Friday 1 November 2013

AIME Contribution #3: Have we ever been Moderns?

[…] It is entirely possible—indeed, it is already largely the case—that the West (Europe, at least, unquestionably) is finally in a situation of relative weakness. No more question of hubris; no more question of repentance. It is high time to begin to spell out not only what happened in the name of “modernity” in the past (a patrimonial interest, as it were) but also and especially what this word will be able to mean in the near future. When the incontrovertible authority of force is lacking, when it has become impossible to “steal history,” might the diplomats’ moment finally be at hand? 
This inquiry into values, as they have been extracted, cherished, misunderstood, mistreated, patched back together, and appropriated by the West as its patrimony, seeks to contribute to the planetary negotiation that we are going to have to undertake in preparation for the times when we shall no longer be in a position of strength and when the others will be the ones purporting to “modernize”—but in the old way and, as it were, without us! We shall claim, even so, that we have something to say about our values—and perhaps also about those of the others (but with none of the privileges of the old European history). In other words, “Occidentals” will have to be made present in a completely different way, first to themselves, and then to the others. To borrow the remarkable expression used in chancelleries, it is a matter of making “diplomatic representations” in order to renegotiate the new frontiers of self and other. (15)
I have a very simple yet fundamental objection: If it is true that the ‘former others’ are now modernising (extending the ‘modernisation front’) this must mean that ‘the Moderns’ are no longer exclusively Western (if they ever were). Therefore, using the words Modern, Western, European, Occidental and White interchangeably (as AIME does throughout) is damagingly inconsistent with the abstract definition of the Moderns as a “population of variable geometry” (8) with “no spatio-temporal limits” (V: The West) that is “defined by contrast” (V: Moderns/Modernization).

On the one hand, the Moderns are consistently defined in philosophical terms as those who bifurcate, as those who portion reality into only two modes: that of the subject and that of the object (this basic dichotomy in all sorts of guises and disguises). And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns are also repeatedly suggested to be Europeans and Westerners in territorial, historical, political and anthropological terms.  Whether or not this ambiguity is intentional it is a serious confusion right at the heart of the AIME project itself. I would go so far as to say that without resolving this conflict there is no possibility of the diplomatic summit convening at all.

First of all, let us note that it is entirely unproven that bifurcation as a metaphysical and political ruse was immaculately conceived in Europe. It seems to me, judging by how Bruno (are first names too casual and familiar for diplomatic discourse?) tells the story, that the godfather of the Moderns is Socrates. Is not Double Click, in many ways, the avatar of Plato’s dear mentor (or is it vice versa)?

The important point is that it is only ethnocentric prejudice that makes Socrates a ‘European.’ As John Hobson argues, the Ancient Greeks identified eastwards rather than towards the north-west.
[…] this view of a pure European Greece was decidedly not how the Greeks saw themselves. They viewed Greece as fixed firmly within what was known as the ‘Hellenic Occident.’ That Europe has always been an idea as opposed to a geographical ‘reality’ is reflected in the fact that ‘Europa’ herself was in Greek mythology the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre, situated on the coast of Lebanon.” (John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, 227).
Indeed, transforming the ‘rational’ Greeks into ‘Europeans’ was one of the things that allowed early modern Europeans to imagine the East as being irrational and other. Europe bathed in Greece’s reflected glory and the histories of science and rationalism in India, China, the Islamic world and beyond were scrubbed out (e.g. Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam: A History).  What is all this if not "stealing history"?

The extent to which ‘the Moderns’ are genealogically rooted in the West is debatable, to say the least. But, regardless of the historical question, it seems manifestly self-evident that there are now non-Western Moderns. Indeed, Bruno admits as much in a recent interview:
[…] all of the others are modernizing in the most blatantly modernist unrepentant way: the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians. So actually, it’s interesting that you are doing an exhibition on animism, because it’s the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist. It’s like ‘Iconoclash.’ Suddenly, the Europeans realize that, wait a minute, maybe we made a big mistake in attributing animism to the others. What happens if we have been animists, and in what way were we? Since we have agencies everywhere, we mix the agencies, we made a whole series of transformations about the agent, we added wings, and we took the souls out, and sometimes the opposite. We did all sorts of very, very strange things, and we turned to the others, who are no longer others, and what did they do? Well they modernized without any worry...
The amalgamation of Modern, Western, Occidental, European and White into a single figure is a mistake historically, philosophically and politically. It places ‘diplomacy’ on perilously swampy ground from the very beginning: Who are to make representations to whom? Who are the selves and who the others? The answers to these essential questions fall into a thick fog.

