A Bushel? A Flock? A Plural of Modernities

Franz Marc | The Foxes | 1913

1. From History to Modernity

Latin modernus, the root of our word ‘modern,’ was initially used to distinguish Rome’s newfound Christian identity from the pagan and backwards past—a split with history, wholly different from the past, albeit dependent on that past to be differentiated from. It marked the present as a distinct moment—not a continuation of Grand Tradition, but a Here and Now that deserved its own mark. The Here and Now continued to develop throughout the Enlightenment and into the actual “Modern Age,” identified by scholars (Michel Foucault among them) as being from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. The Modern age, 1750 on, conscripted all of humankind into what Jürgen Habermas called “the project of modernity.” The components of Modernity are three distinct, but mutually constitutive, subjects: first, the modern; second, the state of being modern; and third, the process of modernization. Far from any of them being uniquely of European heritage or design, they belong to global history. Put another way, the “core” of modernity is a hodge-podge of influences, with no clear origin for the project as a whole. Even those sections of modernity with an apparently clear lineage are mutable, able to be borrowed and repurposed, reinterpreted, and reused in wholly novel ways by peoples in different contexts. It is the aim of this paper to make problematic the notion of modernity as a singular entity, and of any one region or tradition as having a necessarily special link to what constitutes the modern. In the sections below, I will discuss how the three components mentioned above are of more complex heritage than they may appear, focusing especially on modernity and modernization as they occurred in Europe and around the globe, and how they continue to operate and change into the contemporary age. Modernity does not belong to any singular “tradition” either extant or extinct. One of the greatest delusions of the European conquerers since the Enlightenment, present in a discourse and outlook that persist even today, was the idea that Modernity was Europe’s to distribute throughout the world.

2. Modernity’s Foundation

Modernity, the phenomena and the term, is notoriously difficult to pin down. Dilip Gaonkar described it as having “an iridescent quality,” with a form shifting depending on where one stood to analyze it. Jürgen Habermas considered modernity an extension of Enlightenment ideals, whereas Michel Foucault deconstructed its “regimes of truth” and identified knowledge as a form of power. But however contested and heated the debate around modernity was—and is—in the academic world, the meaning of “modern” was glaringly obvious, even if its precise meaning lay somewhere just beyond articulation. In the aesthetic realm, there were modern fashions, modern styles, tastes, comportments, and pastimes. Modern art, architecture and science molded, reflected, and altered the lived “shape of peoples’ lives” during the twentieth century.

A long tradition exists of describing modernity in terms of a rupture or break from, even a “dissolution of” the past.1 Modernity is tricky to pin down in exacting terms, especially cultural modernity, which tends to be discussed in high-minded philosophical terms such as “communicative rationality.” If we are to understand how Modernity, that is with a capital ‘M,’ is better understood as ‘modernities’ plural, we must first understand what constitutes the “core” of this “modern” phenomena in traditional thinking on the subject. Jürgen Habermas in his essay (originally a speech) “Modernity: An Unfinished Project,” divides cultural modernity into several components, all of which are intractably entangled: 1) truth or empirical reality, we will call this science; 2) normative rightness, something we may identify at least in part as the notion of progress, and call morality; and 3) authenticity or beauty, perhaps most importantly the linking of these into a singular, an aesthetic of “what is authentic is beautiful.”2 If these constitute the core of cultural modernity, surely we must be able to locate each of these pieces firmly within an European tradition, and from there document their travel and change as they left the West and encountered the Rest.

There are two ways to make the argument that Modernity is more fruitfully thought of as modernities: the first is to position European modernity, often said to be the first human modernity, is merely one among many different forms that modernity can take; the second is to view modernity as always-already creolized, an amalgamation of influences with threads and contributions so diverse as to make compiling a “historical inventory” meaningless. These two arguments are not entirely at odds with one another, it may be useful to employ them strategically—the problem remains of how and when to make use of these positionings as tools, and to what end. Modernity, for all of its plurality, must have a core or some other identifiable, shared aspects; made up of different influences, as it were, piece by mutilated piece. To claim otherwise is to run into an even larger problem: language. We cannot discuss what we cannot name or describe, that treads a dangerous line with solipsism, which like cynicism should be used only sparingly, and with extreme caution.3 This issue will be returned to in the discussion on modernization.

