“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).
Derived from the Latin terms modernus and modo (meaning, respectively, “of today” and “recently”), “modern” first entered the English language around the twelfth century as a term to denote a newness that required legitimation in contrast to classical antiquity. Yet it was only with the rise of the European Enlightenment in the mid-eighteenth century that “modern” took on “the sense of a qualitative claim about the newness of the times, in the sense of their being ‘completely other, even better than what has gone before’” (Osborne 1995, 10, quoting Koselleck  2004, 228). By the nineteenth century, the modern possessed an epochal character, promising a qualitative transformation from the past, now itself understood as composed of discrete epochs with distinct features. Shaped by its relation to other terms such as “progress,” “development,” “freedom,” “revolution,” “society,” and “civilization,” “modern” was no longer a mere temporal descriptor. Instead, it signified a “newness” previously unavailable in human consciousness and societies, a distinctive orientation of thought toward the future rather than tradition, and a uniquely “scientific” worldview that located Europe as a coherent geography and temporal center of global history (T. Mitchell 2000). Largely through the force of British and European colonialism, the term was no longer contrasted with “antiquity” but instead with “backwardness,” a category that encompassed both “older civilizations” in decline and “primitive societies” frozen in an earlier moment of human history. Whole societies, peoples, and art forms were now classifiable as primitive, degenerate, or modern, with the latter positioned at the leading edge of historical time and serving as the measure of human perfectibility.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the keyword “modern” thus began to function much as it does today, connoting something both temporal (“that which is most recent” within the context of developmental linear time) and spatial (the grouping of otherwise diverse phenomena into a single category or class). Modern peoples, practices, and objects are said to share a qualitative uniqueness that merits the reflexive practices by which modern societies interpret their particular historicity as representative of universal human progress. By this logic, to designate a thing, practice, place, or person as “modern” is to point to the signs by which reflexive acts of interpretation identify the modern condition (Habermas 1987). Virginia Woolf’s ( 1989, 421) famous modernist declaration “On or about December 1910, human character changed” exemplifies how these meanings overlap: the use of a date to mark both a unique, irreversible event in chronological calendar time and a specific temporalized event, qualitatively new, bearing on universal “human experience.” As a representative statement of a broad aesthetic movement, it also conveys the sense of artistic modernism as centrally preoccupied with new practices of representation, a critical aspect of the reflexive scrutiny necessary for the modern age.
Emerging out of the same historical conjuncture as artistic modernism, the discipline of sociology describes the modern as coincident with the development of Western industrial capitalist societies. For mainstream sociologists, the defining features of modernity are mass citizenship, official bureaucracy, a national division of labor, long-term capital accumulation, the separation of social spheres, organized leisure, rational individualism, secularization, and a state monopoly on violence across a geographically bounded society. Identifying these features has enabled sociologists since the mid-twentieth century to study societies comparatively, recommending “modernization” to those areas of the globe that, lacking these features at the social and institutional levels, were characterized as socioeconomically “backward.” Modernity thus became a regulative ideal with multiple empirical coordinates, the presence or absence of which could be verified by specialists in particular “area studies.” In the 1950s, the economist and political scientist W. W. Rostow distinguished between “traditional” and “modern societies,” describing the latter as possessing economies that could “take off” or, in other words, could experience continuous long-term growth through processes “internal” to their separate national economies (N. Gilman 2003). As US Cold War anti-communism extended to the newly decolonized world through various modernization strategies, Rostow’s takeoff model legitimated overt and covert interventionist wars and development policies in Asia and Latin America, coding them as acts that protected economies and societies from the perverting drives of communism (Escobar 1995; Saldaña-Portillo 2003). The irony that the task of “modernizing” non-Western economies sanctioned US neocolonial interventions did little to undermine the theory’s popularity or effectiveness in mapping a world of closed national economies in different stages of universal economic development, each “protected” by the benevolence of US policies of modernization.
For some researchers and scholars in the late twentieth century, the category of the “postmodern” named a break with the modern occasioned by the emergence of finance capital; a global division of labor across transnational communities; a decline of liberal freedom; the expansion of the prison-military-industrial complex; a loss of “nature”; an explosion of digital technologies and other simulacra; and an increasingly racialized, gendered, and sexualized cultural politics (Harvey 1989; Soja 1989; Baudrillard 1994). These theorists of postmodernism historicized ruptures in modernity as an effect of an advanced or late capitalism, naming postmodernity as the condition of late capitalism and postmodernism as its dominant cultural logic (Jameson 1991). In doing so, they repeated a modernist impulse—namely, the desire for a knowable social totality graspable by a unitary epistemological subject. In response, postcolonial scholars have stressed that the postmodern critique of linear development ought to offer the opportunity for a radical displacement of “Western modernity” and the knowledge regimes that create and sanction our ignorance of the complex local histories that mediate modern processes (Spivak 1988). They see in the postmodernist stress on crisis, particularly of form and meaning, the recognition of the breakdown of unified Western histories and epistemological categories for regulating discrepant postcolonial modernities, as well as the disavowal of that recognition (Chakrabarty 2000).
