Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Modernity & Tradition

Don't confuse "modernity" or "modernization" with the early to mid-20th century literary-artistic-cultural period known as Modernism; e.g. Picasso, James Joyce, Stravinsky. (Our current period is either "late Modernism" or "postmodern.")

"Modernity" or "the modern era" is not just now or a single period but a way of life involving continual change of human conditions and even humanity itself.

What is called "modern" is not just now or the recent past. Your parents or grandparents may not seem modern in the same ways you are, but probably they were modern to their parents and grandparents.

Modernity definition (Oxford English Dictionary) 1b: An intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism). ["liberalism" here doesn't mean leftist politics as much as free trade and free exchange of thoughts]

An identifying feature of modernity is constant change or breaks in continuity from one generation to the next.

In contrast, traditional cultures—which survive in rural America and the developing world—continue doing what their parents and grandparents did.

Positively on both sides, tradition means belonging, while modernity is liberation.

 For careers, for example, most modern people don't think of doing what their parents did—their parents' jobs don't exist, have evolved to new descriptions, or are unsatisfactory to rising expectations. In a traditional culture, you would expect to grow up to do what your parents did (though most cultures made some allowances for individual talents).

At least in theory, traditional culture still holds in families, where position status, gender identities, and relationship-styles perpetuate themselves across generations. (Also families tend to function without writing, compared to modernity, which emerges with literacy and written constitutions.)

No need to take sides. Modernity and tradition are always in dialogue. Nearly everyone lives in some mix of modern and traditional ways.

In history, the beginning of "modernity" is often associated particularly with the Enlightenment (late 1600s-1700s), especially the Scientific Revolution and skepticism toward tradition. The Renaissance is often characterized as "early modernity" or "the early modern era," but modernity or modern thought may be traced back to the ancient Greeks (5th-3rd centuries BCE).

Modernization is associated with modernity: to modernize ("to adapt to modern needs or habits" OED) is to make more efficient, more practical, productive, or egalitarian.

Characteristics of modernity:

mobility / migration—whether geographic or socioeconomic—is also a feature of modernity; in a traditional culture, people know their place (geographical or social) and everyone else's place too. A modern society is a city or club or classroom of strangers who come and go with no past attachments.

human equality (in opportunity or possibility if not in fact)

secularization (never absolute or complete)

science over superstition (or traditional beliefs)

urbanization (farms > city); city as mass of strange individuals without kinship in contrast with traditional cultures of 50-200 inter-related people. (See Wilson, Human Nature,pp. 82-3,)

rise of middle class

growth of freemarket capitalism (with technology) as foremost driver of change:

  • Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (1848): "The bourgeoisie [rising upper-middle-class] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. "

  • Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942): "creative destruction": innovations by entrepreneurs guarantee economic growth even while destroying value of previous investments in capital and skills. For instance, Midwest railroads in 19c USA stimulated mass production but destabilized earlier agricultural methods and lifeways. Today venture capitalists make companies more efficient by downsizing and destabilizing any established relations between employers and employees.

recent examples: decline of newspapers, post offices, formerly pillars of local communities, as a result of technological changes like smartphones, email, online shopping.

nationalism (i. e., identification of a person as "an American" or "a Nigerian" rather than a member of a tribe, family, religion, or state)

globalization (interconnectedness of local and global markets and communications, with pockets of local resistance or isolation)

authority of tradition is replaced by authority of empirical science, observable human behavior, and personal choice

Modernity may be understood in contrast to tradition

Tradition (OED) 4b: The action of transmitting or ‘handing down’, or fact of being handed down, from one to another, or from generation to generation; transmission of statements, beliefs, rules, customs, or the like, esp. by word of mouth or by practice without writing.

5b. A long established and generally accepted custom or method of procedure, having almost the force of a law; an immemorial usage; the body (or any one) of the experiences and usages of any branch or school of art or literature, handed down by predecessors and generally followed.

Modernity in dialogue with Tradition 

"modern change" vs. "traditional values": ongoing revolution in values and material life that began in Ancient Greece and was reborn in Renaissance Europe and the Enlightenment.

Elders have power or prestige in traditional cultures; youths have power or prestige in modern cultures.

A typical family pattern of traditional cultures is the extended family (e.g., "It takes a village"); modern cultures develop the nuclear family, smaller (sub-atomic?) structures, and individualism.

Pace of change constantly accelerates, with occasional pauses (e. g., the 1950s)

lifespans lengthen, population increases in modernity; traditional cultures maintain by subsistence, with births and deaths canceling each other statistically.

in most material terms, modern life offers a better standard of living than the past (except for leisure, which disappears or is concentrated and calculated in modern and postmodern existence).

reactions against modernization may include fundamentalism, "family values," nostalgia for earlier times.

  • Standard contrast with "modern" is "traditional"—modernity threatens tradition; it disrupts and unsettles older ways of life
  • Modernity and change are confusing, disorienting—desire for simplicity of past (which wasn't really simple, just familiar)
  • Reaction often leads to popularity of occult or supernatural + conspiracy during rapid change: people want to understand what's happening in familiar, personal terms of dramatic right and wrong rather than complex forces of history

in most material terms, modern life offers a better standard of living than the past did (except for leisure)

For most of human natural history, people lived short lives in interdependent communities of 50-100 people; in recent generations, people live increasingly as independent individuals in large cities of strangers.

