Modernity is Overrated

Modernity: overrated? As a student of history, I expect the cliche would be that I prefer to live in the past. I might scorn modernity.

Ah, but what is this so-called modernity? After reading the American Historical Review roundtable entitled “Historians and the Question of ‘Modernity,'” it seems there are many answers to that question. To the uninitiated, the standard answer may echo the introduction: “For the most part, what we mean by “modern” is merely the now or recent…” (631). That seems good enough, right? I can correctly scoff at adults who can’t figure out iPods or still text using “u” for “you,” right? They are not quite “modern” in that sense that my friends and I are. Hang on, though, here’s the rest of that quotation: “…merely the now or recent, a chronological period that usually refers to the last couple of centuries before the present” (631). Well that changes things. If the modern can stretch that far back, what then is modernity?

The answer the roundtable contributors seem to be giving is that it is extremely relative. Traditionally, the modern age has been seen to start with the fall of Rome. Others consider the renaissance the start of the truly modern world. I might argue that the globalization we have seen over the past few decades has done more to bring the world into a new stage of being than anything it had seen in the preceding 500 years.

While we may not be able to define modernity in itself, there seems to be a trend running through all the articles of the roundtable about certain characteristics of the modern. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite stresses the importance of the other as a prerequisite for modernity: those who feel they are truly “modern” need to have someone to contrast with, someone seen as “backwards.” Often in the historical narrative the contrast has been between Europe and the rest of the world, as Benite points out. Modernity, at any period, requires anti-modernity.

Carol Gluck shifts the focus to Japan, but tells us much about the nature of modernity. I particularly like her assertion that “modernity is as much an attitude as it is an institutional or cultural condition” (678). This supports the point made in the introduction that everyone necessarily thinks they are living in the modern age, since they are not living in the time that has come before. “An essential part of being modern,” C.A. Bayly says, “is thinking you are modern” (634).

Dorothy Ross focuses on the rise of “multiple modernities” in the United States, using a narrower definition of modernity as essentially tied to nationalism, industrialism, and what different people may or may not see as “historical progress” (702). In Ross’s view, ideological differences strongly affect an individual’s perception of modernity. She also ends her article with a rather cryptic sentence about flowers blooming, but that is neither here nor there.

We finally come to my favorite article in the series, Richard Wolin’s “‘Modernity’: The Peregrinations of a Contested Historiographical Concept.” Pause to look up what peregrinations means: wanderings, more or less. Unfortunately not anything to do with falcons. Wolin repeats the traditional Eurocentric view of modernity as a concept, etc., etc. Where I really agree with what he has to say is that modernity through such a narrow lens is no longer feasible, either in academic discourse or in the real world. Basically, we all know that Europe is no longer the center of the universe, and to argue otherwise makes us seem behind the times (un-modern, perhaps?) and culturally insensitive. As he puts it, “we have learned to appreciate the value of ‘alternative modernities'” (750).

So is there a point to talking about modernity? Is it, in fact, overrated? Is it relevant? Some of these articles were a little difficult to slog through, which doesn’t help a case for the continued study of modernity. But I would say there is value in this roundtable in the question it raises of relevancy. I think labeling a broad swath of history as “modern” is a confusing trope which raises more questions than it answers (are we now post-modern? what’s next, post-post-modern?). I would prefer to see studies not on modernity as a chronological point but as an attitude which is constantly being updated. There are plenty of labels we can slap on the recent past (whether that counts as going back to 476 AD or back to last week) without resorting to “modern.”

File:Falco peregrinus -Nova Scotia, Canada -eating-8.jpg

Oh I’m the type of guy, that likes to roam around…

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