W2.06 The Age of Uncertainty
Hi welcome back. You know among a lot of people after World War I there was a broad sense that they were living in a broken world. To try to characterize the period of the 1920s, I was looking for a phrase, letï¿½s try: The Age of Uncertainty. Literally, an age in which the certainties of the past seemed gone. We can measure this in physical terms. We can talk about human losses. Killed in action in World War I itself, estimates probably in the range of 9,000,000 to 10,000,000 killed. Not all the mutilated, wounded, and the rest, which are tens of millions more of people damaged in some way physically or psychologically by the war and who survived. The Russian Civil War had millions more. Other wars, like the wars that convulsed what we now call Turkey, another huge casualty list. And then we can go on. So physical loss is enormous. On top of that the conditions of the war helped produce the worst outbreak of disease in modern history: the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918- 1919, which probably killed more people than lost their lives in combat. Some number between ten to twenty million, maybe even more. So, large human losses. By the way, one thing about World War One that's interesting, is leaving aside the civil wars, during the war itself, 90 percent of the people killed were soldiers. So this is not a war like World War Two, where a majority of the people killed in the war were not soldiers. In World War I, in the fronts where the fighting was going on the casualties were concentrated overwhelmingly among people who were in uniform. So the human loss is enormous of course, physical devastation really marked the demographies of countries like Germany, France, Britain, Russia. Some smaller countries like Serbia, Bulgaria. But I think contemporaries felt even more profoundly a sense of spiritual loss. The loss, in a way, of an old order of things, of a society that was genteel. The society of gentlemen and ladies that people would look back on with a glow of nostalgia around those pre-war days: the Edwardian Era, the Victorian Era. That era of gentlemen and their servants, so person on the left dressed in his Edwardian outfit with top hat now replaced by a little bit of the new man wearing clothes that we would find more recognizable today. That's by the way, the author F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the great 1920s chroniclers of the sense of what was lost. But also lost is a sense of confidence. The 19th century had been that great age of discovery. They felt like they were figuring a lot of things out. Confidence in what? Confidence in progress, that the world had been just driving forward into new and higher things. Well maybe we were driving forward to new things, but maybe they weren't higher. So there was a sense of loss of confidence in progress, but also loss in confidence that people were sure they knew what was right and what was right for other people. In politics. Even in religion. So for instance, one of the great social movements in Britain, France, America in the late 1800s, early 1900s is the mission movement. Bringing Christian faith to the heathen. Bringing light to areas of spiritual darkness. It can seem odd to us to even use phrases like that now. But that's something that happened. And it's something that's lost in a sense. Here's a picture, for instance, of an American mission running a school in China. This picture was taken in 1900. If you look in the very back of the photograph you see that American woman helping to run the school with all of her students. You have to have a certain sense of confidence in your beliefs and in the importance of bringing those beliefs to others that would get an American woman, maybe from Kansas, to think: I'm going to go out into China. I'm going to start a school there. because I think I can bring them something helpful. Education. I'm going to start a hospital, I'm going to start a church to preach the gospel. And we can make fun, and people at the time did make fun of how patronizing it all seemed. How often hypocritical, how blind many of the missionaries were to the local ways that they were trying to overthrow or upset. And there was some significant reactions to that, including in China in 1900, as we learned about it in a previous discussion. But it is also worth just also noting what was lost when the zealous belief that you had something to say, something to preach, diminishes. Another thing that's lost along with some uncertainty about the inexorable march of progress is faith almost in rationality itself. The results of the war seemed so crazily disproportionate to anyone's open purposes that it caused people to doubt almost reason itself. The search for the real forces beneath the surface could, for example, take you more in the direction of Marxism, which would argue that all that rhetoric is just a disguise for the real clash of forces, the objective conditions lying beneath. In fact, a whole school of philosophy, call it critical theory, will rise up, partly inspired by Marxism but partly too on a general sense that beneath the veneer of what we say are rationale purposes we're hiding deeper subjective constructs of the way we really want to world to be, that we express in our seeming vocabulary of rationality. If you want to look even harder for what lies beneath the surface, you'd go past the conscious self altogether and into the subconscious. And this period we're looking at, the 19-teens, 1920s, are the great rise of interest in the subconscious. The great era of popularization of works of men like Sigmund Freud, here on the left, or Carl Jung, here on the right. The rise of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis, attention to subconscious motives and drives. One of the interesting things about Architecture, and the way architecture develops in the 1920s, is its almost attempting to reassert a new faith in rationality. Lets just take a look, for example, at one of the great symbols of modern architecture. This is Walter Gropius, on the left, and on the right is his famous Bauhaus architecture. To our eyes today this looks like a pretty commonplace sort of modern building. It didn't look so commonplace to people in the 1920s. Well, what's going on here? It's unadorned, no curlicues, straight lines, functional, natural, rational. The building has a purpose. It's constructed to fit this purpose. And it's a clean, pure expression of that purpose, without all the veneer on top of it. Understand that and you get at a lot of this whole spirit of this architectural movement, which has influenced so much of what we see all around us today. Another really interesting expression of looking beyond a normal rationality in art or philosophy is Futurism. You'll remember, in another presentation, I used Henry Adams, and I talked a lot about Adams's focus on forces. The forces of magnetic attraction represented by faith and things like the Virgin, as opposed to the modern forces that seemed to him to be forces that were moving out of control, the forces of the dynamo, forces of anarchy and disintegration. What Futurism represented and its main sources of philosophy