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AHR Roundtable
Historians and the Question of Modernity
THIS ROUNDTABLE, WHICH WAS COMMISSIONED by the editors, is, as the title species,
about the question of modernity. If they do not necessarily answer the implied ques-
tion, the essays that follow provide us with nine different ways of framing it. And
it is likely that if we were to ask another nineor ninetyscholars to address the
same question, we would get just as many different answers in return. But this lack
of convergence does not mean that the question is any less compelling or relevant
to virtually every historian, nor certainly to the writing and teaching of history. In-
deed, one reason for inviting these reections was the sense that there is a disconnect
between how historians think about modernity and its kindred conceptsmod-
ernism and modernizationand how they teach, discuss, and even write history. On
the one hand, these termsand the historical narratives associated with themhave
been seriously called into question, as these essays abundantly demonstrate. And it
is our hope that among other things they serve to offer readers a wide-ranging bib-
liography on how the question of modernity has been broached in different elds and
from different perspectives. On the other hand, the ascription modern is virtually
ubiquitous in historical discoursein textbooks, monographs, and scholarly articles
alike, in course syllabi, in the titles of journals and the names of institutes for his-
torical research, in descriptions of job openings and titles of endowed chairs, and in
a whole range of fundamental historical adventsthe rise of the modern family,
the making of the modern self, the emergence of the modern nation-state, and so
forth. It is difcult to imagine the very grammar of history without the vocabulary
of modernity.
If it is true that we seem to accept the term modernity in common usage while
also harboring strong reservations about its legitimacy, one reason may be that we
are confronted with what we might call both weak and strong versions of the concept.
For the most part, what we mean by modern is merely the now or recent, a chro-
nological period that usually refers to the last couple of centuries before the present.
Even here, with this weak version, there are, of course, variations and, often, mis-
understandings, belying the assumption that we can blithely go about our business
without interrogating what we mean by modern history. At Oxford, the period
begins with the fall of the Roman Empire; in France, to study modern history is to
As the literary scholar Terrence Cave puts it, the temporal adjective modern is deictic in char-
acter, like the temporal adverb now. Cave, Locating the Early Modern, Paragraph 29, no. 1 (March
2006): 14.
start your course with the fteenth century. Among historians of Europe in the
United States, as well as, increasingly, some historians of non-Western lands, with
the relatively recent invention of the term early modern, the modern period turns
on the hinge of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Such concerns with naming
and demarking periods might strike some as mere discursive housekeepingtidying
up the chronology of the past by creating more and upgraded categories of time. But
it is surely more than that, especially when we begin to ask ourselves what criteria
go into creating these chronological boundaries. Even when we think of the mod-
ern as merely a segment of (recent) time, there is the niggling realization that we
are threatened with its theoretically innite elasticity. Does the modern period keep
stretching out before us, following times arrow, though tethered to its point of de-
parture, as the future turns into the present and then into the recent past? The
invention of postmodern as a category of time, while loaded with clusters of the-
oretical concerns, clearly stems from a concern to delimit the modern. Will his-
torians in future centuries refer to the Modern period the way we talk about the
Renaissance, as a term that was invented by contemporaries to describe their own
era but that has ossied into something of a quaint misnomer, preserved with a sense
of irony that people in that now-distant past really did think of themselves as a` la
mode? Here it is useful to recall that in seventeenth-century Europe there were those
in the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns who thought of themselves as modern
with just as much conviction as did followers of Auguste Comte and other prophets
of the endless promise of modern industry and science in the nineteenth century.
For the most part, however, these essays confront a strong version of the ques-
tion of modernity, which goes beyond a concern for periodization, raising funda-
mental issues about how we understand and describe historical change in different
times and places. Can we escape the cultural oras Carol Symes warns us in When
We Talk about Modernitythe chronological chauvinism associated with notions
of modernity that imply a Western as well as a superior notion of what it means?
One incarnation of this perspective, modernization theory, seems, indeed, largely to
have disappeared from the lexicon of historians. It is interesting to note how little
attention our contributors pay to this once-robust approach to comparative history,
sociology, economics, and policymaking. As Gurminder K. Bhambra notes in His-
torical Sociology, Modernity, and Postcolonial Critique, by the later 1990s the fail-
ures of earlier modernization theory were deemed to be self-evident. And the lack
of comment on what Richard Wolin, in Modernity: The Peregrinations of a Con-
tested Historiographical Concept, calls the normalizing presumptions of modern-
ization theorywith its prejudicial, one-size-ts-all conception of development
would seem to conrm this view. In Modernitys Failings, Political Claims, and
Intermediate Concepts, Lynn M. Thomas suggests that African historiography
largely came of age through debunking modernization theory, while Mark Roseman
frames his essay on National Socialism and the End of Modernity as a discussion
of the debates conducted since the 1980s in the wake of the loss of faith in mod-
ernization theory. The sole exception to this consensus is Dipesh Chakrabarty, who,
while acknowledging in The Muddle of Modernity that the concept is today largely
On implications of early modern as a period for historians outside the West, see Dipesh
Chakrabartys essay in this roundtable, The Muddle of Modernity.
