are mass atrocities modern?

As an idea, modernity is as uncertain as it is widespread. Modernity has come to mean a particular time, a particular space, and a particular way of thinking about the human ecosystem. It’s the most self-referential of our contemporary myths–our thinkers become moderns because they invent themselves as such, and not because their intellectual moment is unique in itself. In identity and in output, each player in the game of ideas grapples with the modern hand they’re dealt. Their modern ideologies, their buildings and streets, their organizations and societies–each facet creates modernity, and is created by it.

Where modernity creates, it also destroys. Modern ideologies strike humanity from their histories, left and right. In Marshall Berman’s words:

“[Modernity] is a terrible and tragic convergence, sealed with victims’ blood, undergirded with their bones, which come in the same forms and colors everywhere. The process of development that the creative spirits of the nineteenth century conceived as a great human adventure has become in our own era a life-and-death necessity for every nation and every social system in the world. As a result, development authorities everywhere have accumulated powers that are enormous, uncrontrolled and all too often lethal.”

Berman’s modern city is the highest form of creative destruction. The skyscraper, that towering fixture of urban growth, leaves a local neighborhood in its wake; the subway line, a scrappy artisan. “It was necessary,” suggests the modern, as a developer razes one village, and then the next. Modernity justifies its creation in retrospect–a weak justification, indeed. In modernity’s ecosystem, human progress exists for some, and perhaps for all, but always at another’s expense. An expropriated day-laborer will nourish a modern factory as the illicit market feeds its formal economy. Modernity’s lucrative underbelly sustains it, and navigates its unseen shadows.

We contest a mass atrocity’s modernity in its contemporary politics and in its memory. Germany’s “dark” democracy remains the gold standard–a murderous institution that invented itself as modern, and which perpetrated its modernity in the deadliest ways. Kenya and Rwanda, among others, have become Germany’s inglorious opposition, their events defined as much by the barbarism of mass murder as the simplicity of their organization. But we mistake a bureaucracy’s form for its politics. We associate technologies as a child builds blocks–the crematoria are complex in a way the machetes could never be. Of course, the architecture of the Holocaust is no less barbaric than Hutu Power’s roving militias, and its violence no more sophisticated than Kenya’s ethnic politics. These modern hallmarks are fictive, but only for a moment–a fleeting reality links the small political fissure between what we know, and what we remember.

In 1939, E.B. White visited the “world of tomorrow“–the World’s Fair, in Queens, New York. Our contemporary World’s Fair is an homage to forgotten innovation–in Men in Black, the fairgrounds are a hub for extraterrestrial transport; in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark heralds a superheroic future at a revived exhibition. For White, writing months before Poland’s collapse, the fairgrounds displayed a modernity at once terrible and sublime. As the essay closes, White describes an automaton, oddly aroused:

“Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aseptic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast.”

The automaton’s control, like the urban planner’s, is both elusive and illusory. The modern creates their object on a terrifying scale, and expects it to do their bidding. The consequence of failure, as Berman writes, is “often lethal” for the act that gives the object meaning. The act evolves, but where-to remains uncertain. The Fair’s inventors create the automaton, an unfeeling entity, to mimic human sexuality–sexuality, as far as we can tell, has survived. Real estate developers create a new high-rise, a living space, to supplant residential homes–some live in better homes; others, in no homes at all.

A mass atrocity’s logic is much the same, though obviously in different–and more tragic–contexts. A modern organization–a state or otherwise–seeks control over its people–over how they go to work, over how they use the Internet, over how and when they dissent and revolt and rebel. The organization rarely achieves that control, even in the most totalitarian societies. When they lose control, the organization has two options for its momentary survival: continued creation, or expanded destruction. The latter is a mass atrocity, which preserves the organization it later destroys on a much greater scale.

3 thoughts on “are mass atrocities modern?

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

  2. To call it ‘modern’ would also ignore the flood of atrocities committed by our ancestors on every single continent, sometimes causing death and destruction easily on par with anything in the 20th/21st century despite their less advanced technology.

    • Right–Ben Kiernan, in his global history of genocide, captures these themes well. But to describe modernity as a chronological marker, and nothing else, simplifies a diverse spectrum of literary themes that shaped pre-Enlightenment politics, such as the “creative destruction” I referenced above. These themes, including violence as a creative process, are not historically unique, as you referenced. But that they were imagined as such defines their modernity.

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