Late Modernity

anthony giddens

Late modernity (or liquid modernity) is a term that has been used to describe the condition or state of some highly developed present day societies. It regards their state as a continuation or development of modernity, rather than as a distinct new state, post-modernity.

‘Late modernity is defined by complex, global capitalist economies and a shift from state support and welfare to the privatization of services…a process fuelled by the information revolution, the capacity to move capital and information around the world instantaneously.’ Social theorists, ‘criticize adherents of postmodernity that presume the ending of the modernization process and the dawning of a new era. Contemporary modernity, they argue, rather involves a continuation or even a radicalization of the modernization process.’

On technological and social changes since the 1960s, the concept of late modernity proposes that contemporary societies are a clear continuation of modern institutional transitions and cultural developments. Such authors talk about a reflexive modernization process: ‘social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character.’ Modernity now tends to be self-referring, instead of being defined largely in opposition to traditionalism, as with classical modernity.

British sociologist Anthony Giddens does not dispute that important changes have occurred since ‘high’ modernity, but he argues that we have not truly abandoned modernity. Rather, the modernity of contemporary society is a developed, radicalized, ‘late’ modernity – but still modernity, not postmodernity. In such a perspective, ‘so-called postmodernism turns out to be a technological hyper-intensification of modernism…continued enmeshment in modernism.’

The subject is constructed in late modernity against the backdrop of a ‘world of fragmented and incommensurate identities and personae’ – something fully commensurate with the ‘rise of ‘life-style” cultures…’ In buying one part of the system, one buys (into) the sign system as a whole…into a lifestyle.’ The framing matrix of the late modern personality is the way ‘uncertainty, fragmentation, and ambiguity issue from the disembedded social relations of high (or post-) modernity’, impinging upon ‘the self-reflexive consciousness of the newly emergent multiple self’.’ Arguably at least, ‘young women have been produced as ideal subjects of late modernity through a blending of a kind of individualized feminism with neoliberalism.’

Zygmunt Bauman who introduced the idea of liquid modernity wrote that its characteristics are the privatization of ambivalence and increasing feelings of uncertainty. It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where one can shift from one social position to another, in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the liquid modern man, as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes even more (such as political or sexual orientation), (self-)excluded from the traditional networks of support. Bauman stressed ‘the profound change which the advent of ‘fluid modernism’ has brought to the human condition…the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders.’ The globalized social world takes on ‘the pattern of a caravan site. The place is open to everyone with his or her own caravan and enough money to pay the rent.’ The result is a normative mindset dominated by ‘the new pieties…that it is both more truthful and better not to know who you are, that it is preferable to slip, shift, or float than to know, stop, or stay’; a mindset with ‘its characteristic conditions of perpetual motion as a mode of being,’ peopled by a subject ‘imprisoned, as it were, in an existential freedom of his own making.’

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