by Chandan Reddy
“Modern” is among the most difficult words in our critical vocabulary either to define or to abandon. Within different disciplinary contexts, both the origins and the features of the modern are differently inscribed. Philosophy locates the onset of the modern in the eighteenth-century secularization of knowledge about the human and material world, while history and political science periodize it alongside the generalization of the sovereign nation-state after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and the emergence of the citizen-subject after the French Revolution of 1789. For economics, the modern began with the emergence of capitalist market economies following the British Industrial Revolution, whereas literary studies traces it to the invention of the printing press and the gradual universalization of schooling and literacy. The hallmarks of modernity as defined by these intellectual traditions include the development of free labor, universalist notions of culture, and abstract notions of equality. As 85 percent of the globe’s landmass was forcibly submitted to colonial rule, Western intellectuals and their publics, enthralled by the birth of “modernity,” promoted “progress” by fixating on these features as the endpoint of colonial “development.” It was, as one British poet wrote on the eve of the US colonization of the Philippines in 1899, “the white man’s burden” to shine the light of modernity globally (Kipling 1899).