Wednesday, February 7, 2007

GRE Response: Tradition and Modernity

GREs are imminent, and so I have been busy trying to answer deep questions in forty-five minute stretches. Below is an attempt to respond intelligently to the statement: "Tradition and modernization are incompatible. One must choose between them.” My brief essay is the tangle of metaphors and big words, of rough-edged similes and bloated generalisations, that I understand to be the proper form of response to the Issue Question. I have posted the following essay partly because I quite like it, and partly because I need something to put in my “Miscellany” section.

In the present day, perhaps more than in any other era, people are confronted with an immensely fast-moving vision of society. Just as computers double in speed every 18 months, so the length of our historical vision seems to shrink at much the same pace; and the extent of modernisation, as well as its speed, sometimes gives the appearance that it is impossible to avoid without making a great effort to remove oneself completely from the onward surge of technology, fashion, advertising, urbanisation. On the whole, however, this appearance is illusory. The important choices in the present day are not between tradition and modernization but between alternatives that transcend this dichotomy, and require, perhaps, a mixing of those seemingly opposed influences.

As mentioned, in a number of areas of contemporary life there are tensions between modern and traditional forms of living. In the area of communications, for example, the internet and cellphones seem to have supplanted more traditional forms of verbal interaction: and one of the most vivid symbols of the divide between old and new is the rise of the language of texting, which seems to shut off an entire older generation from an understanding of that most basic feature of a person’s social being, their speech. By comparison, the ponderous eloquence and precise diction of, say, a History text, seems ancient and distant.

A closer look at the situation, however, reveals that the divide is not so much a rift as a small depression in the social landscape, and one that is criss-crossed both by tracks and bridges, and by rifts that head in quite different directions. This is hinted at by the example used above: any History student is likely to have an equal aptitude for reading 19th Century prose as for composing text messages in the truncated, special-purpose, modern-day idiom.

In order to see this more clearly, it is worth distinguishing between, and briefly discussing, two different but related ways in which tradition and modernisation. [sic] Firstly, there are a large number of concepts, ideas, activities and questions that do not undergo any essential change over time. The form in which they are manifested might change markedly, even violently, and it is this kind of change that causes us to shudder with fears of rift and apocalypse; but this external change is to the real thing as the change in the color of our paper is to the mathematical verities that are written upon it. Hence Plato wrote on sheets of Papyrus [did he?!], and Daniel Dennet [forgive me: it was the first name that came to mind] writes on a computer, but they address the same questions, have the same goals, and use the same methods. The language of love, too, is unaffected by the changes to the social substrate upon which it is written. Lust, infatuation, pleasure, affection, betrayal: these may have new plots, but they are ancient themes. To be sure, there is a certain amount of necessity involved in choosing between the modern story and the ancient story, but that choice is not the important one.

The second form of compatibility can be located in the complementary relations that exist between the past and the present versions of various activities. Present-day discoveries are the children of early-modern insights (in Physics, for example); present day conflicts can only be fully understood in terms of their historical development; modern cities are the outgrowths from old towns. We may be forced to choose the modern world, but in doing so we also choose the past.

For these two reasons, the divide between tradition and modernisation is not inevitable. To be sure, it is always tempting to ignore those pursuits that have a timeless quality to them, or to ignore the interaction that keeps the past and the present [together]; but human weakness is one timeless feature of modern life that we must try to overcome.


Sumeet Pal Singh said...

Cool essay... The last line of first paragraph is the best I have read so far!!! Thanks for the line... I shall use it for every debate...