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Anthropology and Modernity

Author(s): JoelS. Kahn


Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 42, No. 5 (December 2001), pp. 651-680
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for
Anthropological Research
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C u r r e n t A n t h r o p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001
䉷 2001 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2001/4205-0003$3.00

In a recent assessment of the pertinence of theories of


modernity to the practice of anthropology. Englund and
Anthropology and Leach criticize anthropologists for flirting with the
“meta-narratives of modernity.” The concept of mo-
Modernity 1 dernity may have been substantially pluralized and re-
lativized in recent anthropology (see, e.g., Comaroff and
Comaroff 1993, 1999; Appadurai 1996; Rofel 1999; Ong
1999), but Englund and Leach still find modernist an-
by Joel S. Kahn thropology guilty of merging the “concerns of ethnog-
raphy with those of Western sociology.” Such a merger,
they argue, serves to devalue if not erase the particular
contribution of ethnography “as a practice of reflexive
knowledge production.” This, they imply, would be a
Against those who have taken anthropologists to task for flirting great loss, since “the knowledge practices of ethnography
with the “meta-narratives” of modernity, this article argues that . . . are unique in that they give the ethnographer’s in-
it is incumbent on them to engage with both modernity and
modernist narratives far more directly and explicitly than in the terlocutors a measure of authority in producing an un-
past. This holds even, or especially, for those who, in positing a derstanding of their life-worlds” (Englund and Leach
notion of multiple modernities, have managed to hold modernist 2000:225–26).
narrative at arm’s length, neglecting the potential fruitfulness of I want to argue here precisely for the need to reesta-
juxtaposing Western and non-Western experiences of what Ha-
blish the conversation between anthropology and social
bermas has called the project of modernity. The encounter be-
tween anthropology and modernity is generated on the one hand theory and hence between “non-Western” and “West-
by changes in the lives of the subjects of ethnographic research, ern” experiences (and narratives) of modernity that has
but the fact of these changes raises more searching questions been neglected in recent years. Specifically, I want to
about whether ethnographers ever studied genuinely premodern insist on the value of a more systematic dialogue with
peoples and cultures. The reflexive imperative, moreover, con-
firms the need to recognize anthropology’s own modernist ori- those critical theorists who have attempted to redefine
gins. Finally it is argued that it is critical modernist theory in or reconceptualize Western modernity in the aftermath
the Hegel-Marx-Weber tradition that is the most pertinent to the of postmodernism. Against the claims of Englund and
ethnographic encounter and that the exercise of bringing together Leach, moreover, I will maintain that the notion of plural
critical theory and ethnographic knowledge, while conflictual,
or multiple modernities as it has been developed in re-
produces fruitful results for both sides.
cent anthropology is problematic not because it sub-
j o e l s . k a h n is Professor of Anthropology at La Trobe Univer- sumes the ethnographic project to classical modernist
sity (Melbourne 3083, Australia [j.kahn@latrobe.edu.au]). Born in narratives but precisely because it fails sufficiently to
1946, he was educated at Cornell University (B.A., 1967) and the engage with them. I am not suggesting that a dialogue
London School of Economics and Political Science (M.Phil., 1969; between anthropology and modernist social theory is or
Ph.D., 1974). He has taught at University College London, the
should be a harmonious one. I agree with Englund and
University of Sussex, and Monash University. His research inter-
ests include development, social change, nation building, and Leach and recent modernist anthropologists that eth-
identity in Indonesia and Malaysia and the history of anthropol- nographic knowledge poses significant challenges to that
ogy. Among his publications are Constituting the Minangkabau: theory. Yet to suggest that we should withdraw from the
Peasants, Culture, and Modernity in Colonial Indonesia (Oxford dialogue because of supposedly deep-seated incompati-
and Providence: Berg, 1993), Culture, Multiculture, Postculture
(London: Sage, 1995), and Modernity and Exclusion (London: bilities between the “West and the Rest,” self and other,
Sage, 2001). The present paper was submitted 29 xi 00 and ac- the proper disciplinary concerns of sociology and an-
cepted 23 v 01. thropology, or the radical differences between Western
and non-Western experiences of modernity is to fail to
recognize that it is precisely out of such an encounter
that all such apparently contradictory entities arise in
the first place. I shall argue that the encounter with a
critical theory of modernity is peculiarly pertinent to a
genuinely reflexive ethnography.
In what follows I will examine the ways in which an-
1. An early version of this paper was presented at a symposium I thropology is, for better or worse, forced into an en-
organized at the University of Sussex. I thank the participants for counter with both Western modernity and Western nar-
their comments and criticisms, which helped me to clarify my ratives of modernization. This involves also looking
thinking on these issues. In particular, I want to thank Zygmunt briefly at the ways in which contemporary modernist
Bauman, Filippo Osella, and Jon Mitchell for their contributions to
the discussions. Christopher Houston and Maila Stivens read and ethnography has handled this encounter, through either
commented on a draft of this paper. I am extremely grateful to both a rejection or a relativization of modernity. I will then
of them, even if I did not always follow their advice. This means, discuss briefly those aspects of the critical theory of mo-
of course, that they are in no way responsible for the final argument, dernity that appear particularly pertinent to an anthro-
with which they will doubtless disagree at certain points. Their
comments were, nonetheless, invaluable. Finally, I thank Francesco
pology of modernity. Finally, I shall examine the chal-
Formosa for valuable research assistance in the rewriting of the lenges to both theorist and ethnographer posed by the
paper for publication. juxtaposition of modernist theory and ethnographically
651

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652 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

based knowledge of contemporary Southeast Asia. The and social reconstruction lumped under the heading of
concept of multiple modernities that has emerged out of the New Economic Policy (NEP) began to make their
such encounters proves to be a problematic response to mark in the early 1970s, does not need retelling here. It
the ethnographer’s need to bring the contextual and the is enough to note that economic growth over a period of
popular dimensions of modernity into frame. almost three decades, punctuated by brief downturns in
Provoking this confrontation, in other words, forces us the early 1980s and more during the Asian financial crisis
to rethink both the ethnographic understanding of of 1997, has been consistently high, and this has been
Southeast Asia and the received notions of modernity accompanied by changes in most of the social and cul-
that have been developed in Western contexts in ways tural indicators that are typically associated with mod-
that are fruitful for both. This allows us to return to the ernization and development. The NEP was expected to
reflexive imperative urged on us by Englund and Leach contribute both to national economic growth and to a
and the notion of multiple modernities but suggests that loosening of the connection between economic function
only by engaging directly with both modernity and mod- and race bequeathed by colonialism. The economic de-
ernist theory can ethnography ever truly claim to be velopments and “restructuring” of this period had a very
reflexive. significant impact on the Malay villages where we
started our research, which up to then had been consid-
ered—by ethnographers and Malay nationalists
alike—the locus classicus of premodern Malay society
Encountering Modernity
and culture.
Already by the mid-1970s and certainly when we re-
Ethnography in its broadest sense doubtless remains a turned during the 1980s, it was evident that a good deal
cornerstone of the discipline of anthropology, but of of the economic action was taking place outside the rice-
equal importance are the theoretical considerations pro- farming Malay village “republics,” in a landscape rapidly
voked by the ethnographic confrontation between self dominated by factories and small- and medium-scale
and other. The following brief discussion of Southeast manufacturing plants in free-trade zones and industrial
Asia is therefore aimed at raising these theoretical issues parks scattered throughout the country. Such develop-
in a context that may be broadly typical of many such ments, moreover, were not “offstage” from the point of
encounters. view of the villagers; most of them were either working
My own research began in the early 1970s with two in these factories or reliant on the income of a family
years of ethnography in Minangkabau villages in both member who was. This shift was accompanied by the
highland and coastal areas in the Indonesian province of growth of cities and towns and of “modern” urban land-
West Sumatra (see Kahn 1980, 1993), although the en- scapes of office towers, hotels, and condominiums in the
counter dates back to the years before that when the U.S. Klang Valley and in regional towns, the mushrooming
government attempted but failed to send me to South- of housing estates on the fringes of all of Malaysia’s ur-
east Asia for less peaceful activities. I returned with my ban centres, the widespread appearance of shopping cen-
partner, Maila Stivens,2 to a Malay village in the Malay- tres, malls, restaurants, and multinational fast-food out-
sian state of Negeri Sembilan for an extended period in lets in city centres and suburban fringes, the building of
1975–76. Since that time we have returned to Malaysia highways, toll roads, and bridges and a huge increase in
together or separately every year or so for periods ranging car ownership and accompanying traffic snarls through-
from a few days to several months, during which times out the country, the expansion of banking, share trading,
we have done further research, attended conferences, and consumer credit and the growth of all branches of
given seminar papers, and visited postgraduate students the media and the popular entertainment industries, an
carrying out their own dissertation research. At the same increase in tourist arrivals and departures, and the build-
time we have welcomed Malaysian and Indonesian col- ing of theme parks, entertainment complexes, and lei-
leagues and postgraduate students in Australia as super- sure centres. These developments were accompanied by
visors, conference organizers, and collaborators in a va- high levels of pollution and environmental degrada-
riety of research and publishing projects (see, e.g., Kahn tion—the other side of modernization. Many of the same
and Loh 1992, Kahn 1999, Sen and Stivens 1998, Hilsdon people whom we had previously encountered in “our”
et al. 2000). village in Negeri Sembilan were now living on a per-
In the time since the first research, developments in manent or temporary basis in the new urban centres,
Malaysia have so clearly transformed our ethnographic where we often met them either by chance or design.
subject that we have been increasingly compelled to re- These meetings brought home to us the extent to which
define our ethnographic project as an anthropology of the boundaries between “our” world and “theirs” were
modernity. The story of Malaysian modernization, par- far more permeable in both directions than the tradi-
ticularly since the state-led policies of industrialization tional vision of ethnography might suggest.
Not unexpectedly, the material trappings of late-20th-
2. I am extremely grateful to the following bodies for funding re- century modernity were accompanied by major upheav-
search in Indonesia and Malaysia over the years: the London-Cor-
nell Projects, the British Social Science Research Council, the Brit- als in the lives of all Malaysians. Between 1970 and 1990,
ish Academy, The Leverhulme Foundation, The British Institute in the patterns of social stratification that had prevailed in
Southeast Asia, and The Australian Research Council. the colonial and early postcolonial period were radically

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 653

transformed. Wage labour was not uncommon in the vil- Putrajaya is perhaps the grandest expression of a state-
lages where we carried out our research, but since around directed modernization project. The political parties
1970 we have witnessed the development of wage labour have also been transformed. Malaysia is governed, as it
into the “quasi-universal form of distribution,” to bor- was when independence was granted by the British in
row a term coined to describe the effects of late capi- 1957, by a coalition of race-based parties dominated by
talism in Europe (see Sulkunen 1992). The emergence of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO).
a Malay working class, a significant proportion of which UMNO has developed into a party of full-time profes-
is young and female, has directly or indirectly affected sional politicians, a growing number of Malay-educated
the lives of almost all rural Malays, including those liv- small and medium-level businessmen, and—the real
ing in villages in Negeri Sembilan. Particularly signifi- power brokers—the so-called New Malays, the wealthy
cant in terms of their implications for rural Malays have
and influential businesspeople, financiers, and managers
been the specific character of the new capitalist work
of large business conglomerates who have benefited the
processes in the burgeoning, labour-intensive, export-ori-
most from government policies favouring Malay com-
ented manufacturing sector and the impact of the ethnic
“restructuring” aims of the Malaysian state. These have mercial interests (see Rustam 1993). Following UMNO’s
meant that more and more Malay villagers, including lead, all the parties in the coalition have followed this
substantial numbers of young women, have taken up path of greater professionalism, on the one hand, and
employment as unskilled labourers in nearby factories, closer links with big business, on the other. Again, the
with some abandoning village residence altogether for implications of this particular modernizing process for
the modern lifestyle (kaki jolly) of the factory “girl.” village residents and migrants alike have been signifi-
At the same time, there has been a substantial increase cant, as all Malaysian citizens have come more directly
in the relative size of what sociologists are wont to call under the scrutiny of rational, bureaucratic state and
(problematically) the new middle classes, a development party apparatuses, with an accompanying decline in the
that has also affected a large proportion of Malays who personalized and localized political hierarchies of the
were previously living in Malay villages (cf. Kahn 1996). earlier period.
We did ethnography and carried out interviews with Ma- There have been parallel shifts in the cultural/religious
lays in a range of new middle-class occupations on hous- landscape. As did Lisa Rofel in China, we found that
ing estates on the fringes of Seremban (the capital of modernity “was something that many people from all
Negeri Sembilan) during the late 1980s. These peo- walks of life felt passionately moved to talk about and
ple—among them the children, siblings, and cousins of debate” (Rofel 1999:xi). At the same time, the rise in the
villagers among whom we had earlier done our “eth- 1970s of the so-called dakwah (Islamic “missionary”)
nography”—were still to varying degrees bound up in movements marked the beginning of significant shifts
village life. Many of them had until quite recently lived in the style and language of religious debate among Mus-
in “peasant” villages either in Negeri Sembilan or else-
lims and non-Muslims. These were part of what is usu-
where, most of them kept up close ties with kin and
ally described as a religious “revival” in politics and in
friends in their villages of origin, some had left their
society more widely but might be more accurately
children behind with their own parents in the village,
and many expected at some point to return to village termed a new phase of modernist Islamization of both
residence, at least on retirement. More successful urban state and society (cf. Hussin Mutalib 1993:x–xi). The so-
residents were expected to send cash remittances and/ called Islamic revival and parallel developments among
or do favours for village kin. Some saw it as their duty other religious groups have been less a spiritual move-
as pious Muslims to bring “true” Islamic teachings and ment than a process of religious rationalization through
practices to their villages.3 Many consciously attempted the establishment of closer links between religion and
to re-create the best features of village life in their new worldly social processes, both political and economic.4
middle-class housing estates. Alongside the greater involvement of Islam in politics
Apart from changes associated most directly with ec- and the bureaucracy, for example, the period has wit-
onomic transformation, there have been significant nessed the emergence of a highly commodified “life-
changes to both political and cultural/religious land- style” Islam, particularly among the new Malay middle
scapes. The growth in the size, functions, and modern- classes (see Stivens n.d.). The spread of these rationalized
izing mission of the Malaysian state proceeded apace Islamic practices and of new Islamic lifestyles into Malay
during the prime ministership of Mahathir Mohamad. villages on the peninsula has tended to follow the links
The current construction of a new capital complex at between urban and rural Malay life forged by migration,
bureaucratization, and the spread of the modern media,
3. One should also mention the emergence in both urban and rural the result being the virtual disappearance of the ruralized
areas of new underclasses mainly drawn from the ranks of immi-
grants, both legal and illegal, from poorer regions of Southeast Asia
(including Sumatra) who came in Malaysia’s boom times. At the
same time, economic growth has thrown up new kinds of business
elites—Chinese and Malay—with extremely close links to the po- 4. I am grateful to both Trevor Hogan and Wendy Smith, who have
litical parties (cf. Gomez 1990, Heng 1992, Sieh 1992, Gomez and separately drawn my attention to this aspect of Malaysian
Jomo 1997). Islamization.