632 Introduction
discredited, uses it to posit a distinction between the historical processes generating
institutional changesthat is, modernizationand the ways people have
thought of themselves as modern, which is to say, modernism. Ones sense of
being modern did not always follow the chronology of modernization, he notes.
An appreciation of the specicity of modernism, as opposed to modernity or
modernization, is shared by several of the contributors. And several dwell on the
historicity of the term, with interesting results. Its meaning, however, is elastic, rang-
ing from general discourses of modernity to more self-reexive and critical perspec-
tives on modernity, ultimately leading in some cases to an anti-modern sensibility.
Chakrabarty sees it as embodying a critique of modernization shared by people in
colonial India who were disappointed with its results. But, referring to the early
modern experience, he also suggests the possibility that Indian thinkers did not
develop any self-reexive (as opposed to practical) body of thought, and in this
sense did not participate in modernity. That, if true, would simply be a fact; it
would not point to some inherent shortcoming in Indian history, he adds. For Dor-
othy Ross, in American Modernities, Past and Present, modernism emerges as
an alternative to American exceptionalism, especially in the hands of intellectual
historians and other critics in the postWorld War II period. Rooted in such critical
discourses as Marxism and Freudianism, American modernism, in dramatic contrast
to the narrative of exceptionalism, threatened to transform modernity into a story
of decline. Despite this and the more recent challenge from postmodernism, she
concludes in her crisp survey of writings in the last sixty years, When the dust settled,
the liberal narrative of modernity had returned to center stage. A sense of the
modern was very much alive in Meiji Japan, when, as Carol Gluck shows in The End
of Elsewhere: Writing Modernity Now, contemporaries were fond of describing
their era as if everything about it were new. Like others, her analysis suggests that
modernity entailed some version of modernism; it was as much an attitude as it is
an institutional or cultural condition, a mental temper distinguished by perpetual
self-consciousness and critique. Roseman observes that some historians see Na-
tional Socialism as infused with modernist impulses, here understood in rather spe-
cic historical terms as a commitment to radical renewal and the rooting out of
decadence, or what Harry Harootunian describes as speed, shock, and the spec-
tacle of constant sensation.
While this has the virtue of undermining a tendency
to see Nazism as simply in step with modernizing trends, its explanatory serviceability
is limited, argues Roseman. Thomas urges us to consider the modern as a native
category for claiming and denying political inclusion and imagining newoften bet-
terways of being. This approach, she notes, builds on historians heightened
appreciation, since the linguistic turn, for the power of language or discourse to
help shape political realities. Finally, Wolin offers probably the most forthright
defense of what we might call a modernist perspective on modernity, which he sees
in terms of cultural reexivity: a capacity to employ second order concepts that
helps us to redress the failings and limitations of modernity as a set of historical
processes. In a comment that echoes the concerns of several critics cited by Ross,
however, he warns against a version of modernism associated with romanticism or
Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan
(Princeton, N.J., 2000), 18.
Introduction 633
such writers as Baudelaire and Wilde, which always harbored the potential to con-
geal into a smug, narcissistic aestheticism . . . a willful scorn of the virtues of pub-
licness. Modernism might be considered a superstructural consciousness of mo-
dernity, exhibiting a range of cultural and intellectual positions that in some cases
arise most sharply and critically precisely where and when modern trends are most
contested or deleterious, or that simply resist the comprehension of those who are
subject to its bewildering effects.
Most historians, then, would agree with C. A. Bayly that an essential part of
being modern is thinking you are modern.
