Subjective Modernities


  • Harbans Mukhia


Until very recently, the notion of „modernity‟ was, in C A Bayly‟s words, „out there‟ for all to see, with no questions asked. Today, it is virtually in a shambles, under interrogation from numerous angles around the world, facilitated by the globalization of academia. Its early use to demarcate the present from the past gave way, post-Enlightenment, to a value load of reason opposed to any sort of religion or religiosity, now derisively designated as superstition of the „dark ages‟. With positivism‟s privileging of science and technology, modernity evolved into an abstraction, the approximation to which attested the degree of modernity of every society, institution, or even individual. Its paradigm was one of specific western „rationality‟ and capitalist economy. In one powerful version, the approximation to this abstraction in Asia, Africa and Latin America was mediated through colonialism and its discourses; in another, even as colonialism was contested, „modernity‟ was demonstrated through parallel and comparable indigenous developments even prior to the colonial intervention, thus valorising the abstraction. The movement of our ideas remains encircled by it. One severe effect of it all was the suppression of any expression of plurality of discourses. The circle is now being broken by postulates of alternative modernities, multiple modernities, Eurasian modernity, shared modernities, lost modernities and several other versions. The dual value-loaded hiatus that postEnlightenment had posited between the then present and the past in Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world is today under severe strain. It seems arguable that European modernity was not quite the exception either with reference to its own „medieval‟ past or, more emphatically, with reference to the rest of the world. It is possible to envisage it as a continuous process and one that has evolved through multifaceted global interaction – economic, technological, cultural, ideational, or aesthetic. True, the pace of change since the 17th or especially the 18th century dictated by the idea of progress lends „modernity‟ special characteristics. Yet, both the idea of progress and the pace of change are conceivably cumulative effects of global historical evolution and have universal, not Euro-specific validity.