It is often easiest to imagine what is meant by 'modernity' through envisioning the planning and non-planning of urban space. Projections of the future are laid down as grids of streets or parks, which then rapidly become out-moded and then historic, posing the question of whether to preserve them, merely tolerate them or destroy them to make way for a new wave of modernity. The city can then be read in terms of the layers of different futures that have been laid down in the past, some merely peeking out above others, others boldly preserved as our 'heritage', and others lost altogether. Nowhere is this process better described than in Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.
Visiting the unspeakably ghastly O2 Arena for the first time on Friday to watch Leonard Cohen, I was struck not only by the intense sadness of this element of modernity, but also by two other things. That it also afflicts the way in which pop culture drapes layers of 'progress' upon previous layers, leaving people desperately scraping away at the new ones in search of the older ones that are becoming obscured. And that Blairism had its own particular version of this time-worn modernising dance.
We desire Cohen because he comes from another age. To still be playing today, and playing so well aged 79, means he must be some sort of time-traveller. To witness him stirring gravely over his microphone, surrounded by dole-faced artisans on Spanish guitar and fiddle, must be a more high-tech version of putting Lawrence Olivier on stage as a hologram in the musical Time a few years after his death. Cohen played for nearly four hours on Friday night, seemingly out of some out-moded sense of decency or maybe because he'd applied the labour theory of value to justify ticket prices that he lacked any control over. His wit, intensity and relentlessness, constant generosity to his band and the audience, became spectacles in their own right, almost making sense of the strange aircraft hangar in which they were placed. This is the path between corny cabaret act and introverted perversity that Bob Dylan has never been able (or wanted) to master.
As Cohen left the stage, lights flickered around the auditorium (I guess it is technically an auditorium, although when people began clapping the beat in a different corner from where we were sitting, the time-lag meant that they gave the impression of suffering some congregational arhythmia). Those lights spelled a single iconic emptiness: O2. O2. O2. O2. Then, as lights began to rise above us, a second band of digital displays lit up: Barclays wishes you a safe journey home. Virgin looks after your family. Vodafone keeps you connected. Global purveyors of talk, money, risk calculus and other liquid goods place a comforting arm around you.
Just as cricket grounds now come flooded with men in flourescent jackets, preventing people from standing where there is 'no standing', from drinking beer where there is 'no drinking' or from using exits which are 'no exit', the post-1990s music venue is a vast crowd- and customer-handling machine. Whenever the proportions and technologies of the O2 loomed into view, I kept thinking: this is where successful 'indie' bands now play. What used to be called a gig, since reinvented by mobile phone companies as a derivative of ring-tones called 'live music' (as I discussed some years back) has been resolutely modernised. From my seat high up in the O2 dome, I noticed there is a new measure of value or critical judgement at work in performance spaces today: how many small blue lights are on in the audience in front, indicators that the moment has earned digital preservation above mere enjoyment. When it becomes so technically easy to discover the next Kings of Leon, and to purchase e-tickets, the flipside of such uber-liquidity is the need for industrial-scale processing plants, to ferry customers in and out of the band's presence. No wonder hipsters prefer listening to two mates and a ukelele.
Blairite infrastructure has a common shabby-chic feel to it, both monstrously expensive and cheap at the same time. Think the new Wembley stadium. Think PFI hospitals. It's a public sphere subjected to cost-benefit analysis (and subsequent security audit), with private surpluses creamed off at a state-guaranteed 10%. What distinguished New Labour was a refusal to abandon certain pre-Thatcher 'values' or 'goals', but a complete agnosticism regarding the means that might deliver them or the types of allies required to deliver on them. The result was that space was indeed secured for what was essentially valued - delivery, public space, live music - but that this value became increasingly over-burdened by the vast bulk of communications and financial garb that packaged it up, mediated and administered it. Men make their own history, but not under conditions of their own choosing. And I got to watch Leonard Cohen, but not remotely under conditions of my own choosing.
The Blairite version of 'modernisation', which became increasingly (and I think inaccurately) mocked as mere 'marketisation' was a process of endlessly sacrificing integrity of means, in a desperate bid to maintain ends or outcomes. To be a modernist under such conditions, that is, to seize modernity enthusiastically, necessarily requires a paradoxical embrace of the past, for that is where value is derived from. Hence, the 'modernisation' of the NHS is defended with appeals to Nye Bevan's original vision, and Vodafone et al's celebration of 'live music' is increasingly dependent on dead bands from the 1990s reforming and near-dead individuals from the 1960s staggering on.
Eventually, as Max Weber foresaw, modernity's rationalisation may reach a point where human goals and intrinsic values start to get crowded out all together. Resistance to this takes many forms. Circa 1918, Weber was concerned by the dangerous promises of prophets and gurus. Today, nostalgia grows stronger as the economic efficiency of the entertainment industries grows more extreme, because it grows more extreme. Strange to think that the weightless, po-mo 1990s are now viewed as fertile historical territory, to be mined, authenticated, re-formed and put on the Barclays stage in Hyde Park once a summer. The question that this modernity always confronts is how far can the juggernaut of delivery expand, before the purpose of an event becomes inverted altogether. The best thing you could say about Cohen on Friday night was that, for a while, it didn't matter that we were sitting in the O2 Arena. This isn't always the case; the ship can capsize, as BT's performance in Hyde Park (sponsored by Blur and New Order) last summer clearly demonstrated.
Postmodernism involved planting lurid and incoherent classical styles in defiant opposition to the futuristic visions of the twentieth century. It transpires that, after postmodernism, comes an untheorised, profit-maximising nostalgia, in which the past becomes an anaesthetic against the machinery of the present. If you're very smart, you deliver both the anaesthetic and the machinery via a single vehicle, as Mumford & Inc have noticed, looking to the past and the future simultaneously. Otherwise, we cling to fragments of the past, as new pasts get chucked on top of it, from newer, seemingly worst modernities. In Walter Benjamin's words:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
The faster the rubble piles up, the more desperately we scrabble to find something of value underneath it, and - like earthquake rescue teams - the more exuberant we feel when we emerge from it with something still vaguely living.