Marking the Distinctions between Globality and Modernity Brief Review of Literature

Complied by Darlène Dubuisson (last updated 10/15/20)

Conventionally, ‘modernity’ is the condition of being modern. As a heuristic concept, ‘modern’ describes a significant break from the past and tradition. Or, as Latour (1991) has maintained, ‘modern’ is “doubly asymmetrical: it designates a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished” (11). Modernity is a way of apprehending the world founded on enlightenment thinking, which creates a hierarchical distinction between nature and culture, superstition, and science/rationality (Latour 1991; Horkheimer & Adorno 1991). Within the humanities, modernity is the birth of ‘man’ and the simultaneous constitution of the “primitive,” nonhuman Other (Latour 1991; Trouillot 2003). Globalization, the accelerated integration of people, economies, and governments, can be viewed as the continuation of modernity, which circumvents nation-states. Indeed, modernity is inscribed with globality—the imagined end-state of globalization, where the world’s population will become integrated (read: modernized) as a result of technology. Anthropologists have rightly been skeptical of globalization’s homogenizing and modernizing effects, pointing to the myriad ways globalization has produced discontinuities and fragments (e.g., Trouillot 2003; Appadurai 1996).

Connecting modernity to globality, Mintz (1996, 2010) has famously argued that the Caribbean people, constituted through intense global processes, were the first to become modernized. For Mintz (1996), “modernity” depends on the organization of industry and the “effect of such organization upon the labor force” (295). In the Caribbean, plantation slavery forcibly bought together people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, “compelling them not only labor ceaselessly on the plantations but also to craft for themselves new ways of life under terrible circumstances” (Mintz 2010:11). Thus, Caribbean peoples developed new (read: modern) identities in response to the temporal and spatial rupture of plantation slavery. This optimistic reading romanticizes the violent and coercive nature of Caribbean modernity. David Scott (2004), building from the work of Talal Asad, has argued that slaves and colonial subjects (for whom Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haiti’s Revolutionary hero, is the stand-in) were “conscripts” of European modernity. Regarding L’Ouverture, Scott (2004) writes: “He was its conscript. He was a man who had come up in a world that had been coercively reorganized by the material and epistemic violence of a modern regime of power and forcibly inserted into a global order in a state of subordination and dependence” (129). Slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism and globalization, compel non-European subjects, whether by force or reason, to modernize, “to abandon old practices and turn to new ones” (Asad 340 cited in Scott 130).

Trouillot (2003) has provided a critical assessment of “modernity,” revealing how it is inextricably tied to a particular history of the development of world capitalism, which is said to have begun in the West from where it proliferated outward. Trouillot (2003) maintains the “modernity is a murky term that belongs to a family of words we may label, ‘North Atlantic universal,” which are “particulars that have gained universality, chunks of human history that have become historical standards” (35). Modernity, as a North Atlantic universal, silences its history, even as it carves up the world in powerful ways, separating moderns from pre-moderns, developed from undeveloped, enlightened from primitive. In Trouillot’s (2003) words: “In its most common deployment […] disguises and misconstrues the many Others that it creates” (36). Trouillot (2003), like Mintz (2010), presents the Caribbean as an alter-modernity. He posits that if the Caribbean was “modern since at least the sixteenth century—from day one of North Atlantic modernity,” then the chronological primacy of the North Atlantic falters (Trouillot 2003: 44). Latour (1991) also troubles facile notions of modernity, particularly the presupposition that modernity creates a pure separation between nature and culture. Latour (1991) provocative asserts that the modernist distinction between nature and culture has never existed: in practice, nature/culture exists in a hybrid and dialectical relationship.

Appadurai’s (1996), Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, apprehends globalization as the extension of modern imaginaries through mass media and migration. Implicit in his project is a “theory of rupture that takes media and migration as its two major and interconnected, diacritics and explores their joint effect on the work of imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity” (3). Appadurai (1996) argues that, like Andersonian print capitalism, electronic capitalisms produce inter-subjective solidarities. However, the main difference is that electronic capitalism mover beyond the nation-state, creating inter-subjective solidarities that are often transnational and even postnational. But Appadurai is careful to denounce globalization as the emergence of a global political economy. He instead posits fundamental disjuncture between economy, politics, and culture, revealing five separate “scapes” (meaning, amorphous and unstable spaces) of global flows:

  1. Ethnocapes, the migration of people across national boundaries
  2. Mediascapes, the flow of mediated imaginaries
  3. Technoscapes, international configurations of technology
  4. Financescapes, the disposition of global capital
  5. Ideoscapes, the global flow of ideologies

Appadurai (1996) asserts that “these landscapes are the building blocks” of the Andersonian imagined worlds, “the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe” (33). Thus, globalization as rupture has resulted in multiple and overlapping modernities, such that when we speak of “modernity,” one may be prompted to ask, “Whose modernity do you mean?”

Globalization, like modernization, is seductive (Tsing 2000). Tsing (2000) suggests that anthropological approaches to “modernization in its guise as ‘development for the Third World” (e.g., Escobar 1995, Ferguson 1990) may be applied to explications of globalization (328-329). Anthropological approaches to modernization look at least three paths: 1) attention to the cultural specificity of modernization commitments; 2) examination of the “social practices, material infrastructure, cultural negotiations, institutions, and power relation through which modernization projects work; 3) the utilization of the “promise of questions and dilemmas brought up by modernization without being caught up in their prescription for social change” (Tsing 2000: 329). According to Tsing (2000), anthropologists ought to use similar approaches to “understanding the projects of imagining and making globality” (329). Many anthropologists have done just this in their respective studies of how local populations resist, circumvent, and co-opt the twin projects of modernity and globality (e.g., Edelman 1999; Ferguson 1999; Gregory 2007; Thomson 2004).