(category of comparison, below)

traditional culture

modern culture

model for present behavior (Bakhtin)

past ("Our fathers did so . . . .")

future ("need to get ahead of the curve")


oral / spoken

literate / written

time / space orientation

locally rooted

universal history


polytheistic: local / tribal / animist

monotheistic "World Religions" (Judeo-Christianity, Islam, Buddhism)


farm / village





"Modernization" is relevant to studies of the American Renaissance and American Romanticism because 

The American Renaissance is the period when Americans first began moving to cities in large numbers and experiencing the other changes listed above on a large scale.

Some literature of the period shows changes of intellect, lifestyle, and nature that resulted and how people adjusted. (Literature as engagement)

Much "Romantic" literature (such as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and The Last of the Mohicans or The Scarlet Letter) is set in an earlier or more rural time and place.


Anxiety in the Land of the Anti-Immigration Crusader

By Kirk Johnson
New York Times, 24 June 2007


IT’S hardly news that illegal immigrants lead fitfully uncertain, insecure lives. The storm winds of capitalism, uneven immigration-law enforcement and international border politics can blow unpredictably and fiercely at any time.

But very similar tones of anxiety about the universe and its curveballs can be easily found in this upper-middle-class suburb southeast of Denver — in the home district of Representative Tom Tancredo, the man waging a one-note anti-immigration campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Mr. Tancredo’s district is the richest, best educated and most family friendly in Colorado (the latter based on numbers of children counted by the census). Housing prices are high and there are few immigrant-based industries like manufacturing, meat-packing or agriculture. Nearly 9 of every 10 residents are white, while less than 1 in 10 are Hispanic. In several dozen interviews across the district, most people said they didn’t even know an illegal immigrant.

So why would illegal immigration be a cause célèbre in a place like this, the whitest Congressional district in Colorado?

Residents and local political leaders say the answer comes down, at least partly, to words like “order” and “stability.” Those concerns may mask a certain amount of bigotry or bias. But the residents say they are motivated by concerns about borders they consider broken, leaving America open and vulnerable, especially in the post-9/11 world. Government, which many people here talk about with far more scorn and rage than they do about immigrants, has become a puppet to economic forces that demand cheap and mobile labor, they say.

In short, local residents and immigration experts say, beneath the anger about immigration is great anxiety about a global economy that has made people feel less in control of their lives, their country and the culture they grew up with — wherever they work, and however nice their house is.

“Globalization causes Mexicans to come because the jobs in their country are going to China,” said Chris H. Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Colorado who teaches Western immigration history and globalization. “And globalization makes the middle class in this country feel we don’t have a voice, that our future is being created somewhere else.”

Both illegal immigrants and many here in Mr. Tancredo’s district endure transience and isolation, albeit in different ways — from corporate relocation and outsourcing on the one hand, to old-fashioned immigrant job insecurity on the other. And both sides see the hard truth of the global job market: jobs flow downhill toward lower wages.

“I’ve got all kinds of people in my district — engineers, computer-science people especially — whose jobs have been eliminated by H1B,” Mr. Tancredo said in a telephone interview, referring to the federal visa program aimed at attracting foreign technical workers. “They believe, and I believe, it’s because the company found a source of cheaper labor.”

Yet jobs created Parker, which had only a few hundred people as recently as 1980, and now has 45,000. The nearby Highlands Ranch area grew from literal ranch land in that same period to more than 130,000 people today. While some people surely came for the climate or to take advantage of Colorado’s outdoor lifestyle — far more came for a job, especially in the high-tech industries in Denver, to which many people commute. Illegal immigrants have followed, as well, typically commuting to work here from enclaves in Denver where rents are relatively cheap.

Stanley A. Renshon, a psychoanalyst and a professor of political science at the City University of New York, said Americans have developed what he calls a “de facto identity” that allows for diversity and individualism as long as a few core beliefs and values are shared, like personal responsibility and respect for the country. If people don’t assimilate into the broader culture, he said, then the idea that communities can coalesce is challenged — especially in new places like Mr. Tancredo’s district where cohesion is still weak.

“I’ve done a lot of review of the public-opinion polls, and Americans are foursquare against illegal immigration and foursquare for immigrants becoming Americans,” he said. “When people talk about becoming an American, that to me is the hidden core of the immigration debate.”

Some Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — cling to their old culture and language because they say that American life, whether in the new suburbs or the cities, is fragmented and rootless, lacking the richness of their traditions and culture. Equally protective of their culture, many in Mr. Tancredo’s district say illegal immigrants who don’t assimilate and learn English are in fact a major contributing cause of the cultural fragmentation.

“Portugal is Portugal because of the Portuguese language; Spain is Spanish; France is — God knows — France is French; Germany is Germany, all because of language,” said Dick Hanson, 71, a retired Navy man who came to Parker in the 1980s. “That, to me, is the thing that holds, that builds a country.”

Mr. Tancredo makes much the same point. “The impact of immigration — legal and illegal — on jobs, schools, health care, the environment, national security, are all very serious problems,” he said. “But more serious than all of them put together is this threat to the culture. I believe we are in a clash of civilizations.”

Bill Lieb, a 52-year-old business-owner and Republican from Highlands Ranch, said he generally supported Mr. Tancredo. He said nonetheless that the American economy had become dependent on immigrants, both legal and illegal, and that the challenge was to come up with a policy to provide for those labor needs and fix what he said was “unregulated, uncontrolled chaos” at the borders.

He said his business trips to Mexico and China have made him more sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants. The Mexican government supports only the rich, he said.

“If I lived there, I’d want to get the hell out, too,” he said.