If we attempt to locate the history of the first component, science, we are left with a fragmentary patchwork of advancements, nothing so neat as the popular imagination of science as a steady advancement of human know-how and ability, and especially not one that draws its line back to Euclid and Plato. To claim science as it presently exists as a European notion forgets as well that prior to the Enlightenment, what we would think of as “science” was best practiced outside of Europe, in the Middle East and in China. Were Roman Numerals still in use, advanced mathematics would be orders of magnitude more difficult; and it is hard to imagine computers existing, let alone functioning, in a system that does not have decimals (goodbye as well to Unicode and its hexadecimal system for language encoding). The West borrowed, or was brought, Arabic numbers and an already advanced system of algebra and geometry well before the advent of scientific rationalism that makes such heavy use of them both. The very nature of the scientific method as well prohibits it being culturally specific: “empirical reasoning” exists in any culture no matter what the explanations for observations end up being. The Harvard philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah makes this point more explicitly in his book “Cosmopolitanism,”4 explaining illness as the outcome of either germs and bacteria or invisible spirits makes little difference in application. Both a shaman and a doctor could prescribe penicillin for an infection, with their wholly different understandings of its “true” function (either as a spiritual boost or chemical antibiotic) without changing the outcome, that is the prevention or removal of infection, in the slightest. Claiming that a scientific mind is European is to mistake the outcome or practice of “science” with a specific worldview—germs or spirits, the two are not mutually exclusive in this realm, and empirical reasoning cannot in the end disprove any theory which adapts to locate new information within its narrative. This distinction means that possessing a scientific mindset does not by itself make a peoples modern—the mindset is distinct, although related to, the practical.

The second thread identified in cultural modernity is that of normative rightness, or morality, which is often tied to notions of individual liberty, freedom, and justice. While notions of justice as exemplified by, for example, the US Courts are highly specific forms of jurisprudence, notions of lawful (or morally allowable) conduct are integrated into every human group. A group without some unified concept of the proper would not truly be able to sustain as a group—it would either be an ad hoc collection of individuals or something resembling a Hollywood post-apocalyptic cliché. Morality came to be separated from science following the Nietzschean “death of god,” where humankind suddenly is aware of its understandings as constructed, rather than divinely inherited. It is one thing to know the king is in charge because that is the will of the universe, it is an entirely new game when the king is there merely because humans (others like us ourselves!) have thought it should be so. This “humanization” of the right conduct allowed for whole avenues of previously unthinkable thought to be articulated and even lived out. Legitimacy was therefore a major concern, because the ability to question discourses (even if only from within and which is linked by classical scholars of Modernity to the sense of alienation and uncertainty that they took to be hallmarks of the “Modern Condition” and ties with the aesthetic of authenticity) does not bode well for the powerful who wish to remain so.

While this realization was perhaps newly re-emergent in Europe during the Enlightenment, I argue it is also a feature of cultural change in general. In the sixteenth century the Indian Emperor Akbar remarked that it was the duty of the law (and his government) to guide the country without getting bogged down in “the murky land of tradition.”5 The notion that rules are man-made was not wholly alien to all of humankind until a few European thinkers assigned it a label—an incoming regime, for example, seeks to delegitimize their immediate predecessors even while trumpeting their own infallibility. It is possible, as with the shaman and doctor above, to think of “science” as another view of supra-human morality, albeit one focused on practical manipulation of the observed lebenswelt (“lifeworld”).6

Finally, modernity, for all of its de-centering and ambiguity, brought a new fetishism of the “authentic,” an aesthetic for the pure, unadulterated representation (nearing replication) of the experiences of living. This aesthetic is nicely captured in the writings of Baudelaire and the new romanticism of the grit and glam of city life (and its materiality). In literature, an attempt to capture precise thought and experience through language led in part to the “modernist” novel and stream-of-conscious literature from Joyce and Proust. This was modernity as an obsession with the now, the authentic and real; an aesthetic that found the first two qualities of cultural modernity—science and change/progress—beautiful. This followed as well with an increase in discovering and cataloging the “true” experiences: travel writing, ethnographies, and confessions all share the goal of transferring to the reader an authentic experience, a new place, a new people, a new mind.

