Modernism and Colonialism

Modernism asks us each to take our own lives in both hands, to accept responsibility, to make change in the world. I believe that initially it was understood that if you shed tradition and became modern, the changes you would make in the world would be for the better. While some wonderful things have come out of that, there have been problems, too. Modernism and colonialism have been a particularly toxic mix.

Modernist Rails

Modernism was a driving force behind industrialization. It was also a largely Western, even European, set of ideas and ideals. It fed the age of European expansion, exploration and empire-building.

Photo of a steam engine's driving wheels
Steel Wheels/Modernism

The steam train is a perfect icon for modernism. A new machine, made for transporting new goods across new lands. And new ideas and. of course, troops. Those of us who descend from colonists may see the train as a great thing, a thing that tied Canada together – and really, it is one of our biggest national stories. But those of us who descended from First Nations may see it otherwise, as a machine bringing many unwelcome changes, such as loss of land and identity.

Photo of a steam engine's driving wheels
Driving Wheels/Modernism

The story was the same in other areas where colonial powers spread track and rode trains to conquer lands.

Road to Recovery?

There is still a long way to go for these peoples to recover from the social disruption, loss of land and identity, loss of so many lives. In Canada we have barely begun to spell out the problem, to listen instead of tell, and we’re ahead of most of the so-called post-colonial world.

One last image: The front end of this old steam engine, its smokebox, empty as colonialism.

Photo of a steam engine's smokebox, under repair
Smokebox/Modernism

Newer problems

A whole other set of things has gone wrong more recently with the basic idea of modernism, that you can discard tradition and make your own life, make changes in the world. It seems to me that we have lost the part about having a responsibility to make society better. It seems now as if many people are self-isolating, plugging their ears with music, tuning out news, letting democracy be stolen. Being, in short, completely narcissistic. The “make your own life” part, but without the “make society better” part. Here’s a piece made on that idea, called “I heard no news today, oh boy…”. It’s a multimedia piece, with an iPod in the middle, behind a wall.

I heard no news today, oh boy!
I heard no news today, oh boy!

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