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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 1-16
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The History of a Word
"Modern" is a term of opposition. From its first use by a sixth-century governor in northern Italy to its most recent uses, "modern" is an antagonistic category. It is meant to divide and separate, to distinguish one thing from something else.
"Modern" divides time. It separates moments like a butcher's cleaver into separate pieces. There is a "before" and an "after." But unlike the object under the butcher's knife, "modern" cleaves an invisible object in a very distinctive way. "Modern" divvies up moments in the human experience of time.
For most of us time is divided according to the rhythms of the natural calendar. Day and night are readily apparent and distinguishable rhythms of time, each clearly distinguished from the other except during that exquisite moment of liminality called twilight or dawn. For many people time is equally sharply defined by seasons, with their abrupt changes in the color [End Page 1] and shape of the landscape around them. Bright green foliage turns bright red or orange and then disappears, leaving only the skeletal remains behind. And in another season, the skeletons become shiny, icebound reflectors of tiny rainbow prisms. For others, the change of seasons marks a transformation in the terrain itself. The transition from dry to rainy season sharply marks the passage of time. Changes in foliage are less dramatic, but the changes in the texture of the ground are more striking. Where roads once crossed a field or a hill, there is only mud. Steep hills once easily hiked become instantly inaccessible. And in the valleys and hillsides danger lurks in the sudden rush of water, the dramatic flash when a culvert becomes a churning brown stream sweeping everything in its path.
Day, night, the passage of the seasons, and all the other divisions of time with which we are familiar are driven by weather and the stars. Even the less immediately visible effects of time—our ideas of years and months—are driven by the stars. While we may see a tree or a child growing steadily, we do measure their progress by the sun and the moon. Our months are guesses about the moon circling the earth, and our year, a close estimate of the time that the earth orbits the sun.
Since all of our everyday experiences of time are organized by weather and the stars, the word "modern" is unusual, for it does not reflect a passage of the sun or the moon, a spin of the earth on its axis, or indeed any other phenomenon of our natural world. "Modern" does not mean different in the sense of weather or seasons, or even years, but something inexpressibly different. Instead of responding to visible alterations in external objects, "modern" reflects outward an internal response to transformation. "Modern" speaks of human perception of changes. In particular it labels an awareness of the divide between present and the past.
This human experience of a divide remains difficult to articulate. There are a thousand tiny details that make up the mundane experience of here and now. We experience the present in a burst of simultaneous thoughts, expressions, feelings, attitudes that we can analytically distill but rarely with great ease at the moment.
Most of the word's users over time have not defined "modern" in any systematic sense. Rather, they have used it to convey the inchoate and [End Page 2] unformed sense of the present, the vague awareness that things are not as they once were. This has been true of the word from its first known use in what is sometimes called barbarian Latin.
At the start of the sixth century in northern Italy, the political union called the Roman Empire still existed, but it did not exactly run as it had in the past. Inhabitants of the central peninsular city no longer dominated the north. Rather, a diverse group of Germanic invaders separately ruled the parts of what had...