Modernity Research Paper

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Modernity is a vexed concept for world historians. Debates about what it means, and whether it can or should be defined in terms of western European standards, have opened the concept to a wider discussion. Especially in conjunction with the term modernization, such discussion considers how various peoples—Africans swept up in slave trade and the colonizers who bought and sold them, for instance—experienced modernity and were affected by it.

The concept of modernity has stimulated much debate in world history about its geographical, cultural, historical, and sociological origins. It is historically a nebulous term, extremely difficult to define, both because there is no hard and fast understanding of when the term modernity came into widespread use and because there is no clear-cut agreement as to what exactly it is meant to describe. Most would agree that modernity is primarily used to identify a condition of “newness”—whether in terms of an overall zeitgeist (worldview) or innovative advances in technology. Yet pinning down a defining statement of modernity, in order to gain the most complete understanding of it, requires the perspective of its historical development.

Because it is so difficult to identify how exactly modernity came into being, most treatises of the concept begin with an analysis of its etymology, followed by an examination of its cultural significance in a larger context. Many neglect, however, to reveal how tracing the origins of modernity is also to sketch the earliest foundations of the world we live in today, and to provide a more accurate understanding of the global cultural interrelationships that comprise the world.

The Origins of Modernity

Historical debate has begun to question whether or not modernity can actually be said to have had its origins in the western European Middle Ages, which dates range from about 500 CE to approximately 1492 CE. (These dates, as representative of both the beginning and the end of this period, are also in debate, since the Middle Ages can be understood and marked by different events in different cultures.) Notwithstanding this chronological variation—and despite the extremely variegated and complex history of the term as well as its influences, causes, and effects— conventional examinations of the concept of modernity locate its inception in medieval Western Europe. This is as a result of the concept’s relation to two overarching developments, as Matei Calinescu describes in his seminal study Five Faces of Modernity: (1) the rise of an “awareness . . . of historical time, linear and irreversible,” which is also an “unrepeatable time,” profoundly related to the “Judeo-Christian eschatological view of history”; and (2) the movement, as a result of this new awareness of time, toward the inevitable comparison between the thought and achievements of the culture of Rome, or pagan antiquity, and those of the Christian Middle Ages, culminating in the late-seventeenth-century “Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns” (or the French “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes”). Calinescu grounds his assertion regarding the origins of modernity in an etymological analysis, locating its inception in the increasing use of the word modernus, and identifying the foundation of the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns in what he recognizes as the polemical distinction between antiquus and modernus, in widespread use by the twelfth century (1987, 13–15). In keeping with the consciousness of a historical, unrepeatable time to which the western European Middle Ages had given rise, the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns was essentially a questioning of authority. In this case, the all-encompassing cultural authority of Christianity, which had saved the European populations from the degradation and destruction following the fall of Rome, was made to give way to the authority of the cultural splendor of pagan antiquity. It is in this way, in its direct challenge to the authority of tradition, and to the authority of the ages, that the concept of modernity acquired its present connotation, as something that invariably represents the new.

Modernity and Modernization

The concept of modernity has often been confused with a companion term to which it is a very closely related—that of modernization. As the western European Middle Ages came to a close at the end of the fifteenth century and the world progressed into the sixteenth century, radical changes in cultural perspective— caused by such events as the discovery of the Americas, the advance of world trade and world travel, the rise of imperialism and colonization, new developments in scientific knowledge, the increased importance of the city, and new understandings of self and place—heralded the advent of modernization. Although it is often mentioned in tandem with discussions of modernity, modernization is much more an umbrella term for a number of sociohistorical, political, and economic changes than it is a description of an ephemeral cultural condition, as is modernity. Modernization, because it is so inextricably connected with change, is also unavoidably representative of the new. By nature of what it is, modernization thus provides the impetus and the foundation for the development and/or recognition of modernity. As the necessary side effect of modernization, then, modernity encompasses the entire range of experience produced by the socio-politico-historical and economic realities of modernization. Modernity must therefore be understood, in large part, as the cultural condition arising from the dislocations and disruptions brought about by the radical changes of modernization, which is also necessarily at odds with the stasis of tradition.