and literature were in Italy in the early 1900s, is actually a celebration of the force itself, a celebration of dynamism. Take a look, for example of the famous sculpture by the Italian, Umberto Boccioni. The sculpture is from 1913, the sculpture was entitled: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. He's trying to capture in an abstract sculpture pure, driving motion, muscle power itself, the essence of it. By the way, the Futurists translated a lot of their celebration of dynamism into the desire for the nation to express that force. So they were strong nationalists. The Futurists were big supporters, for instance, of Italy's entry into World War I. Sculptor Boccioni, who executed this work of art, joined the Italian army. He was killed in a training accident in 1916. It's interesting to notice, then, the relationship between Futurism and fascism. Don't think of fascism as a reactionary doctrine. The fascists thought of themselves as extremely modern. Study, for instance, the words of Benito Mussolini who helped define what fascism meant. Fascism, he wrote, desires an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man virilely conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle, considering that it behooves man to conquer for himself that life truly worthy of him, creating first of all in himself the instrument in order to construct it. What does he mean by this kind of struggle? He means the struggle through the identification with the State. Against individualism, the Fascist conception is for the State. And it is for the individual, in so far as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in his historical existence. It is opposed to classical Liberalism, which arose from the necessity of reacting against absolutism, monarchies for example. And which brought its historical purpose to an end when the State was transformed into the conscience and will of the people. By the way, Mussolini's argument is not that the nation created the state, but that the state now recreates the nation in its desired image, through the will and the purposes of the people who identify with the state. Remolding the world. Liberalism denied the State in the interests of the particular individual. Fascism reaffirms the state as the true reality of the individual. Therefore, he goes on, for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has Value, outside the State. In this sense fascism is totalitarian. In the fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values interprets, develops, and gives strength to the whole life of the people. You can get a sense of Mussolini's ideas carried forward into the art of a Futurist like Gerardo Dottori. This is an image of Mussolini. You can see the, how the airplanes, machines, their power, all blend into the image of Italy's leader. The symbol of national force. And Mussolini picks up his own interpretation of the age of uncertainty, going on to argue that: Now liberalism. Heï¿½s writing in the 1920s, is about to close the doors of its deserted temples because the peoples feel that it's agnosticism in economics, it's indifferentism in politics and in morals, would lead, as they have led he states, to certain ruin. Remarking on the aftermath of World War I. In this way, one can understand why all the political experiences of the contemporary world are anti-liberal. Well, to offer the one other side of the experience of the contemporary world, let's look at that emblem of materialism that Mussolini so detested, the global America. You remember we talked about the rise of a global Europe in the 1700s and into the 1800s? The rise of the global America in the 20th century, which is really becoming evident in the aftermath of World War I, in the 1920s and beyond, is not because America had become the supreme military power of the world. Actually, right after the war was over, America mostly scrapped its army. It kept a substantial navy. But America was not a supreme military power in the world. It was not even wielding its diplomatic influence in every conflict, though it was much more significant. then it had been. The real influence of the global America actually came from the American economy, American finance, and above all, American culture. It becomes the representative for a new way of living. We might deride that way of living as the rise of consumerism, of mass market advertising, of seducing people to buy a lot of things they don't need. But America seemed to represent, above all, the production of an abundance of household goods, of the material well-being of ordinary people, supplied through a free market. So, for instance, here's a page from a Sears Roebuck catalog, giving people access to household goods by mail. And if you look at the kind of goods they're advertising here, you can see they're pretty mundane things. Here's a way to improve your sewing machine. If your home is hot in the summertime, Sears is helping you buy larger electric fans, even a kind that will oscillate. Or if you're cold in the wintertime, here's an electric radiator. America too was the emblem of that great 20th century technology that would so transform the physical face of modern life: cars. Highways, gas stations, drive-in movie theaters. The Americans were the world's premiere producer of affordable automobiles. Here's an example of the smile-car sedan. And, of course, people are hearing more about these goods, not only through newspapers and magazines, but also through the new marvel of broadcast radio. The telegraph had been supplanted by a wireless, a Marconi set, in which people could transport signals without wires, using the electromagnetic spectrum. That had been developed in the late 1800s. What arises after World War I is broadcast radio, in which radio signals can simply be sent out to millions, tens of millions of listeners. For instance, this illustration is one of the earliest kinds of broadcast radio, in which people are listening in on their own headsets to what's being sent out over the airwaves. Very quickly, this will be supplanted by a set-top box in which people will just simply sit by their radio, listening to what's coming out of the speakers. It's just worth kind of pausing for a moment and thinking about the impact of radio. Because for all the globalize world people lived in the 1920s, communities still felt really local, most of the interactions you had in your daily life were just with local people. With radio, for the first time, you can sit down in evening and just listen to people talking at you from thousands of miles away, in real time. [LAUGH] In a way like I can talk to you now. And another supreme example of American cultural impact is through the movies. The Americans aren't the only ones to make movies; it's not just Hollywood. But Hollywood is a premier producer of movies for common people everywhere, movies with universal appeal, with stars like the British vaudevillian, Charlie Chaplin in silent movies that could be understood anywhere. Again, the creation of a global culture. A universal culture. Let's talk some more about the ways society really changes in the fundamental relations of men and women, next time. See you then.