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654 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

Islamic beliefs and religio-political hierarchies that pre- have to look too far beneath the surface even in sup-
vailed in the first decade after independence.5 posedly “remote” areas to discover the transformative
This rather simplistic story of modernization has im- effects on village life of commodification, land aliena-
portant implications for the doing of anthropology in tion, bureaucratization, and religious rationalization.
Malaysia. At a practical level, as have many of our con- Therefore, ethnographic experience in Southeast Asia, as
temporaries we have felt compelled to go beyond the in many other parts of the world, has led to a new un-
narratives of “social change” that had previously been derstanding of the anthropological project—no longer as
tacked onto most ethnographies, enlarging the scope of an anthropology of premodernity but as an anthropology
our village-based research to include cities, industrial of modernity. The experience drives us towards rather
workers, and wage work among emigrant (and “trans- than away from existing modernist narratives, but there
migrant”) villagers and their urban-based offspring, an is a second, equally compelling reason for anthropology
increasingly bureaucratized and “rationalized” national to engage with Western modernist narratives, this one
political machine, and the “performance” of Malay cul- stemming from what is seen as anthropology’s reflexive
ture and Islamic doctrine in film, popular music, adver- project.
tisements, and the ceremonies of state.6 This has taken
place mainly because of a transformation in the Malay
kampong (village) itself—the traditional object of an an-
thropology of the Malays. In the decades since our first
Reflexivity and the Modern Spaces of
ethnographic research the kampong has not disappeared Tradition
from the rural landscape, but any illusions about its self-
sufficiency—its constituting a significant space from By “reflexivity” I mean the implications of the “discov-
which the economic, social, and cultural forces that con- ery” by anthropologists and their critics that the knowl-
stitute Malay life emanate—have clearly been shattered. edge which anthropology produces is not innocent—that
At the same time, the self-sufficient and virtuous kam- it is not a simple reflection of a pre-given social and
pong republic continues to reappear in virtual form in cultural reality out there in the world. Recognition of
the imaginations of mainly city dwellers (and foreign the “constructedness” of ethnographic knowledge com-
tourists) in large part because of the growth industry pels ethnographers to include that knowledge within
feeding an urban-based Malay nostalgia. This nostalgia their field of investigation rather than merely reflect on
is fed in turn by academics and intellectuals, largely Ma- it and therefore to ask about not only the conditions
lay but including foreign ethnographers with their ro- which make it possible but its role in the production of
manticized images of a rural Malay cultural “otherness.” the very social and political spaces within which eth-
Like it or not, the ethnographer of Malaysia is dragged nography operates. This is to accept, at least in part, the
inexorably into a direct encounter with modernity at the assertion by Englund and Leach that ethnographic
same time as its peoples have been enmeshed in modern knowledge is in some sense a construction involving
processes of commodification, instrumentalization, and both ethnographers and their ethnographic “objects,”
rationalization. now seen as active subjects of ethnographic knowledge.
The impact of these changes has apparently been less That the processes of selection and constitution by
dramatic in places like Sumatra or supposedly more “re- which an ethnography is produced ideally allow the peo-
mote” parts of Malaysia itself. However, one does not ple under investigation some role in the production of
knowledge about themselves is essentially what is
5. The classic study of a peasantist Malay Islam is Clive Kessler’s meant by the concept of ethnography as a dialogical
superb ethnographic account of the growth of the Pan Malay Islamic exercise.
Party (the PMIP, now PAS) in rural Kelantan in the 1960s. Kessler But this, surely, is not the end of the story. Stressing
showed that the success of the PMIP in capturing a substantial
the role of ethnography’s interlocutors in the construc-
proportion of the UMNO vote was mainly a consequence of rural
discontent with the leadership and policies of the UMNO elite, tion of knowledge about themselves must not blind us
who in the immediate postindependence period claimed to be the to the far more authoritative role played by ethnogra-
main guardians of Malay interests (Kessler 1978). The Islamic “re- phers themselves and, more important, by the modern
vival” since the 1970s, by contrast, has been overwhelmingly urban, discourse of ethnography in this process. What makes
even global, in origin, spread to rural areas mainly by returning
migrants, educated members of the dakwah movements, and the an account of such an encounter ethnography—as op-
media (cf. Jomo and Cheek 1992, Stivens n.d.). posed to anecdote, fiction, journalism, travel writing, ad-
6. The results of some of this refocused ethnography are published vertising copy, or the scrawlings of amateurs—has very
elsewhere, in discussions of the discourse of Malaysian intellectuals little to do with the scrutiny of particular interlocutors
on Malay identity (Kahn 1994) and of the constitution of Malayness
or even the personal characteristics of individual eth-
in Malay film and popular music (Kahn 2001:chap. 4), modern Ma-
lay urbanism, tourism, and the heritage movement in Penang (Kahn nographers. It derives instead from unambiguously mod-
1997), the formation of the new Malaysian middle classes (Kahn ern spaces governed by institutions such as universities,
1996), the gender dimensions of agrarian change and industriali- publishers, academic/professional journals, and funding
zation (Stivens 1996) and modern politics (Stivens 1991), the de- bodies that determine what is and what is not valid eth-
velopment of “modern” notions of motherhood (Stivens 1998a), the
moral panics generated by consumption in modern shopping malls nographic knowledge, what is or is not “good ethnog-
(Stivens 1998b), and the emergence of a universalizing discourse of raphy.” To put this another way, the reflexive imperative
human rights (Stivens 2000). demands that we evaluate ethnography less in the con-

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 655

text of the singular dialogue between individual ethnog- so many “native” voices with the authority to interro-
raphers and particular informants on the supposedly non- gate ethnography who would thereby be bypassed be-
modern terrain on which individual acts of ethnography cause they are not the voices of ethnography’s traditional
are carried out than as part of a sustained project of informants but those of academics, intellectuals, poli-
knowledge production and consumption within modern- ticians, and others. Ironically, now that there are “na-
ity. To recognize that ethnographic knowledge is itself tives” with real power to act as gatekeepers in the cir-
modernist is to accept that the reflexive imperative culation of ethnographic knowledge, their contributions
forces us to consider the social relations (including, but are completely erased by a vision of a non-modern eth-
not exclusively, power relations) within which anthro- nography that denies them authenticity presumably be-
pological knowledge circulates in modern spaces and the cause they are too caught up in the meta-narratives of
implications of such knowledge for the world in which modernity to speak in the unmediated subaltern voice.
it circulates. Of course, since the discipline of anthro- The best-known critic of “Western” representations of
pology in the strict sense has its origins in the West, the Malaysia is none other than Prime Minister Mahathir
modern world within which anthropological knowledge Mohamad, although his vigilance is shared now by a
has circulated has been a Western one. But this imper- wide range of Malaysian intellectuals, including anthro-
ative is not altered by the fact that since that time an- pologists. Nor can foreign anthropologists any longer eas-
thropology has been globalized and, hence, that the prac- ily escape these voices when they come back home,
tising anthropologist is as likely to be a postcolonial given the intensification of cultural globalization and the
intellectual in the “West” or the “East.” The relationship powerful sensitivity to the concerns of postcolonial in-
between “native” anthropologists and their informants tellectuals in what remain the metropolitan centres of
is of the same order as that involving Western anthro- anthropological knowledge production. Not surprisingly,
pologists. as the example of the “voice” of Mahathir suggests, these
One important role played by anthropological knowl- “native” voices are not ones anthropologists are always
edge in the West has been as part of a project of cultural happy to hear, if only because they do not fit our notion
critique. The case of classical American cultural anthro- of what it is appropriate for natives to say. Insisting on
pology is perhaps the most commonly cited instance of the integrity of interlocutors located at the sites of pro-
this (Marcus and Fisher 1986). But this embedding of duction of ethnographic knowledge still permits met-
notions of cultural otherness within a critique of modern ropolitan anthropologists to ignore almost completely
instrumentalism was certainly not restricted to anthro- the crucial question of the role and function of ethno-
pology, being part of a much broader movement among graphic knowledge in places like modern Malaysia and
artists, intellectuals, and even wider parts of the new hence to sidestep what are far more significant reflexive
middle classes in the Americas, Europe, and Asia in the dilemmas than those posed by traditional ethnography.
interwar years (see Kahn 1995). Surely the reflexive im- At the same time, theorizing Malaysia as a site of mo-
perative demands an analysis of this movement, one dernity and redefining our task as an anthropology of
based on careful examination of the changing role and modernity compels us to take these voices seriously. It
function of intellectuals in different periods of modern forces us to probematize the relation between insiders
history, the significance of modern cultural debates and and outsiders, between “foreigners” and “natives,” be-
conflicts over rationality and its limitations, and the like. tween “us” and “them”—in other words, to engage in a
This kind of reflexivity is possible only when we accept project that is genuinely rather than spuriously reflexive.
that the results of ethnography have always been con- What, then, might the role of ethnography be in a place
stituted by their relationships with modernist narra- like modern Malaysia? This question can be broached
tives—even when mobilized within a critique of a par- only if we reconsider the proposition that ethnography
ticular version of modernism, namely, techno-instru- speaks of places outside modernity.
mental rationalism. Being forced to confront the essential modernity of
Yet one thing that both the insistence on ethnography contemporary Malaysia leads one to question whether
as dialogue and the postcolonial emphasis on its role in there nonetheless remain “remote” spaces within South-
governing relations between “the West and the Rest” east Asia that are somehow outside modernity or
forcefully remind us of is that ethnography is also im- whether these remote traditions are similarly the “in-
plicated in a set of relations between the “us” and the ventions” of a colonial society that was by any measure
“them” of ethnographic discourse. In other words, eth- of rationalization, social differentiation, commodifica-
nography is more than decontextualized knowledge per- tion, and bureaucratization itself already modern. Were
forming the function of cultural critique far from its not the “traditional” spaces in the apparently remote
point of production. Ethnographers of Malaysia, for ex- corners of the world being colonized by classical eth-
ample, would find it impossible to avoid this conclusion nography in the 1920s and 1930s in fact already part of
not so much because of the individual actions of their the same world that had given rise to anthropology and
traditional interlocutors as because intellectuals, poli- anthropologists in the first place? And are those parts of
ticians, and others are coming to speak forcefully, and the Third World that, unlike peninsular Malaysia, have
with authority, for or on behalf of those interlocutors. not achieved high rates of economic growth, urbaniza-
Allowing “informants” to become “interlocutors” pro- tion, and industrialization—including the supposedly re-
duces a very limited degree of reflexivity when there are mote areas of Malaysia itself and the “outlying” regions

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656 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

of neighbouring Indonesia (for this reason more favoured contemporaries, Schrauwers’s study suggests instead
by foreign ethnographers in search of “real” other- that “traditionalization” and “modernization” are part
ness)—any less modern for all that? of the same historical process and that this process in-
My archival research on the colonial history of central volved metropolitan Europe, colonial indigenes, and eth-
Sumatra in the 1980s, for example, suggests that the ap- nographers from the outset. As a consequence Schrau-
parent otherness-to-modernity of economy, culture, and wers always keeps the regional specificities of
society in “remote” regions of the Netherlands East In- modernization in Sulawesi and the Netherlands within
dies was in fact a precipitate of a particular trajectory of the same analytic frame.
colonial modernization from the last decades of the 19th This in turn provides us with a starting point in a
century (see Kahn 1993). In other words, the Minang- search for answers to questions about the modern func-
kabau as they became known to an earlier generation of tion of ethnography itself. As Schrauwers’s study dem-
ethnographers were actually a historical product of spe- onstrates, the practice of ethnography in Sulawesi was
cific patterns of modern state formation, colonial land part of a process that constructed seemingly non-modern
alienation, and the growth of a capitalist economy. In- terrains within a sea of modernizing institutions and
sights into how this happened within a modernizing practices—in other words, it was directly implicated in
Dutch empire is provided by Albert Schrauwers’s superb the traditionalizing and particularizing phases that are
study of economy, society, power, and religion among as much part of modernizing processes in the West as
Pamona villagers in the highlands of Central Sulawesi they are in places like Indonesia. Anthropology is there-
(Schrauwers 2000). This ethnography shows clearly that fore again led towards rather than away from an en-
the To Pamona as a distinctive cultural group, apparently counter with modernity, suggesting that it would do well
with distinctive indigenized forms of Christian belief to engage directly, however critically, with existing mod-
and practice, is no premodern survival in an otherwise ernist meta-narratives.
modernized world but in fact has its origins in the pro- The factors that drive an ethnography of Southeast
cesses of rationalization and modernization that began Asia into this encounter with modernism are in many
in the period of high colonialism. ways typical of those experienced by a large number of
Schrauwers’s case for the distinctively modern origins contemporary ethnographers. What are the implications
of To Pamona social and religious traditions is all the of processes such as those described here for the project
more convincing precisely because it is based on a thor- of ethnography? Do we gain anything by saying that
ough ethnographic study of forms of production, kinship, Southeast Asia is a site of modernity and that our task
patronage, and ritual in To Pomona villages, combined should now be recast as an anthropology of modernity?
with a reading of important materials from the colonial What could this mean?
missionary archives. Schrauwers offers us a detailed
analysis of the interrelations between “tradition” and
“modernity” in highland Sulawesi, examining the links
between commodified and non-commodified forms of
Meanings of the “Modern”
production and exchange, between administrative power
(both secular and religious) and the personalized power Obviously the term “modern” and its derivatives have
relations that we are accustomed to seeing as traditional had many meanings. According to Raymond Williams,
types of patronage, and between Christian doctrine and the word “modern” came into English from the French
“indigenous” religious practice. This all points to the moderne, meaning “just now.” The French usage was
conclusion that To Pomona culture cannot be under- itself derived from the 5th-century Latin modernus, used
stood as combining elements from the past and the pre- “to distinguish an officially Christian present from a Ro-
sent. Instead it is an integrated whole representing a par- man, pagan past” (Smart 1990:17). From the 16th century
ticular regional form of modernity. Schrauwers “modern” acquired a new comparative/historical sense,
compellingly concludes that the conflicts associated this time to provide a contrast with “medieval.” From
with modernization, particularly those that have the 18th century “modern” was used mainly to describe
emerged as a result of the power vacuum associated with architecture, fashion, and behaviour. It was only in the
the collapse of Suharto’s “New Order” state, are not 19th century that it came to be used favourably to mean
those “between a secular modern state and a succes- “improved,” “satisfactory,” or “efficient” (Williams
sionist ethnic periphery whose identity is rooted in ‘pri- 1983:108–9). Related and more specialized terms such as
mordial’ sentiments” as is so commonly assumed. “modernize” and “modernist” did not appear in system-
Rather, “local identities are anchored in ‘religion’, itself atic usage until the 19th century or even later. According
a recent, transethnic phenomenon” (Schrauwers 2000: to Barry Smart, the “first positive references to modern-
228–29). ism are to be found in 1888 in [the Nicaraguan poet
This reorientation of the problematic of Indonesian Rubén] Dario’s praise of the work of a Mexican writer,
nationalism radically subverts the self/other and tradi- Ricardo Contreras, and subsequently in 1890 in refer-
tional/modern polarities that served to underwrite many ences to modernismo as a movement in Latin America
earlier ethnographic encounters, even those that focused for cultural emancipation and autonomy from Spain”
on “capitalist penetration” or “social change” after West- (Smart 1990:18). This is rather uneven ancestry for a rig-
ern contact (cf. Kahn 1985). Like those of some of his orous analytic concept.

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 657

In Anglophone social science in particular, the term it is precisely a liberal or techno-instrumental vision of
derives much of its meaning from a source that has come the modern that is under attack. What is clear, then, is
to be widely despised, at least by large numbers of an- that many recent attempts on the part of anthropologists
thropologists—modernization theory. The notion of the to come to grips with modernity—this time understood
modern deployed in modernization theory drew most as a negative rather than a positive experience—have
heavily on a particular liberal and techno-instrumental retained the particular understanding of modernization
vision of what was earlier thought of as a civilizing pro- formulated within the Western liberal tradition, revers-
cess. Here civilization was understood as a universal tra- ing only its normative evaluation. This is at the heart
jectory of individual emancipation and constantly evolv- of the new defence of ethnography articulated by an-
ing rational mastery. This tradition is manifest in the thropologists like Englund and Leach, but their advocacy
persistent influence of the thought of Comte, Spencer, of a more traditionalist understanding of ethnography as
and Durkheim in contemporary social theory.7 Although an escape from the terrain of the modern has not been
modernization theory went out of fashion in academic the only reaction. Instead, some have been led to a rather
circles, the particular understanding of modernity un- new understanding of modernity and modernization as
derpinning it was not substantially altered. In other plural rather than singular phenomena.
words, while the positive valuation of modernization
that derived from its liberal-evolutionist origins fell into
widespread disrepute, especially among left-leaning in- Pluralizing the Modern
tellectuals with an interest in the Third World, these
critics shared with modernization theorists the vision of
modernity as a process of emancipation and continuous What happens when one juxtaposes or brings into con-
technological change. The difference was that for the frontation the theorization of modernity within the
critics modernization had failed to deliver on both Western liberal tradition and experience of ethnographic
promises. encounters in places like late-20th-century Southeast
This negative stance towards both modernity and clas- Asia? Certainly when measured against the yardstick
sical narratives of social modernization was transformed, provided by any classical Western narrative of modern-
again without altering the underlying understanding of ization, Southeast Asia will always be found wanting:
modernity, as evidence began to accumulate that at least modern perhaps, but incompletely modern at best. Ma-
parts of the former Third World seemed to be breaking laysia and Indonesia have modern states but states which
out of the cycles of poverty and underdevelopment to appear deficient because of the absence of full democ-
which many critics of modernization theory had argued racy. Malaysia and Indonesia have rational bureaucra-
they were condemned. Thus drawn into a renewed en- cies, but they also seem to be characterized by the “sur-
counter with modernity, many ethnographers, under the vival” of elements of a premodern political order in
influence of poststructuralist and postcolonial currents which the system of government was coterminous with
personalized ties between patrons and clients. Malaysia’s
in the discipline, renewed the earlier critical stance to-
and Indonesia’s are clearly capitalist economies, but the
wards modernization. Influenced particularly by the
existence of such apparent non-market “perversities” as
work of Foucault, who in a very different context asso-
“cronyism,” state-imposed controls on international
ciated modernity with discursive and hence power-sat-
currency exchange, and personalized ties between em-
urated techniques of surveillance and discipline, the eth-
ployer and employee suggests that they still have some
nographic critics of modernity now came to view
way to go before they meet the standards of efficiency
modernization negatively as a set of discursive processes
expected of a fully modernized market economy. A
associated especially with Western domination. A par-
“modern” separation between church and state has de-
ticularly nuanced and interesting such study is Fergu- veloped, but the pervasiveness of political Islam suggests
son’s analysis of the discourse of development in Lesotho that the separation is somehow incomplete. Viewed
(Ferguson 1990; see also Escobar 1995). through the lens of classical modernist theory, in other
But the salient point is that in most of this literature words, Malaysia and Indonesia appear to be characterized
by an incomplete separation of public and private (how-
7. This is clearly a sweeping generalization that would require more
careful argument than is possible here. To argue that much recent ever defined) or a failure of differentiation of economic
social theorizing remains within this tradition involves tracing con- and political spheres. Both nations are urbanized, but
nections between Comte’s social determinism, Spencer’s linking substantial peasantries and tribal populations seem to
of biological ideas about functional differentiation, the discussions “survive” in “remote” regions. While the Malaysian and
in classical political economy of the “modern” division of labour,
Indonesian states may seek to impose a universal form
and ideas about the evolution of the modern individual, and the
way these are put together in Durkheim’s contention that individ- of citizenship, preferential rights may be granted to par-
uation is a product of an organicist type of social structure. These ticular cultural or religious groups, and particularistic
notions, strengthened by structural linguistics, found their way into systems of racial identification and antagonism remain
an “antihumanist” structuralism and, with renewed critical edge, keystones at least in the everyday lives of the majority
into structural Marxist and then poststructuralist attempts to “de-
centre” the modern subject. I am indebted to both Martha Mac- of citizens. Periodic and often violent outbreaks of anti-
intyre and John Morton for this particular way of tracing the con- Chinese sentiment punctuate recent Indonesian history,
tinuities from structuralist into poststructuralist anthropologies. and Indonesia as a nation now appears to be fragmenting

