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Notions of Modernity

Unbecoming Modern: Colonialism, Modernity, Colonial Modernities edited by Saurabh Dube, Ishita Banerjee-Dube; Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 266, Rs 675 (hardback).

Notions of Modernity

Unbecoming Modern: Colonialism, Modernity, Colonial Modernities

edited by Saurabh Dube, Ishita Banerjee-Dube; Social Science Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 266, Rs 675 (hardback).


ome time ago, there was a gathering in New Delhi of poets and writers from south and central America and India. One of the expressed desires of the organisers was to facilitate a dialogue between similarities and difference(s) seen in modernity, globality and postcolony as experienced and articulated by littérateurs from these diverse yet akin places. The event struck me as most opportune given the increasingly extreme and intolerant political mood that is apparent in the actions of certain countries across the globe. It also made me think of other venues where one could forge relations that explored the continuities and discontinuities characterising the human experience. It so happened that a few days later I began reading the volume Unbecoming Modern, edited by Saurabh Dube and Ishita Banerjee-Dube, comprising 12 essays on questions of modernity, coloniality, history and identity from scholars of Mexico, India, Colombia and Venezuela.

Given the rather prodigious explosion (see the representative sample presented by the editors in the introduction) over the last few years of books on modernity and history, one may wonder if Unbecoming Modern, with its rather modish subtitle ‘Colonialism, Modernity and Colonial Modernity’ is just another solipsitic attempt to tie together two very vogue words (post)colony and modernity. Reading through the book, one must admit that this is not so for a variety of reasons. Let me start with the more explicit ones and then move on to one particular reason, of which the book contains a trace. Yet, it is one that is perhaps most apposite, given not only the “spirit” of the book but also because it requires much greater attention then has been granted to it. The category I refer to is that of how space is understood and/or theorised within the volume (more on that later). However, let us begin with understanding the explicit analytical shifts that the editors and the contributors of the volume attempt.

The first of these is a simultaneous acknowledgement of two very pertinent issues, (i) recent scholarly endeavours have come a significant way towards questioning taken-for-granted assumptions in our understanding of modernity, power, identity and knowledge, and yet,

(ii) despite the best efforts of “strategies of reading and writing”, representations of “universal history” and binaries such as myth and history, modernity and tradition, and east and west continue to endure in both academic and non-academic spheres. Although this may seem a fairly obvious observation, yet like many things apparent, it is one that often recedes into the background under the zeal of academic and theoretical dexterity. Do not get me wrong. I am not claiming that earlier works have not been cognisant of this issue. What I am merely trying to point out is that majority of the recent works on modernity and history have, maybe inadvertently, been content to valorise either one or the other side of this equation. What is refreshing in the present volume is that not only do we find, in a singular collection, essays that debate with each other on these two fronts (see the essays by Saldaña-Portillo and Lander) but that within each essay (especially ones by Zemeño, Chuaqui and Mignolo) there seems to be a sincere labouring to balance out these two.

Of course, it is this very labouring that brings us to the heart of the predicament confronting contemporary scholars of modernity, history and identity, i e, how to talk of the question of power and difference without posing them as already pre-fabricated a priori categories. The trouble with seeing difference and power as given categories is that, as the editors note, on the one hand, it not only essentialises difference but also posits it as the dialectical “other” of power and therefore as an antidote to it. On the other hand, it can also lead to reified representations of power, which tends to belie the existence of difference at work within the structures and projects of power and dominance. The trick then is to “be vigilant of the manner in which difference is inflected with power…and to recognise the way in which power is shot through with difference” (p 5). And this is precisely what the present

Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006 volume tries to effect through the coupling of the terms of colony and modernity as well as a refusal to “ascribe a particular connotation or status to the phrase colonial modernities” but rather to see it both as a horizon and, to my mind, more importantly as a potential that enables dialogue and debate.

