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A recent exhibition at the British Museum on Ice Age Art, was subtitled “Arrival of the Modern Mind.” I was surprised at “modern” referring to a period some 40,000 years ago.


In the every day sense modern can mean contemporary, up to date, with an outlook to the future, but then from a postmodern perspective, modern becomes nostalgic and outmoded.


Adding to confusion, paleoanthropology uses “modern” to describe all Homo sapiens as distinct from other hominids. Modern behavior is defined by more sophisticated technology like composite tools and symbolic practices such as using ochre, ornamental beads and intentional mark making.


It was previously thought symbolic representation emerged suddenly, in the Upper Paleolithic caves of Europe around 40,000 thousand years ago but in 1991 discoveries were made at coastal caves in South Africa, of ochre stones with intentional engravings dating to 75,000 years ago. Evidence of ground ochre goes back even further to around 120,000 years ago. “Modern” behavior is moving much further back.


Then there is Modernization, referring to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, marking a dramatic development in human technology. Modernism as a cultural movement was both forward and backward looking. The promise of future utopian ideals were imagined. At the same time, critical reaction to the horrors of industrialization were expressed in a yearning for a purer, more innocent past.


We still define ourselves now in relation to “modern” with prefixes like post-modern alter-modern and trans-modern. It seems we are unable to think of our identity or future beyond its ambit.


So “modern” has developed an enormous elastic capacity, stretching backwards and forwards in our attempt to position ourselves within the temporal.


Any clear linear meaning has lost coherence and we are wandering, disorientated in time.

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