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658 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

along “primordial” ethnic and religious fault lines. Sim- of the modern are particularistic, they may also be ex-
ilarly, race remains a primary principle of identity and clusionary, even racist, however well-intentioned (Kahn
identification in the everyday lives of most Malaysians. 2001).
Measured against the yardstick of modernist narra- The alternative has been to attempt to reconceptualize
tives, then, Malaysia and Indonesia become “other to the modernity in the plural. Some such notion of “multiple
modern” in significant ways, forcing us back into the modernities” has been developed, often independently,
language of a liberal social evolutionism in which oth- in a wide range of anthropological accounts. A first step
erness was constituted as historically anterior to and, as in this pluralization of modernity is the argument that,
a result, an incomplete or immature version of the mod- while modernity is a singular phenomenon of Western
ern, civilized self (see Kahn 2001). Southeast Asia appears origin, once “spread” to non-Western contexts by colo-
at best perversely modern, or to manifest various per- nialism it became “indigenized” and hence diverged
verse forms of modernity. These may be explained away from the Western trajectory in significant ways. Mayfair
as premodern survivals or invented traditions, but nei- Yang, for example, examines the intricate networks of
ther explanation does much to come to grips with what personalized relationships and informal practices asso-
is apparently unique to such places. ciated with the phenomenon of guanxi/guanxixue in
One reason for this state of affairs has to do with an China as a way of gaining a window on the formation
understanding of modernization as some sort of pure, of modernity in that country, a modernity that differs in
disembedded process uncontaminated by culture and many respects from the modern patterns of the West
history that prevails particularly within the liberal tra- (Yang 1994). Guanxi relationships, ideas, and practices
dition. The implications of such a vision have recently have recently (re)emerged in the Chinese context and
been nicely exposed by Peter Wagner in a rather different become increasingly widespread and influential. Yang ar-
context. In an article on the image of America in Eu- gues that these form a sort of “gift economy” that is
ropean social theory (Wagner 1999), Wagner argues that located within (and is just as much constitutive of) the
modernist theory has tended to represent America pre- modernity that has emerged in socialist China. Modern-
cisely as such a sphere of “pure modernity.” This treat- ity can, writes Yang (pp. 37–38),
ment leads to an assessment of America as superior to be spoken of in the singular because it issues from
Europe in a technical-economic and sociopolitical sense the Western Enlightenment and Industrial Revolu-
but inferior in a moral and philosophical sense. All such tion. But when the force of modernity impinges on
approaches, he says (p. 43), and interacts with hitherto more discrete cultural or
“have in common” a double intellectual move. They political-economic zones, it produces not one form
first withdraw from the treacherous wealth of sensa- but many. . . . For a long time, the West has ceased
tions that come from the socio-historical world to to be the only site of modernity or the only genera-
tor of the types of power found in modernity. Mo-
establish what they hold to be those very few indu-
dernity in China was triggered by western and Japa-
bitable assumptions from which theorizing can
nese imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth
safely proceed. And subsequently, they reconstruct
centuries. [But i]t gave rise to, and its direct impact
an entire world from these very few assumptions.
was diffused and overtaken by, new social forces
Their proponents tend to think that the first move
that were a complicated mixture of native and im-
decontaminates understanding, any arbitrary and
ported elements . . .
contingent aspects being removed. And that the sec-
ond move creates a pure image of the world, of sci- But did the key elements of modernity really appear
entific and/or philosophical validity from which first in the West, only then to be transported and indi-
then further conclusions, including practical ones, genized elsewhere? Evidence can certainly be produced
can be drawn. (Whatever dissonance there may be to demonstrate that the modernization of the West and
between sensations and this image will then be at least parts of the non-West—Russia, Japan, China, the
treated as the secondary problem of the relation be- centres of the Islamic world (or even apparently remote
tween theory and empirical observation.) corners of the Islamic world such as Malaya)—were con-
temporary processes rather than being merely cases of
Such an operation is bound to fail, Wagner maintains, early “Westernization,” raising the possibility of more
because concepts such as autonomy and rationality, so genuinely parallel, multiple, or plural modernities.8
central to the modernist interpretation of the world, “are In his monograph on Greece, for example, James Fau-
never pure, or merely procedural and formal, never de- bion (1993) argues that Greek modernity is more than
void of substance. As a consequence, they cannot mark an indigenized version of something that came from out-
any unquestionable beginning, and doubts can be raised side. Citing Weber’s characterization of Western Euro-
about any world that is erected on their foundations, that pean civilization as dominated by technical, instrumen-
is, about the consequent second move.” To understand tal, and formal rationalism, he seeks to “counterbalance”
modernity as always embedded in culture, inevitably
“contaminated” by history, is to go against the Western 8. For a discussion of the origin of Malay-Islamic modernism that
quest for universal principles by which we must all live makes it almost contemporary with the European Enlightenment,
and to accept that, precisely because our own meanings see Milner (1995).

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 659

such images by showing how in the case of Greece one graphic argument in favour of an embedded modernity
can produce a portrait of “another modernity,” one cen- ends up being the same as the Englund and Leach ar-
tred on a historically specific discourse and set of prac- gument for an ethnography of modernity’s others, forcing
tices about the “reform and reformation” of Greek so- us in spite of the use of a common term away from
ciety. In Faubion’s words (p. xiii): engaging with modernist metanarrative in precisely the
manner envisaged by its critics. The ethnographer’s in-
What I found in Greece led me to conclude that our sistence on the primacy of context, by relativizing and
prevailing portraits of modernity were in need not pluralizing modernity, leads us to reject any general and
simply of revision but of a counterbalance, of the singular understanding of modernity and invites us to
portraiture of “another modernity.” . . . Weber lo- abandon the concept as caught in a hopeless contra-
cated modernity—or at least its dominant, north- diction.
westerly modality—in the practice of what he came
to call “formal” or “technical” rationalism. I have
located its Greek modality, “the Greek modern,” in
the practice of what I have called “historical Critical Theory and Expressivism
constructivism.”
Similarly, Aihwa Ong (1999:23) captures something of Many of the dilemmas posed by the ethnographer’s en-
the combination of economic dynamism and intense counter with modernity may stem from a failure to ac-
knowledge the presence of diverse, even conflicting,
self-confidence that has characterized much of Pacific
traditions within modernist thought. This failure ap-
Asia in recent decades, again by arguing for a concept of
pears to generate the compulsion among modernity’s
“another modernity”:
critics to seek an escape route out of modernity alto-
New narratives of Asian modernity, spun from the gether—a tendency that is manifest in the renewal of
self-confidence of vibrant economies, cannot be re- traditional understandings of ethnography within criti-
duced to pale imitation of some Western standard cal anthropology but also implied in the popular notion
(for instance, full-fledged democracy combined with of multiple modernities. Having accepted unidimen-
modern capitalism). Ascendant regions of the world sional notions of modernity and modern subjectivity de-
such as the Asia Pacific region are articulating their rived either from classical liberalism or from its post-
own modernities as distinctive formations. The his- structuralist critics, there appears to be no alternative
torical fact of Western colonialism, ongoing geopolit- but to embrace modernity wholeheartedly or reject it out
ical domination, and ideological and cultural influ- of hand. And yet neither seems possible for an anthro-
ences are never discounted (only minimized) in pology forced into encounters with the modern at every
these narratives, but they should nevertheless be turn. Perhaps, then, there are other traditions of theo-
considered alternative constructions of modernity in rizing the modern more pertinent to the project of con-
the sense of moral-political projects that seek to temporary anthropology.
control their own present and future. Such self-theo- The critical modernist narratives that emerge out of
rization of contemporary non-Western nation-states, the Hegel-Marx-Weber heritage in social theory, gener-
while always in dialogue and in tension with the ally neglected by anthropologists,9 are a case in point. In
West, are critical modes of ideological repositioning this tradition modernity is generally construed as an
that have come about with shifting geostrategic identifiable socio-historical process of transformation
alignments. out there in the world, one that began in the 16th century
in western Europe. Such theorists have tended to draw
If, then, as Wagner reminds us, modernity is always on Hegelian and Marxist notions of alienation and com-
and everywhere embedded in particular circumstances, modification and Weber’s discussions of modern pro-
then modernity must be pluralized. There can never be cesses of rationalization, which they see as building on
a single but only multiple modernities. Modernist eth- them.10 Here modernity is broadly understood (Turner
nographers have arrived at much the same conclusion. 1990:6) as the result of a
There is no modernity in the singular—only Greek, Chi-
process of modernization, by which the social world
nese, Asian, Chinese, African, and other modernities.
comes under the domination of asceticism, seculari-
But what are the implications for theory of such a re-
zation, the universalistic claims of instrumental ra-
lativized and pluralized modernity? If modernity can
tionality, the differentiation of the various spheres of
never be disembedded from particular historical con-
the lifeworld, the bureaucratization of economic, po-
texts, can it ever be conceptualized in the singular with-
out retreating to the formalistic and procedural notion 9. This too is obviously an overgeneralization, and there are cer-
of a pure modernity? If the modern cannot be abstracted tainly exceptions. A case in point is the work of Michael Taussig,
from context and singularized, is there any use in speak- which from the start built on the more “Hegelian” elements of the
ing of modernity at all? Why speak of a Greek, Asian, Marxist tradition, and the insights of Walter Benjamin.
10. It is interesting in this respect that 20th-century critical the-
or Islamic modernity at all if the singular is unimagin- orists from Lukács to the members of the Frankfurt School see in
able? Nothing at all is to be gained by adding the term, the work of Max Weber less a rejection of Marxism than an elab-
since it can have no meaning on its own. The ethno- oration or development of some of its key themes.

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660 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

litical and military practices, and the growing mone- aesthetic sensibility or what might be called a particular
tarization of values. Modernity therefore [is seen to aesthetic discourse on the modern, suggesting a rather
arise] with the spread of western imperialism in the different relationship between the modern’s “objective”
sixteenth century; the dominance of capitalism in and “subjective” dimensions. Castoriadis (1991:225)
northern Europe . . . in the early seventeenth cen- writes, for example: “What has been called modernity is
tury; the acceptance of scientific procedures . . .; and something which reached its climax between 1900 and
pre-eminently with the institutionalization of Cal- 1930, and which ended after World War II. . . . In music,
vinistic practices and beliefs in the dominant classes Schönberg, Webern, and Berg had invented atonal and
of northern Europe. We can follow this process fur- serial music . . .. Dada and surrealism were in existence
ther through the separation of the family from the by 1920. And if I were to begin the following list, Proust,
wider kinship group, the separation of the household Kafka, Joyce . . . would you please tell me how you would
and the economy, and the creation of the institution continue?” That modernism might in fact constitute
of motherhood in the nineteenth century. Although modernity rather than the other way around is a possi-
the idea of the citizen can be traced back to Greek bility to which I shall return.
times via the independent cities of the Italian states Although it can be argued that critical modernism, like
. . . the citizen as the abstract carrier of universal classical liberalism, contains an exclusionary impulse,
rights is a distinctly modern idea. the result of confronting Western critical narratives and
non-Western “realities” may not be the terminal either/
Jürgen Habermas, a key figure in the 20th-century crit-
or impasse generated by classical liberalism. Ultimately
ical tradition, for example, understands the “modern” as
this is because critical theory is already a result of such
more than a grab bag of social and cultural traits, as a
encounters, a fact that becomes evident when we look
process of social differentiation, on the one hand, and
more closely at the multidimensional vision of modern-
cultural autonomization, on the other (Habermas 1987,
ity that has developed within the tradition of Hegel,
Outhwaite 1996; see also Giddens 1990, Giddens and
Marx, and Weber. Here attention is focused on “differ-
Pierson 1998, Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1995). Critical
entiation” as a multidimensional process of separation
theorists of course differ, for example, on the issue of
both within and between separate spheres of modern ex-
periodization (see Smart 1990, Castoriadis 1991) and on
istence. The result is a reading of the history of Western
the question of whether the modern has come to an end.
modernity that, unlike liberal evolutionism, is not in-
In general, they have concluded that what French the-
evitably unilineal or teleological (cf. Arnason 1987, Hel-
orists and the American ones following them have called
ler 1990, Luhmann 1982). It is not surprising, therefore,
“postmodernity” describes not a totally new worldview
that some critical modernists have also called for a no-
or a new historical epoch but a critique of modernism
tion of “multiple modernities” (cf. Arnason 1987, Eisen-
from within or a new phase in the development of mod-
stadt 2000a, Wittrock 2000), echoing similar concerns
ern society, as it were.
within anthropology. Summarizing these somewhat di-
The term “modernism” here is somewhat more prob-
verse revisionary trends, Johann Arnason writes that crit-
lematic. It is typically used to refer to an aesthetic sen-
ical theory has produced an “understanding of modernity
sibility and hence a movement (or set of movements)
as a loosely structured constellation rather than a sys-
within the arts (Lash 1990:66):
tem, and . . . a stronger emphasis on the role of cultural
Modernism, for its part, rejects history in order to premises and orientations in the formation of different
embrace movement and change. Modernism in Vi- versions [of modernity] within a flexible but not amor-
enna, Paris, Berlin and a number of other European phous framework” (2000:65).
cities, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, Of particular interest here is the emphasis on the dis-
was ushered in by a series of effective “secession” tinctiveness of modern “cultural premises and orienta-
movements. These movements consisted of a rejec- tions” found in critical theory. This sense of modernity
tion of “academic” standards by artists and archi- as specifiable cultural processes is captured by Peter
tects. This was at the same time a rejection of state- Wagner, who has described modernist social theorists in
sponsored art. . . . French Impressionism (and the 20th century as those who build on “the double no-
realism), Viennese Art Nouveau . . . and German Ex- tion of autonomy and rationality” (Wagner 1999). To
pressionism, all took from the institutional context quote Arnason once again (2000:65):
of the reaction against historical art. In each case
One of the most important—but not yet fully ex-
the rejection was in favour of a modernist or proto-
plored—implications of this culturalist and pluralist
modernist aesthetic of working through the possibil-
view has to do with the recognition of conflict as in-
ities of aesthetic materials.
herent and essential to modernity. . . . the most sus-
In such usages there is the general implication that, fol- tained and interesting variation on this theme—
lowing Habermas (1987), modernism refers to a cultural pioneered by Max Weber and developed most re-
movement or sensibility to which modernity gives rise. cently by Cornelius Castoriadis and Alain Tou-
A somewhat different account of this link is suggested raine—stresses the conflict between two equally ba-
by Castoriadis, who prefers to restrict the use of the term sic cultural premises: on the one hand, the vision of
“modernity” precisely to the development of a modern infinitely expanding rational mastery; on the other

