Soft and Hard Conceptualizations of Modernity
Classic modernization theory in the Weberian form posits that societies and states are evolving in a process of enhanced rationality. Such rationality manifests itself in technological advancement, progressive scientific discovery and material explanation of natural phenomena. Additionally, rationalization of values and meaning also occurs, which result in an apparent disenchantment with the world, along with society itself becoming rationally organized. On this latter point, the theory also posits that bureaucratization occurs, and with it the technocratic class gains command and control of society.
What is central to this theory is the thesis that modernization is a necessary process, in other words it is telic (expressing purpose). There are two ways in which this necessity can be understood. There is a ‘hard’ conception, where modernization is historically inevitable. Here the claim is that all nations and peoples are progressing in the same way, irrespective of geographical or racial factors. This necessity does not entail that societies will certainly become modern. Rather, the claim is that if societies progress, they will do so in the said manner. A ‘softer’ conception is that modernization is a description of what has occurred in the past two centuries in countries clustered around Western and Central Europe. Here the claim is that modernization, as conceived of above, is an abstracted set of observations regarding these geographically and culturally proximate nations. The claim here is that there is no universal story to be told about modernization and historical inevitability. On the contrary, modernization should be understood as processes that occur within culturally and geographically specific loci. As such, whatever the nature of this process may be, it is idiosyncratic. Far from being historically necessary, each and every discrete unit of people (or perhaps culture?) will progress in their own manner. Therefore, it follows that there are alternative modernities.
“… modernization should be understood as processes that occur within culturally and geographically specific loci. As such, whatever the nature of this process may be, it is idiosyncratic. Far from being historically necessary, each and every discrete unit of people (or perhaps culture?) will progress in their own manner. Therefore, it follows that there are alternative modernities.”
Hard (Metaphysically Dubious) and Soft (Relativisticly False)
With respect to the hard conceptualization, a critical argument can quite readily be presented that highlights what many would consider to be the highly dubious, and well critiqued, metaphysical assumptions that underpin such a view. Such a view would be to assert a kind of meta-narrative regarding the nature of the world and the flow of time. Such a metaphysic would have to answer questions such as: Can it really be argued that history is following a necessary and clearly defined path (a deep structure, as it were)? How can such a claim be investigated i.e. how, from the human standpoint, would one be able to hold such a god’s eye view? How would such a thesis be disproved? Etc… Because of this, it is unlikely the hard conceptualization would be defended in this way.
In addition to the above, an alternative argument can be presented that suggests the assertion of hard modernity rests upon nefarious intent. Here the claim may be that ‘Western Man,’the ‘West’ or whatever other flag-bearing phrase that is used, is asserted as an ‘ideal type.’This ideal type is defined as perfect (or at the very least, the furthest progressed) by which ‘others’ are shown to be in some sense lacking or behind in terms of progress. This serves the function of affirming the sense of the superiority of Western Man (historically, morally, etc.), and simultaneously it consigns non-Western humanity as inferior. Importantly, such a view creates in the imagination of the subordinate the aspirational ideal to which they will and must strive (which is Western Modernity).
Although only summarized above, these arguments are surely a formidable challenge to the concept of hard modernity. However, the soft conceptualization of modernity is itself also problematic. If the notion of modernity loses its normative significance then the notion of progress itself collapses. What is meant by normative significance is the idea that genuine values can be ascribed to changes in society. For example, in the case of the abolition of slavery, the valueless (non-normative) account of this is simply a description of the various changes that occurred which resulted in this new situation. A normative account would argue that this new state of affairs is better or worse in some manner or another. Progress in non-normative terms is simply a factor of time elapsed. Progression in normative terms is a factor of values i.e. things improving.
As such, the soft conceptualization must come to terms with the fact that value judgements cannot be made. One response to this may be that such a critique is not an issue; the entire point of critiquing the hard conceptualization of modernity is because it imposes values and judgements that serve to subjugate peoples: it therefore follows that a lack of value judgement is a virtue of this notion. The central problem with this definition is the argument is self-defeating: by claiming that the notion of hard modernity is abusive(in whatever manner this may be) a value judgement itself is being made. Implicit in the discourse is an emancipatory element and drive: a new form of imagining, with the intention of realizing some better state of affairs is forwarded. A relativization of values is incompatible with this program and intent. It is important to stress this point. The notion of alternative modernities cannot be simply alternative descriptions of apparent events. The very debate, concerning the need to challenge the notion of hard modernity, is premised on a desire to (normatively) progress.
Civilizations as Internally Dynamic?
