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Cultural Immobility — The Tradition of Antimodern Modernism and the Role of Intellectuals

Klaus Benesch (LMU Munich)

Modernity has often been associated with a significant increase in action, movement, and mobility (Arendt, Baumann, Greenblatt). Yet there has also been a distinct tradition within modern intellectual history that wants to disengage the self from the maelstrom of constant movement and cultural change. Hence modernity cannot be fully comprehended without drawing attention to the self-imposed lack of mobility, an antimodern modernist mode of thinking that cuts across philosophy, cultural criticism, political and social thought, religion, and the fine arts. The research project focuses on 'antimodern' modernist thinkers (Thoreau, Henry Adams, Pound, John Crowe Ransom, Betrand Russel, Heidegger), who each represent different aspects of a modernist tradition of cultural immobility. Many emphasize 'rootedness' and the close attention to par­ticular places and regions as an antidote to modern rest- and thoughtlessness. In so doing they proffer a complex, paradoxical notion of place whose importance for our understand­ing of modernity has so far gone unnoticed.

In his study Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: Essais d’anthropologie symétrique (We Have Never Been Modern, 1991) cultural anthropologist Bruno Latour claims that the boundaries between disciplinary and epistemological fields in modern science have been continuously blurred and that we therefore may have never been fully modern, to begin with. According to Latour, the paradoxical coexistence of modern and pre-modern episte­mologies—rather than subverting or annihilating the modern scientific project—turns into a creative, empowering driving force of its own. What is more, the capacity to accommodate these paradoxes can account for much of modernity's lingering appeal, its striking longev­ity as the dominant social and epistemological paradigm of the West.

Guided by the new notion of cultural immobility, the research project argues along similar lines: that forms of immobility and resistance to progress and change can be re­conceptualized as equally modern attitudes alongside the dominant of mobility. The fasci­nation with being modern has often been overwhelming and has led critics to eclipse traces of the pre- and antimodern. In a similar fashion, mobility's negative alter ego, i.e. immobility, has equally been repressed as an important aspect of the modern mobility par­adigm. Given its vital role in reigning in and making mobility compatible with the human need for rootedness and emplacement, cultural immobility should no longer be treated as modernity's Other, but as its ontological twin: the unfolding of oppositional notions of place and immobility alongside the modern dominants of space and mobility need to be theo­rized as carrying meaning for the concept of modernity itself. Reading these 'antimodern' intellectuals against the grain of established philosophical and cultural criticism may thus reveal their conservative stances as an integral component of modernity rather than its negative, reactionary downside.

John F. Kennedy Institute