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 661

hand, the individual and collective aspiration to au- man life that develops as a reaction and hence an alter-
tonomy and creativity. . . . On this view, the cul- native to an Enlightenment vision of man based upon
tural orientations characteristic of modernity are an “associationist psychology, utilitarian ethics, atom-
embodied in institutions, but not reducible to them. istic politics of social engineering, and ultimately a
. . . [they] are mutable enough to translate into dif- mechanistic science of man” (Taylor 1975:539).11 Rather
ferent institutional patterns, and at the same time than seeing human life and activity as essentially with-
sufficiently autonomous to transcend all existing in- out meaning, expressivism sees them as “expressions,”
stitutions and allow the construction of critical al- realizations of a purpose or an idea. In modern expres-
ternatives as well as utopian projections. sivism meaning is thus seen to unfold within human
subjectivity. “Expressivism therefore represents simul-
The “discovery” of culture in critical theory has two very
taneously an embrace and a critique of an Enlightenment
significant implications for the understanding of mo-
anthropology (in the philosophical sense of the term). It
dernity. First, and partly in response to antipositivist posits a self-creating modern subject but locates it in a
trends in social theory more broadly, it shifts from an modern world that is objectified and potentially without
objective to a subjective emphasis. The consequence is meaning.”
a view that puts modern subjectivity at the core of our Expressivists decried the rift between humans and na-
understanding of what it is to be modern, making mo- ture created by Enlightenment instrumentalism, but, as
dernity as much a state of mind as a set of objective Taylor’s discussion of Herder shows, they also decried
historical processes. Modernity can be seen to be insep- the rifts among humans created by the Enlightenment
arable from the modern imaginaries that make it pos- vision of human nature. As Taylor (1975:27–28) points
sible, to adapt Castoriadis’s term. Modernity, in other out,
words, and contra Habermas, cannot in any simple sense
be said to pre-date modernism. Modernism constructs what has been said of communion with nature ap-
modernity as much as modernity provides the conditions plies with the same force to communion with other
for modernism’s emergence. Modernity can never be un- men. Here too, the expressivist view responds with
ambiguously defined except in the context of its con- dismay and horror to the Enlightenment vision of
struction in an ambivalent/interrogating modernism. society made up of atomistic, morally self-sufficient
Secondly, as Arnason argues, modernity should be seen subjects who enter into external relations with each
as a product of contradictory or conflicting cultural pro- other, seeking either advantage or the defence of in-
cesses. This heralds a significant break with liberal nar- dividual rights. They seek for a deeper bond of felt
ratives of modernization (as well as those of their critics), unity which will unite sympathy between men with
which, as we have seen, construct modernity as (bor- their highest self-feeling, in which men’s highest
rowing Wagner’s [1994] terms) a single cultural move- concerns are shared and woven into community life
ment of liberty or discipline. Such single-logic notions rather than remaining the preserve of individuals.
of cultural modernization are completely incapable of The very notion of freedom espoused by Enlightenment
producing a theory of modern culture understood as the philosophers and the French revolutionaries was, ac-
meanings and performative values of actual people living cording to the expressivists, therefore only negative and
under modern conditions. Surely reducing modern sub- hence meaningless.
jectivity to any single logic cannot then account for the Expressivism in this sense is clearly present, as Taylor
cultural lives of modern peoples. At the same time, sin- argues, in Hegel’s critique of civil society, a critique
gle-logic notions of cultural modernization fail to pro- taken up in the more radical rejections of “bourgeois”
vide for the possibility of modernist theory itself. How rationality by the Young Hegelians and in Marx’s own
is it possible for the theorist to see modernization as a writings on human alienation under capitalism. It ap-
loss of meaning when everyone else is a slave precisely pears also in 19th-century German critiques of political
to a single logic of rationalization? Only by rejecting economy and then neoclassical economics, from where
single-logic notions of modernization as either liberty or it first posed the problem of the historical specificity of
discipline but never both can a genuinely reflexive mod- capitalist rationality to a young Max Weber (Kahn 1990).
ernism ever be achieved. Only in this way can modern- An expressivist sensibility is clearly articulated in the
ism—as a culture of ambivalence—ever be understood. work of the Frankfurt School, which sprang as much
The immediate sources for this critical understanding from the concerns of Weber as from the vision of Marx.
of modernization as rationalization are, as Arnason sug- And it serves to define the ambivalence to modern ra-
gests, the writings of Weber and, following him, the the- tionalism and rationalization that informs the project of
orists of the so-called Frankfurt School. But its roots are contemporary modernist social theory. Here, in the
much deeper; indeed, it could be said that the core of words of Habermas, modernization (understood as ra-
the culturalist model of modernity lies in what can be tionalization) is not so much rejected as counterbalanced
called the first critical intellectual encounter with mod- by an expressive (communicative) rationality in the un-
ernization—the romantic critique of Enlightenment phi- finished “project” of modernity. In a distinctive, al-
losophy and particularly of its instrumentalist notions
of human reason. More particularly I have in mind what 11. I have discussed the significance of expressivist currents in
Charles Taylor calls the “expressivist” conception of hu- modern thought in Kahn (1995).

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662 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

though parallel, argument, Castoriadis sees in the search ethnographers to severe and continuous interrogation
for autonomy a virtuous counter to the West’s concur- over the value, even the possibility, of an outsider’s ever
rent obsession with rational mastery. What critical the- being able to understand the expressive meanings of Ma-
orists therefore share is what Bauman describes as a pro- layness or the values of Islam. At issue inevitably in such
found ambivalence towards the modern—a deep unease conversations are contrasts between science, reason, and
when confronted by its claims to a superior/abstract ra- instrumentalism, on the one side, and culturally mean-
tionality but at the same time the sense that we are ingful (expressive) values and orientations, on the other.
inevitably enmeshed in it. This is coupled with some One might even say that the very definition of insider-
idea of its also generating possibilities for forms of hu- hood and outsider-hood for contemporary Malays is
man community not characterized by the continual framed by these opposing cultural principles. As pointed
search for advantage and personal gain (cf. Bauman 1991). out above, an ethnographer in Malaysia will find that
There are good reasons that a notion of modernity as modernity is something that people are moved to discuss
the intersection of the contradictory cultural processes and debate, but these debates are increasingly shaped by
of rationalization and autonomy should resonate so strong ambivalence. Most Malaysians profess a desire for
strongly with anthropologists in their encounters with material advance, but village-based and urban Malays
Southeast Asian modernity. The theme of reconciling almost all also worry that modernity may bring with it
the apparently contradictory processes of rationalization the overemphasis on individual material advance that
(“globalization”) and expressive meaning (understood as many see epitomized in the West.
the expressive values of a particular people or what we The parallels between the concerns of critical mod-
are wont to call their culture) is absolutely central to ernism and those of large numbers of Malaysians are just
contemporary Southeast Asian debates. It is clearly man- one example of the resonances that develop when critical
ifest in Mahathir’s project of reconciling “development” theory and Malaysian modernity are brought into en-
and “Asian values” (see, e.g., Mahathir and Ishihara counter. It can also be argued that critical theory’s mul-
1995), but it is by no means confined to the pronounce- tidimensional understanding of the processes of mod-
ments of a single man, no matter how powerful. ernization makes far greater sense of the coexistence of
Non-Muslim ethnographers in Malaysia can hardly universalizing and particularizing impulses in the mod-
avoid the question of the similarities and differences be- ern history of state and nation building in the region.
tween “us” and “them” framed almost inevitably by Much the same is true when we attempt to analyse the
conflicting values of rationalization and autonomy. If coexistence of apparently contradictory processes of de-
this is not imposed on them by disciplinary tradition or personalization and personalization of economic and po-
by the unconscious demands of framing ethnographic litical relations (for example, in the rise of impersonal
questions or describing observations (both of which are market links and depersonalized forms of bureaucratic
deeply affected by the binary logic of selfhood and oth-
rule at the same time as the development of cronyism
erness), it is forced upon them by virtually all the Malay
in the economic sphere and “patriarchalism”12 in mod-
Muslims with whom they come into contact. To para-
ern systems of governance). And, finally, critical mod-
phrase the responses of urban and suburban Malays to
ernist theory provides the grounding for precisely the
my questions about the role and value of Malay culture
kinds of reflexive-critical discourse on the modern that
and Islam in their everyday lives: “You in the West may
Englund and Leach wish anthropology to become. There
be good at the application of scientific knowledge or at
are therefore good reasons to suppose that anthropology
making money, but in your blind pursuit of technological
needs to come to terms with its own modernist roots
advance, money, and power you neglect moral values,
spirituality, and meaning.” “Asians (or Muslims, or Ma- and the modernity of its object and that it cannot do so
laysians) can be just as good as you Westerners at de- by refusing to engage with all meta-narratives of mo-
velopment, but we can develop and not neglect our fam- dernity. There are also good reasons to suggest that en-
ilies, our personal obligations, or our religion.” Or, gaging with modernist narratives in the tradition of He-
alternatively and less frequently, “Life in the West is gel, Marx, and Weber might prove particularly fruitful.
better than it is in Malaysia, because individuals there This is not, as I have already pointed out, to say that
are free of meaningless traditions and traditional obli- such an encounter is or should necessarily be a peaceful
gations.” These comparisons between “East” and one. Just as viewing Southeast Asia through the lens of
“West” are an inevitable part of ethnographic interaction critical modernism forces a reconsideration of certain
at all levels of modern Malay society, and all are in- key aspects of contemporary Southeast Asia culture and
formed in one way or another by a consideration of the society, so the Southeast Asian experience of moderni-
relationship between the contradictory cultural pro- zation must be used to prise open the modernist grid
cesses that modernist theorists call rationalization and that we impose through the application of theory. Bring-
autonomy. ing modernist narratives into confrontation with eth-
As a consequence, reflecting on the nature and func-
tion of anthropological knowledge of Malaysia does not 12. Woodiwiss, for example, follows Weber in labelling Southeast
Asian state systems “patriarchal,” but in contrast to Weber he sug-
require familiarity with sophisticated academic debates gests that, however distasteful to liberals, they must be viewed as
over the epistemological status of ethnographic writing, equally valid alternatives to liberal systems for ensuring basic hu-
since one hardly meets a Malay who does not subject man rights (cf. Woodiwiss 1998).

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 663

nographic knowledge allows us also to turn modernity recognition that it is a part of a project of constituting
back upon itself, as it were, providing the impetus also meaning and a meaningful basis for the performance of
to look again at Western modernity. The first conse- a self-consciously modern life under conditions of social
quence of such a confrontation is the challenge to a West- differentiation and cultural autonomization. The an-
ern vision of modernity as abstract and universal rather thropology of modernity reveals, on the contrary, the
than concrete and particular. But just as this leads us to presence of this same sensibility in everyday popular cul-
conclude that modernity in a place like Malaysia or In- ture and performance. Such popular modernism cannot
donesia is inevitably “contaminated” by particularistic be dismissed as merely traditional, meaningless, or lack-
cultural and historical conditions, we need to see that ing a critical edge or as a substandard version of the more
this is also the case of the West. Far from assuming, as “sophisticated” modernism of aesthetic and intellectual
many theorists of multiple modernity have done, that elites.
the Western spaces of modernity have always and every-
where been governed by the pure operation of instru-
mental rationalism, impersonal market relations, a sep- Conclusions
aration of economic and political spheres, and the rise
of secular rationalism—which leads to the conclusion
that where this is not the case we have to do with another Two final points about the encounter between anthro-
modernity—Wagner’s critique now compels us towards pology and modernity seem appropriate. These arise out
an ethnographic engagement with modernity in the West of critical musings on the usual construction of the prob-
as well as the East. This is something that should be of lem of the anthropological encounter as a confrontation
central importance to a new modernist anthropology but, between “the West and the Rest.” It is evident that this
interestingly, is something that the notion of multiple is a tremendous oversimplification, obscuring the fact
modernities appears to discourage almost as much as did that critical theory is itself already a precipitate of such
an earlier division of academic labour between sociolo- conflicts between central-eastern Europe and north-
gists embracing modernist narratives and processes and western Europe, between the “cores” and “peripheries”
anthropologists who avoided them. The encounter with of nations and empires in the 19th century, or, adapting
a critical modernist narrative thus feeds back into a new Bauman’s terminology, between mainstream moderns in
anthropology of the West, forcing a rethinking of the the centres of power and ambivalent moderns on the
vision of an abstract, universal condition called modern- “margins” in the early part of the modern age. In other
ity and an engagement with the particular dimensions words, the tension between expressivism and instru-
of modern existence in the West as well as in the East. mentalism that constitutes critical modernism has been
This may lead us to reconsider modernity in both East manifest in modernity from the start, and this is why
and West as part of a single historical process of mod- the critical theory of modernity resonates so strongly in
places like Malaysia. It may explain precisely the per-
ernization that was global from the outset.
tinence of concepts developed within the heritage of He-
This confrontation between modernist narratives and
gel, Marx, and Weber to more recent encounters with
ethnographic knowledge forces another shift in the self-
rationalizing, instrumentalizing, and impersonal forces
understandings of critical modernism, a shift away from
of “globalization.”
the avant-gardist conception of modern culture on which
The rejection of such a dialogue because of the irrec-
most modernist narratives are based—a shift from what
oncilability of the “West and the Rest” further obscures
I have termed an exemplary to a popular modernism (see
the degree to which what we call modernity is something
Kahn 2001).13 Exemplary modernism is very far from pro-
that encompasses the West and the Rest from the very
viding us with a true theory of modern culture and sub- start. In this view it would be a mistake to invoke either
jectivity except in the normative sense. It is in no way a plurality of modernities or the globalization and then
a theory of the subjectivity of people living in modern re-localization of modernity as a means of accounting
society, those people with whom ethnographers of for anthropological realities. After all, as we have already
Southeast Asia—or indeed of Britain or America—deal had occasion to note, modernization and traditionali-
on a daily basis in their research. Yet, as ethnographers zation are very often simultaneous processes.
of modern society will inevitably discover, the tendency If this is the case, then apparently thorny questions
to interrogate, criticize, and build upon the modern is about when modernity began and whether modernity is
by no means restricted to the avant-garde, despite the Western or universal, plural or singular, abstract or con-
crete, emic or etic, are much less problematic and per-
13. The philosophies of Kant and Hegel have both been proposed
haps even open to empirical investigation and debate.
as early versions of such exemplary modernism, but “it is the work
of Baudelaire which is frequently considered to provide the turning Modernity becomes a far less elusive concept, as well as
point in the development of an understanding of modernity.” It is being a social and cultural form far more open to ethical
Baudelaire’s ambivalent recognition of the good and bad sides of and political critique, than might otherwise have ap-
the modern condition, his discussion of its “transient, fleeting, and peared. The encounter between theories of the modern
contingent character” (Habermas’s terms), and his critique of
“bourgeois” visions of a triumphal modernity (see Smart 1990:17) and ethnographic realities ends up being far more pro-
that make him a candidate for the role of pioneer of exemplary ductive than we might have assumed at the start.
modernism. Bringing into confrontation a particular body of theory

