Theories of modernity, a brief précis

I was just looking up how to spell the adjective “Comaroffian” when I came upon a paper by Charles Piot about the Comaroffs’ Of Revolution and Revelation. Skimming through it, I happened upon an amusing couple of paragraphs that set out to summarize different theories of “modernity.” In case anyone wants to see what that looks like, here they are:

One of the difficulties with using the term ‘modernity’ is the contested, shifting nature – indeed promiscuity – of its use in the literature. There are almost as many defiŽnitions of it – some social/institutional, others attitudinal/cognitive (Gaonkar 1999) – as there are scholars who write about it. Thus modernity’s deŽfining feature is, for Weber (1958), instrumental rationality; for Habermas (1983), the ideals of the Enlightenment – science, knowledge, reason, progress; for Marx (1977), the commodity form and all that commodities and markets entail; for Berman (1982), perpetual dynamism, ambiguity, ephemerality, unending rupture; for Giddens (1990), trust; for Taylor (1999), comfort; for Baudelaire (1981), presentness and the everyday. Then again, others prefer to emphasize different traits, each seen as a/the essential feature of the modern: secularism, critical humanism, pragmatic instrumentalism, revolutionary consciousness, self-realization, the emergence of the nation-state and of certain types of public sphere, the rise of mass media, a legal order based on contractualism and the right-bearing individual, a Fordist regime of production, globalization.

Moreover, there are other less celebratory takes on modernity – critics who see its dark side as intrinsic to the modern itself: the ‘iron cage’ of rationality and routine (Weber 1958); the alienation and exploitation of labor under capitalism (Marx 1977); the slave system which made possible industrializing Europe’s wealth accumulation (Gilroy 1993; Mintz 1985); imperial expansion (Lenin 1971; Mandel 1975; Wallerstein 1974); the fascist regimes of the interwar era (Bauman 1989; Horkheimer and Adorno 1972), and so on. [pp. 88-89]

Here, the masculinity of theory seems to entail the invisibility of gender, but I digress…

Sometimes I also catch myself starting to write paragraphs like this (though I would hope with a more socially diverse set of references). It feels fun to try to systematize lots of different ideas or theories. But the thing is, being encyclopedic rarely does much for your reader (unless you are writing a bibliographic essay). And in reality, being encyclopedic is often quite difficult because classification is difficult. (That’s why Marx appears twice, first in the “celebratory” paragraph, then in the “less celebratory takes” paragraph.) Of course, I find myself classifying things anyway. Being an academic is so much about organizing ideas and labeling them…

Anyway, it’s not every day I come across someone who tries to sum up such a massive field in such a short space, so here it is as an instance of that. (If you are in fact interested in longer reviews of modernity theory, by the way, I particularly recommend Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Definitional Excursions.”)

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