BF199: Modernity: Critique and Resistance
Both BF190: Modernity and the Contemporary World and BF199: Modernity: Critique and Resistance familiarize you with a set of foundational ideas that will help you in your university education, in your career, and in your life as a citizen of our global world.
In particular, BF190 and BF199 are focused on ethical and political questions: How do we relate to each other as human beings? How should we relate to each other as human beings?
BF190 focuses on Enlightenment thought, which grounds many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives, including democratic politics, the scientific method, and capitalist economic relations. BF199 focuses on contemporary problems that challenge Enlightenment ideas, including environmental issues, multiculturalism, and the effects of mass communication.
The ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 are foundational to thinking across the disciplines taught at Laurier Brantford. This gives you a leg up in understanding your coursework and gives you a common language with which to communicate and think with your peers across disciplinary boundaries.
The ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 circulate around the practice of critical thinking, which involves challenging assumptions, asking complicated questions, and being open to new and innovative solutions. This practice is useful across a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional career paths, and allows you to become the kind of flexible thinker that contemporary employers are looking for.
Finally, the ideas presented in BF190 and BF199 give you the tools to understand the assumptions made and positions taken by others in the face of important contemporary problems. In turn, this allows you to develop and express your own assumptions and positions so that you become an empowered, active, and responsible citizen of our global world.
- Read primary source course material.
- Identify and summarize key ideas in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Compare and contrast the ideas of key authors in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Apply key ideas in the tradition of social and political critique to contemporary news media objects.
- Articulate your own position on contemporary news media objects and relate your position to the ideas of key authors in the tradition of social and political critique.
- Practice academic integrity in the correct referencing of sources.
BF199 Key Ideas
Some of the key ideas covered in BF199 include:
Multiculturalism, Colonialism and Fascism
While the Enlightenment notion of a universal capacity for rationality suggests that people should be treated equally regardless of cultural identity, BF199 introduces students to the problem that the specific way in which everyone should be treated equally necessarily expresses some particular set of cultural values. Multiculturalism is thus exposed as a contested term, and colonialism is revealed as an ongoing struggle rather than a historical event. Who is the gatekeeper for what cultural values are allowable within multiculturalism and on what grounds are those decisions made? Moreover, as one of the key historical traumas that arguably marked the end of the modern era, the rise of fascism is an essential element in contemporary struggles around cultural identity. Students will be exposed to a variety of arguments and critiques about how cultural difference and histories of oppression based on cultural difference continue to shape our global political landscape.
Nietzsche and Schmitt both produce ideas that may be linked to fascist ideology, but simultaneously provide poignant critiques of how liberal tolerant multiculturalism may itself be culturally oppressive. Arendt exposes how seemingly normal citizens can become cogs in the racist machinery of fascism. Said and Fanon argue that the supposedly universal rationality of Enlightenment thought is often used as a tool for oppressing supposedly inferior people and cultures.
Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism
In our contemporary political landscape, the division between liberalism and conservatism has arguably taken a back seat to the overwhelming push to support and expand the power of corporate capital. BF199 exposes students to the idea that the capitalist profit motive may be undermining traditional Enlightenment ideals of democratic participation and political freedom in favour of economic competition and entrepreneurial freedom.
Harvey provides a thorough analysis of neoliberal economic policy and the particular ideological twist given to it by neoliberalism. Marcuse and Klein both argue that the world of capitalist relations usurps the power if political decision-making.
Environmentalism and Conservation
Global climate change is arguably one of the most pressing concerns facing our contemporary world insofar as it may threaten the very survival of the human species. BF199 points out to students that the ethical, political, and economic ideas developed in the modern era, which continue to inform our contemporary decision-making, are constitutionally unprepared for this new problem. As such, environmental issues may require us to challenge some of our deepest assumptions about how society is and should be organized.
Bookchin argues that environmental sustainability may be a new scientific lens through which innovative social movements and transformations may be produced.
Mass Communication and Consumerism
New technologies of communication and persuasion along with an expanding global culture of consumerism work together and separately in our contemporary world to motivate individuals and groups in ways unforeseen to Enlightenment thinkers. BF199 introduces students to some of the troubling questions about ethics and politics in our mediatized and commercialized world: What becomes of democratic participation when people get their information from privately owned news sources that are run for profit and funded by advertising? What becomes of communal and collaborative projects when people are encouraged to think of themselves as individual competitors in the global marketplace?
