Mataeriel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict

By John Schofield; William Gray Johnson et al. | Go to book overview

26

The hammering of society: non-correspondence and modernity

ROLAND FLETCHER

Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

(W.H. Auden, The Shield of Achilles)


COLLIDING WITH MATERIALITY: THE EXPERIENCE OF TWO CENTURIES

In the nineteenth century the Western world began to experience the onslaught of materiality as industrialization smashed into the conservative social world of European daily life. That shock wave was exported to the rest of the world and now tears at the social fabric of every society. During the Industrial Revolution and the associated immense urban transformation, severe non-correspondence began between the material component of social life and the sociality of verbal meaning and human action. An appalling dissonance developed between materiality and sociality, most brutally expressed in the consequences of mechanized warfare and industrialized killing.

Humanity has been taught the sharp lesson that the material is not merely our servant, that it is not merely an epiphenomenon consequent on human intent and action that serves human progress, but also is a factor in its own right whose inertia and energy threatens our daily life. In nineteenth-century Europe the rapidly growing cities created appalling, unhealthy environments for millions of people, a process that now impacts to varying degrees on every urban society. In the twentieth century the West decisively learned that technological innovation was not progressive. Industrial expertise and technology were applied to killing human beings. The debris of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka was left behind, trapping our rational minds in grief, denial and an agony of unease. The development of nuclear weapons ended the assurance that innovation would serve humanity. Instead, we created a tool that threatens our biological existence. The ambivalence and contradictions of the first primitive nuclear weapons in 1945 are well expressed in the conflicts over the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

-303-

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