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Condemned to Modernity?

By Svatava Antošová.

(translated by G. S. Evans)

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Jan Keller Odsouzeni k modernitě [Condemned to Modernity], (Novela Bohemica, 2015).

The works of Jan Keller, a distinguished Czech sociologist and member of the European Parliament, have remained largely untranslated in the Anglophone world even as they have gained prominence on the European continent. In one of his most recent works, Condemned to Modernity: What Sociology Seeks, Literature Found, he attacks the argument, often made in both mainstream media and academic circles, that our globalized, digitalized economy has created a postmodern and post-industrial society whose actuality is unique to human history. In the book, he uses literature as his main weapon of attack, repeatedly asking: If this argument is correct, then how is it that we can find in some of the great literary works of the 19th and early 20th centuries — the epitome of modernity and the industrial age — precise descriptions of social and economic phenomena that are supposedly unique to our time?

Assuming that the examples that Keller cites (some of which are detailed below) from these literary classics back his premise, his question not only challenges hyped-up views about the uniqueness of our contemporary world but also helps us see the problems that we face in a clearer and more realistic light. We need not, Keller seems to be suggesting, be blinded by digital science or postmodern discourse when addressing the problems of the day.

The title of Keller’s as of yet untranslated book, Odsouzeni k modernitě [Condemned to Modernity], emphasizes his position that we haven’t truly succeeded in escaping the circle of history. And it is in his discussion of our modern-day cult of individualism, one of the more readily apparent connections between the modern and postmodern eras, that we can also understand the sense of the book’s sub-title (“What Sociology Seeks, Literature Found”). “Today’s unmistakable individualists,” Keller writes,“only unimaginatively repeat the lives that Frédéric Moreau in Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education, for example, or Lucien Chardon in Balzac’s Lost Illusions, led.  There is in them the same social unrootedness, the same absorption in their own aspirations and the same longing to move on up, which in the end becomes a curse for them. So yes, when we read The Experience Society by Gerhard Schulze, the European sociology bestseller of the 1990s, we have the sense of encountering something intimately familiar.” In this work, Keller continues, Schulze describes how a typical member of this experience society is internally oriented … his or her sole, true reality is the state of their most intimate, inner feelings. Everything else, the whole of the surrounding world, should accommodate itself to this inner calling. He or she chooses not only their work, but also their neighbors, friends and life partners exclusively on the basis of how much these things and people can contribute to their inner feelings.” And if such a personality brings to mind the title character of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is good reason for it.After thinking about it for a moment,Keller concludes,it occurs to us that fully a hundred years before the German sociologist described this phenomenon, Oscar Wilde gave us a precise description of it, and in a rather more interesting manner.

The other obvious parallel between the two eras (especially in the wake of the 2008 crash and the Occupy movement) is the one “between the crooked financial speculators of the type represented by Ferdinand du Tillet in Honoré de Balzac’s 1837 novel Rise and Fall of Cesar Birotteau and the similar types who today fill our stock exchanges.” Du Tillet, who was once Birotteau’s shop assistant but has risen to the world of high finance and who holds the debt that leads to the title character’s downfall, is characterized by Balzac in the following terms: “…he knew no other guide than self-interest, and all the means of acquiring fortune seemed good to him…gifted with restless activity, with military intrepidity, asking everybody to do a good as well as a bad turn for him, justifying his demand by the theory of personal interest, he had too much contempt for men, believing them all corruptible…such a man, placed between the chain-gang and millions, was bound to be vindictive, imperious, quick in his resolves, but dissembling like a Cromwell who would cut off Probity’s head.” The example Keller offers as a contemporary parallel to du Tillet is the life style and way of thinking that the former London stockbroker Geraint Anderson describes in his bestselling (in the United Kingdom) book, Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile (“Who is Cityboy?asks that book’s liner notes, “…he’s the greedy, ruthless wanker whose actions are helping turn this world into the shit-hole it’s rapidly becoming”).

From Apathy to Rage

The range of nationalists that Keller pursues seems to mirror the spread of capitalism itself during the industrial age. In the book he addresses , in addition to the French and British literature already mentioned, American literature (including John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis), German literature (Hans Fallada, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann), as well as Russian (Ivan Goncharov), Norwegian (Henrik Ibsen), Latin American (Jorges Luis Borges) and Czech literature (Franz Kafka, Karel Capek). Indeed, capitalism is the constant here, generating the social problems wherever it goes (and of course, it wants to go everywhere). The only thing that changes is the setting.