It appears the two extreme conceptualizations of modernity are flawed and require amendment. In order to flesh the problem out further, I will present an outline of an account that attempts to provide a potential middle road. Consider the following claim:
By historical accident (the chance occurrence of history) there appears to be a discrete number of civilizational entities. Broadly taken, an Orthodox Russian, Turkic, Indo, Sino, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, etc, civilizationsexist. These entities represent traditions (histories, languages, geography, philosophies, etc.…) which are internally dynamic. What is referred to by internal dynamism are the changes and movements that occur which bear a minimal notion of continuity.
Let it be granted that these civilizationalentities exist in such broad terms. The soft modernity thesis can now be amended so that by alternative modernities what is being referred to are entities progressing in their own idiosyncratic manners. Although hard modernity is to be critiqued as Western-Eurocentric, the criticism is only in the form of resistance to the imposition of a particular modernity universally i.e. upon all civilizational entities. Here the notion of normative progress is maintained albeit in a conditioned state. Progress is meaningful within each civilizational tradition. Meaningful discussions and claims can be made internally to the particular traditions. Progress and value judgements are self-referential: progress in Russian, Turkic, Arab, Indian forms. Participants of each civilization will make such judgements in accordance with languages, histories, geographies, etc. which are historically accidental but nonetheless form the basis of the internal standards and points of reference with which meaningful debates about normative progression can be had.
“Although hard modernity is to be critiqued as Western-Eurocentric, the criticism is only in the form of resistance to the imposition of a particular modernity universally i.e. upon all civilizational entities. Here the notion of normative progress is maintained albeit in a conditioned state. “
In order to clarify this point the importance of history can be highlighted. Can a meaningful discussion of progress and development in modern Turkey (the nation state) occur without an extensive knowledge of the language(s), the geography, the migration patterns and the intellectual traditions of that community? It is for members of this civilization to decide how and in what waysprogress is to be understood and aspired for. The standards and judgments that occur within this context are drawn from a history that is in some sense relevant.
Alternative Modernities as Death of Universalism
Does the above suffice to amend the notion of alternative modernities such that it is now a defendable thesis? I think not. In order to demonstrate problems with this view a number of themes can be explored vis a vis the following questions: can there be alternative science? Can there be alternative technologies? Can there be alternative modes of governance? Can there be alternative humans? These questions center upon the tension that is present between notions that appear to transcend a particular location or apparent civilizational entities (like science or certain ethical claims) and the belief that the notion of alternative modernities commits one to the belief in alternative notions of these seemingly transcendental propositions.
The Progress of Science
With respect to Science, would it be more appropriate to speak of Western Science? Is there such a thing as Turkic, or Russian Science (in reasonably distinct manners)? With regards to the first of these questions, the notion of Western Science as a description of developments that occurred within the geography and culture of this civilization is not the concern. The claim is that by Western Science what is being referred to are notions of causal explanation (which I take to be a broad definition of Science) that are specific to the civilization. In order to explore this, and as a means of simplifying the discussion, we may think of the science of physics. The issues that are raised here will be whether things like Newton’s Laws of Motion are/were specific to Western Science and thereby legitimate in this specific context only.
The ‘subjectification’ of Newtonian mechanics, as reducible to his context (place in time and place), would, with respect to the critique being forwarded here, seem a farfetched claim. Surely there are meaningful progressions and claims in Science that transcend where those claims originate. Consider for example the discovery of the law of refraction by Ibn Sahl (approximately yr. 1000). Although this occurred in a specific context (Arab world), it can nonetheless make the universal claim that it is true. Here the issue is that a claim that can be identified as Scientific is not being reduced to its context i.e. Ibn Sahl’s discovery is not something that can be understood solely through a historical analysis. This example is particularly acute as the very same law was confirmed in 1600 and has come to be known as the Snell-Descartes law. Although there are certainly areas of what may be described as Science which are certainly reducible to a period of time (for example, phrenology), the claim still stands that there are progressions in science: this is proved by simply pointing out that claims which have become historically redundant are made redundant by progressions in Science (phrenology is ultimately disproved).
A counterclaim to the above argument might involve a doubling down on the notion of alternative sciences. This may take the form of maintaining a form of scientific relativism, whereby scientific claims are simply explanations that particular societies give to particular events. One manner in which to supplement this point would be to point out that understandings of Science are always changing and liable to change – a modern scientist would surely commit to this view – and therefore, in some future time it is likely (certain?) that ‘modern’ scientific claims will be considered redundant. It therefore follows that all scientific claims are in some sense time dependent, and therefore all scientific claims hold the same epistemic status (they can all be stated in terms of claims that will become redundant at some future point). This argument is impossible to disprove as it would require insight into the future, however, by the same token, the argument is impossible to prove affirmatively (it is not possible to state that everything will be rendered redundant). One manner in which the matter may be debated is to look at factors such as the ability of humankind to manipulate nature. Considering the practical output of science through the ages, the modern (Western) scientific progress is clearly superior in this sense. Humanity has landed men on the moon, computers are now dominating existence … Other examples may be given in terms of a plumping in the infant mortality rates, an increase in the average life expectancy, etc. all of which reflect the ability of modern science and knowledge to affect the conditions within which people live i.e. progress is clearly observed.
