Saturday, March 19, 2011
An Exercise in Modern Usage
All the fuss these days about the new Modernist Cuisine volumes is an invitation to ponder that term "modern" in each of its variants (-ist and -ism and -ernity etc.) and with all of the familiar appendages (anti-, post-, pre, and prae- etc.). Let us review: Modern is clean and lean and clear except when it's messy, thick and dense. Modern is slow and low and empty except when it's swift, sky-scraping and full. Modern is both high tech, knowingly low tech, usually appropriate tech, but sometimes extravagantly tech. Modern is fresh and local except when it's well-preserved and long-traveled, often international. Modern is both futurist and primitive, forward-looking and nostalgic, cold as ice and warm as a pup. Modern is a walk in the wood and a ride in a jet-pack. Modern is atomic and anti-atomic. Modern is dissonance and noise except when it's the same time consonant and concord. Modern is specific except when it's generic, expertly handcrafted except when it's mass-manufactured, one-of-a-kind except when it's infinitely reproducible. Modern is slick, glossy black & white, but also fuzzy-edged, matte and polychromatic. Modern is rough and complex, except when elegantly simple. Modern is ambiguous and ironic, except when it's straightforward and earnest. Modern is knowing when one is acting (or eating) archaic. Modern is all ornament, except when it's plain as can be. Modern is going to extremes as well as focusing on the medium and mediocre. Modern is the 20th century except when it's now the 21st. Modern is now, except when it's that modern back then or this modern up ahead. Post-modern is not modern except when it happens to be modern. Modern is comic except when it's not. And so on (except, of course, when modern is non-sequitor.) With so much contradiction, is the term at all useful? (Have you ever noticed that when you write a word — like "modern" in this item — often enough, it begins to appear strange, misspelled, unfamiliar, even foreign?) Actually, I think modern can be useful, if one is prepared to live with the contradiction, to see it as a term that itself thrives within fields of contention and, ultimately, a term whose value or utility ultimately dependent more on local context and application than universal applicability. And, unless you're prepared to back up your use of the term with sufficient context, be prepared for it to signify nothing at all. Which, in itself, is just about as modern as you can get.