The Mythos of Progress


What is left out of public discussion, writes Zygmunt Bauman, is “the role that almost every single ‘modernizing’ measure has played in the continuing decomposition and crumbling of social bonds and communal cohesion.” Or as New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik once put it, “There is the feeling that something vital is passing from the world, and yet to defend this thing is to be immediately classified as retrograde.”

Berman, Morris (2014-06-18). Why America Failed (p. 90).

If we grant that there is something to the above statements, even if there are mitigating aspects of modernity that are left out, there is an oddity in the swiftness that any critique of modernity is branded “reactionary”, “regressive” or even “Luddite” (the last gets particularly on my nerves, as the original Luddites were from a village near to where I grew up, and attacked the village I grew up in. The anger was not over technology or ‘progress’ but over the vast difference in living standards and wages between the two villages).

Although we have no determinate goal in terms of the ‘progress’ of modernity, and by the standards of the partial goals set in the so-called ‘age of reason’ society as a whole has regressed at least as much as it’s progressed, globally speaking, any questioning of ‘progress’ is treated as automatically opposed to everything good. Even within the academic community it’s accepted as something not even in need of demonstration that Heidegger was just such a reactionary, and spent the latter part of his life bemoaning technology. Yet in the only book where Heidegger explicitly makes technology the primary theme, he says of technology:

“When we consider the essence of technology, then we experience Enframing as a destining of revealing. In this way we are already sojourning within the open space of destining, a destining that in no way confines us to a stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology or, what comes to the same thing, to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil. Quite to the contrary, when we once open ourselves expressly to the essence of technology, we find ourselves unexpectedly taken into a freeing claim.”

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

The left equates ‘progress’ with ‘evolution’, which is part of the reason for the hyper defending of evolutionary theories from even the mildest critique of specifics of current variants, never mind the horrific idea that someone might look at the theories and reject them, despite the obvious fact that they rely on a mechanistic causality and classical physicalism that have long been abandoned in physics itself.

On the other side it’s equated with a transformed eschatology, which makes any questioning already blasphemous, although I don’t remember any commandment that said “thou shalt not question progress” nor any scriptures showing horrible punishments meted out to those that were “out of date”.

Thus it seems that the sacred cow of progress is self-supporting, and that the basic agreement of both sides is in fact what supports the rabid pseudo-argument most often couched as evolution vs creationism. The argument is nothing more than a distraction, a distraction precisely from questioning a society that appears to prefer a new iPad to a cohesive community, and appears to prefer a myth of progress to any tangible improvement in the quality of life.

Even the more pragmatic, who quite rightly from their perspective fail to understand the vehemence of protagonists in the latter argument, since there appears to be no correlation between how we believe we originated and how we deal with reality as we find it, tend to become vehement when the underlying belief in unlimited progress, or progress at all, is questioned.

This points to the underlying belief-structure at work in modernity, a belief-structure all the more powerful for not being explicated in any transparent manner.

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