One may argue that there may be a universalism in (some aspects of?) Science i.e. a notion of progress that is genuinely independent of particular civilizational contexts. However, such universalism is inapplicable with respect to the question of morality. Many non-European intellectuals who were fervently opposed to Western morality (reading it as materialist, immoral, fascistic and racist) nonetheless recognized, and, in fact, pushed for the adoption of (Western) Science (Mehmet Akif, Franz Fanon, etc.). Can claims about alternative modernities be reduced to debates concerning morality only? Moral matters are of course far more complex and sophisticated than Science. Moreover, the case for defining modern notions of morality (let us crudely speak of ‘Western Morality’) as significantly imperialistic is strong. Here plenty of examples can be given of how the notion of ‘liberation’ quathe Enlightenment was used to subjugate and brutalize vast populations within Europe (those outside of thebourgeoisie class, religious and racial minorities, etc.) and around the non-Western world (colonialism). With respect to the latter, the most popular and masterful explication of this argument is presented by Edward Said in Orientalism. Indeed, a form of ‘moral imperialism’ may be spoken of, where invasion and domination are justified in terms of a civilizational mission – the white man’s burden.
A lengthy discussion of this point is required; however, for the sake of brevity an outline of concerns regarding the above will provided here. Firstly, many have argued that developments in moral thought viz. the Enlightenment were used to justify imperial acts post facto; the assertion that Enlightenment itself is the motivation and principle reason for imperialism per se is thus to be rejected (Chicken-Egg). Much in the same way that religious faiths and seemingly benign beliefs are used in precisely the opposite manner in which they appear to present themselves, the Enlightenment as a justification of colonialism is an abuse of the ethics that it espouses. Moreover, colonialism is exactly the opposite of Enlightenment. Secondly, an argument can be presented whereby resistance and rejection of colonialism is precisely a product of Enlightenment values. Here examples can be given from movements calling for the abolition of slavery, the development of socialism and Marxism, the later suffragette movements, etc.; Western Moral imperialism is at the very least paralleled with Western Moral emancipation movements.
Enlightenment as Exemplar
The above can be summarized as follows: although it is certainly true that Western morality has been instrumental(ized?) in the subjugation of people, the same Western moral tradition (spoken of here in terms of universalist enlightenment) is providing a language within which meaningful and universal critiques and condemnations of imperialism and colonialism are being made. In fact, Edward Said is precisely an example of this paradox. Either one reads Said as a moral relativist, which would dissolve any normative standpoint by which to condemn the subjugation and dominating discourses that he so thoroughly explicates, or one reads Said as meaningfully condemning and thereby inviting and encouraging emancipation, which commits him to a universalism that is itself a product of his own immersion within the Western academy.
As a means of illustrating this point, consider the following texts (which I consider to be part of the Saidian tradition) by Lila Abu-Lughod Do Muslim Women Need Saving? and Saba Mahmood Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. The former offers a tour de force of the various manners in which Muslim woman are depicted and characterized by the Western media and human rights NGOs, while the former reconceptualizes the notion of agency and argues that once a narrow Eurocentric notion of agency is discarded and the activities of supposedly pious Muslim women are studied appropriately, the depiction of the passive, wholly oppressed Muslim will be disabused. Both texts are valuable interventions in the literature and offer important critiques of what has been described above as Western ‘moral imperialism’ (indeed, in this context the appropriate phrase would be ‘feminist imperialism’). Abu-Lughod’s text is particularly germane on this point: it not only demonstrates the systematic nature of the depiction of Muslim women in the above mentioned way, but does so as a means of highlighting the fact that it is this mentality and discourse that is harnessed in a whole manner of ways to justify foreign (often military) interventions.
Here the notion of alternative modernities is evoked by what I read as an implied demand by the two authors for the subject (Muslim woman/Muslim world) to be reimagined. The first, and immediate, concern is to provide an awareness that the defining of the Muslim (female) subject by the Western Eye is occurring with nefarious intent – ‘be aware!’ – and thereby the impending imperial intervention (moral or military) is to be prepared for and resisted. I read the second concern as a re-humanization of the Muslim subject; no longer passive, but responsible and bristling with agency. These two stratagems are clear and, as I would argue, successfully deployed. Where I problematize these articles is intheir failure to ask questions such as: are there ethical issues concerning the treatment of woman in communities of the so-called Muslim world? Arguments seem to skip this by either pointing out the imperial intent of foreign critique, or relativizing concepts such as agency to such an extent that all such concepts become mere descriptions of actions. Surely ethical deliberation and concern can be forwarded in terms that are not defined by ‘imperialism’ but are nonetheless universalist (in this case, the concern is touches on the position of women in society). Or, to state the question abstractly, what of Muslim woman qua Woman qua Human?