Many of the ‘former others’ – the elites, at least – are now emphatically Modern. Some of the ‘former others’ might be even more Modern than any of the Euro-Moderns ever were! ‘Capitalism with Asian values’ might be even more capitalist than its Euro-American peers! More than a few futurists have predicted that Singapore will become the politico-economic model for the rest of this century…

Regardless of such hypotheses, what is indubitable is that ‘capitalism with Asian values’ has only been possible due to a process of translation. Asian values and Western neoliberalism have been spun and entwined into a complex and explosively economically productive and politically transformative entanglement – a process that has been ably described by anthropologists such as Aihwa Ong (e.g. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty). The Western version of capitalism has proved to be remarkably pliant and plastic in its march across the globe. Universal equivalency has come at the cost of intensive localisation – but that work has been achieved, no doubt.

Bruno is correct that the ‘former others’ can no longer be written off by Euro-Americans as ‘pre-modern.’ And this is indeed a most important geopolitical issue. But the fact that the many of the 'former others' are now Modern (a) demolishes the idea of Modern as synonymous with Western or European and (b) creates real problems for the idea of a grand summit over which we will discuss our values.

First, we must recognise that the others – “the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians” – cannot be negotiated with ‘directly.’ Diplomats represent kings rather than peasants, do they not?  Diplomats are agents of elites – the very same elites who may have become Modern. It seems that if we are to negotiate with the ‘former others’ we will have to do so through those ‘former others’ who have become most like 'us.'  Peculiar, no?

Secondly, even if ‘we’ could get non-elite others to the ‘negotiating table’ we cannot be sure that they would either have any interest in our rambling verbiage or would understand the process in anything like the same way as we do. What is a neutral, sedentary platform for honest and frank discussion for one group is a frightening, offensive and restrictive monstrosity for another. No, a table is never 'just a table,' no matter how much we all love to thump it so as to punctuate our rhetoric. I understand that the likes of Philippe Descola have made this criticism (p.88) of the diplomacy project before.

The third problem that the fact of the modernised ‘former others’ raises for the diplomacy project is the supposition that these ‘still-somewhat-others,’ even if we solve all the other problems, are going to present and propose to us radically different values, in spite of their being modernised to a greater or lesser degree. If their value systems have been infused with Western values via the often brutal translations of Western institutions and if they have internalised these values in various ways then who is to say which values are ‘theirs’ and which are ‘ours’? Is ‘capitalism with Asian values’ any less capitalism than its European or American forms? Are we to impose another kind of imperial exoticism in the form of a standard of authenticity where we would peel away the vales that the ‘we’ have ‘given them’ and try to uncover their ‘pre-modern’ essence?

Just how other are these ‘still-somewhat-others’? What if we find ourselves too much in agreement? And who are the Moderns, anyway? Have any of us, anywhere ever been Moderns?...

It seems to me that the Moderns are best thought of as being the masks, avatars or personas of Modernism. There has never been any single fleshy, individual homo sapien who was ‘a Modern.’  There are no distinct, simple, designatable citizen-units of the Modern nation.  The Moderns are not a people as such.  And yet, reading AIME, I am given the certain feeling that I have met these beings. I recognise this or that tendency in things that I have read, in people I have talked to.  I recognise particular gestures, repetitive arguments and familiar attitudes – indeed, I see these things all around me with great regularity.  I recognise large parts of my own self in the description of the Moderns! I can even pin down specific utterances, mark them with a highlighter and scribble in the margin: 'modern!!'.  However, I've never seen any one individual human being with 'Modern' emblazoned across their foreheads so starkly that I can think to myself 'ah, there goes one now!'

Moderns are perhaps circulating beings; they are never fully-formed, flesh-and-blood homo sapiens.  They gather, stick to one another, clump together and congregate but they never amalgamate into a population.  The Moderns are spectral...

So, my objection in brief: The terms Modern, Western, European and White can no longer be used interchangeably, if they ever could. Therefore, the assumption that it is Westerners who must ‘make representations’ to non-Westerners in order to facilitate a diplomatic dialogue of Moderns and non-Moderns is highly problematic.

I do not have any solutions at this point but I believe that I can offer a way forward.  The concept of diplomacy is, at present, a very 'thin' one.  From all the rich history of diplomacy-proper it absorbs only the bare fact that diplomats operate without any appeal to a higher power (under modern geopolitical conditions, anyway).  Diplomacy is a much finer and more fascinating inheritance than that.

As it stands at present the diplomacy metaphor appears inadequate for its task.  I do not know if it can be saved but I do know that it can be significantly extended.  However, that extension will have to follow on in a future Contribution.