And the setting is certainly what stands out in Keller’s treatment of Émile Zola’s iconic novel Germinal. This work depicts the unbearably difficult life of miners who can’t make enough money from their work to buy even an adequate amount of food, and who are forced to live in a remote village in unhygienic conditions without any kind of medical care being available. This, of course, leads to the proliferation of disease and a high rate of child mortality. These workers have no chance to escape from these work “galleys” and the soul destroying cycle of drudgery and hunger repeats itself generation after generation. The workers alternate between complete apathy and outbursts of rage and revolt (including the miner’s strike and riot that represents the book’s climax). For Keller, this cycle of apathy and rage brings to mind the frustration of the young people who, a hundred years later, are living in the suburbs of French cities. Chronically unemployed and without hope that they will eventually find some kind of work, they apathetically scratch out an existence on the periphery of society just like the miners did in Germinal. Though they do not suffer the same physical hardships as Zola’s miners, for them as well it is but a small step to go from a state of apathy to an explosion of anger (as they did in the riots of 2005, in which 8,000 cars were burned and nearly 3,000 young people were arrested). While the miners purposefully destroyed the mining machinery below ground, the young unemployed destroy anything and everything they can get their hands on above ground. Zola’s miners were victims of repression; the young unemployed of today are victims of superfluousness.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a similar hopelessness can be seen in the lives of the truck farmers featured in John Steinbeck’s equally iconic novel The Grapes of Wrath, a story about the downfall of the old middle class. Capital (banks, large-scale agriculture) gains control of the land and speculation takes the place of truck farming. The Joad family sets out for California with the belief that they will find a better life on the fruit and cotton plantations there. In Keller’s words: “From a sociological point of view, the novel tells the story of how a patriarchally organized family, after having lost its uneven battle against big business competitors and finance capital, manages to look after itself in the milieu of a pure market economy that is completely unmediated by the presence of the social state.” And what form does this looking after each other take? The problem of the oldest generation is solved by the fact that both of the grandparents manage, in due time, to die; two of the young and physically fit men desert the family and try to muddle through on their own; and those who remain survive in homeless encampments, in ghettoes for the socially excluded or in train cars that are out of service. With a reference to the contemporary French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, who is now living in and writing about the United States (author of, for example, the influential 2001 study “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh“), Keller adds that the last possible place where these people can “live” is in prison. In other words: today the social state is changing into a retributive state and the war against poverty is changing into the war against the poor. Welcome back to Steinbeck’s time!

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From muck to progress

Henrik Ibsen’s drama An Enemy of the People gives all the appearances of being an ecological cautionary tale. A small seaside town hopes to become a major spa center but has to face the truth about the highly polluted land on which it sits. The cause is helter-skelter modernization, which not only inundates water sources with muck, but also the human soul. And this is the reason that it doesn’t bother the inhabitants of the town that their future prosperity should derive from the ostensibly curative, but in fact poisoned, spas. To the contrary, the person who discovers the pollution and informs the town about it (Dr. Stockmann), is branded the cause of the problem and the crowd pours out its anger on him. “We are making our living by retailing filth and corruption! The whole of our flourishing municipal life derives its sustenance from a lie!” exclaims Ibsen’s protagonist, and Keller marvels that the Norwegian playwright wrote such lines in 1888. Seen through the prism of the present day, it is possible to consider Dr. Stockmann as the first “eco-terrorist,” in the sense that some number of politicians like to describe ecological-activists in general. But there is more. “He was not only guilty because he strove to reveal, to the public-at-large, the existence of particular organisms which changed curative waters into something lethal. His much more serious transgression rested in the fact that he pointed out the toxity of the conviction that it is possible to have an endless prosperity that is indifferent to the circumstances of the world around it. This belief is not only poisoning nature in ever greater doses, but also the relations between people and the relationship that a person has with him- or herself,” concludes the Czech sociologist.  Moving from Norway to the former Czechoslovakia, Keller turns his attention to his fellow countryman Karel Čapek’s 1936 science fiction classic War with the Newts, which for Keller stands as a metaphor for the risk society. This concept comes from the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his celebrated 1986 work, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, whose publication coincided with Chernobyl. Beck asserted that our modern society manages – all in one fell swoop – to industrially manufacture, commercially take advantage of, scientifically legitimize and politically minimize the dangers that it faces. Hence, the self-generated “risk” factor that our society engages in (unlike traditional societies, where the threats were either externally generated or were beyond the ability of the society to control). In Čapek’s novel, this can be seen by his depiction of the fate of the “newts” – large, almost human-sized salamanders inhabiting a remote, Pacific island – who are first discovered by humanity and then are harnessed into profit-making enterprises, initially on a local and then on a national and international level, by a culture that is obsessed with economic growth and instant profit. And this is all done, of course, without any consideration as to the possible long-term negative, indeed dangerous, consequences. When the newts prove able to multiply prodigiously and then, as a consequence of being yoked into the economic race and receiving the discipline of military training to help fill out our armies, their initial, guileless nature changes into a human one. They quickly develop into adversaries of equal strength, indeed if not greater strength, and the “war” begins… Rejecting the clichéd judgment of some literary critics that regards the rise of the newts as a metaphor for the rise of fascism, Keller writes that this interpretation does an injustice to the newts: “If we follow their story carefully, we can ascertain that they are not a mere parable of  fascism, representing some kind of incomprehensible derailment of history. They are, just as is fascism, a symbol of what our Euro-American civilization can accomplish directly and all by itself in the framework of the so-called march of progress.

