The Shock, The Fist, and The Flesh of Modernity

The Shock of Modernity

A series of three videos by Then and Now on modernity and how it exerts power over us. Each is about 20mins.

by Then & Now

“What is modernity? The end of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented upheaval. Factories sprouted in masses, railways were laid at great length, urbanisation sprawled and beckoned, and masses organised capitalistically and politically.

All of this happened at dizzying speed. This was the moment the modern world crashed together and dragged people from the fields to the factory floor.

Within a generation, the entire consciousness of life had changed.

In this video, I look at how consciousness was affected by that change. I look at industrialisation, the move from the country to the city, neurasthenia, Kierkegaard and the concept of anxiety, Nietzche, Darwin and the death of God. I also look at the birth of the railway, Dickens, and sensation novels.

People were nervous, literally – a new diagnosis became popular amongst America’s elites: neurasthenia. It was a contemporary form of stress, characterised by symptoms like fatigue, headache, and irritability. Neurasthenia, according to physician Charles Beard, was the result of a depletion of nervous energy, but was becoming more common as a reaction to the anxieties of the modern world and of the demands of American exceptionalism. Neurasthenia was almost a fashion. Adverts appeared selling ‘nerve tonics’, self help books dominated the shelves, even breakfast cereals claimed to be able to cure ‘americanitus’. “

The Fist of Modernity

By Then & Now”

“The foundations of modern policing are based not on justice, but on the punishing of poverty, the imposition of the status quo, the disciplining of the public, the constriction of liberty, and justified as the protection against an ugly, sinful, idle, greedy, and organised criminal class that has no basis in reality.

In this video I look at the birth of the modern police force in Britain, what the historian V.A.C Gatrell calls ‘the policeman state.’

The nineteenth century was a period of great transformation. Urbanization, industrialization, technologicalization , were all, at the heart, a change in the routines of humans. Modernity, at its simples t, was about efficiency, speed, production, of the maximizing of health, wealth and profit.

It was about scientifically searching for those rules, those methods, those laws, that would bring about the ideal human order.

The first modern, standardized police forced – the Metropolitan Police – was created in 1829, and continued to expand across the century, increasing from around 20,000 in 1860 to 54,000 in 1911.

The preventative police were to be visible, wear uniforms, be of good physique, intelligence, and character – ‘domestic missionaries’ as historian Robert Storch called them.

There was protest:

The Gazette called it ‘a base attempt upon the liberty of the subject and the privilege of local government’ and that the purpose of the police state was to ‘to drill, discipline and dragoon us all into virtue’

A parliament inquiry concluded that ‘such a system would of necessity be odious and repulsive, and one which no government would be able to carry into execution …the very proposal would be rejected with abhorrence’

And that ‘It is difficult to reconcile an effective system of police, with that perfect freedom of action and exemption from interference, which are the great privileges and blessings of society in this country; and your Committee think that the forfeiture or curtailment of such advantages would be too great a sacrifice for improvements in police’.

In 1867 the commentator Walter Bagehot wrote that:

‘The natural impulse of the English people is to resist authority. The introduction of effectual policemen was not liked; I know people, old people I admit, who to this day consider them an infringement of freedom. If the original policeman had been started with the present helmets, the result might have been dubious; there might have been a cry of military tyranny, and the inbred insubordination of the English people might have prevailed over the very modern love of perfect peace and order.’

Despite all of this, the fist of modernity raised its clenched rational plan, and swung.”

The Flesh of Modernity

By Then & Now

“Through a history of public health, I look at how early 19th-century public health interventions were a product of a modern line of thought that has a dark side, leading to discrimination, authoritarianism, eugenics, and the Nazis.

What does it mean for a body – flesh and bones – to be politicized? For the rhythm of heartbeats, the density of muscles, and the flow of the arteries to be molded and shaped by power?

What’s the best way to rank citizens on a scale? To make the child’s body still, obedient, but strong?

How far can we go in engineering modern utopian bodies? Is it possible to forge the iron of the national body through recommendations or if not, by force?

Throughout the 19th century, bodies emigrated in droves from the country to the city. Their stomachs were hungry, for food, for work. They crowded flesh on flesh into slums. “Little Ireland” in Manchester had two toilets between 250 people; 5 or more often slept in one bed. Cesspools and dunghills were everywhere. 

At the same time, factory owners needed these bodies to be productive, energetic, malleable.

We take a look at the Philosophical Radicals, who were inspired by Jeremy Bentham, Edwin Chadwick, Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and enforced sterilization. The 1846 Nuisance Removal Acts, Robert Bayden-Powel and his concerns about national degeneration that led to the development of the Scouts, productivity during the First World War, and the development of eugenicist thought and societies.”

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