Take for example the two adjacent essays by Andrés Lira and Sudipta Sen. Sen’s article extends two important ideas that have been doing the rounds of postcolonial authors for some time now. The first is Ranajit Guha’s famous articulation of the nature of the colonial state’s project of dominance but without hegemony. The second is the useful distinction made by Homi Bhabha (amongst others) regarding the contradictions between the pedantic and the performative dimensions of the colonial state. Creatively combining these Sen draws our attention to not how these dimensions disrupted the process of the spread of the colonial state but rather how the articulation of colonial forms of domination, with its contradictory imperatives, in turn had an impact on the formation of the European state as well as their notions of civil society. As he notes, “what concerns us here, however, is not the realisation but the limits of the possibility of development of an indigenous civil society …that provided the confines within which a new, arguably, ‘modern’ conception of social collectivity could emerge” (p 151) (italics in original). Lira’s piece on the legal oeuvre of Henry Summer Maine has many parallels. In it Lira shows how Maine’s experiences in colonial India continually questioned the boundaries of the evolutionist paradigm of knowledge that was prevalent during his time. In addition to this, the article also undertakes a simultaneous reading of the chronicles of Alonzo de Zorita. Here Lira suggests that reading Maine’s work alongside such chroniclers can profit our understanding of the process of colonial histories as well as “…could help us approach the history of European historiography, since one cannot help noticing, in the testimonials of current 19th century Europe, demonstrations of collective life as a response to the excesses of a triumphant individualism” (p 145). Sen’s and Lira’s essay do a splendid job of showing us how the colonial projects of domination get shot through with difference. Yet, what about the question of, how and if these differences in turn get entangled with power. On that front the articles are far more reticent. The problem perhaps is a certain model of spatiality that underpins the authors’ understanding of power and difference. But before moving on to what that model is, a few words are needed about the two ways in which “space” as a category is understood in the book.

Understanding ‘Space’

The first sensibility is most clearly articulated in the essay by Enrique Dussel and finds resonance in Lander and Castro-Gómez. Dussel’s argument is a simple pointed one. The centrality, which we have come to associate with Europe, he argues, is not more than two centuries old and that “this modernity’s technical and economic globality is far from being a cultural globalisation of the everyday life that valorises the majority of humanity” (p 165). Given this there exists a “difference” that transcends western modernity and from within that fertile ground is emerging a cultural moment, which constitutes a “transmodernity” with significant repercussions for the 21st century. Dussel’s model of space consistently maps onto his articulation of difference and is well illustrated in a figure aptly named: totality, exteriority, affirmation of exteriority. According to this diagram, modernity has a space which cannot and has not subsumed the totality of space, that underpins human creative action. Given this, there also is an exterior that, though within the totality, is wholly exterior to the space of modernity. This space is the one that affirms “difference” and is the basis of the new “trans-modernity”. There is something significant in Dussel’s claim, our everyday experience as well as “history” confirms it time and again. For if all our spaces were totally colonised, globalised, commodified, and under surveillance then how do we account for the amazing diversity and creativity that characterises peoples across the globe. And yet, this particular model of spatiality ends up assuming that the space of modernity is bereft of any difference and is totally saturated with a singular rendition of power. Ironically, Dussel here seems to be denying the very creative faculties of people, that he holds dear in the space of exteriority, to respond to the homogenising impulses of the interior of the modern system.

The second model of space, I would argue, is exemplified in the articles by Madhu Dubey and Saurabh Dube. Their articles seem cognisant of this paradox and consequently are undergirded by a different model of space. Let me explain through their attempt to collapse the binary of enchanted and modern. His argument runs along the following lines: knowledge and disciplines still continue to work with mappings of the world that were shaped by Universal History and Reason, where “space” is understood as modern, disenchanted but rational and “place” as that which is traditional, enchanted but primitive. However, he argues, if we are to analyse the situation a bit more (Lira makes a similar point in his essay), one would realise that this kind of antimony is in fact the lasting legacy of a particular epistemological tradition that has often been called the European Enlightenment. Therefore, instead of speaking of enchanted places and modern spaces, Dube speaks of enchanted spaces and modern places in an attempt to collapse the binaries. As mentioned earlier Dube’s understanding of both power and difference not rendering itself from a single locus puts forward a kind of space that is not homogeneous and is far more ambiguous than the earlier one. This space has a certain resonance with, what Henri Lefebvre has called, “contradictions of space” (Madhu Dubey’s article elaborates this contradictory nature of space further through her fine reading of the construction of the postmodern geographies of the US South). However some vital questions remain. One, does there exist within this model of spatiality any space that is totally exterior to the finely woven multi-textured, multipowered and differentiated space? The kind of wholly exterior that Enrique Dussel elaborates in his article. Two, if the answer to that question is no, then are we not ironically back to a kind of a “totality” albeit a more nuanced one. Three, if the answer is yes, how do we theorise that space, will Dussel’s model fit here, or is this “exterior” as multilayered and differentiated as the “interior”. If so, then what is the difference between the two? There can be no easy legislation on any of these issues and as suggested earlier, the category of space requires much further attention as well as deliberation. Unbecoming Modern presents interesting possibilities and potentials of that debate and dialogue. And as such it is a welcome move.



Economic and Political Weekly November 4, 2006

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