity, while on the other hand; it has also produced class polarisation on a global scale, mental pathologies, and a one dimensionality that is all pervasive in the society.

But looking at this tragedy of modernity would yield concentration on Stoss more than katharsis. Walter Benjamin’s concept of Stoss comes about by his critical reading of Freud. Freud argues that some memories are too painful for the conscious mind. The rapid pace of the working life and changes taking place in the society inflict shocks that overwhelm individuals and institutions. The culture industry responds to this situation by offering means of repressing and coping with the entire negative reactions inevitably caused by the situation. This quandary can only be answered by applying dialectics more in a heuristic fashion so that we get the following picture: Stoss is needed in order to liberate the dialectical movement of enlightenment to proceed onwards from the present circling in place. It can liberate us from “the end of history” nihilistic atmosphere, to empower us. Philosophers and social scientists can dream again of the unforeseen futures. Those dreams can hope to open the avenues as to how the project of enlightenment can be realized.

The Enlightenment is the modern mode of thinking that intends to emancipate people from self-inflicted and socially heteronymous structures. According to critical theory, social freedom is linked indispensably to the Enlightenment. The meaning of the Enlightenment is seen as a concretisation of goodness in the form of a humane society. The Enlightenment is the process of maturation of humankind by means of the destruction of the myths and the authority of tradition. “The Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty,” but, on the other hand, “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” (Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment). The Enlightenment destroys myths to free men, but in the process itself became an enslaving myth. It replaced myths of earlier mythological world-views with the myth of factuality and that of an engineered society. In this kind of society, the individual is drowned in the iron cage of society. The ideological mask of factuality and commodities tend to cover antagonistic social contradictions and the minority of subjects.

Within the Frankfurt School there is a discrepancy about the meaning of the modernisation process on a general level. In addition to the first generation of the Frankfurt School, we can identify at least two major new departures. Jürgen Habermas has argued that there is also a positive tendency in the process of modernisation. This tendency reveals the possibility of rational discussion and communication, and helps the evolution of a social moral consciousness to the level where it is possible to open practical discourse on social justice. Axel Honneth argues that in the modern world there is a possibility to overcome antagonisms between individuals and between individuals and institutions. This possibility is connected to the authentic reciprocal recognition in three dimensions: primary relationships (love, friendship), legal relations (rights), and community of value (solidarity).

Regardless of the fact that the Frankfurt School is a very heterogeneous research tradition, it has two principles common to all representatives and different formulations of critical theory. These two principles are also the basic driving forces behind my project: First, the empirical sciences and philosophical reflection are internally connected, and second, research is orientated toward social criticism (critique of unjust social structures) and it endeavours to take into consideration the hopes, needs and moral convictions of those people that live under unjust social structures.

The focus is on the tradition of critical theory itself and its relationship to the tragedy of modernity. The theme, which can be named as “the tragedy of modernity and the fate of critical theory,” the idea of tragedy and the paradox of modernity itself are reflected and the tradition of critical theory is viewed through this concept. Modernity has created the possibility for theoretical reflection on “the costs and gains” of the process of modernisation. We consider the tradition of critical theory the most important instance of critical reflection on the nature of modernity and the conceptualisation of the tragedy of modernity. In doing so, critical theory itself drifts into paradoxes. Critical theory is not the Fichtean third eye that views the world from the outside, but instead is a part of the tragedy of modernity and the paradox of (the dialectic of) the Enlightenment.

It follows that any attempt to actualise critical theory requires a theoretical self-understanding of the Frankfurt School and its own theoretical paradoxes.

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