What has happened to us? What is the meaning of what has happened to us? Bewilderment is perhaps tbe most frequent and at tbe same time most adequate response to the phenomenon of modernity. Emotion underlies even the most learned reflection on the modern age. All attempts at grasping its definitive characteristics have ended in failure. New modernities are continually being discovered, each of them different from the other ones. Models supposed to capture the essence of modernity overlap, vanish, and reappear in ever new incarnations.
Like in the famous kaleidoscope experiment in Gestaltpsychologie, an image materializes for a brief moment only to transfigure into another one with another turn of the device. ln this volume, I convey the flickering nature of modernity through essays which in their various ways foreground one of the signature features of the modern era – anxiety. It is anxiety that emerges from the kaleidoscopic configurations as organizing the Gestalt of modernity. To refer once again to Gestalt psychology and its other central metaphor, i.e., a tune which consists of individual sounds but is not reducible to any of them, anxiety is a leitmotiv of this book, and its chapters riff on this theme, each casting it in another key. This is, I believe, the only way in which anxiety intrinsic to the modern age can be penetrated. The point is that, unlike horror, which modernity indeed experiences in excess, anxiety is deeply buried and eludes any direct exploration or diagnosis. This ensues both from its ubiquity – and what is common becomes ungraspable as there is no comparison, no piece of reality which could offer a point of resistance to reasoning – and from its hiddenness. The latter results from a necessity which has been thoroughly recognized by psychoanalysis. A profound, fundamental anxiety, the source of which can be located either in human nature as such or in traumatically available experiences, will only manifest through symptoms. These symptoms often deceive and misdirect attention to ostensibly insignificant areas, while concealing the pivotal mechanism behind the problem. Jt is up to the therapist to identify and expose their interconnection, which reveals the structure ofthe mental problem itself.
The chapters in this volume are designed to do nearly the same for the studies of culture. They illuminate the spaces of modem culture which are saturated with anxiety. Because cultural anxieties always manifest as individuals’ mental states, many of the chapters refer to individual experiences as encoded in literature and art, as well as to my own personal experiences, memories, and sensations. By bringing them together with theories of the humanities and social sciences, I can capture the prismatic nature of experience – the transition from its social amassment to individual feelings.
Endemic in modernity, cultural anxiety defies any direct reading, yet it has been discerned in numerous philosophical concepts. Let me evoke at least two thinkers. At the threshold of modernity, Blaise Pascal descried this dimension of the yet-unnamed age as the foundation of human existence. Similarly, Soren Kierkegaard, who watched the progress of modernity from his provincial Copenhagen, grounded his concept of human nature on the ubiquity of anxiety. Currently, at the dusk of modernity, the examination of anxiety has been taken over by sociologists. Ulrich Beck’s concept of “risk society” and the notion of the “new spirit of capitalism” developed by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello both include a component of implicit (Beck) or explicit (Boltanski and Chiapello) anxiety as an inalienable part of the machinery of modem society.
In this book, I address the prophecies of fall and radical change as a latent expression of rudimentary anxiety. Lucidity which heralds ultimate decline is the other modal value of the book. Both motifs are linked by the idea that accumulated anxiety opens a path to gnosis and self-knowledge. The belief that an era is coming to an end does not have to be pessimistic, but it tends to be intertwined with a clear vision of a new opening or the notion that there is nothing of significance in store for us – that we have reached the top, that the historical time is fulfilled and has come to a halt. Modernity simultaneously craves and fears clairvoyance; it wants to see itself in a chain of onward-moving cultural and social stages, but at the same time it dreads losing its identity and, thus, its uniqueness. Therefore moments of lucidity have a double role in the culture of modernity. They mark specific self-interpretations, negotiating the symptoms of anxiety and amalgamating them into a syndrome which will help diagnose the malady beyond its real source. When the syndrome is depicted and the diagnosis established, they become a new, autonomous reason for anxiety. This is derivative anxiety, which only makes it all the more acute than what radiates from its primary locus. Transitioning from anxiety to lucidity and from lucidity to anxiety is one of the games in which the self-awareness of modernity is constituted.
Nevertheless, this is not the only image that can emerge from the kaleidoscope of the chapters contained in this book. Ultimately, what this image will be like is up to the readers.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre delicat,[You know it well, my Reader . . . ./you – hypocrite Reader – my double – my brother!] (Charles Baudelaire, “To the Reader,” translated by Robert Lowell, from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil. New York, NY: New Directions, 1963).
Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frere!
Leszek Koczanowicz is Professor of Philosophy and Political Science in the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wroclaw, Poland. He is the author of Anxiety and Lucidity: Reflections on Culture in Times of Unrest. Routledge, 2020, Politics of Dialogue: Non-Consensual Democracy and Critical Community, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, Politics of Time: Dynamics of Identity in Post-Communist Poland Berghahn Books, 2008, Analyses of Human Action (Wroclaw University Press, 1990), G.H. Mead (Wroclaw University Press, 1992), Individual – Activity – Society: The Concept of the Self in American Pragmatism (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of Polish Academy of Science Press, 1994), Community and Emancipations. The Discussion of the Post-conventional Society (Lower Silesia University Press, 2005) and Politics of Time. Dynamics of Identity in Post-Communist Poland (Berghahn Books, 2008) [in English]. He is co-editor, with Beth J. Singer, of Democracy and Totalitarian Experience (Rodopi, 2005) [in English].