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664 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

that has emerged in what is mainly a European tradition


with knowledge constructed in other contexts—non- Comments
Protestant, rural, female, outside northwestern Eu-
rope—almost inevitably produces conflicting interpre-
tations of the kind traced out here. Moreover, there is johann p. arnason
no question that this confrontation will result at least Department of Sociology and Anthropology, La Trobe
in significant revisions to the versions of “modernity” University, Melbourne, Victoria 3086, Australia
with which we operate in our own theoretical traditions, (j.arnason@latrobe.edu.au). 18 vii 01
moving us away from a notion of modernity as an ab-
stract, disembedded project of the aesthetic and philo- There is no reason to disagree with Kahn’s main claims:
sophical elite to a notion of modernity as something con- A dialogue between anthropology and social theory is
crete, embedded in particular institutions and cultural much needed by both sides; the question of modernity
formations, but also a singular process that is global and should be at its centre; the most interesting current sign
multicultural from its inception. of contact is the emerging problematic of multiple mod-
But, in conclusion, we might revisit one final objection ernities. The following remarks, coming from a non-an-
to reconstituting the anthropological project as some- thropologist, will focus on some specific theoretical as-
thing inherent to modernity itself—that in so doing we pects of the debate.
are somehow avoiding having to engage with that which The ancestry of the notion of modernity may be con-
is truly other to us. There is a strong sense in arguments tested but is perhaps not as “uncertain” as Kahn sug-
like those of Englund and Leach that to insist on the gests. However controversial some parts of the story may
engagement between ethnography and modernist nar- be, there seems to be a definite record of successive ep-
ratives is to trade away the possibility of an encounter ochs in Western history described as “modern” to de-
with the great richness of human diversity for sterile and marcate them from preceding phases. This contextual
pared-down “explanations” that reduce everything to a meaning links the first use of the word modernus in late
single all-encompassing meta-narrative. On reflection, antiquity (in contrast to pagan predecessors) to the se-
however, we can recognize that this fear is based on the mantics of the western European exit from a medieval
insidious assumption that once modernized the other world, as well as to the more controversial debate on
becomes incapable of culture building and innovation, classics and moderns on the eve of the Enlightenment.
doomed merely to repeat the performances of modern It was logical for this generic signifier of epochal novelty
life of countless generations of Westerners. Yet surely to become more closely associated with cultures and so-
Asian moderns are as capable of culture and performative cieties which detached themselves from the past and
creativity as anyone else. That they have become en- embraced change more emphatically than any earlier
meshed in processes of commodification and rationali- ones had done. The sociological classics use the term
zation does not mean that they will lose any ability to “modern” in this broad but loosely defined sense, al-
construct creative responses to modern life. Can we not though their specific concerns do not call for any explicit
instead expect that they will come up with solutions to theorizing of modernity as such. A decisive step in that
some of the worst dilemmas posed by moderniza- direction was taken by modernization theory. At its best,
tion—violence, extreme inequalities, environmental de- as formulated—for example—by Talcott Parsons, it com-
struction, deprivation, racial exclusion? Or must we con- bined the advocacy of Western models with a clear com-
tinue to constitute them as exotic objects of a study that mitment to reform within their framework. The align-
they may have played a small part in producing but that ment with existing modernity allowed for a certain
we ultimately control once it has been accepted as good distance from current modernizing practices, and this
ethnography? The final result of an anthropology of mo- reflexive moment was also evident in the efforts made
dernity might be the possibility of a genuine cultural to theorize an overall epochal shift which the classics
critique. Clearly a key problem with the classical form had analyzed only from certain angles.
of anthropological critique is that its proponents had very This understanding of modernization theory as an ep-
little idea of how a modern America might somehow be isode in a much longer hermeneutical narrative—and as
transformed into a premodern Samoa or Bali or whatever a genuine if self-limiting reflexive turn within that con-
exotic other seemed at the time to have avoided the vices text—is relevant to the discussion of alternative views.
of modernity. This was utopianism in its worst sense. It As Kahn sees it, “critics shared with modernization the-
may be that an anthropology of modernity will, instead, orists the vision of modernity as a process of emanci-
provide us with utopias that are in fact achievable. That pation and continuous technological change” but
would be a very real ethnographic contribution indeed. claimed that the inbuilt promises had not been fulfilled.
Who are these critics? The context suggests that Kahn
is referring to the Frankfurt School and Foucault, but
neither of these two models for critical theory took shape
through a critique of modernization theory. The ideas
which Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) developed in the
Dialectic of Enlightenment were—for both—an alter-
native to an earlier version of unorthodox Marxism,

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 665

which had already been critical of the progressivist main- some of the problems to which the emphases on “mul-
stream. As for Foucault, his communist phase was longer tiple modernities” are addressed.
and more significant than he later liked to admit, and First of all, he does not recognize that the tension be-
his earliest publications grew out of a settling of accounts tween rationalization and expressivism is not the only
with the Marxism of the party and its fellow travellers; one inherent in the cultural programme of modernity.
the shift from Marx to Nietzsche was decisive (Didier Of no smaller importance has been the tension between
Eribon’s [1989] biography of Foucault is very illuminat- absolutizing, totalizing tendencies and more pluralistic,
ing on this point). The explicit critique of modernization multifaceted visions and practices.
theory came later—in the 1970s and early 1980s—and In modern political discourse and practice this tension
was in the most interesting cases combined with an has crystallized around the problem of the totalizing ide-
equally thorough critique of the Marxist alternative. Jür- ologies, nationalistic communal and/or Jacobian, which
gen Habermas, Alain Touraine, and Anthony Giddens denied the legitimacy of such pluralities. It has also man-
(in his pre-Third Way incarnation) published seminal ifested itself in the construction of collective identities
works in this vein, but mention should also be made of and collectivities, around which developed continual
S. N. Eisenstadt, the only prominent modernization the- struggles between forces pressing for the homogeniza-
orist who went on to develop an original and powerful tion of social and cultural spaces and proponents of the
critique of modernization theory. None of these theorists construction of multiple spaces allowing for heteroge-
can be said to have retained the premises of moderni- neous identities. The tension has also been expressed in
zation theory in a negative mode. Rather, they decon- the construction of rationalities, where there is opposi-
structed the paradigm of modernization from within and tion between the acceptance of the existence of different
proposed to replace the underlying image of modernity values, commitments, and rationalities and the confla-
with a more complex one. This debate is still in progress, tion of such different values and rationalities in a total-
and it remains to be seen how closely it can be linked istic way, with a strong tendency towards their absolu-
to the legacy of critical theory, Frankfurt- or Foucault- tization—between, as Toulmin (1990) has shown,
style. The most ambitious attempt to synthesize the two totalizing ones, of which the Cartesian is possibly the
agendas—Habermas’s theory of communicative ac- best illustration, and pluralistic ones developed, for in-
tion—has come under telling criticism from several stance, by Erasmus or Montaigne.
angles. This tension was inherent in modernity as a distinct
In short, the dialogue which Kahn envisages is to be civilization (Eisenstadt 2001) which emerged in the West
welcomed, but I would like to see it situated in a more but, as Kahn points out, changed “the West” as well as
pluralistic theoretical field. An overgeneralized idea of other civilizations. In all these civilizations this pro-
critical theory does not seem very useful. The same ap- gramme generates the “loss of markers of certitude” and
plies to streamlined models of tradition. I am not con- the constant search for them in which these tensions
vinced that it makes sense to speak of a Hegel-Marx- become fully articulated (Lefort 1988).
Weber tradition: Weber was surely not wholly wrong It was these characteristics that constituted the core
when he said that nothing was as opposed to his vision of the premises of modernity as a distinct civilization.
of history as the Hegelian one. And although there is no But just as in the cores of other civilizations (for instance,
space for further discussion, I would like to register a the Islamic one), the concrete ways in which these prem-
strong objection to the idea of a Comte-Spencer-Durk- ises were institutionalized, interpreted, and reflected
heim tradition. The critical potential in Durkheim’s upon varied greatly in the different societies which
work is far greater than this label would suggest. shared it. As in the case of Islam, so also Western mo-
dernity constituted a model and reference point—while
in fact constituting one of many modernities. The first
“multiple” non-European modernities developed, as in
s. n. eisenstadt a way de Tocqueville recognized, in the Americas.
Department of Sociology, Hebrew University, The recognition of the development of constantly
Jerusalem IL-91905, Israel. 11 vii 01 changing multiple modernities does not deny their
strong common core but only emphasizes their changing
I am very much in sympathy with Kahn’s general ori- dynamics. In such dynamics the West—first Europe, then
entation or premises, namely, that what we call mo- the United States—has always constituted an ambiva-
dernity “is something that encompasses the West and lent reference point around which many of the tensions
the Rest from the very start.” I also agree with him that inherent in modernity were played out. It is with respect
the tension between tendencies to rationalization and to this dimension that we have seen the very important
what, following Taylor, he calls expressivist orientations changes found—but perhaps not fully explicated—in
has been inherent in modernity from its very beginning some of Kahn’s illustrations from Malaysia.
and is “reproduced,” as it were, with the expansion of Thus lately there have developed throughout the world
modernity and that these themes have constituted en- new interpretations of modernity, promulgated espe-
during foci of the intellectual, academic, and “on-the- cially by new religious movements and, significantly,
ground” discourse of modernity. But in some ways his including many of the postmodern ones which have
analysis does not go far enough, nor does it fully confront emerged in the West, which have attempted to dissociate

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666 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

Westernization from modernity completely—to deny the with the ethnographer’s reflexive experience. New
monopoly or hegemony of Western modernity and the knowledge is predicated on this tension, not on a simple
acceptance of the Western modern cultural program as rejection of social theory, if only because all advances in
the epitome of modernity. In the context of these new understanding are reframings of existing awareness. Our
interpretations, the confrontation with the West is not intent was to make the tension explicit.
an effort to become incorporated into hegemonic civi- Another way of highlighting Kahn’s difficulties in ren-
lization on their own terms but an attempt to appropriate dering our position is by pointing out that the crux of
the new international global science, indeed, modernity, our argument is the notion of meta-narratives. Beyond
for themselves. They intend to diffuse modern idioms dispute is the abundance of narratives on progress, fail-
within their traditions as the former are ceaselessly ure, development, exploitation, and, yes, modernity in
promulgated and reconstructed under the impact of their the contemporary world. Ethnography, as a distinct mode
ongoing encounter with the West (Eisenstadt 2000b). of knowledge production, ought to involve due attention
to the contexts and concerns of these discourses. Social
theory provides us with both critical insight and unex-
harri englund amined meta-narratives with which to think through our
The Nordic Africa Institute, P.O. Box 1703, 751 47 ethnographic encounters. Yet there is no reason that
Uppsala, Sweden (harri.englund@nai.uu.se). 16 vii 01 “modernity,” as defined by one or the other social the-
orist, should provide the optimal translation for a wide
When Leach and I penned our intervention into debates range of historically specific preoccupations, including
on ethnography and modernity, we expected to encoun- the kaki jolly of Malays. From whose perspective, for
ter polemic, albeit not the kind of convenient straw man example, does the increasing involvement of Islam in
that Kahn has crafted. It should not surprise us, however, politics appear as “religious rationalization”? Unless it
that Kahn does not discuss our argument in any detail. is confronted with the ethnographer’s reflexive experi-
The thrust of his own intervention clearly depends on ence, the profound secularism of social science is likely
identifying a “traditionalist understanding” of ethnog- to erase from view deeply contextual passions in relig-
raphy, never mind if the existence of such an understand- ious politics. This is why Leach and I suggested that
ing is hard to pinpoint in current anthropology. What more theoretical attention be devoted to issues of con-
troubles me more is that some of our contentions are text and personhood, another aspect of our argument
fired back at us as if they were not also ours. which Kahn forgets to mention.
Much hinges on how the imperative of “engagement” I ask Kahn to acknowledge two of our key conten-
is understood. Leach and I conceived our project precisely tions—that dialogue with social theory is intrinsic to
as an engagement with the ethnographer’s lived expe- ethnography and that “modernity” is only one of many
rience during fieldwork and with the intellectual-bu- theoretical constructs for apprehending the contempo-
reaucratic-political conditions within which ethnogra- rary world—and to explain how these contentions
phers generally work. Our “interlocutors” are not only amount to a “traditionalist understanding” of ethnog-
those whom we encounter in the field but also our ac- raphy. As for those who have not read our article, I invite
ademic colleagues, past and present social theorists, them to consult it before taking it as a representative of
funding agencies, and political authorities, to name but the position that Kahn attributes to it.
a few. The tired distinction between “us” and “them”
is not, therefore, ours. Crucial to our argument is, in-
stead, the contention that the practice of ethnography beng-lan goh
involves following certain intellectual and bureaucratic Southeast Asian Studies Program, Faculty of Arts and
procedures, all of which are potentially political and rep- Social Sciences, National University of Singapore,
resent legacies of a colonial and imperialist world his- Singapore (seagohbl@nus.edu.sg). 10 vii 01
tory. In this sense, what is important is not so much
whether the ethnographer is “native” or outsider, male While the challenge to rethink modernity is not new,
or female, black or white, “remote” or “near,” as how Kahn’s recourse to critical revisions of social theory and
the ethnographer deals with the problematic legacies the ethnography of contemporary Southeast Asia brings
that are intrinsic to the métier of ethnography. Our call refreshing perspectives to the debate. Kahn challenges
was for a renewed respect for the reflexive insights into the idea that a rethinking of modernity can be positioned
situated life-worlds afforded by ethnographic fieldwork within or outside the West. Drawing on critical ideas
at its best, however the sites and subjects of the “field” developed within the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and We-
are defined in a project, however many interpretive au- ber and actual historical and ethnographic evidence of
thorities there are in the “field,” and whoever conducts modernity, Kahn relocates modernity within the tem-
the fieldwork. Engagement, in our argument, entails con- porality of contradictory but simultaneous processes of
fronting social theories on the basis of this reflexive ex- rationalization and cultural autonomization—processes
perience. Dialogue with social theory, occasionally cul- which, he argues, were global from the outset but now
minating in a confrontation, is not optional. It imposes more than ever offer an occasion for a dialectical en-
itself on any trained ethnographer, sometimes—as in the counter between the West and the non-West. By com-
case of modernity’s meta-narratives—seriously clashing plicating the traditional distinctions between the West

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 667

and the non-West and the unfolding logic of modernity, The Southeast Asian quest for modernity is accompanied
Kahn opens a way out of the conundrums about the ir- by tumultuous spatial, material, and symbolic changes
retrievability of indigenous experience and the paradox- in the complex interaction between local and global
ical restoration of Western agency/power posed by psy- forces of transformation. Yet it is precisely the everyday
choanalytic and power-based critiques of modernity that processes of violence and upheaval that provide a space
define it in terms of discursive processes associated with for political agency. Such contestations over the un-
Western experience and authority. evenness of modernity are precisely what make contem-
Kahn’s use of Southeast Asian narratives to rethink porary Southeast Asian modernity fascinating, for they
modernity is important in at least two ways. First, the are the very spaces from which creative possibilities
region has received relatively little attention in the de- could emerge. Second, I would like to draw attention to
bates on modernity. Second, and more important, the growing regional identity formations shaped by the po-
question of Southeast Asian modernity calls for an ex- sition of Southeast Asia as a new center in the world
amination of the social comparison between the so- economy that disrupts the notion of the single influence
called East and West. As an anthropologist based in and of the West. New regionalist imaginations and material
working on the region, I have been frustrated by mean- and mass cultural practices are emerging as comparable
ingless comparisons between the “East” and the “West” to those of the West in constituting subjectivities in con-
in which Southeast Asian developmental experiences are temporary Southeast Asia. Far from being passive “oth-
often judged in terms of “Western” categories and mean- ers,” local elites are equally active in manipulating re-
ings. Yet I am aware that the practice of treating the West gional and global schemes of cultural difference. Thus,
as normative is not necessarily confined to the West. It with Kahn, I see that a questioning of modernity must
is equally prevalent in Southeast Asia, albeit camou- explore both the displacements opened up by Western
flaged in different forms. Despite an escalating anti-West and non-Western experiences and the ways in which
rhetoric as scholars, intellectuals, and politicians in the these experiences are made to appear distinct under the
region negotiate their social positions in the contem- aegis of various types of agency.
porary world, the desire for things and values Western
has not vanished. In Malaysia, for instance, while it may
be clear that Prime Minister Mahathir is anti-West, he james leach
has no difficulty promoting “Western” forms of archi- Department of Social Anthropology, University of
tecture, technology, infrastructure, and urban develop- Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RF,
ment in the country. In fact, the mixing of Eastern and U.K. (jgl20@cam.ac.uk). 10 vii 01
Western cultural forms is common in the search for a
particular “indigenous” Malaysian modernity: the Pe- Kahn’s article is a call to take seriously some of the
tronas Tower and its Islamic symbolism is one such ex- issues Englund and I raised. I am grateful for his points
ample. These eclectic manifestations may be seen less about reflexivity and interlocution and for a chance to
as ultimate expressions of “indigeneity” than as ways of clarify our position. Ethnographers are indeed working
addressing contestations over what is indigenous in the in places where their understandings, generated through
complex interaction between local and global forces of close relationships with a small number of people, are
transformation. challenged by the scale of the society they write about
Kahn’s identification of an expressive/autonomous and the power relations within that society. The atten-
impulse in the popular/everyday processes of commod- tion to context that we recommended should make these
ification and rationalization that presents an occasion conditions apparent. Ethnography promises a grounded
for coeval and creative encounters between the West and understanding rendered as a particular perspective on so-
the East is compelling. In locating modern subjectivities cial processes in each setting. The work of our article
at the intersection of everyday experiences of commod- was precisely to engage the contextless, universalizing
ification, Kahn provides a way out of the usual fixation principles behind “multiple modernities” with ethno-
on the teleological structures of nationalist and coloni- graphically generated understandings of social life. This
alist power in interpretations of Southeast Asian mo- engagement was, crucially, inspired by our fieldwork in
dernity. By simultaneously creating an analytical space places which seemed to fit perfectly with the encom-
for local autonomy and disrupting dominant moderni- passing impetus of a sociological version of modernity
zation narratives, Kahn succeeds in making the subject in its culturally refracted forms. Our recommendation
of Southeast Asian modernity a parallel and not merely was to take such appearances as part of what needs an-
a response to existing theories. alysing (as opposed to the departure point of analysis). It
I would like to raise two points to contribute to this concerns me that this centrepiece of our argument did
debate. The first, alluded to by Kahn but not developed, not come across to Kahn. We argued for the engagement
is the question of violence and inequalities in modern of anthropology with modernist meta-narratives rather
Southeast Asia. It needs to be pointed out that struggles than the organization of ethnography through those
over new subjectivities in contemporary Southeast Asia meta-narratives.
are as much about contesting the cultural and material The charge that we advocated a “traditionalist under-
orders of the West as they are about the construction of standing” of ethnography is, however, not accurate.
difference within the modern present of local societies. What can ethnography be, asks Kahn, in a place like