It is this aesthetic sensibility that is most durably European in origin. While it could be swept aside as merely an “orientation” or predilection for a certain mode of being, the search for authenticity would, when mixed with empiricism (science) and progress, turn out to be a novel and potent combination. The modernist search for authenticity was so great that, where it did not exist, the modernist had a compulsion to create it. This predilection informed the ways in which empiricism was to be made sense of, and the manner in which progress would be understood. It formed the understanding of what would later equate modernization with Westernization, replacing histories around the globe with a single meta-narrative. Functioning as the gatekeeper of authenticity, European modernity proclaimed itself primus inter pares, that all other modes of “being in the world” were, if not outright impossible, inferior and destined to “catch up.”

3. Modernization: A State of Becoming7

Coming down from cultural modernity, modernization is wholly more concrete and specific: it is merely the process of becoming modern. Modernization since the middle of the twentieth century, and implicitly under the colonial regimes before it, has been viewed as unidirectional affair: the West would export its knowledge and modes to the world, and the Rest would merely have to import and copy them. It would be impossible to discuss the modern era without first seeking to understand in what ways European colonialism shaped the parameters of the modern, and in the words of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, “condemned to modernization” the whole of the world.8 Under colonial models of progress, Empire was the best thing to happen to the “brutish, nasty” inhabitants of “the Orient…and elsewhere.” Hegel declared Africa as “having no historical part of the world,” “capable of no development or culture”9 other than that which Europe imposed and maintained, accomplished for Hegel primarily through slavery. Direct colonial rule—at the extreme end slavery—was the most efficient, indeed the only logical, outcome of this view of modernity. When slavery became morally reprehensible and was abandoned by European powers throughout the nineteenth century, notions of European exceptionalism were still borne out in discourses of economic and scientific, that is to say material, progress.

Modernization theories were first articulated in the West after the second World War, and from the beginning they painted European modernity as having developed entirely free of non-European contamination. Especially amongst American theorists, whose tone is generally somewhere between triumphant and gloating, the great achievements of “Western Science and Culture” were championed and supported by action in both the official and unofficial realm. They led America to (continue to) view itself as what Tu Wei-Ming called a “teaching civilization,”10 and justified intervention both military and otherwise as variously “assisting with governance,” or “spreading democracy and freedom.”

This understanding of history was retroactive, that the West’s material gains were due to endogenous know-how, and the famous Protestant Work Ethic, not due to human subjugation and resource extraction. The world was reworked from the Occident and Orient to the Modern and the Pre-Modern, granting a temporal distinction to geographies and implying that the West had pioneered the way forward for all other nations. Modernity came with positivist ascriptions—development along the Western model was inevitable; no civilization could resist the gravitational pull towards liberal capitalism, the rule of law, individual liberty, and of course the nation-state.

At the same time that the world was being modernized by the West, modernization itself was being adapted and removed from its European roots. Firstly, modernity and modernization are themselves constellations of concepts and practices, and secondly, as concepts travel across and between historical traditions or cultures they are of necessity subject to reinterpretation and change.11 Material practices and modes of conduct are present in modernity, but to act in a certain way does not entail adopting the whole of the meaning that an action “originally” contained. Driving cars is an unquestionably modern activity, but it cannot be that by merely driving a car a person is suddenly identical everywhere else in their life to the American inventor of the automobile. This became increasingly obvious in the last decade of the twentieth century, and continues to develop in this early twenty-first. A nation may build cities with highways and roads and infrastructure that is originally “Western” in style, but the way in which people live in Jakarta or Beijing is quite obviously not a copy of, or even necessarily influenced by, the way people live in New York or Paris. Both cities, and the cultural traditions they represent, are globally influential, but they can only be partially adopted, the specifics of modernity must be adapted by local circumstances.

