Friedman on the "Modern/Modernity/Modernism”

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism.” Modernism/Modernity, vol. 8., no. 3, 2001, pp. 493-513.

In “Definitional Excursions: The Meanings of Modern/Modernity/Modernism,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that the term “modern” has multiple and conflicting meanings. Friedman also argues that by studying how these meanings serve power, scholars can “loosen fixed loyalties to partial meanings (499).

Friedman starts by using brief narratives to show how students experience the terms “modern” and “postmodern” in similar ways. Both terms are described as “the antidote to the poison of tradition, obligation,” a similarity that suggests the words’ meanings are not opposed, but rather are similar (493-494).

Friedman then moves away from comparing modernism with postmodernism, and uses parataxis to juxtapose opposing definitions of modernism, suggesting that the concept resists definition (495-497).  Friedman proposed that unclear meaning allows for further discussion about meaning, perpetuating the conversation.  Using terms like “fertile” and “spawned” to describe the “production of meaning,” Friedman indirectly suggests that “modernism” is a living, changing set of concepts (497).

Friedman writes, "Social theorists, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists tend to follow the lead of historians of Europe, who typically periodize their field into the subfields of classical, medieval, early modern, and modern, thus defining modern as the initial break with medieval institutions and outlooks that evolved over time" (500). On the other hand, she notes, in the humanities, "modern" refers to industrialization through the early twentieth century (495).

Friedman takes a grammatical approach and a political approach to support her claim that definitions of “modern” change across groups and across time. Friedman uses grammar as a framework to compare how the term is used differently in social sciences and in the humanities, supporting her argument that there is not one single definition (500-501). Friedman then looks at the term through a political and cultural lens to explain that the idea of “modernism” uses binaries and the idea of difference, which necessarily excludes people, especially non-Western peoples (507).

Friedman ends the article by noting that, though the definitions oppose each other, they create a system of definitions that work together “symbiotically” (510).


Katie Ancheta