From stool pigeon to Prozac

As Google’s 500 billion dollar market capitalization attests to, information, and the “information society” that the company caters to, is also a valuable component of the march of progress. And Keller considers the founder of the information society to be the man who is the subject of the Austrian novelist and biographer Stefan Zweig’s 1929 work, Joseph Fouché: Portrait of a Politician. Fouché, as it happens, goes all the way back to the days of the French Revolution and its aftermath, when he served as Napoleon’s minister of police. Also notable for his chameleon nature, which allowed him to serve in each and every political regime that held power during his career, Keller focuses on the biographer’s descriptions of the “information network” that Fouché began to build up as soon as the revolutionary period had faded and conditions stabilized. Quickly taking off his Jacobin coat and establishing a relationship with bankers and speculators, Fouché supplied them with some of the valuable information that was at his disposal and, in return, received a share of their stock transactions. He even founded a development company that inordinately “profiteered” from state purchases of armaments for the army. “It is pathetic how little innovation his successors have shown since that time,” Keller remarks. Fouché thus systematically built up something that is one of the great “achievements” of our time: the close link between politics, economics, and media power. To make this possible, he laced the country with spies, agents, and informers; even Napoleon’s wife was willing to be his stool pigeon. Fouché realized that the truly valuable information isn’t that which is hashed out in the media, but that which expands power. “He knew well that in modern society genuine information is linked with the acquisition of money, and that money makes it possible to gain a privileged position from the point of view of gaining important information,” writes Keller. A vicious circle, one is tempted to say, but more precisely it is a sorcerer’s circle.

Characterizing modern-day depression as a “malady stemming from responsibility,” Keller demonstrates it by way of the titular character from the novel Oblomov (1859) by the Russian writer Ivan Goncharov. Though Oblomov is not as well-known in the West as some other Russian novels of the 19th century, it is nonetheless considered a classic and resonated with the Russian public of the time. “Too apathetic to do anything about his problems,” reads the liner notes of the Penguin Classics edition of the book,[the aristrocrat Ilya Ilyich Oblomov] lives in a grubby, crumbling apartment, waited on by Zakhar, his equally idle servant. Terrified by the activity necessary to participate in the real world, Oblomov manages to avoid work, postpones change, and—finally—risks losing the love of his life.” In linking the significance of Oblomov to the present day, Keller makes reference to the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg’s iconic work, The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age, which sought the causes and context of a wave of depression that swept over the younger generations in France during the 1970s. According to Ehrenberg, the price to be paid for the liberal spirit of the 1960s, which freed people from so many external restrictions (religion, morality, prejudices, traditions, etc.), was that the burden of responsibility was laid squarely upon them. That is, they were responsible for themselves alone and were now supposed to move about on a terrain from which all points of orientation had disappeared. “People suffer from a depression that springs from the fear that, in a competition with others that lacks clear rules, they will not do well and won’t be able anymore to cope with ever newer tests of their endurance, readiness and competitiveness. As a result of this they exhibit a fatigue, a general sense of helplessness, pessimism in their view of the world, themselves and the others, and a further sense of lacking a perspective and of powerlessness, emptiness and exhaustion, but also a slowing down of mental and physical activity and general disgust.” It is true that Oblomov lived in a slower time than we do, but the things that made him into a lazy slumberer are similar. After leaving the quiet, rural estate of his parents, where he was so well looked after that he didn’t even have to tie his bootlaces by himself, he is thrown into life and finds himself alone in the hectic city of St. Petersburg. The hurriedness of this city, which for him is incomprehensible, the pretence of local society and the pursuit of success by individuals completely destroy him. Keller explains that all of these manifestations de facto accompany the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. More than a hundred years later they are being repeated in the transition to a postindustrial society in the form of a revolution of morals and lifestyle.

However, for all the unhappy parallels Keller draws for us in the course of his book, we can in the case of Oblomov find an exception. Namely, that in the 21st century we need not engage in the gluttonous behavior of Oblomov — which resulted in his suffering two strokes and dying — to escape our depression. We, after all, can take Prozac.


(Original article: Odsouzeni k modernitě (recenze) by Svatava Antošová

Book reviewed: Keller, Jan, Odsouzeni k modernitě: Co hledá sociologie a našla beletrie (Praha: Novela Bohemica 2015)

Svatava Antošová (2018)


Svatava Antošová is an important Czech poet and a member of the editorial staff at Tvar.


Greg Evans‘s translations of the Czech author Arnost Lustig have appeared in New England Review and Kenyon Review. The article originally appeared in Tvar.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 28th, 2019.