Chomsky argues that contemporary news media is used chiefly as a form of propaganda to support national and corporate agendas. Klein argues that the evolution of corporate branding tends toward a simulated communal world from which political disagreement and conflict are concealed or even forcibly repressed.
Irrationality and Violence
While Enlightenment thought celebrates the universally liberating power of rational thinking, several of the thinkers in BF199 challenge the idea that irrationality and violence can – or even should – be repressed or eliminated. What if the ability to behave irrationally is essential to the human capacity for creativity, altruism and positive change? What if the attempt to get rid of irrationality and violence is precisely what produces the most horrifying forms of violence and oppression? What if irrationality cannot be gotten rid of, but must instead be channeled towards productive ends? What if, in the quest for a just, liberated, peaceful society, violence towards the oppressive opposition is a necessary first step?
Fanon argues that in situations of struggle against colonial oppression, violence is necessary, because the effort to negotiate peacefully and rationally always already concedes victory to the oppressors. Nietzsche argues that to live an authentic, empowered, ethical life, one must be prepared to sacrifice rational self-interest in favour of irrational, excessive, and emotional acts. Freud argues that humans have an irrepressible, irrational drive to aggressivity which cannot simply be controlled by rational thought, but must be channeled into some socially productive activity.
Discipline and Social Control
While many Enlightenment thinkers were concerned with protecting individual freedom from abusive authoritarian power, several of the thinkers in BF199 reveal how the very idea of individual freedom can be used to control people. In our contemporary global society, it may be that calls to think for ourselves and make informed independent decisions are not actually liberating, but simply enjoin us to obey authority while experiencing it as our own choice. What if liberation does not mean the freedom of the individual to choose from within a field of options, but the freedom to be part of a group that seeks to redefine the options as such? What if the seemingly good advice we receive from experts about our own self-care and self-improvement is actually propaganda designed to prevent us from changing the world?
Foucault argues that Enlightenment thought offered those with political power and new technology for social control: the logic of discipline, which seduces us into controlling ourselves. Freud argues that one of the ways that society copes with our individual aggressive drives is to turn them inward as a self-punishing agency: the superego. Harvey argues that neoliberal economics is based on a vision of freedom that asks us to imagine ourselves as competitive entrepreneurs rather than collaborative citizens.
Thinkers covered in BF199 include:
Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt
- On the Genealogy of Morals, chapter 1, parts 5, 10, 13.
- The Concept of the Political, parts 2, 3, 5, 6.
One of the key world-historical events associated with contemporary challenges to modern Enlightenment thought is the rise of fascism and the disaster of the Holocaust. How could principles of universality, critical thinking and rationality have led to this, and how must we rethink them in order to make good on the promise that such an event will never happen again?
Nietzsche and Schmitt are two thinkers who are associated (either intentionally or by others) with Fascist (and specifically Nazi) politics, and each of them challenges some of the core principles of Enlightenment thought. While there is room to argue that it is their rejection of modernity that allows for their fascist affiliations, the opposite may in fact be true: It is precisely their postmodern thought which can be turned against the fascist project and used to advance the causes of liberation, equality and justice.
Nietzsche challenges Enlightenment notions of rationality with his privileging of Noble Morality over Slave Resentiment: To be noble for Nietzsche means to act on one’s impulses rather than to scheme and manipulate. Schmitt challenges Enlightenment notions of universality by pointing out that inclusivity often creates an even more excluded outsider: Somehow, our contemporary tolerance for others goes hand in hand with the appearance of terrorists and freedom-haters who need to be exterminated.
- Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 21-36, 135-150.
Hannah Arendt was a leading political thinker of the 20th century. She consistently grappled with the most crucial political events of her time in order to understand their relevance to (or challenge to) common moral and political beliefs. Her primary concern was with how we may formulate a framework that would allow us to come to terms with the twin horrors of the twentieth century, Nazism and Stalinism.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is neither Arendt’s best nor her most important book but it may be her most controversial and most read and it does point to a key theme that runs throughout all of Arendt’s work and that is the danger of thoughtlessness or a world free of thinking. Written in 1963 the book remains misunderstood by many and continues to be subject to numerous critiques and concerns by those who are unwilling to accept her observations. The infamy of the book relates to a key question particularly relevant to this class: How can a not particularly clever or abjectly committed man move from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer.
