Forget about modernity

A short note on why we should stop talking about Modernity
a slightly different version of this note appeared on inkl as a letter to the editor

I was surprised and more than a little shocked to find Bernard Keane’s short Crikey Weekender piece ‘The birth of Modernity’ in Saturday’s (10 December) edition of INKL. Keane has taken a break from his familiar attacks on protectionism, for which his Crikey columns are well known, to present a view of modernity, as a largely internal European development, which started with Martin Luther’s stand, in late October 1517, almost 500 years ago, against to the Catholic Church in which he insisted on the importance of each individual’s relationship with God. Keane was clearly determined to get his take on the link between modernity and Luther’s stand out there well before the anniversary commemorations take over commentary on Luther that seems likely to appear for much of next year. For Luther and the many Protestant teachers who followed, it was not enough for each individual to follow the dictates of the Church, they had also to work on themselves – a view that, on Keane’s account, would lead to the emergence of the kind of individualism that is now associated with modernity.

There is no sense in which this Eurocentric view of modernity is news or a summary of received wisdom, although Keane’s version of the story itself may be unfamiliar to many readers. If anything, it repeats an archaic academic prejudice. Not too many years ago, variations on Keane’s story would have been widely accepted in the world’s leading universities, but academic views of modernity have since moved on – some would say progressed. The Eurocentric story of modernity has been unsettled, in part by post- and de-colonial writers arguing that the beginnings of modernity are to be found, not so much in internal European developments – Keane’s story – but also in the initial European invasions of the Americas, South and South-East Asia and Africa and, of course, in the Atlantic slave trade, all of which began a little earlier than Luther’s stand – but also, of course, by Bruno Latour’s We have never been modern. Aside from Latour, whose argument questions its existence, these approaches to modernity agree roughly on the period in which it started but not on how to understand or account for it.

The most striking difference between the post- and the de-colonial camps is that one comes out of Africa and South Asia and the other out of Central and South America – although, as with many influential academic perspectives today, both are now strongly represented in the USA. Both stress the importance of Western imperialism in the development of modernity, with one insisting that Europe’s was not the only modernity and the other that modernity and coloniality – understood as occupying a subordinate position in a complex web of dependence – are interdependent, each beginning with the opening years of European imperial expansion.
To focus, as Keane does, on internal European developments is to downplay the role of imperialism in shaping the contemporary world, suggesting that, to the extent that other regions have become modern, just like Western Europe, they have done so by adapting European developments. It reflects a remarkably blinkered view of history as happening, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, “first in the West and then elsewhere.” Modernity, according to this view, started in the West, then spread like a plague – or like social media, if you prefer that image – to infect other regions.

Thus, rather than write of the birth of Modernity, Keane would have been better advised to say that the development of modernity is a complex story and that there is an important strand beginning with Luther’s stand against the Church in 1517. But there is an important reason for no longer talking about Modernity that should be mentioned here: it turns on the fact that Modernity is a temporal category closely tied to a view that different cultures or communities can sometimes be understood as representing stages of human progress. It is hard to use ‘modern’ and related terms – modernity, modernisation – without suggesting that we moderns are some way ahead of the rest of humanity and that, in contrast to us, they inhabit earlier historical periods.

To locate oneself in Modernity is thus to suggest that one is more advanced than – and, in that sense, superior to – many of one’s contemporaries. This pernicious standpoint can be seen throughout the twentieth century social sciences. It also appeared all too clearly, for example, in David Oldfield’s portrayal – in the recent SBS series “First Contact” – of Australia’s indigenous peoples as living in the Stone Age.

‘Stone Age’ is a category of twentieth-century pre-history, the first in a three-stage system, the others being the Bronze and Iron Ages, employed by archeologists in their attempts to make sense of early human development in North Africa and Europe. To say that Australia’s indigenous people belong to the Stone Age is thus to portray them as not having progressed – in fact, as unable to progress (even if this is not what one intended to say) – beyond the earliest stages of human development, a negative valuation that is neatly inverted by the Indigenous Australian claim to inhabit the worlds oldest continuous culture.