But (like him) they would also acknowl-
edge that it meant more than that. There is, for most, at least, a modernity out
there, or at least a range of historical developments that describe the predicament
of most of the world of the last couple of centuries. The problem is less with the
accuracy of our description than with the intellectual and moral costs of how it has
been deployed. How can we preserve the specicity of modernity without imposing
a one-way, Western model of what it means? Gluck embraces a qualied under-
standing of modernity as describing commonalities across time and space, but at
the same time she urges us to appreciate it not as something that spread like a virus
from West to East, but rather as a global phenomenon created by the participation
and, most importantly, the aspirations of people far and wide. In Modernity: The
Sphinx and the Historian, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite reminds us that claims for modernity
on the part of some people meant assumptions of backwardness for others: mod-
erns were in tune with history, the others were not. But these same claims also
entailed the assertion that these backward civilizations were degenerate even in
terms of their own histories and cultural achievements. Thus, in some cases, imperial
domination was seen as an act of rescue of the colonized from their present de-
generate statea modern civilizing mission of conquest, discovery, historical re-
trieval, and nally return to an imagined, lost, so-called purer state. Turning to the
question of the colonization not of space but of time, Symes offers a searing critique
of the modern creation of the medieval period as an aspect of modernity, resulting
in a attened medieval pasta homogenizing narrative of barbarity from which
they, qua modern people, had liberated themselves. Here too there is a process of
recovery, for as much as the Middle Ages, like non-Western lands, was dened in
terms of all that modernity had, happily, left behind, so too was it the dark womb
of modernity. There was, she writes, a Scramble for Authenticity long before the
Scramble for Africa, and the prospectors who panned for the gold of national identity
knew that supplies were limited.
To avoid the imperious and ethnocentric assumptions implicit in most formu-
lations of modernity, many commentators propose that we think of it in plural terms.
There is neither one path to the modern world nor one way of being modern. We
thus have suggestions for multiple modernities, blended or hybrid moderni-
ties, alternative modernities, and synchronic modernities, as well as Ben-Dor
Benites call not to search for modernity in the sense of assuming what we are
looking for, but to be prepared to discover sources of modern development in very
different guises.
All of these alternative formulations, however, are juxtaposed
C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 17801914 (Oxford, 2004), 10.
See Ben-Dor Benite, Modernity.
634 Introduction
against the warning, voiced by Frederick Cooper, that simply multiplying moder-
nities runs the risk of emptying the concept of all meaning: modernity becomes
a word for everything that has happened in the last ve hundred years.
is even more skeptical about the move to see modernity as plural, asserting that it
largely preserves the general framework in which the variations on the theme of
modernity are located. Theorists of multiple modernities, she concludes, seek to
contain challenges to the dominant theoretical framework of sociology by not al-
lowing difference to make a difference to the original categories of modernity.
The vexed nature of modernity prompts several of our contributors to call its
usefulness into question, if not dispense with it altogether. Thus Roseman comes to
the conclusion that National Socialism is best explained less by marshaling the long-
term processes of modernity than by a chronologically more foreshortened appre-
ciation of the traumatic consequences of the First World War, the Russian Revo-
lution, and the Great Depression. Thomas does not reject the concept but directs
our gaze away from its large-scale manifestations and toward mid-level or inter-
mediate analytical concepts, such as divisions between the religious and secular or
the public and private, critical or scientic discourses, challenges to various social
hierarchies, constitutional and bureaucratic governments, mass media, increased ur-
banization, more integrated markets, and the like. Such a methodological move, she
writes, might allow us to subject formations long associated with modernity to fresh
scrutiny by tracking the circuitous routes and jagged political terrains through which
they travel, and reconstructing their contradictory and ambivalent afterlives. In dif-
ferent ways, then, both Roseman and Thomas suggest a methodological downsizing
of scale away from the wide-screen sweep implicit in the category of modernity to-
ward a reduced focusin time, for the former, analytically, for the latter. Rosss
acknowledgment that modernity may be too coarse a concept likewise reects an
unease harbored by many historians and others that it simply means too much and
thus explains too little. Of all our contributors, Symes offers perhaps the most severe
criticism of the concept of modernity. For her, the Middle Ages is one of mo-
dernitys colonial creations. Although she concedes that the historian crafts may be
predicated on a present claim to novelty or superiority when compared to a great
before, she argues that modernitys fabrication of a medieval other has been
more consciously aggressive and encompassing than with other periods. It is hard,
however, to escape her more radical claim that the fault indeed lies with periodiza-
tion itself: These acts of naming do not create historical reality; they create an
appearance of it, a false ontology.
Despite these critiques, we still might decide that the concept of modernity can-
not be dispensed with so readily. Bhambra offers a defense based upon disciplinary
considerations. Unlike history, she asserts, sociology and anthropology locate their
object of study on either side of the tradition-modernity divide. History has been
spared the sense of crisis in the wake of the dissolution of this divide, for, with the
entire expanse of past times as our eld of study, there is no imperative to take it
into account. It is not clear, however, that historians are exempt from considering
its centrality. To be sure, critics such as Symes would prefer that we come to a greater
On this, see Frederick Cooper, Modernity, in Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowl-
edge, History (Berkeley, Calif., 2005), 127.