To understand the origins and significance of this more thoroughgoing critique of modernity, we need to situate it as an engagement with the political economy of global Euro-American colonialism. Haunted by the racialized social practices that enabled metropolitan prosperity, the category of the modern has abetted the mischaracterization of that prosperity as universal progress, thus displacing the contemporaneity of colonial social formations and temporalizing the peripheries of the world system as nonmodern (Amin 1976). In this context, earlier conceptions of the modern should be seen as the effect of practices of intellectual abstraction that seek to extricate the West from the actual strategies and relations of accumulation that organized its domination of the world economy, including the violence, destruction, and privation that accompany its prosperity (Benjamin  1968). The social formations that have emerged out of practices of continental genocide (A. Franke 1998), slavery (E. Williams  1994), territorial colonialism (Chandra 1980), and imperialism (Du Bois 1995a) have rarely been understood as modern. Instead, the term has named the practices and concepts through which Euro-American societies narrate their originality as the universal development and futurity of all human societies, occluding the global social relations, divisions of labor, and market economies through which they were built. Epistemologies of race and gender have mediated knowledge of these social forces, inventing the “West” not as a set of differentiating practices within a world economy or global modernity but rather as a closed European historical space moving through linear time (Said 1978).
A different view of the modern can be found in the work of contemporary interdisciplinary scholars, particularly in the fields of historical sociology, postcolonial anthropology, and cultural studies. Here, the term indexes an attempt to understand the multiple modernities that have been produced through worldwide capitalism and that cannot be reduced to or understood through a universal norm, such as the nation-state. In American studies scholarship influenced by this research, explorations of racial, gender, and sexual formations that exceed the nation form have produced important critiques of the epistemologies that organize dominant and normative conceptions of US modernity (C. Robinson  2000; Ferguson 2004; Singh 2004). Some of this scholarship has found in the “female African slave,” the “Asian coolie,” and the “undocumented diasporic worker” the standpoint through which alternative, nonnational modernities might be explored (Anzaldúa 1987; Camp 2003; Jung 2006). Some of it has stressed the ways in which US modernity (and postmodernity) represses the intra- and international “regional” modernities of racialized working peoples, appraising these alternative late modern geographies as disjunctive social spaces that undo the nation’s capacity to unify historical difference (Bonus 2000; Agarwal and Sivaramakrisnan 2003). And some scholarship has located late modernity from the standpoint of the perverse, privileging nonnormative forms of sexual and gender embodiment that normative modern subjects persistently repudiate as pathology and atavism (Eng 2001; Shah 2001; Manalansan 2003; Gopinath 2005). In each instance, these critical studies of late modernities have interrogated the epistemologies through which we have come to know ourselves as modern; the racial, gendered, and sexual genealogies constitutive of these epistemologies; and the ethical and political implications of acknowledging the social relations and histories that these epistemologies have generated as our “nonmodern” shadow.
To situate these various interventions within the context of late modernity is to suggest that our task today may be to ruminate collectively on the erasures, gaps, and incompletions that are a necessary part of any endeavor to tell the story of our modernity. But it is also to note that the conditions for these endeavors are not locatable, as they are for many postmodernists, exclusively in transformations to the structure of capital or in the breakup of the nation-state. They are equally to be found in the demographic transformation of the university through antiracist struggle, in postcolonial migrations, and in the internationalization of the disciplines that have enabled a “return of the repressed” within modern epistemologies (Hong 2006, xiii; Gulbenkian Commission 1996). For scholars attentive to these shifts, modernity poses a question that one cannot fully answer, since no single perspective or location can survey the social totality, and each paradigm of thought must be critically scrutinized for what it encourages us to let go, forget, or disperse as historical detritus. The resulting research cannot seek merely to create a more inclusive “American modernity” by applying modern disciplinary knowledge to otherwise neglected social identities and histories. Rather, it needs to situate the formations of modern knowledge within global histories of contact, collaboration, conflict, and dislocation, examining in each instance how the category of the modern has distorted those global histories, producing unity out of hybridity and development out of displacement. These modernist misrepresentations are reproduced in the contemporary norms by which we feel and know ourselves to be modern subjects. But they also appear in the inability of modern knowledge to attend to “nonmodern” social practices and formations. In the contradictions of our late modernity, these emerging practices and formations offer the opening for a different politics of knowledge, what one scholar has called the “politics of our lack of knowledge” about modern societies, their colonial histories, institutional forms, and possible futures (Lowe 2006, 206).