On modernity as a concept

In August 2017, the members of HERA research group “East Asian Uses of the European Pasts” discussed an article by Shmuel Eisenstadt, “Multiple modernities,” which was published at the beginning of the 2000s in the journal Daedalus. Some months later, the group kept on discussing the concept of “multiple modernities” and, through it, the concept of modernity itself. Below we reproduce the first part of conversation they had:

PB: Do you think the “multiple modernities” are a suitable conceptual tool for historians? I’m not sure about that. You probably remember Shmuel Eisenstadt’s article on “multiple modernities.” It’s an old text that we discussed a couple of months ago.  Just to remind you its content: Eisenstadt first offers a definition of what “modernity” is: it represents, in his opinion, a historical period in Europe in which humans begin to take their fate in their own hands; then he explains how this Enlightenment conception of modernity went out of Europe and was adopted in many different places, from North America to Asia, from Africa to South America. Since this “modernity”—Eisenstadt claimed—took different shapes as it was “exported” elsewhere, we can no longer say that “modernity” is a European product. We should admit that there are “multiple modernities.”

Eisenstadt’s is not the only version of “multiple modernities;” there have been other ways of understanding this multiplicity. For example, many have claimed that different sprouts of modernity have emerged separately in different regions of the world, independently from one another; they are not the result of European domination (as Eisenstadt assumes), but of the endogenous forces of each place and time. I will not focus onto these different versions. What I would like to object instead is the fact that modernity has been defined: that is, that it has been taken as a set of more or less recognizable features, as the ideal type of a “thing” which can be “exported” or can “grow” in different soils. This endeavor to get a definition of modernity is in my opinion the major problem of the “multiple modernities” thesis – I mean when we use it an analytical category. My objection is the following. If modernity is defined and set apart from other, “non-modern” phenomena, then our modern world consists of both “modern” and “non-modern” people. When we observe some Enlightenment patterns, then we find “modernity”; when we don’t, we find “tradition”. In other words, the modern period contains both “modern” and “non-modern” people. How can that be? I would not deny that new historical dynamics have emerged after the 15th century and that an increasing interconnection between different regions of the world has changed our social, political, and intellectual map. But that’s precisely the point: most of the ideas and practices that we consider “traditional” have been reshaped by the dynamics of the present we live in, and they are as “modern” as those post-Renaissance or post-Enlightenment phenomena we more readily qualify as such. Shouldn’t we just stop defining the “modern” and stick to the original meaning of this word: “in the present”? What do you think?


DM: Before we take on the multiple modernities, we might want to give some account of modernity itself. “Modernity” is so obviously powerful a container for temporality; it so obviously imposes order of significance on historical time: why leave it out? Has not modernity, in effect, become the chronotype that informs how most people endow passage of time with practical and conceptual significance? How can we afford to not talk about it?


By way of response, I suppose one could say that modernity has basically hijacked all contemporary perceptions of historical time. It is through the prism of modernity that the ever-present perceptions of a historical “awakening” or “(re)birth” has become the trope of “progress”; that cyclical conceptions of time have been rebranded as the wonderfully omnipresent and ambiguous “tradition” (and its ugly twin “backwardness/stagnation”); while the perception of “decline,” which had characterize many different perceptions of history, has become by default the inability to keep the pace with the inexorably progressive stride of… modernity. From the vantage point of how modernity as a regime of historical temporality actually operates through older containers of time perceptions, we are in a fairly good position to critically observe what is going on. This seems to be a particularly useful vantage point for appreciating how “modernity” enters into debates across the East Asian Sinosphere: at the same time a self-conscious novelty and yet perfectly amenable to being carried by the rehashed local conceptual vocabularies about time, so that ancient terms/phrases like, say, 文明 (wenming, civilization), 革命 (geming, revolution), 改革 (gaige, reform) 復興 (fuxing, rebirth) 因循 (yinxun, stagnation)… become preferred terms of discussing the arrival of the non-optional new age and the doomed futility of resisting it.

KL: It appears to me that the colossal psychological effect the word “modernity” invokes and the weight it has come to carry owe much to the achievements of the postmodernist project—of which Eisenstadt presented a fine example—of historicizing and exceptionalizing modernity. If modernity is by definition something to be overcome, one could only speak about it in the past tense. And in such a postmodernist/poststructuralist frame, whatever traces of modernity that we are grappling with now are the legacy and repercussions of a damage inflicted in the past. I found that PB’s rhetorical question about whether we should not revert the sense of the word modernity back to what is “in the present” persuasively points at this tension. That is, it is a tension between a desire to see modernity as a monolith from the past that can be recognized in history as displaying its categorical features and the present reality that we live through. It is modernity in this function that hijacks all our perceptions of historical time and that Eisenstadt was able to build his argument on. In sum, modernity as is understood now may rather be seen as the creation of those who set out to bring the modern era to an end and not of those who started it.