Introduction 635
awareness of the perils of imposing periods on the past, recognizing that they are
ctive efforts, and much cultural history strives to do just that. But Thomas, for
one, suggests that these ctions are tenacious, and not only among historians. While
scholars were preoccupied with debunking modernization theory, she writes, its
key tenets became entrenched in folk epistemologies. For modern Africans, mo-
dernity was something to strive for; it was a tool for both advancement and colonial
critique. This is not to say that scholars do not have their native categories as well.
As has been argued, cultural history might seem to dispense with explicit grand nar-
ratives congured by the telos of modernity, but these often serve as its framework
nevertheless, as the historians common sense.
Somewhat paradoxically, this
takes us back to Symess acknowledgment of the great before as a feature of his-
torical discourse. Assuming that we do not dispense with the diachronic approach
altogether, can we ever do without comparisons across time that evoke some notions
of development, of meaningful change, even as we remain aware of the perils of a
teleology of modernity?
It may be that the benets are worth the risksthat is, assuming that we want
to address the big question of how the world we live in came about. If academic
historians have become more cautious about taking on this sort of questionthe
kind that used to be the staple of historical inquiry when modernization theory,
developmental models, and Marxism guided much scholarshipthis certainly does
not mean that our students or the broadly educated public evoked by Wolin are
of the same critical turn of mind. As Wolin states, for all its professionalism and
occasional hermeticism, history has a public mission to provide a measure of self-
understanding. And one way to participate in this project is surely to attempt to
explain the multiple and intertwined ways in which modernity has come about and
to impart an informed and historically grounded sense of the perils and possibilities
of living in the modern world. For there is clearly a desire to understand the be-
wildering transformations that characterize the modern world, even (or especially)
as these so evidently work their changes in such unequal, disparate, and patently
unjust ways across the globe. But the usefulness of the concept of modernity is not
limited to accommodating the interests of a non-academic readership; it may still be
relevant to critically minded historians as well. Just as Thomas notes the presence
of modernity as a native category among Africans, a term entrenched in folk
epistemologies, so Chakrabarty argues more generally that listening to how people
in different times and places have claimed modernity as their own is crucial to un-
derstanding the history they made and the sense of history that guides them. To be
modern is to judge ones experience of time and space and thus create new pos-
sibilities for oneself, he writes.
This suggests another concern, one that takes us back to some of the issues that
drove the search for explanations for unequal development around the world, a con-
cern that, while certainly of great moment, seems to have waned as a subject of
historical investigation. In her 2008 AHA Presidential Address, Developing In-
equality, which in some respects was the inspiration for this roundtable, Barbara
Weinstein took note of the decline of developmental and modernization models of
Barbara Weinstein, History without a Cause? Grand Narratives, World History, and the Post-
colonial Dilemma, International Review of Social History 50 (2005): 7193.
636 Introduction
historical discourse, which for all their aws strove to explain how some societies
became rich while others remained poor. Their very premise was that all human
beings could hope to share in the magic of modernity, and that the lessons of history
could provide the signposts for a better future.
With their decline, this goal, which
once governed the research of a great swath of historians and social scientists, has
gone the way of cliometrics and disco. It may indeed be that modernity need no
longer play a categorical role in this sort of inquiry. But it is hard to imagine pursuing
the question of unequal development around the world without some sense of the
trends and processes over time that produced it. And one way to conceptualize these
trends and processes so that historians in different elds, periods, and places might
engage with one another meaningfully is as features of modernity. To be sure, no
one wants to force historians into the idolatry that Marc Bloch famously bemoaned
by obliging them to join in the quest for the origins of the modern world (or its
various manifestations). Surely Carol Symes speaks for legions of medieval histo-
rians and others who rightfully resent having to pay homage to this particular idol.
This does not mean, however, that for others the movement of history across certain
thresholds of development is not meaningful as a guide to understanding the varied,
differential, and contradictory, if not paradoxical, outcomes that dene our world
whether we call it modern or not. To borrow a mischievous turn of phrase from that
great polemicist and historian J. H. Hexter, If this be idolatry, lets make the most
of it.
The essays in this roundtable certainly subject the question of modernity to a
series of searching questions. As questionable as it undoubtedly remains, if nothing
else they suggest that modernity is good to think withor, as it happens, against.
Barbara Weinstein, Developing Inequality, American Historical Review 113, no. 1 (February
2008): 15.
For a provocative consideration of some of these issues, see History and the Telescoping of Time:
A Disciplinary Forum, French Historical Studies 34, no. 1 (Winter 2011), edited by Daniel Lord Smail,
with essays by Smail, Clare Haru Crowston, Carol Symes, and Kristen B. Neuschel.
Introduction 637