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668 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

modern Malaysia? This question, he answers, “can be of modernity. At the same time, people must be allowed
broached only if we reconsider the proposition that eth- to have their own vices! This is not an argument between
nography speaks of places outside modernity.” Our in- our position and Kahn’s. In fact, his final paragraphs
tervention said nothing about doing research outside mo- sound like a rephrasing of what Englund and I recom-
dernity. We are obviously discussing the influence of mended when we suggested that alternatives which exist
what some people call modernity—money, commodi- in this world need not be alternatives which are readily
ties, born-again Christianity, and so forth. Kahn’s argu- recognized within the meta-narratives of modernity.
ment here degenerates into a rhetorical construction of Thus our article cannot be read as a recommendation
“the other” that has no basis in our text. Our article that one must not work in certain places or on certain
contains no suggestion of withdrawing from studying topics. The grounded perspective of ethnographic work
people who live in an interlinked world. gives a reason for engagement with social theory, based
Apparently we criticize others for “flirting” with the on the possibilities that Kahn cites as people’s creative
meta-narratives of modernity. This is not our criticism. potential for engaging with their situation. I fail to see
Rather, we warn against the wholesale adoption of a the- what is “insidious” in such an understanding of
ory of modernity without realizing the power of the ethnography.
meta-narratives contained within it to organize knowl-
edge production. Kahn is not careful enough to distin-
guish meta-narratives (understood as assumptions built michael g. peletz
into a focus on the processes of modernity) from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Colgate
narrative of modernity itself, which we indeed have no University, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346, U.S.A.
objection to in itself. Kahn is right to say that it is this (mpeletz@mail.colgate.edu). 27 vii 01
history that conditions the production and consumption
of anthropological knowledge. Kahn’s stimulating and broadly cast essay is offered as
Englund and I are not concerned with divisions be- a rejoinder to Englund and Leach’s recent “Ethnography
tween academic disciplines or between the West and the and the Meta-Narratives of Modernity,” so I begin by
Rest. We are concerned with the understanding possible reviewing key points emphasized by the latter. Englund
between “interlocutors,” be they from distant parts of and Leach’s reservations about the ways anthropologists
the globe or next-door neighbours, metropolitan, pow- have engaged the predominantly sociological debates on
erful, or “subaltern.” We suggest that with close atten- globalization and modernity have to do partly with the
tion to the relationship in which knowledge is produced, perception that they focus too much on—and at times
it is possible to know more than by assuming that a fetishize—preconceived and insufficiently contextuali-
common language or set of motifs means the same thing zed abstractions that undergrid the “meta-narratives of
to different people. This is the reflexivity we call for. modernity” (“rupture,” “commodification,” “individu-
And it should indeed come in conversation and dialogue alization,” etc.). The other part of the problem according
which problematizes simple divisions between inform- to Englund and Leach is that in their rush to delineate
ants and anthropologist. Ethnography provides insight the relevance of “wider contexts” and “multiple [or al-
into the particularity of experience. Far from a “deep- ternative] modernities,” anthropologists of modernity
seated incompatibility” between self and other, this ap- (e.g., Appadurai, Ong, the Comaroffs) give short shrift to
proach relies upon the commonality of inherently social the situated knowledge they produce in the course of
beings, while attending to differences in social form (his- fieldwork and also gloss over or ignore the ethnographic
tory) and their consequences for meaning, power, and record. Englund and Leach maintain that such tenden-
personhood. cies devalue the practice of intensive and sustained eth-
Our argument, then, was that one must not assume nographic inquiry as well as the cumulative store of eth-
that one’s critical theory will be found played out in nographic knowledge and that in doing so they
someone else’s practices, as Kahn points out for Malay- contribute to “ethnographic ignorance” and the delegi-
sians’ take on the processes which affect them. To do so timization and demise of (sociocultural) anthropology’s
undermines the possibility for recognizing creative en- unique methodological and intellectual contributions as
gagement with the “modern” by organizing it through a a social science. But Englund and Leach do not advocate
meta-narrative which is encompassing. Through organ- a return to an unreflexive “anthropology of the premod-
izing knowledge, such an approach capitulates with an- ern”; indeed, the rich ethnographic data from contem-
other assumption—the self-generating perception of the porary Malawi and Papua New Guinea they adduce make
inevitability of capitalist expansion through modern- it clear that their critique does not entail a retreat from
ity—and its attendant critique. This inevitability is an engagement with the theories or lived, embodied re-
sometimes cited as moral justification for working alities of modernity.
within the system rather than taking the hard road of It is against such a position that Kahn develops his
thinking unconventionally. It is this “terrain” that we basic thesis, which seems to be threefold: (1) that “the
try to step outside through ethnographic work, not, as notion of plural or multiple modernities as it has been
Kahn suggests, the world itself. Finding difference, as developed in recent anthropology is problematic not be-
Kahn positively desires in his conclusion, does not have cause it subsumes the ethnographic project to classical
to mean a “utopian” vision of a place beyond the vices modernist narratives but precisely because it fails suf-

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 669

ficiently to engage with them”; (2) that we need to “rees- ined “rupture” vis-à-vis the ethnographic and theoretical
tablish the conversation between anthropology and so- contributions of others.
cial theory”; and (3) that we must “bring the contextual
and popular dimensions of modernity into frame,” es-
pecially by making better provision for the experiences, g u s t a v o l i n s r i b e i ro
aspirations, and ambivalences of those we encounter in Department of Anthropology, University of Brası́lia,
the field. In presenting these and ancillary arguments, Brası́lia, D.F. 70910-900, Brazil (gustavor@umb.br).
Kahn provides an overview of his fieldwork in Malaysia 16 vii 01
and Indonesia since the 1970s; he also refers to other
parts of Southeast Asia, since much of his essay is offered This welcome piece offers an engaging opportunity to
as a critique of the literature on multiple modernities in recognize the power of “modernity” to resurface and
that expansive region. prompt complex discussions. Of the many facets of
Concerning the first two sets of issues, I concur with Kahn’s provocative and stimulating work, I consider cen-
Kahn that more extensive dialogue with the works of tral the question whether modernity is universal. First,
classical social theorists (Marx, Weber, critical theorists it relates to the future of anthropology as a discipline
associated with the “Frankfurt school,” and their inter- that claims to be universal in spite of its Western his-
locutors, for starters) will enhance our ethnographic and torical foundations. Second, with the deepening of the
theoretical contributions as anthropologists and scholars processes of globalization, the relationships between the
of the human condition. Although Kahn does not make universal and the particular need to be rethought if we
the point, it is arguably all the more crucial for anthro- are to escape centrisms of all kinds. Third, in a context
pologists to attend to “the big questions” posed by clas- in which multicultural and postcolonial positions
sical sociology because much contemporary sociology is abound, the tensions between universalism and partic-
preoccupied with quantification and methodology. ularism have become increasingly politicized.
Kahn’s assertions concerning the purported deficiencies Categories such as civilization, progress, development,
of the literature on multiple modernities in Southeast globalization, and modernity are part of a genealogy of
Asia are more difficult to evaluate, for he does not really discourses that prefigure empire (Hardt and Negri
engage any of the relevant scholarship (e.g., Ong 1999; 2000)—the constitution of a supposedly single, systemic
Ong and Nonini 1997) or any of the equally pertinent totality of legal, economic, political, and cultural forms
literature on civil society in Southeast Asia (e.g., Budi- of exerting global power. “Modernity” needs to be
man 1990; Hefner 1993, 1997, 2000). In fact, he barely thought about in the framework of capitalist expansion
refers to any of this literature, even in passing. In light and its related ideologies and according to the histori-
of the lost opportunities that result, these intellectual cally unequal distribution of power in a world system
moves are unfortunate. They are also curious and ironic, that is shrinking because of time-space compression
since Kahn’s essay is intended as a clarion call to develop (Harvey 1989). It is not surprising, therefore, that local/
social theory through genuinely reflexive critical en- national elites tend to be fairly aware of the meanings
gagement with both the ideas of politics and the politics of “modernity” while peasantries and indigenous peo-
of ideas. ples tend to be less so (or almost completely unaware).
The curiously decontextualized and disembodied di- To put it another way, familiarity with modernity is
mensions of Kahn’s intellectual positioning become all closely related to participation in the capitalist system
the more striking when one is told that “metropolitan and exposure to time-space compression and circuits of
anthropologists almost completely ignore the crucial power that are potentially inter- or transnational. Like
question of the role and function of ethnographic knowl- other ideoscapes (Appadurai 1990), modernity is subject
edge in places like modern Malaysia.” None of the an- to indigenization, but this does not amount to saying
thropologists implicated in these types of unsubstan- that it is a native category.
tiated assertions are identified. Who are they? More The ethnographer of Malaysia or, for that matter, any
serious is that with one or two partial exceptions (e.g., other place in the world going through similar processes
a passage from Ong), Kahn does not cite any of the eth- of transformation is not “dragged into a direct encounter
nographically grounded work of Malaysian, Indonesian, with modernity at the same time as its peoples.” First,
or other Southeast Asian scholars (such as Raymond Lee, this encounter is not equally lived by everyone. Second,
Noraini Othman, Shamsul A. B., and Yao Souchou) that what the ethnographer is really dragged into is a direct
is directly relevant to the questions of theory and prac- encounter with capitalist expansion and its multifarious
tice he is addressing—and this despite his justly critical direct/indirect effects. In 2001, we cannot be surprised
observations that the voices of “‘natives’ with real power by discovering that rationalization, proletarianization,
to influence the practices of ethnography . . . are [often] commodification, etc., cause radical changes in all
completely erased” by anthropologists from the metro- spheres of life.
pole. In sum, retheorization of the meta-narratives of We need not theorize “Malaysia as a site of modernity”
modernity and anthropology’s relation to them is a and redefine our task as “an anthropology of modernity”
broadly collective enterprise. To be truly compelling and to take local interlocutors seriously. And the problem is
pluralized it will need to make provision for “native not whether anthropologists speak of places outside or
voices” and intellectual continuity, not just real or imag- within modernity. In reality, nothing like an anthropol-

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670 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

ogy of premodernity—a Western construction—ever ex- not, anthropology is born of and operates within mo-
isted. Although it has not been an issue for many of dernity and must engage with the main body of socio-
them, anthropologists have always been part of “mo- logical reasoning which both expresses and seeks to the-
dernity” or students of its many facets and reflections. orize modernity.
We need to envision anthropology as a set of relational Anthropology will not become modernity’s hand-
practices and discourses supposing encounters in which maiden as a result of accepting these realities. This is
power positions differentiating the people involved from because a self-critical, disconsolate, divided conscious-
the ethnographer should be dissolved. ness—consuming the material fruits of instrumental ra-
Anthropology’s task is often metaphorically described tionality while yearning to be released from its Weberian
as an attempt to establish dialogues between different “iron cage”—is, according to Kahn, at the very core of
peoples (cultures, classes, identities, etc.). This calls for modernity. This antinomic attitude is precisely what—
taking into account all the participants in interaction again, according to Kahn—is embodied in the “Hegel-
and admitting that conversations may prompt change Marx-Weber” critical sociological tradition. It is also a
and transformation. Hybridity, a term Kahn seems to sensibility increasingly to be found at the popular level
avoid, is a common outcome of dialogical encounters in countries in the East (and elsewhere) experiencing
(including, evidently, all others and not just the ethno- rapid modernization.
graphic encounter). But is it enough to propose that we Kahn convincingly demonstrates that notions of “re-
consider anthropology a kind of hybrid discourse? Can a flexivity” which understand the problems of anthropol-
truly universal anthropology exist? Or should we accept ogy to be derived from the epistemological limitations
a fundamental aporia of anthropological thought—that of fieldwork or authorship are, at best, hopelessly naı̈ve.
the other is always irreducible? Or, conversely, do dis- Would that these could be overcome by resorting to
cussions such as these prefigure a day when it will be clever rhetorical devices such as “multivocality,” which,
impossible or irrelevant to trace the origins of “univer- of course, leave the actual relationships of inequality
sals” such as “modernity,” since there will be no more firmly intact (Robotham 1997:364)! Kahn points out that
indigenizing particulars? all anthropologists (not only those from “the West”) will
All these questions raise the issue of difference as a have to abandon such transparent textual maneuvers.
main axis that supports the anthropological project. Dif- Whether “native” or “foreign,” anthropologists will be
ference will never disappear. Its production is a function compelled to engage with this rising intelligentsia “out
of power inequalities, of the symbolic and linguistic uni- there” although not “in the field.” This intelligentsia
verses in which human beings exist, and of the relation- has little inclination to be used as “informants” or pa-
ships between “social representation” and “individual tronized as “interlocutors” and has difficulty discerning
representation,” to frame it as Durkheim did. However, what is to be gained by engaging in “dialogue” with an-
the modes, contexts, and conditions whereby differences thropologists, especially those branded as “foreign.” Par-
are produced are subject to change. Those who have only adoxically, this challenge, if taken up, leads to a rein-
recently discovered that “we are all natives now” have vogorated anthropology of equals—a real-world “reflex-
not perceived that all of us have always been natives of ivity”—rather than a rhetorical pseudo-reflexivity art-
a place. It is not the absence or presence of an anthro- fully constructed by the condescending anthropologist.
pologist anywhere that defines nativeness. Such anthro- This is an absolutely vital point in Kahn’s paper, but will
pological views were based on Eurocentric and Ameri- more anthropologists take it up?
canocentric perspectives of the “universal.” I would Kahn’s approach is deeply imbued with Weberian
rather believe, following Laclau (1992), that the relation- thinking, though more that of the Nietzschean and neo-
ship between universalism and particularism is always Kantian than of the “Marxist” Weber (Mommsen 1989:
incomplete, a field of tensions, a struggle for an empty 24–43). His typically Weberian assertion that the prin-
place that, once occupied, tends to colonize other places cipal contradiction of modernity is the tension between
that, in turn, will struggle against their reduction to the personal autonomy and instrumental rationality, rather
images or projects of a dominant Other. than that between widespread global immiseration
Modernity(ies) is one aspect of this field of tensions. amidst stupendous wealth, must be unintended, for it
As do various other such ideologies and utopias, it needs borders on the scandalous. Hegel and Marx would per-
to be understood within regimes of production of ho- haps have dismissed this brand of modernist agonizing
mogenization and heterogenization and not singled out as the height of intellectualist self-indulgence.
as the yardstick against which difference and sameness That this kind of nostalgia for Gemeinschaft and Hei-
are measured. mat—originally the preserve of German anticapitalist ro-
manticism—is now emerging even more acutely in “the
d o n a l d ro b o t h a m East” is unsurprising. Both are cases of very rapid late-
Anthropology Program, The Graduate Center, City capitalist transformation of rural societies driven from
University of New York, New York, N.Y. 10016-4309, above by more or less autocratic regimes. Similarly, the
U.S.A. (dkrobotham@aol.com). 29 vi 01 claims around “Asian values” are eerily reminiscent of
the arguments for a superior German Sonderweg com-
Kahn’s paper presents anthropology with another oppor- monplace among the nationalistic German intelligentsia
tunity to overcome its endemic parochialism. Like it or of the late 19th century.