However, other forms of words that contain “modern” other than “modernity” do not seem to enjoy such an exceptional status. Am I misguided to think that other “modern-“ words (as in “modern and non-modern” or “modernizing constitution”) still retain the sense of being in the present at their core? Could one then maybe leave “modernity” with those who want to go on with the story that such a “modernity” was created for (so the critical force carried by the word may be retained) and start a new story with other forms of the “modern”? This way, for all the shock that they might have had of modernity, Asians who paired modern global senses with old couplings of concepts were as modern as any other contemporaries were.


JC: I’ve just been reading Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity and he proposes just what KL and PB suggest, abandoning the modern as anything other than a historiographical category.  At the same time, this might not tell us very much about how the modern has been used and that seems to be what we are interested in.  In the research project I conduct with LJ, we are finding that while the emblematic moment of transition from empire to nation state is used in many different ways by Chinese historians, one key marker for many is that the west had “modern” empires and therefore imperialism (diguo zhuyi 帝国主义) whereas China did not.  The modern here seems to underpin the use of emblematic moments rather than be a moment in itself.  It seems to me that this might be because recycled/coproduced emblematic moments are detached from periodization and the category ‘modern’ is inherently linked to a periodizing logic.  This is a guess, but I would be interested to know what you have all found in your research.  Do you think, for example, Chinese intellectuals talking about a Renaissance imply a periodizing logic or a set of shared characteristics (e.g. presumably a recovery of old ideas?).


MD: JC, this doesn’t answer your question but to go back to PB’s original post and the following comments–much of this is discussed very lucidly by Fred Cooper in “Colonialism in Question” (2005). Cooper argues that scholars (especially historians) abandon the use of “modernity” as an analytical tool for exactly the kinds of reasons PB points out, and he concludes with advocating “a historical practice sensitive to the different ways people frame the relationship of the past, present, and future …”

So far so good–I reckon we could all agree with that. But I’m not convinced with PB’s suggestion that historians simply revert to using “modern” to mean “in the present”. For a start, when is the present? Surely one of the things we’re arguing in this project is that there are multiple actorly definitions of present, and that perhaps the most interesting definitions come from some kind of entanglement between “East Asian” and “European” ideas of the present.

It seems to me that modern=present may be a nice starting point for understanding actorly terms, but it doesn’t allow any heavy analytical work. I can well see the reluctance to use “modernity” to do this analytical work, but I wonder what we do to indicate that, for example, many people in Japan in the late-19C considered not only that the modern was now, but that the now was something unique in national history. How do we get this sense of the “urgent now”? I can see that we might say “many Japanese intellectuals talked about civilization”, and by “civilization” they meant “modern”, but I think they also meant more than modern—they meant, well, something that we might loosely call modernity. If we use “multiple modernities” as our analytical tool, I don’t think it does justice to the belief that some of these intellectuals had that they were actually on the same path as Europe, if only lagging a bit behind: to them, their endeavours weren’t “multiple” but the “real thing”.


And a final point: if we try to find an analytical term for the “real thing” that isn’t modernity, then I worry that we keep having to translate it for colleagues who don’t work in East Asian history. There’s therefore a strategic question here: if we want our work to be read and taken seriously by historians who are, er, perhaps less sensitive to these questions, then I wonder if it’s smart strategy to add yet another layer of translation to them. Our explanations would then have to go: “some Japanese talked about “bunmei”; they meant something that was urgently present, in contrast to older Sinocentric understandings of “bunmei”; this project of the urgent present might be interpreted as something a bit like “modernity” but more subtle and nuanced.” I’m exaggerating, of course, but I wonder if this is a good argumentative strategy (even if it is—at least when better expressed—a sharper intellectual contribution).


LJ: It is probably also worth mentioning that to some thinkers–particularly those radical iconoclastic voices of the early twentieth century in China, such as Chen Duxiu, and the writers for journals such as New Youth and New Tide, including Mao Zishui–the “modern” was an appropriable object. It was not “already happening” in China, in their view, and that was precisely the problem.  To be modern was to “Ouhua” (Europeanize), a term they used explicitly and repeatedly to describe their project, even as they saw the very project as inherently universal (and thus achievable in China). So potentially we must make analytic sense of the historical phenomena of “modernity” while recognizing that those phenomena are partially constituted by what thinkers of the time thought and said about it.


(This is the end of the first part of the dialogue)

1 thought on “On modernity as a concept

  1. Pingback: On modernity as a concept (second part) | East Asian Uses of the European Past

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