The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Thematic: The Shifting Experience of Self


The Pathos of Contemporary Life

Harvie Ferguson

Giorgione, The Tempest (detail), early sixteenth century; © Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, NY.

Everything now is “up in the air.”

Modernity has never been fully comprehensible. Since its european emergence, around 1600, a distinctive sense of newness has become a characteristic feature of human experience quite generally. Modern society and modern life, in all its aspects, were experienced as radically different from, and not just the development out of, older forms. Yet the real nature of that experience, and what it reveals about both the object and subject of modern life, has remained obscure. The radical origin of modernity, as Frank Ankersmit has shown in an impressive study, required a moment of oblivion, a trauma in which the complex global interrelatedness of the present to the past and everything it stood for was effaced.11xFrank Ankersmit, Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005). The modern was an assertion of the essential freedom of humanity to become itself through the creation of its own future. As increasing numbers of people became conscious of the radical implications of its Copernican moment of self-creation, modernity established its vision of autonomy—withdrawn from god, cut off from nature, and remote from the Past.

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