4. Copied, Parodied, and Hybridized Modernity

“To make a transition successfully, you need to be armed.” —Samuel Delany, The Polymath12

Arriving at the turn of the second millennium,13 the notion of multiple modernities quickly spread throughout the social sciences, and has been an important framework not only scholars of both economic and cultural history but also to nationalist movements the world over. In removing modernities’ Greek pillars, as it were, many have been tempted to substitute instead their own form of specified superiority. There are some, for example, trumpeting the coming “East Asian Century,” eager to denounce the West as imperialist and set up distinctly localized forms of “being in the modern world.”14 These warriors for tradition (fundamentalists are, fundamentally, fighting for the present continuation of some, real or imagined, past they see as quickly slipping away) arm themselves with critiques of power and privilege, statements of separation, declaring from within the walls of their modernity that theirs was a world only they alone could understand. But this understanding of modernity is not sufficient either as explanation of the present or bulwark against the future. It takes for granted the existence of a category, such as “European” or “Asian” as a given, and merely tacks it on to modernity without a sense of what is then shared. In part, this is in reaction to the former domination of modernity and the West’s claim to complete ownership.

A more complete understanding of modernity requires us to recognize it as something that is at once general, but able to be made specific. This is a complex task, in that no one form or implementation of modernity is able to stand out for others to be measured against. How are we to operate with something like this without running into the problem mentioned earlier of language—we must have a label with some meaning, otherwise nothing can be said (a term that excludes very little is very useless). Utilizing a purely economic or material reading of modernity would lead us to the conclusion that once a civilization adopts certain technologies it is modern, and then contributes towards its own forms of social and cultural modernity; entirely too deterministic, and what of the cultural changes (like bureaucratization) that accompany economic material advances?

A possible solution to this seeming impasse is present in what Jürgen Kocka calls “negotiated universals,” highly similar to Kwame Appiah’s use of “discourse” in his plan for world peace.15 That is, viewing modernity as an ongoing process, not something static that can be “brought” to the world, but that which is created out of existing in that world. Modernization becomes in this view something that can—and should—accompany globalization, it is the mode under which we should conduct our ever-increasing interactions with the other: a process of mutual change, albeit one that in practice will often be messy. We can take this a step further as well if we can identify those pieces present in a specific form of modernity, here the Western one, as already part of this ongoing discussion. It was never the case that specifically Western knowledge and only Western knowledge led to the Industrial Revolution—the Occident could not exist were it not for the Orient.16 Modernity is a collective project, added onto and modified by those who come in contact with it, with some of the largest recent additions coming from Europe (scientific rationality, rule of law). Modernity is something expensive, attractive, and novel—it is this attraction that leads individuals to adopt and transplant different modes of being into their own lives.17 And it is a project that we continue to keep working on, even though only part of it will be a continuation from the Enlightenment.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.

Barlow, Tani. Introduction to Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, edited by Tani Barlow. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar. “On Alternative Modernities.” Public Culture. 11.1, pp 1-18. Duke University Press, 1999.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity: An Incomplete Project.” Translated by Seyla Ben-Habib.

—. “Modernity: An Unfinished Project.” Translated by Nicholas Walker.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “The Philosophy of History.” 1830. Translated by J. Sibree. New York: Dover, 1950).

King, YC Ambrose. “The Emergence of Alternative Modernity in East Asia.” in Reflections on Multiple Modernities. Boston: Brill, 2002.

Lamarre, Thomas. Introduction to Impacts of Modernities, edited by Thomas Lamarre and Kang Nae-Hui. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004.