Modernity: Late 1800s and Early 1900s

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this modern movement against tradition finds an important locus in the artistic representation of the condition of modernity, as evidenced by another closely related term—modernism. Conventional articulations of the modern and modernism during this time refer to an artistic movement with quite specific characteristics, such as a rejection of artistic tradition, an embrace of experimental form, a fascination with the meaning and representation of time, and the artistic rendering of the fragmented and alienating reality of modern experience. Such articulations also describe modernism as something that spans a number of western European countries, as well as the United States, manifesting itself in several artistic media, from music, dance, and literature to studio art, sculpture, theater, and architecture. Often overlooked, however, is the manner in which what was identified as “modern” (in the section above on the origins of modernity) splits in this period into two separate yet intricately related spheres. The first, objective or economic modernity, stems directly from the radical cultural change evidenced by the rise of modernization (as manifested in the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and its effects on western European cultural reality); the second, is aesthetic modernity, or the exploration of the relation between objective modernity and its artistic representation. Aesthetic modernity is usually linked with the rise of French symbolism in the late nineteenth century, and its development through the period of World War I (1914–1918) and the cataclysmic alteration of western European and American cultural reality brought about by this event, to the heyday of the 1920s, and the beginnings of concentrated American involvement in the modern trend that had already swept across Europe. Despite their extreme variety and detail, however, conventional articulations of aesthetic modernity tend, if not largely to obscure, then to almost completely ignore the contributions to modern understanding of nonwhite and/or colonized peoples, women, and those outside the western European–American axis. Scholarly discourse has only just begun to address these glaring lacunae, with studies that examine the cultural contributions of these others, as well as the significance of their exclusion to our understanding of the modern. Such studies have opened up many new ways of thinking about the modern, not the least of which is to consider its meaning from new perspectives that, in producing their own versions of modernism, also reconceive more conventional notions of modernity and modernization.

Modernity: A Global Perspective

The relation between modernity and modernization also introduces a less conventional way of understanding the concept of modernity than by locating its origins in the western European Middle Ages. Although many reasons support the assertion that this geographical location is indeed the proper locus from which to derive a cultural understanding of modernity, historical debate has also begun to insist that it is too narrow a view. This becomes all the more important when considering the meaning of the concept from the perspective of world history. Understanding the significance of modernity from a global perspective requires considering what the modern might mean from a number of cultural vantage points, not just that of western Europe. What, for example, does modernity mean from the perspective of the indigenous peoples who were displaced by imperialism’s never-ending quest for new markets, or the cultural emphasis on the growth of empire? When seeking to understand the concept of modernity from a global perspective, it is important to recognize that the western European understanding of time (and therefore its relation to modernity) is not the only one, and that those developments identified as pertaining to modernization and modernity do not come to all peoples at the same time, or in the same way.

A more complex, nuanced, and accurate understanding of modernity must propose the possibility of numerous and interrelated modernities—as a means to gain a more accurate understanding of western European modernity, and as a way to open a path to knowledge regarding the meaning of modernity in other cultural contexts. For example, the rise of imperialism and the growth of empire that began in the fifteenth century, with the discovery of the Americas, led to the development of the Atlantic slave trade and the cultural involvement at different points in time of various European countries (to name just a few, first the Spanish and the Portuguese through the sixteenth century, the French in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and finally the British in the eighteenth century). The millions of Africans who were dispersed across the New World and beyond as a result of this development, and who thus came to comprise the black diaspora, did not experience modernization and modernity in the same way as did those Europeans who were the authors of imperial expansion. For Africans, modernization and modernity represented an end to autonomous cultural development, and an almost insurmountable barrier to that development, rather than the necessary and inescapable march toward an inevitable, and primarily European, progress. In this instance modernity must represent, first, a deep and painful cultural loss, and second, the long climb back to autonomous cultural life, a climb that must also take place at different points in time and in very different ways in each of the various cultural contexts in which the black diaspora was shaped.

Modernity beyond the “New”

In the early twentieth century, the disintegration of culture long held in place by tradition created a sense of almost dangerous novelty—a “newness” like nothing ever before seen or even imagined. Although other periods (such as the Italian Renaissance of the sixteenth century) also understood themselves as new and, therefore, modern, the early twentieth century seemed to many to mark an even more cataclysmic change than any that had ever come before. In the present day, however, the fantastic cultural changes of a century ago have now become commonplace, and what was once considered radically “new” is no longer a reason to marvel. In fact, the early twentieth century’s cult of the “new” has itself now become a part of our cultural tradition. How then, can modernity be understood at the dawn of the twenty-first century? What does it mean to be “modern,” once the “new” is no longer new? While such questions must necessarily remain as complicated as is the subject with which they are concerned, they are yet appropriate questions to ponder—for the consideration and impact of modernity does not, and cannot, simply end with the end of an era. Perhaps, rather than wondering whether or not our current understanding of modernity has come to an end (as much current discourse has proposed), we must instead contemplate what it means for one era to be absorbed into another—as each understanding of the new must grow old, and each notion of modernity must be swallowed by another, more urgent articulation of the modern. What was radically new in the early twentieth century cannot enthrall the early twenty-first century. In this age beyond the “new,” modernity is more likely than not to be described in the plural, as manifest in various cultural valences, and the locus of its urgency may now be simply the fight to resolve the problem of cultural understanding and coherence in a global community.


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