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 671

This approach defines modernity by its ethic of means another narrative about it. There is no uninterpreted so-
rationality rather than by its mode of production, class cial object that can be cognized, known, or interpreted
relations, or control of the state. Ethically it concentrates as it is in itself. All interpretation, all cognition, is always
on means rationality at the expense of ends rationality. relative to a conceptual scheme. And there is no way to
This paralyzes it in the face of the defining 20th- and show that the social world mandates a single possible
21st-century outrages—the systematic use of the most interpretation. Plural, disparate narratives are always
exquisitely rational means to pursue brutally irrational possible. A choice between them cannot be made on
ends. Weber certainly recognized this contradiction, but merely empirical grounds; it also cannot be made other
he could not effectively interrogate ends within the cat- than from one or another extraempirical point of view.
egorical moral and epistemological confines of his neo- By “modernity” Kahn means in the first place the
Kantian imperatives. Yet it is precisely this failure to put changes in social structures resulting from the devel-
ends at the center of theory which allows means ration- opment of a market-oriented economy, what is often
ality to be placed so completely at the disposal of irra- called capitalism. Which model should one employ? In
tional ends. From this viewpoint also, whether modern- pointing out that our ideas of modernity are mainly de-
ity is capitalist or socialist is not too important, except rived from Western conceptual models, Kahn’s answer
that socialism travels even farther down the road of an is twofold. He is favorably disposed to the idea that al-
all-encompassing rationality and thus greatly accelerates ternative narratives can be constructed about the objects
the decline of personal autonomy. of social science, such as Malaysian villages, which sug-
Kahn’s approach obscures a larger difficulty which an- gests that we must reject anything like a single, univocal
thropology, like the antiglobalization and environmental logic of modernization in studying such societies. Yet he
movements, will have to confront. The critical social also suggests that modernity, East and West, is part of
theories (not “theory”) of modernity conceal profoundly one continuous historical process.
contradictory premises which lead in diametrically op- I think it would be simplistic to think that Kahn is
posite directions. Many trends (predominant in anthro- contradicting himself or that he is caught in a vicious
pology and antiglobalization and among Greens) seek to circle. We can paraphrase his point as that the construc-
recover community by dismantling international eco- tion of alternative, discrete, even incompatible narra-
nomic relations and reverting to some form of small- tives about a given social group always presupposes a
scale living. Other trends (infinitely weaker) regard large- continuous process in terms of which they can be dif-
scale international economic relations, cleansed of ferentiated. In denying the possibility of grand narratives,
capitalism, as the very foundation for overcoming the what Lyotard calls a méta-récit, “positivist” historians
contradictions of modernity, including those of personal like Foucault typically insist on the formation of discrete
autonomy. Urging anthropology’s engagement with crit- cultural formations, or epistemes, which come into and
ical theories riven by such irreconcilables is a huge ad- go out of existence. Foucault means to prevent anything
vance over where the discipline is today but will create like History with a capital H in thinking difference as
new and even more intractable dilemmas. primary. Yet difference can only be thought on the basis
of the very unity that a positivist approach to history
means to deny. Kahn’s insight seems to be that in the
t o m ro c k m o r e domain of social science different types of narratives
Department of Philosophy, Duquesne University, must be understood in terms of a continuous historical
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15282, U.S.A. (rockmore@dug.edu). process on which they provide alternative perspectives.
8 vii 01 The deeper problem, which he does not mention, con-
cerns cognition of the continuous historical process, or
In remarks on field research in Southeast Asia, Kahn what it is that we know when we know. It makes em-
suggests that ethnography cannot dispense with a con- inent good sense to hold that we can provide different
ception of modernity in raising the question of an ap- alternative narratives of the real historical process. If
propriate model. His paper presupposes that we must there were nothing there, it could not be described. If
have in mind a conception of modernity in order to study our descriptions do not relate to an object, there cannot
different social groupings but that the cognitive object be knowledge of it. But the cognitive object cannot be
is altered by economic and other processes that in turn known other than through alternative narratives. In
inform any study of the social world. This suggests that other words, there must be something there in order to
the ability to ascertain so-called facts presupposes a nar- describe it in different ways, but what there is can never
rative appropriate to pick them out. It further suggests be known other than through alternative descriptions.
that in any given case more than one narrative is We never know that we know social reality as it is be-
possible. cause we never know that we know mind-independent
I believe that both suggestions are correct. Facts can reality. What we know through empirical research is al-
never be isolated from a conceptual framework within ways and inevitably a construct or an artifact of one or
which they are meaningful. The framework, which has another conceptual scheme. Paradoxically, then, we
no truth value, serves as the context within which truth must presuppose the existence of an uninterpreted re-
claims can be made. The social world provides an em- ality which we cannot know as a condition of knowing
pirical constraint that is also “constructed” by one or on the basis of conceptual frameworks keyed to the em-

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672 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

pirical constraints encountered in interaction between is no basis to assume that the histories of the repressed,
observers and the experienced world. in themselves, hold a special key to revelation; the dis-
Knowledge is limited to conceptual constructs on the courses of the dominant also yield vital insights into the
basis of which we interact with empirical constraints. contexts and processes of which they were a part” (Com-
We construct what we know, and we know only what aroff and Comaroff 1991:17).
we construct. If this is correct, then social science of all Kahn points out that modernization and traditionali-
kinds illustrates the well-known constructivist thesis. zation are simultaneous processes which cannot be dis-
Yet since social construction is not isolated from but entangled; pluralizing the modern or focusing upon glob-
rather part of the historical process, all claims to know alization and then relocalizing modernity disguises the
are indexed to time and place, or to the historical mo- ways in which the construction of “tradition” provides
ment. With this correction, one can agree with Kahn in the meta-narratives of liberal “modernity” with their es-
maintaining that anthropology and social theory cannot cape clause, their means of separating us from them and
be separated, for anthropology requires a conceptual “blaming the victims.” If by modern we mean the prod-
framework or social theory as its very condition. I take uct of instrumental reason, even we “have never been
it that this is the deeper message Kahn means to convey. modern” (Latour 1993). As Latour argues, the ideology
of modernity creates the Great Divide, “to the extent
that Westerners can be lined up on one side and all other
albert schrauwers cultures on the other, since the latter all have in common
Department of Anthropology, York University, 4700 the fact that they are precisely cultures among others.
Keele St., Toronto, Ont., Canada M3J 1P3 In Westerners’ eyes the West, and the West alone, is not
(schrauwe@yorku.ca). 14 vii 01 a culture, not merely a culture” (1993:97). Modernity
thus contains within itself an inherent ethnographic pro-
Kahn’s paper reflexively highlights the intellectual ge- ject, a desire to construct “tradition” (and hence its
nealogy of anthropology as “expressivist” critique of mo- Other) in which its modern indigenes are complicit. As
dernity. This approach takes into account recent con- Pemberton (1994) demonstrates, “culture” is an “effect”
cerns with the plurality of modernity, the lack of fixed of history rather than its explanation or precondition. By
boundaries of our field sites within a globalizing world, viewing “traditionalization” and “modernization” as
and the multiple theoretical challenges to the isolation part of the same historical process, we implicate met-
of “the West” from “the Rest.” It is precisely by engaging ropolitan Europe, colonial indigenes, and ethnographers
with the meta-narratives of modernity and reflexively from the outset.
encompassing the role of the anthropological process of It is important to underscore that the “expressivist
Othering within them that we can construct a new the- critique” of modernity (and hence anthropology) is not
oretical project, a project based on the comparison of necessarily reflexive. It is only through the recognition
similarities rather than absolute difference. As Kahn and assessment of anthropology’s own modernist lineage
notes, this draws attention to the authoritative role that we can assess the political implications of anthro-
played by ethnographers themselves and the implica- pological power/knowledge in its various institutional
tions of the circulation of enthnographic knowledge in settings. An ethnography of modernity in the expressiv-
the modern spaces we all share. ist vein should be, in other words, politically engaged—a
Recent accounts of events in Central Sulawesi paint point which does not emerge strongly in Kahn’s paper.
a dismal picture of the Balkanization of the New Order “Otherwise we are pushed back to an anthropology that
state. Children walk the streets with home-made guns, is little more than a description of the quaint or violent
and headless corpses float lazily down river. A state once customs of other people, or a social history that calls
described as monolithic, invasive, totalizing, and hege- talking to each other about the vulnerable giving them
monic now appears a fragile victim of “primordial” re- voice” (Sider and Smith 1997:14).
ligious and ethnic tensions; its goal of developing a uni-
fied national citizenry and a modern economy lies in
tatters. Yet another case of incomplete modernization? c a ro l a . s m i t h
Or, as is becoming increasingly clear in case after case Department of Anthropology, University of California,
of IMF restructuring, all too modern? Davis, Calif. 95616, U.S.A. (casmith@ucdavis.edu).
Faced with such violence, we need to address the eth- 8 vii 01
ical implications of the historical use of anthropological
knowledge in the creation of these “primordial” senti- Kahn’s article does indeed describe current ethnographic
ments. A localized ethnography of the sort called for by encounters that are “broadly typical,” especially for an-
Englund and Leach offers “improperly contextualized” thropologists who have worked in the same place 20
stories—stories shorn of modern meta-narratives and, years or more. I have maintained research contact for 30
hence, precisely of culpability. “To become something years in western Guatemala, which resembles Kahn’s
more, these partial, ’hidden histories’ have to be situated ethnographic region only superficially, being much less
in the wider worlds of power and meaning that gave them “modern” in economic, political, and social terms. Yet
life. But those worlds were also home to other dramatis Kahn’s description of Malaysian modernity and the var-
personae, other texts, other signifying practices. There ied concerns of Malays about it resonates with my ex-

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 673

perience with Maya in Guatemala. The major current wife and children behind with paternal kin for centuries;
issue in Guatemala concerns the impact of modern- and whether or not they visited regularly or sent remit-
ity—whether defined as economic development or as tances back for family support, their children were in-
Western values—on traditional (especially Maya) cul- corporated into a related “traditional” patriarchal house-
ture. What Maya wish to avoid is what many Western hold. There has been little systematic attempt to explain
scholars consider the features of modern life that bring this significant and consistent “cultural” difference in
about economic development—individualistic values, the impact of modernity (or capitalism) on families in
shrinking, unstable family life, and the weakening hold other than stereotypical terms (i.e., patriarchy is more
of a moral community. Maya leaders active in the cul- strongly inscribed in Asia than elsewhere). Other family
turalist movement argue that it is possible for them to features—shrinking household size and interdepen-
develop economically and still retain traditional values, dence, marital instability, recourse to other kinds of fam-
supporting the argument with the observation that Maya ily formation and/or sexuality—also lack any single form
have remained “essentially” the same for more than 500 which can be linked to the “requirements” of capitalism
years despite countless changes imposed on them by and modernity. Surely we can be more precise in ex-
Spanish conquerors. They also frequently point to Japan plaining them than by pointing broadly to capitalism,
as an impressive example of economic modernity co- modernity, globalization, and “strength” of tradition. I
existing with the maintenance of a relatively intact (tra- have worked on female-headed households in Latin
ditional or non-Western) culture (see, e.g., de Hart 2001). America (Smith 1995, 1998) and suggested a causal chain
What I find curious is Kahn’s hesitation to go beyond for them.
a culturalist and Western deconstruction of the meaning Mayan traditionalists think about the shrinking and
of modernity. In cultural terms he actually goes much increasingly unstable modern Maya family only in very
farther than most scholars do by pointing to alternative general terms. They are mostly troubled about the for-
and critical Western theories of the modern. Perhaps he mation of social communities other than locality, which
goes no farther because it is old-fashioned to begin with can reproduce key cultural signifiers of Maya identity,
capitalism and its simultaneous influence on economic such as language. Attempts to create such communities
cores and peripheries with respect to modernism. He are adding to the divisions within their localities to the
mentions capitalism only two or three times, and then point of dividing even families. Unlike “traditional” lo-
in the context of Weber’s concerns with modernity. calities, governed mainly by patriarchal norms of com-
Western scholars have done little to build on Weber’s munity, “modern” communities are divided by class, ed-
insights concerning the impact of capitalism on social ucation, ethnic consciousness, sometimes politics, and
systems and cultures—an impact Weber recognized as especially religion—each of which helps create the
being far from monolithic or teleological but with de- “new” communities. New religions seem to be a primary
cided consequences. What I am suggesting is that we source of new community associations (as in Malaysia
spend less time defining modernity, globalism, and local with the Islamic revival), and the most successful of
identities/cultures and more time trying to explain con- them in Latin America are evangelical; in Guatemala
crete examples of modernity, which will always vary be- Maya are now almost one-third evangelical, others being
cause they will have been affected by a host of specific divided among traditional Catholicism, Catholic Action,
historical factors. and Maya forms of religious practice. On these grounds
The particularities of modernity do not depend upon one could argue that new religions divide more than they
location in the developed or underdeveloped regions of create communities, but that would require believing
the world, nor are they necessarily Western cultural im- that the “modernizing” communities were not already
ports brought in by particular cultural agents whose mi- divided in major ways—which is almost certainly wrong
grations to other parts of the world encouraged capital- (see, e.g., Burdick 1996). It seems, then, that we must
ist expansion. Two interrelated features of modernity assume that capitalism invariably creates “modern”
brought on by capitalism that have been socially-cul- forms of family and other social groupings, though they
turally realized in different ways are changing family and are not necessarily identical. And it also seems that
sexual relations and the reconstitution of “traditional” while there are multiple forms of modernity, there are
communities based on locality into other kinds of social ways in which we can link different forms to the his-
groupings (e.g., labor, religious, ethnic). In most of Latin torical specifics of “capitalist penetration.”
America proletarianization and migration have led to a There is little to dispute in Kahn’s argument that an-
major increase in female-headed households and a de- thropologists must “reconsider modernity in both [West-
crease in even the pretense of patriarchy except among ern and non-Western societies] as part of a single his-
elites; children of most workers and migrants remain torical process of modernization that was global from
with their mothers, on whom they depend for both iden- the outset.” But does this mean it would “be a mistake
tity and economic survival (Folbre 1994). Men find other to invoke either a plurality of modernities or the glob-
women and often end up creating and leaving behind alization and then re-localization of modernity, as a
many different female-headed households. In much of means of accounting for anthropological realities”? I
Asia, in contrast, patriarchy often seems to be strength- think the real issue is tracing the particularities of mul-
ened rather than weakened by proletarianization and mi- tiple “modernization(s)” as they involve both local and
gration. For example, migratory Chinese men have left global processes and both general and particular histor-

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674 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

ical processes. All cultures change (modernize) all the ferent attitudes towards modernity. Malays want to be
time, but that is hardly what we should be arguing about. on the same footing as successful Chinese and to be
The issue is how and why. proud bangsa (people) in the world. Their rhetoric of
modernity is influenced by their perception of modernity
in relation to Islam, as well as their perception of Chi-
tan chee-beng nese and other Malaysians, and by their historical mem-
Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University ory of colonialism. Thus Prime Minister Mohamad Ma-
of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China hathir’s modernity rhetoric against Western domination
(cbtan@cuhk.edu.hk). 23 vi 01 is meaningful to them. Chinese Malaysians generally
take modernity for granted, and many relate it to global
Kahn argues that anthropology is being led “towards mobility. Thus when the dominant Malay party
rather than away from an encounter with modernity” launched the New Malay (Melayu Baru) (read Modern
and that it should engage directly with existing modern- Malay) campaign in the 1990s, the Chinese did not know
ist “meta-narratives.” I agree. Anthropologists invariably how to respond. Some tried to call for a similar campaign,
encounter modernity, at least as a perceived phenome- but the Chinese could not make sense of what “New
non or a discourse, in their research. Every site is now Chinese” might mean. They are more concerned with
a site of modernity. In Mainland China it is virtually Malay political dominance and racial discrimination,
impossible to ignore modernity; not only does the state and they do not know how to relate modernity to them.
promote it but people talk about it, too, and want to be It is obvious from the above discussion that the global
“modern.” They express it in their consumption, an area process of modernity is expressed concretely in various
to which anthropologists need to pay more attention. forms at the state, group, and individual levels. There is
Modernity is encountered and engaged in differently by much room for exciting ethnographic research, and an
different groups of people and individuals. And modern encounter with critical theory of modernity is obviously
consumption, whether in the form of getting a new dish necessary for reflexive ethnography. At the same time,
sterilizer in rural Yongchun in South Fujian or adopting new ethnographic findings can shed new light on both
a more elite style of drinking Chinese tea in rural Guang- the process and theories of modernity. As to “an an-
dong, expresses modernity. thropology of modernity,” this seems to be a rhetoric of
Indeed, modernity is experienced even in remote vil- emphasis. Anthropologists once disregarded tourism in
lages. In Borneo, while logging has a negative impact on their research, but today no serious anthropologist can
the indigenous people, logging roads do link remote vil- afford to neglect its impact. Similarly, given the global
lages to urban centers, and people are very conscious of experience of modernity and local rhetoric, no serious
their changing modern ways of life. Their desire for a anthropologist can fail to take into account the issue of
more modern lifestyle increases with their integration modernity and therefore the critical theory of modernity.
into the market economy. They also express modernity What anthropologists can contribute most is analyses of
via various modes of consumption. Some of them even modernity in particular political economies, for the
buy mobile phones that can be used only when they go global process of modernity does not exist in a vacuum.
to town because there is no reception in their villages. In this context one can analyse other cultural issues,
I concur with Kahn that modernity is not only some- including the negotiation of tradition and modernity.
thing concrete but also “a singular process that is global
and multicultural.” This global process of modernity is
manifested in institutional modernity, a process that
brings about more efficient (rational) management of hu- b j ö r n w i t t ro c k
man societies (urban planning, provision of public facil- Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social
ities) and the distribution of modern conveniences and Sciences, Götavägen 4, 752 36 Uppsala, Sweden
comforts and liberates individuals from oppression and (bjorn.wittrock@scasss.uu.se). 20 vii 01
injustice. For instance, the one-person, one-vote system
of national election may have its pitfalls, but it does Despite decades of critique, the dominant sociological
permit ordinary people to have a say in choosing gov- form of theorizing about global developments remains
ernments. Pluralizing modernity (e.g., “Asian modern- that of modernization theory. This type of theorizing was
ity”) provides a rhetoric for oppressive regimes to reject explicitly premised on a set of dichotomies between the
efforts to bring about a more open and liberal system of traditional and the modern, the Western and the non-
government. In this sense there is a global process of Western, the stagnant and the dynamic. Implicitly it was
modernity affecting all human societies, brought about also premised on a view of the world that took the ex-
by such factors as the diffusion of science and technol- periences of one particular country in one particular his-
ogy, modern education, and the market economy. Many torical period, notably the United States in the
kinds of agents are involved too: government, NGOs, post–World War II period, as the yardstick against which
political activists, and all kinds of individuals. the achievements and failures of other countries were
In Malaysia, as Kahn has shown, the local people talk measured. Thus one particular trajectory to modernity
about modernity and have their own views on it. In eth- tended to be assumed rather than examined. Further-
nically polarized Malaysia, Malays and Chinese have dif- more, long-term relationships between this trajectory