Lav & Purl. A State of Becoming. “Absorbed In Serenity.” (A Strangely Isolated Place, 2016).

The Polymath or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel Delany, Gentleman. Directed by Fred Barney Taylor. 2007. (Maestro Media, 2009) DVD.

Prashad, Vijay. “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” New York: Verso Press, 2012.

Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese, and Other Interpretations. Edited by Dominic Sachsenmaier & Jens Riedel with Shmuel Eisenstadt. Boston: Brill, 2002.

Sen, Amartya. “Identity and Violence: The False Promise of Destiny.” New York: WW Norton, 2002

Silverberg, Miriam. “Japanese Modernity Within Modernity: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense.” Berkeley, US: University of California Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 28 March 2016.

Tomiyama, Ichiro. “Colonialism and the Sciences of the Tropical Zone: The Academic Analysis of Difference in ‘the Island Peoples’.” In Formations of Colonial Modernity in East Asia, edited by Tani Barlow, 199-221. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wei-Ming, Tu. “Mutual Learning as an Agenda for Social Development.” in Reflections on Multiple Modernities. Boston: Brill, 2002.

1 Introduction to “Reflections on Multiple Modernities: European, Chinese, and Other Interpretations.” Edited by Dominic Sachsenmaier & Jens Riedel, with Shmuel Eisenstadt. (Boston: Brill, 2002), 3

2 Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity: An Incomplete Project.” Translated by Seyla Ben-Habib, 9

3 That is not to equate the two: the world-denying philosophical view and the fashionable attitude, but I am merely stating that in both cases the pitfalls of being solipsist or cynical are greater than their benefits, especially if we want to arrive anywhere worthwhile or meaningful. That they would both sneer at “meaningfulness” only serves to reinforce the point.

4 Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cosmopolitanism” (New York: WW Norton & Co, 2006), 33-39

5 Sen, Amartya. “Identity and Violence: The False Promise of Destiny.” (New York: WW Norton, 2002), 162

6 Referenced only briefly in Habermas, the lifeworld is the space that is created by the interaction of living (and conscious) individuals, the “made space” of overlapping existences. We could just say reality.

7 Lav & Purl. A State of Becoming. “Absorbed In Serenity.” (A Strangely Isolated Place, 2016)

8 “So I am of two minds. I think we are condemned to modernization. If we are going to be modern, try to be more quick and pacific about instituting it. On the other hand, I say ‘condemned to modernize,’ because seeing the US, Europe, and Japan I think modernization is not a benediction. It can be a kind of refrigerated air-conditioned hell.” Quoted from King, YC Ambrose. “The Emergence of Alternative Modernity in East Asia.” in Reflections on Multiple Modernities. (Boston: Brill, 2002), 140-141

9 Hegel, Georg. “The Philosophy of History.” 1830. (New York: Dover, 1950), 98-99

10 Wei-Ming, Tu. “Mutual Learning as an Agenda for Social Development.” in Reflections on Multiple Modernities, 129

11 Kocka, Jürgen. “Multiple Modernities and Negotiated Universals.” in Reflections on Multiple Modernities. ed. Dominic Sachsenmaier & Jens Riedel. (Boston: Brill, 2002), 119

12 Quote at time [00:24:30]

13 In a 2000 issue of Dædalus on the subject of “Multiple Modernities”

14 We could just as easily hear something from ISIL, in their making of a powerful and modern Islamic State.

15 A little sarcastic…but only a little.

16 There is a note I have, from a lecture in Art History given at the University of Washington by Wang Hai Cheng, that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Europeans could make porcelain of fine enough quality to rival that produced in China. The problem lie with the kilns, Europe lacked the technique to get them hot enough. So, prior to that transfer of technology, from East to West, European made “porcelain” was really only stoneware. And so it goes for gunpowder and the compass, which have by now entered some areas of popular knowledge.

17 It is what leads, in part, to a sign seen by the author in a Seattle Gyro stand: “Maatouk Coffee: Freshly Sealed in a Modern Pack for Modern Taste.”