on modernity and the distinction between East and West

I think the following information has tremendous, even global significance. It comes from David Shluman’s review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire:

As Velcheru Narayana Rao has eloquently shown for southern India, a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century.1 It had nothing whatever to do with Western influence or the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Highly original thinkers and poets, writing in all the languages of the south, discovered, or invented, a series of interlocking notions that together comprise a novel anthropology.

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.2

With this shift in incorrigible assumptions there arose a new kind of state, which we call “Nayaka,” founded by a recently recruited elite of self-made men who had cut free from their ascriptive caste and family backgrounds and who saw themselves as free agents in a world of hitherto unknown opportunities.

I resist generalizations about “the West” because it encompasses too much diversity to be a meaningful category. What do such “Westerners” as Saint Teresa of Ávila, Oscar Wilde, Daniel Boone, Lenin, William Penn, Cole Porter, Thomas Edison, Martin Heidegger, Andy Warhol, Donald Trump, Emily Dickinson, and Hernán Cortés have in common? There is also, of course, tremendous internal diversity in other parts of the world–witness the ancient tradition of materialistic and hyper-individualistic thinkers from India, which is supposedly the home of mysticism and communitarianism.

Also, the borders of any area that we might call “the West” have been too vague and too porous for too long. Did you know that Menander I was a Buddhist Greek king of part of India in the second century BC, named after the Athenian comic playwright, whose coins bore Greek inscriptions on one side and Pali (the language of the Buddhist scriptures) on the other? He and successor kings, with names like Strato I and Theophilos, often depicted themselves as Greek gods in Buddhist poses and called themselves Dharmaraja or “King of the Dharma.” Was this the East or the West?

But I did used to think that the West could be distinguished from the rest of the world on one specific dimension. During the 19th century, in some parts of some European countries or countries settled predominantly by Europeans, two phenomena developed:

Modernity: a social order in which great masses of people are governed by laws and markets more than personal ties; in which few traditions and norms are seen as natural or inevitable and society is understood as an artifact; in which contract has replaced status as an organizing principle; in which individuals are primarily interested in their own personal attributes and rights; and in which technology pervasively mediates individuals’ relationship with nature.

Modernism: a set of intellectual and cultural movements that emerge in modernity, that describe modernity, and that bring modernity into the realm of ideas by renouncing aesthetic or intellectual traditions; instead, the ideal artist invents a new “contract” for each work.

Everywhere that modernity and modernism arrived, even in Paris and New York, they were perceived as new and problematic phenomena that caused distress. But the experience felt different in the West. This was also the age of European imperialism, of gunboats, missionaries, and the East India Company. And it was an age of race-consciousness, in which some people saw themselves as “white” and were seen that way by others. If you lived in a country where people were predominantly white and Christian (“the West”), then modernity and modernism seemed like indigenous changes. “We” were changing–for better or worse. If you lived elsewhere, modernity and modernism seemed to arrive with the imperialists, whether they came as conquerors or traders.

Thus modernists outside of Europe were pro-Western; anti-modernists were typically also anti-Western. In contrast, modernists in America or Europe (perhaps excepting Russia) were simply the progressives within those countries. The distinction was temporal in the West and spatial elsewhere. It was about “us” in the West and about “them and us” elsewhere.

Regardless of our views of modernism/modernity and of European global influence, we often equate the two. For instance, when a group of us viewed graphic art from the Johannesburg-based Artist Proof Studio last summer, the debate was whether young Black South African artists had been “Westernized.” See Leroye Malaton’s linotype “Zoey” below as an example:


Johannesburg is a modern city, and the contributors to Artist Proof Studio are modernists (or post-modernists, which I take to be just a stage in modernism). Authors like Shulman and Rao are asking us to drop the identification of modernity and modernism with the West. If the same social structures and intellectual responses also developed in Southern India in the 15th century, then they may have popped up in many other places as well. They are best understood not as Western inventions but as responses to a certain logic of development and scale. Then modernity and modernism are as much the property of Black South African artists as of (say) contemporary Germans. Neither invented modernity; both contribute to it; both must deal with it. Thinking that way would not solve any of the dilemmas of modern life, but it would make the dialogue healthier and more productive.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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  • Interesting question about what is West and what is East. I am thinking that part of the answer is in your comparison of between Youngstown and Allentown. The latter succeeded better than the former because of the multiple webs and connections it made with and between its institutions. The West  is distinguishable from the East because of that same kind of layering and forging of alternatives and feedback systems. The West also created as system of transition and renewal that the East hadn’t, hence its ascendancy.