In the preface to The Wretched of the Earth Sartre describes the Europeans stepping into the darkness and finding strangers sitting around a fire and talking about their destiny: ‘They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home […] Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them […] and you have not lit it.’ Let us imagine for a moment that ‘we’ (the supposed subjects which are constructed by the Western Eye) are indifferent to their gaze… let us imagine that the invader has been beaten off the shore… what now?
Alternative Modernities as Alternative Persons?
“Perhaps moral claims really are dubious and any argument for an ethics that transcends an epoch is bound to fail. This is not an unreasonable position. In order to discuss, it is necessary to return to the notion of ‘person’ that I place in quotes here and earlier. When persons are spoken of, some minimal notion of a shared property or set of properties is evoked. Is the human that which has a soul? That which has reason? That which produces art? That which morally reflects? “Perhaps moral claims really are dubious and any argument for an ethics that transcends an epoch is bound to fail. This is not an unreasonable position. In order to discuss, it is necessary to return to the notion of ‘person’ that I place in quotes here and earlier. When persons are spoken of, some minimal notion of a shared property or set of properties is evoked. Is the human that which has a soul? That which has reason? That which produces art? That which morally reflects? Within the framework of the present discussion, in order to have an alternative modernity one would have to argue for an alternative human… No doubt that to define the human is to essentialize in some sense, and by doing so a normative standard is established which necessarily excludes. This is not to provide an apologetic for a particular conception of Man, rather the point here is to ask, is there such a thing as a Human qua Human in opposition to the notion of a Human qua gender, race, profession, lineage etc. Those who argue for alternative modernities may very well be correct in pointing out that a normative notion of human was used to oppress groups that did not fit this mold (heteronormativity: woman as weaker than a man, racial groups as subhuman, etc.); however, does the argument lead to a dissolution of any attempt or claim regarding the possibility of humanity (the conception of all people existing – or being thought of – within one, perhaps imagined, human community)? The essentialism of Human may even be as minimal as the ability to suffer psychological and physical pain. As such, for example, a meaningful/universal standard of progress may be the minimization of such pain. Those who problematize the (universal) notion of humanity would do well to think about the cost of dissolving this concept.
Learning From Is Not Subjugation To
Given the above, does it follow that there is only one modernity? I would argue that the hard conceptualization is problematic only insofar as it seem to entail that all those outside of this sphere would have to become Western themselves in order to progress and modernize. The relationship is far more complicated than this. Crucially, although the assumption is to be held that ‘they’ are more advanced than ‘us’ it does not follow that there is a necessary subjugation. Here I read subjugation in terms of straightforward imperial control (whether colonial or neo-colonial vis a visclient-dictatorships, economic structures etc.). The attitude of learning is critical. Development occurs though understanding and engagement, not through rejection and withdrawal. The task is not to provide an alternative Science or ethics as a means of resistance, rather one must engage and negotiate the internal complexities of the most advanced knowledge/stage one has access to and then innovate and move this paradigm forward.
“The attitude of learning is critical. Development occurs though understanding and engagement, not through rejection and withdrawal. The task is not to provide an alternative Science or ethics as a means of resistance, rather one must engage and negotiate the internal complexities of the most advanced knowledge/stage one has access to and then innovate and move this paradigm forward.”
At this stage in time, where the current power relations/domination is as it is, the progress of Humanity is determined by Westernism. Progress occurs through dynamism, knowledge transfer and translation. Consider the following story: the Hellenistic tradition is a product of its engagement with Persian and Egyptian civilization, the Islamic tradition is a product of its engagement with Indian and Hellenistic knowledge, the Western European Renaissance is a product of engagement with the Arabic world … I purposefully choose the word engagement because these are theprocesses from which progression occurs. It is wrong to say that the Hellenistic tradition is simply a copy and paste of Persian and Egyptian works: translation is not a literal process, it is an interpretive one. The Latinization of Arabic episteme was a process whereby new things were learnt, transformed, developed, etc. One may give birth to the other, however the child is a synthesis from two distinct sources and the child is never the same as the parent. As such, an alternative modernity is only coherent insofar as it is thought of as a progression which develops out of, and in an idiosyncratic manner, from the most advanced present stages. It is not an alternative to modernity, rather it is a modernity that births some hitherto unknown reality via an intimate relation with the West.