Arendt forces her reader to reflect on what she refers to as the banality of evil where ghastly crimes are not necessarily committed by sadists, or psychopaths but by obedient servants performing tasks handed down by higher authorities.
Franz Fanon and Edward Said
- The Wretched of the Earth, p. 35-48, 59-67.
- Orientalism, chapter 1, p. 31-41.
Another world-historical phenomenon that causes no end of trouble for Enlightenment thought is European colonialism. How is it that the notion of a universal rational subject went hand in hand with colonization, occupation, and slavery based on race and ethnicity? While some critics argue that colonial oppression represents a failure to put Enlightenment concepts into practice, it is worth considering that colonialism may be the result of Enlightenment concepts being put into practice all too successfully.
Said points out how modern scientific reason was put to work in reducing the “native” from a subject with rights to an object of scientific investigation and control. Knowing the “native” becomes a way of gaining power over him or her. In this sense, scientific rationality may be deeply at odds with inclusive politics. Fanon suggests that the principle of universality is, at least in the colonial context, only a pretext for domination. Perhaps liberation, equality and justice rely instead on radical partisanship, even violence, for their ultimate support.
In Panopticism, Foucault famously describes the emergence of a new kind of power over the course of the modern era: discipline. One of Foucault’s central arguments about discipline is that it is deeply and essentially related to the modern notion of rationality. The same Enlightenment principles that officially established universal equality also created asymmetrical forms of disciplinary power.
While directly panoptic forms of control through surveillance are controversial in our contemporary context, other rational social principles, such as the distribution of labour through qualified specialization, are much more difficult for us to critique. Who should make political decisions, qualified experts or the unqualified masses? Foucault’s analysis reveals how the Enlightenment promise of universal political equality comes into conflict with the Enlightenment notion of rational organization.
- Civilization and Its Discontents, parts iii, v, vii.
Freud’s discovery of the unconscious has been deeply unsettling to one of modern Enlightenment thought’s founding notions: the idea of the individual human subject as a self-transparent rational actor. Freud’s Psychoanalytic theory suggests that we are all constantly acting on irrational motivations that we are not ourselves aware of. As such, the Enlightenment dream of a totally rational world is doomed from the outset.
Civilization and its Discontents is specifically concerned with the human drive to aggression. For Freud, whether we know it or not, we all derive a certain amount of enjoyment from hurting others. In this context, civilization serves to reroute or direct the aggressive drive in ways that allow people to live together in relative harmony. The question is what price we are willing to pay for this social cohesion: Do we need an external enemy? Will we find an internal scapegoat? Or should we turn aggressivity against ourselves and fall into a spiral of guilt?
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
- Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, ch. 1.
One of the often underemphasized cornerstones of the Enlightenment notion of critical thinking as a universal capacity is access to information. In order for us to think critically and rationally about a given situation, we need to know about it, either first hand or second hand. And one of the key ways we get second hand knowledge about our contemporary world is through the mass media. In this text, Chomsky reveals how economic and political pressures influence the information we receive.
Specifically, Chomsky argues for the clear presence of a propaganda model operating in mainstream news media: The economic interests on multinational corporations and the political interests of modern nation states lead the meainstream media to construct a polarized world in which oppression, exclusion and injustice that serve those in power are valorized or ignored, while any resistance to that power is emphasized and vilified.
- A Brief History of Neoliberalism, p. 1-7, 14-19, 64-71, 75-86
Modern analyses of capitalist economics have traditionally been limited to state-based industrial capitalism. More recent developments in the nature of capital, including the globalization of trade, the decoupling of corporations from their national roots, and the increasing importance of finance capital, create challenges for applying these analyses to the contemporary landscape.
In this text, Harvey usefully describes the new forms of ideology that have arisen to justify and support these new forms of capitalism: neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Not only does Harvey extend Marx’s analysis of the way in which capitalist interests undermine modern notions of citizenship and universal political participation, but he also points out how the struggle between neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism is essentially a struggle between the interests of capital as such, and the production of social cohesion through the scapegoating of the working class.