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 675

and developments in other parts of the world tended to five points on which I take his understanding and mine
be ignored or simply dismissed. (Wittrock 2000, 2001a, b) to coincide:
At the beginning of the 21st century, global interac- 1. The cultural constitution of modernity has to be
tions have become so prominent and immediately visible explicitly brought into any theorizing of modernity. It
as to make obvious the existence of distinctly modern cannot be relegated to a pristine domain of ethnographic
yet clearly different societies across the globe. Paradox- research.
ically, both traditional modernization theory and large 2. The cultural presuppositions of modernity have al-
parts of contemporary globalization studies remain ways been in tension with each other, discursively em-
premised on assumptions of convergence and unilinear battled and differently interpreted and articulated.
modernization. Thus globalization studies may have re- 3. Virtually every such articulation has occurred
placed notions of structures with notions of networks, against the background of a perceived threat to the prac-
but they tend to preserve core assumptions of modern- tices of a given society, a sense that it is about to be
ization theory in terms of a functional evolutionary ac- overwhelmed not only by the values of another society
count of history and a functional and non-agential ac- but by the sheer power of other societies. This is equally
count of society. true for what has sometimes been called “defensive mod-
The conventional understanding of modernization suf- ernization” in 19th- and 20th-century Europe (Joas 1999,
fers from three crucial weaknesses: First, it is concep- 2000) as it is in the cases of 19th- and 20th-century Japan
tually impoverished. Thus it presents an understanding and 20th-century China or India.
of modernization as consisting of changes in economic- 4. In all parts of the world today, articulations of cul-
technological practices, “the industrial revolution,” and tural and institutional assumptions of modernity will
in political practices, “the democratic revolution,” but occur in virtually all geographical regions and among all
it neglects the fact that modernity was formed in the parts of the population. Such processes are not reserved
wake of a profound shift in cultural and discursive for an intellectual elite in supposedly modern settings
practices. distinct from an allegedly traditional population in re-
Furthermore, it is empirically untenable. The partic- mote areas unaffected by modernity. Thus the very idea
ular institutional practices that modernization theory as- of ethnographic accounts that may be kept separate from
sociates with modernity—be they a liberal market econ- theorizing about modernity is untenable.
omy or a democratic nation-state—did not materialize 5. The particular institutional projects that were ar-
in full-blown form anywhere, even in the context of ticulated and sometimes partially realized in some parts
Western Europe, until the middle of the 20th century. of Europe and North America came to impinge on the
From a purely structural-institutional perspective, mo- rest of the world, but this cannot be construed either
dernity would barely have arrived in time to witness its historically or in the contemporary setting as an en-
own funeral. This would make a mockery of debates counter between modern and traditional societies. Nei-
throughout the 19th century in Europe about the coming ther Ching China nor Mughal India nor Safavid Persia
of modernity. Furthermore, as already argued, societies nor Tokugawa Japan nor Ottoman Turkey and the Bal-
across the globe are modern but exhibit differences that kans was in any reasonable sense a stagnant, traditional
cannot simply be expected to fade away in favor of a society. They were all undergoing profound change, had
gradual approximation to some implicit North American vibrant public spaces, and were reinterpreting their own
yardstick. legacies, defining their collective identities, and reform-
Finally, the conventional understanding is, as is per- ing their political orders (Eisenstadt, Schluchter, and
suasively argued by Kahn, normatively closed. It posits Wittrock 2001).
a purely instrumentalist understanding of—to use my Only a focus on the connected and entangled nature
own terminology (Wittrock 2000)—the promissory notes of history (e.g., Subramanyam 1997, 1998) can bring this
of modernity. Paradoxically, in this respect conventional out. Such a focus defies any notion of a dichotomy be-
modernization theory and a number of its poststructur- tween theorizing the modernity of European and North
alist critics share this interpretation. They both tend to American societies and ethnographically recording the
neglect tensions between expressivist and instrumen- traditional and the given in other settings. There is every
talist tendencies in modernity that existed in the artic- reason to believe that social theories of modernity will
ulation of modernity at least from the turn of the 18th be greatly enriched in the coming decades by the con-
century onward (Heilbron, Magnusson, and Wittrock tributions of theoretically informed anthropologists
1996; Wagner 1994, 2001). A purely instrumentalist read- from across the world.
ing of the promissory notes of modernity is historically
inaccurate, and it is vacuous as a normative theory ex-
cept in a purely formal sense. In the case of traditional
modernization theory there is simply an uncritical ad-
vocacy of a set of instrumental values, an assignment
that in a number of poststructuralist accounts has just
shifted evaluational contents.
From this perspective, there is every reason to wel-
come Kahn’s key arguments. Let me briefly highlight

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676 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

am a little surprised by the negative tone of his response.


Reply Perhaps this just demonstrates that while social theorists
may be happy for anthropologists to draw on their in-
sights, they are reluctant to recognize the very clear con-
joel s. kahn tribution that anthropologists, postcolonial theorists,
Melbourne, Australia. 9 vii 01 multiculturalists, feminists, and others could make to
the transformation of social theory. How else could Ar-
I am gratified by the number and variety of responses to nason be so oblivious to the long-established critical en-
my argument for a deepening of the encounter between gagement with modernization theory in anthropology
anthropology and theories of modernity, even if in a stimulated by the work of Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz
number of cases I find myself somewhat taken aback by and the rise of dependency and world-system theory and
the negative tone of some of the more critical comments. to the subsequent inversion of the liberal assumptions
In particular I was disappointed by the reactions of of modernization theory in the critiques of development
Englund and Leach, whose article in an earlier issue of of anthropologists such as Ferguson and Escobar? As for
current anthropology stimulated me to clarify my his perfunctory dismissal of my attempt to uncover sim-
own thoughts on the relationship between anthropolog- ilar continuities in contemporary debates with two quite
ical knowledge making and Western narratives of mod- different European theoretical traditions (advanced in
ernization. Instead of being pleased that their piece had any case rather tentatively in the article), I remain un-
served to stimulate a serious discussion of these issues, discouraged by the statement that because Durkheim
they appear to imagine that my own piece had as its was somehow more “critical” than Comte and Spencer
single raison d’être a desire to attack it. And on that and Weber was unhappy with aspects of the Hegelian
front I stand accused of simultaneously misrepresenting system such an attempt should be abandoned. To make
their arguments and claiming them for my own. (It is this case more convincing, however, I would have had
extremely difficult to see how one could be guilty on to stray far beyond the central problems addressed in this
both counts at once.) In fact their article was not the particular article. Finally, asserting that it is possible to
sole or even the primary stimulus for my own argument, develop an abstract theory of modernity in the singu-
and I do not propose here a point-by-point refutation of lar—hence dismissing my critique of the notion of mul-
either their article or the separate comments they make tiple modernities—does not actually make it so. On this
here. Perhaps instead a single example might serve to one point I remain unconvinced by Arnason’s own
illustrate where our disagreements are sharpest. At one writings.
point in their article they take the Comaroffs among Perhaps the problems raised with regard to the em-
others to task for operating with a covert meta-narrative beddedness of modernity and the shortcomings of “ex-
of modernity in making claims about the effects of gen- emplary” accounts of modern subjectivity are too “an-
eralized commodification. In essence their argument is thropological” for Arnason to take much interest in
that engaging with this particular modernist narrative is them. And yet, while they may arise in the kind of an-
ethnocentric, since it reads local reactions to commod- thropological encounter I describe, they prove extremely
ification through the grid of a preexisting modernist de- problematic for critical theory as well. Just as anthro-
bate. Instead of engaging, however critically, with the pology must benefit from an encounter with the work
shortcomings of this particular (one might add uni- of critical theorists like Arnason, he too would benefit
dimensional) narrative and exposing its shortcomings (in from a more serious engagement with the problems iden-
the West as well as the non-West), they appeal to a field- tified in contemporary ethnography. Perhaps for obvious
work “tradition” through which the ethnographer some- reasons, then, I find Wittrock’s approach to similar issues
how escapes into a place of radical otherness-to-mo- far more congenial. But this is not just because he finds
dernity, allowing the fieldworker to be “transformed in substantial areas of overlap between the project I have
the process of inquiry” by imposing “interlocutors’ con- outlined and his own work as a social theorist but also
cerns and interests upon the ethnographer,” thereby because he appears far more willing than is Arnason to
challenging “the perceptual faculties the ethnographer take seriously the problems identified in Western nar-
is accustomed to trust” (Englund and Leach 2000:229). ratives of modernization by ethnographers who have
This particular vision of the nature of ethnography is taken the trouble to engage with them.
precisely what I have termed a “traditionalist” one to I find myself agreeing with Eisenstadt’s case for broad-
the extent that it promises an escape into a space of ening the focus of the discussion of modernist culture,
radical alterity. In this sense the label “traditionalist” is although I am not certain that the tension between to-
hardly a misrepresentation of their position. And what- talization and pluralism could not be linked more closely
ever one may think of it, it is very difficult to see how to the project of autonomization (in Wagner’s terms, the
the very clear alternative I proposed can be taken to be tension between liberty and discipline) than he pre-
a case of claiming their positions as my own. sumes. I fully sympathize with the intentions of some
The work of my colleague Arnason has done much to of those who, like Eisenstadt, have seriously worked to
clarify my own thinking on the strengths and weak- pluralize the concept of modernity. Eisenstadt here at
nesses of contemporary social-theoretic discourse in the least provides a justification by advocating one way of
critical tradition. Given my attempt to engage with it, I singularizing the concept, arguing that modernity begins

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k a h n Anthropology and Modernity F 677

in the West to be differently appropriated elsewhere. In recognize the ways in which anthropology and hence the
the paper, however, I point to difficulties with this ap- anthropologist are implicated in the processes that pro-
proach by suggesting that modernity may have been co- duce “interlocutors” is a critical one, and these problems
evally constituted in the West and the non-West and by in my view also infect a good deal of what passes for
suggesting that perhaps modernity may best be under- critical theory in the West. It is for precisely this reason
stood as having been “global” and multicultural from that I have called certain of Englund and Leach’s claims
the outset. This of course is to take issue with Eisen- for ethnography traditionalist, a label that in this sense
stadt’s suggestion that modernity can be thought of as a might also be applied to certain much more recent (and
“distinct civilization which emerged in the West,” but apparently more “radical”) work by subalternists, post-
his response prompts me to reexamine his important structuralists, and postmodernists. All in different ways
contribution to these issues over many years. seek an epistemological guarantee for their critiques of
Goh’s comments are useful, and of course she is cor- modernity and its meta-narratives in some form of es-
rect to point to the importance of revised understandings cape from modernity for that selective band of subjects
of modernity in theorizing both violence and struggles who are thereby able to see it for the sham it is. In this
for (and against) local cultural, political, and economic way they conveniently escape being themselves impli-
autonomy, particularly in places like Indonesia. Here she cated in its evils (inequality, immiseration, racism, pa-
identifies what is perhaps the major challenge facing an- triarchy, violence), for which almost everyone else then
alysts of contemporary Southeast Asia, if only because becomes responsible.
we are all implicated in one way or another in the pro- Smith engages at length with certain aspects of the
cesses through which cultural identities in the region article but in spite of some positive remarks urges a re-
have been formed—a point I take to underlie the work turn to some of the key arguments of the “political econ-
of Schrauwers. omists” for whom she has been such a prominent and
I confess to finding Ribeiro’s intervention somewhat persuasive spokesperson. It is perhaps the assertion that
opaque and would be interested in a more worked-out the goal of such analysis is to examine the “impact” of
version of the themes he takes up. We disagree at a num- capitalism (or modernity) on, presumably, precapitalist
ber of crucial points—for example, that modernism and or premodern communities that throws most clearly into
empire are as intimately connected as he appears to sug- relief the problems in the approach she appears to favour.
gest, that modernity is largely to be understood as an Two separate but ultimately intersecting lines of
ideology of elites (and that “peasantries” and “indige- thought—the one methodological, the other theoreti-
nous peoples” are less aware of it, however this might cal—have moved me away from this kind of approach.
be measured), and that “capitalist expansion” on its own The former begins with a critique of objectivist ap-
provides an adequate understanding of the systemic in- proaches in the human and cultural sciences towards an
terconnection between the West and its others (this last engagement with the meaningful dimensions of human
point also argued by Smith). Yet reading his piece is, for social life (à la Geertz) but then moves beyond this “ob-
all that, stimulating, and I am pleased that my article jectivist subjectivism” to a recognition of the intersub-
seems to have provoked such a lively response. Similarly jective or hermeneutic processes by which the subjective
with the response by Robotham, who also points out gaps states of others are constructed. But, as I have argued,
in the argument of the article, including its failure to the dialogical accounts of ethnographic practice thrown
address global immiseration and stupendous wealth—a up by these assumptions can be seen to be sociologically
failure that he suggests is possibly “scandalous.” The naı̈ve to the extent that the focus remains on the dyadic
same could be said of the lack of attention to racism and and relatively short-term interactions that constitute in-
violence, a point made somewhat differently by Smith, dividual ethnographic encounters. What is called for in-
Schrauwers, and Goh. I would agree that this is a gap in stead, as Schrauwers points out, is a reflexive account of
the article under consideration, although I hope not in the production of anthropological knowledge and the
other things I have written. But such comments serve processes that generate both anthropological subjects
to remind me that the fact that an earlier theoretical and objects, embedding them within more stable long-
obsession with, particularly, the Marxism of the French term relations between “us” and “them” (relations
structuralists (and hence with the transhistorical perti- which under certain circumstances may be classed as
nence of concepts like mode of production, surplus imperial, although this far from exhausts the list of
value, class, and capitalism) failed to provide satisfactory possibilities).
ways of dealing with such problems does not mean that Theoretically, political economy approaches falter pre-
the problems themselves have disappeared. Robotham’s cisely because they seek to describe these relations in
recognition of the failures of socialism in this regard is, terms of the “impact” of capitalism, the global, the mod-
therefore, important to my own position as well. ern, etc., on essentialized and timeless precapitalist or
I appreciate Rockmore’s more philosophically elegant local or premodern “communities,” positing a “tradi-
statement of my assumptions and cannot quarrel with tional” baseline that continually recedes backward in
his “correction” of them. Would that my own arguments time. The evidence of local distinctiveness inevitably
were really so coherently epistemologically grounded! uncovered by such ethnographic encounters must al-
The point made by Schrauwers about the problems ways be explained as a consequence of incomplete cap-
inherent in an ethnography that either refuses or fails to italist development, modernization, or what have you.

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678 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 42, Number 5, December 2001

The already-mentioned example of the meta-narrative of a p p a d u r a i , a r j u n . 1990. “Disjuncture and difference in the
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———. 2000. Communism and modernity. Daedalus 129(1):
means of production, land, and finally labour power (the
61–90.
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ics in the modern social order. Cambridge: Polity Press in as-
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capitalism on the “periphery.” This tendency of political b u d i m a n , a r i e f . Editor. 1990. State and civil society in In-
economists to measure their ethnographic experience donesia. Monash Papers in Southeast Asia 22. [mgp]
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marked a radical break with what I have termed a tra- c o m a r o f f , j e a n , a n d j o h n c o m a r o f f . 1991. Of revela-
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tion? Or is it more reasonable to reexamine the validity ———. 1999. Civil society and the political imagination in Af-
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tributions made especially by Budiman and Ong (the lat- framework of “multiple modernities.” Millennium: Journal of
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of failing to engage with scholars in the region. Nor do ———. 2001. The civilizational dimension of modernity: Mo-
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Tan raises an important objection to the notion of mul- b j ö r n w i t t r o c k . Editors. 2000. Public spheres and collec-
tiple modernities not mentioned in my paper, namely, tive identities. New Brunswick: Transaction. [bw]
that it should provoke scepticism if only because it has e n g l u n d , h a r r i , a n d j a m e s l e a c h . 2000. Ethnography
become embedded in the rhetoric of authoritarian re- and the meta-narratives of modernity. current anthropology
41:225–48.
gimes. Although I have elsewhere entered into the so-
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f a u b i o n , j a m e s d . 1993. Modern Greek lessons: A primer in
vincing critique. Pursuing this intriguing suggestion
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