Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Past Isn't What It Used To Be

Édouard Manet (1832-1883) - Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, 1863

'Until the nineteenth century, the word modern had negative connotations, conveying the loss of qualities associated with the Renaissance and ancient times. The positive values many people began to associate with change in the nineteenth century gave the word modern new meanings. Today, modernity is most often associated with some combination of:

  • rapid social, economic, and technological change
  • industrial, mechanized production and the growth of cities
  • individualism as a basic source of cultural expression, political rights, and public and private identities
  • struggles over popular sovereignty
  • the power of states organized as nations and based on mass mobilization
  • bureaucratic routinization and governmental interference in life
  • tension between a worldview based on reason and science, and one based on feeling and religion
  • nationalism as the primary source of public loyalty and cohesion

Nineteenth-century advocates of modernity often saw these developments as the inevitable results of human progress, as evidence of Europe's superiority, or as justification for European imperialism. This was a powerful perspective that continues to influence the way people think about modernity today. But it distorts the history of the nineteenth century by making modernity seem both preordained and uniform. It suggests that when modernity came, everything else immediately fled.

Recently the concept of modernity has been questioned by historians of European imperialism because it has been used to detract from the experience of non-European countries. These historians argue that when modernity is used as a yardstick with which to measure progress toward some Eurocentric standards of civilization (which European themselves often fail to meet), we miss the unique experiences of those countries and tend to ignore the ways in which Europeans sought to impose modernity on their colonies. This is a useful critique because we have the same problem within Europe itself if we see modernity as a finish line toward which all peoples were inevitably racing. Historians of German and Russia, using modernity in this way, once argued that those countries followed a "separate path", different from "western" Europe, in order to explain the rise of twentieth-century dictatorships there. But in fact, even in the "west" there was not a single country where the practices of modernity appeared in a pure, ideal form.

Two points need to be stressed here. First, there was no single, model "western" path from which some countries deviated to create "alternate" modernities. Second, whenever and wherever elements of modernity appeared, they conflicted with nonmodern or traditional ways of life. Every element of modernity was contested when it appeared and for years afterward among people in different sectors of society, in every society. Everywhere, even in England, which is often seen as the model of western development, some elements of modernity were chosen and embraced, others were imposed by force, and others appeared by accident or as unintended consequences. Continual conflict over modernity as a process is the one common feature shared by all peoples who encountered it in any form in the nineteenth century, whether in England, Russia, Bosnia, or Hungary, or China, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil, or Kazakhstan. Modernity is defined by the conflicts it introduced between the old and the new, between the powerful and the powerless, between the privileged and the downtrodden, whether those pockets of modernity within a single country were sizable or small. Even in England where industrial capitalism and popular sovereignty appeared first, the beneficiaries of modernity lived across the street from bastions of tradition, and elements of premodern society coexisted with modernity well into the twentieth century.


To a large extent this definition of modernity differs from the way modernity was viewed by nineteenth-century Europeans. Proponents and admirers of change like Lord Palmerston would speak of modernity as "progress", conceiving of modernity as the capstone of human history. But even for its adherents, the positive values associated with modernity in Europe would always be shadowed by modernity's woes: mass poverty, the intrusion of noise and squalor in the modern city, the conflict over democracy, the instability of gender roles, the dark side of imperial conquest and nationalism, the intrusion of the state in individual life through bureaucratization and rountization. Prosperity and mass political mobilization created the new opportunities for self-expression, and self-determination and a dynamic society, in which all changes seemed possible. But in the absence or waning of the absolute power of kings, new modern forms of power emerged, which idealized self-discipline and constraint, bureaucratic controls, and the power of new professional and intellectual elites to categorize and restrict public behaviour and private values. These more diffuse forms of power had significant influences on everyday life in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout the century, and in ways that were increasingly apparent by the turn of the century and on the eve of the First World War, modernity meant stability and conflict, progress and poverty, civilization and savagery, self-expression and self-discipline.'

Europe and the Making of Modernity, 1815-1914 - Robin W. Winks and Joan Neuberger