- One Dimensional Man, p. 1-18, 56-74.
Marcuse was a leading critical theorist in the tumultuous 60s. His One Dimensional Man is considered by many as one of the most important books of the 60s as it transgressed the cold war dichotomy and gave voice to a growing dissatisfaction with both capitalist and communist societies. Marcuse came out of the Frankfurt School, known for its neo-Marxist roots and its interest in overcoming positivism, materialism and determinism.
During the 1960s Marcuse moved to the political hotbed of California and played an important role in influencing the student, black and feminist movements of the day. In fact, he is one of a select few intellectuals who has actually become a pop cultural figure getting his picture on the cover of Life Magazine in 1970.
Marcuse argues that the Enlightenment attempt to de-mystify the world carried with it a dark side and that dark side is instrumental reason. According to Marcuse, the Enlightenment’s focus on individual reason obscured the fact that the overall outcome of liberation from myths was itself irrational. One Dimensional Man is a man incapable of critical thought; a man overcome by technological rationality; a man subject to the social control of consumerism; and a man who is a subject of not a subject in a pseudo-democracy that due to the social control attached to consumerism is far more authoritarian than we are led to believe. Marcuse’s hope lies in the “Great Refusal,” which as the term infers involves a committed refusal of all forms of oppression and domination, or more broadly a protest against that which is.
- No Logo, p. 107-118, 121-124, 143-164, 175-190.
One of the ways in which our contemporary global society has responded to the failure of modern politics to deliver on the promise of universal equality has been through notions of multicultural inclusion: Universality should break with Eurocentric, patriarchal limitations and include every cultural and identity rather than relying on. However, global capitalism has proven extremely adept at compromising with and co-opting resistant strategies that rely on this kind of identity politics.
As Klein points out in No Logo, efforts at multicultural inclusion have often succeeded only in producing a marketplace of lifestyle choices for those who can afford them, while inequalities and oppression intensify around the globe. As the power of capital is consolidated and fortified, Klein demonstrates how our common world, including spaces of democratic political engagement and even the languages we use to communicate, are becoming more and more privatized and commodified.
- Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 55-82.
Murray Bookchin was a leading voice within the environmental movement for five decades. As the key voice behind Social Ecology, he was one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the environmental consequences of capitalism and industrialization (His first book Our Synthetic Environment came out before Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring). Throughout the five decades (1960-2006) he was a controversial figure who while fiercely critical of capitalism and the state nevertheless insisted on seeing humans as capable of contributing something positive to nature. He fought against the anti-humanist tendencies within the radical environmental movement, believed in the promise of co-eveolution between humans and non-humans, and remained fully committed to the belief that we cannot deal with the domination of nature by humans until we deal with the domination of human by human.
The article “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” is considered the first article on Social Ecology. In this article Bookchin draws attention to the key environmental concerns of the day (take note of the similarities to today’s concerns) and first articulates some of the most significant aspects of Social Ecology as a radical alternative to modern capitalist society. Two of the most relevant claims in the article are first, the claim that the re-harmonization of human with human is the precondition for a balance with nature; and second, the claim that “an anarchist society far from being a remote ideal, has become a precondition for the practice of ecological principles.”
- Feminist Theory from Margin to Centre, chapters 2, 7, 12.
Many of the liberatory political projects that take their inspiration from modern conceptions of universality have found themselves at cross purposes with each other. Class struggle, feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights have each fought to keep their own interests in focus, and often overlooked each other’s concerns. Moreover, global capitalism have proven very adept at playing these forces off of each other, and selling back to them compromised versions of their utopian dreams.
Hooks underlines these problems in her re-evaluation of the feminist movement and provides a hopeful solution: For Hooks, all liberatory struggles are the same struggle, and one cannot be a feminist without also being an anti-capitalist, anti-racist, LGBTQ activist, etc. Moreover, she argues that anti-capitalism may be the key struggle here, insofar as poverty is the key form of powerlessness which various groups face in the contemporary world. In the course of imagining a new unified liberatory movement, she asks us to re-evaluate our understanding of work in everyday life.
- the course number(s)
- the year and term the course was offered (e.g. Winter 2015)
- and your WLU student ID
The outlines will be forwarded to you as a PDF attachment.