Academic journal article Arena Journal

They Have Never Been Modern? Then What Is the Problem with Those Persians?

Academic journal article Arena Journal

They Have Never Been Modern? Then What Is the Problem with Those Persians?

Article excerpt

The question of what it means to use the concepts of modernity and the modern sounds like an arcane theoretical concern. Were not those issues sorted out at the end of the twentieth century in the Great Debate between the moderns and postmoderns? Did not the postmoderns win that struggle, only to disintegrate a decade later in their infinite recursions into relativism? Are not we now living in a time when we are all a bit modern and a bit postmodern, variously immersed in digital and personal networks of swirling meaning?

However, for all of the marginal theoretical interest in the question of the modern today, the concept continues to carry extraordinary unacknowledged weight in mainstream descriptions and arguments. Long after the Great Debate, the modern continues to be counter-posed against other ways of life that are defined in the negative as pre-modern. In other words, those persons living as members of 'pre-modern' communities still do not have their dominant formations named except in the negative or in relation to the higher-order concept of 'the modern'. They are held in place by the prefix 'pre'. This is not to suggest that the writers of such narratives always intend that pre-moderns are lesser peoples. Certainly, contemporary discussions of the Islamic State have gone further than most to link the concept of 'the pre-modern' to the adjective 'evil',2 but the overwhelming tendency is to just take the term 'modernity' for granted as a description of our times - with the inevitable few wormholes of stagnation or regression eating into the map of modernity. Defining other ways of life in the negative can take the form of both arrogant assumptions of superiority and well-meaning descriptions of 'the Other'. There are even attempts to retrieve the integrity of their pre-modern way of life.

Thus, by inference, at least in the gentler version of this narrative, pre-moderns become those who are on an anticipated civilizational climb. They are treated as those who are yet to achieve modern actualization beyond their 'past' identities, anticipating their 'future' potentialities. Thus the prefix 'pre' puts them on a timeline that tends to assume that being before means being less developed, while being later means being more developed. They continue to live in ways that are before modernity, just as 'we', usually designated as Europeans, were the first to take the necessary journey into the modern. When it comes to describing civilizational differences, this journey is said to require a renaissance or major reformation to become more than a technological gloss. They may have mobile phones and run airlines, and they may build tall towers in the desert, but because they did not go through a religious reformation, the continuing archaisms in their culture will always mean that they are prone to recursion, atavism, exotica and ... terrorism. It is amazing how many scholars and politicians in the West have missed the fact that Islam has gone through a series of reformations, not dissimilar to those of Christianity. Just as in the allegory of the Persian love cake, it is their rose petals and saffroncream icing that have seduced us, while it is their archaic or premodern power that we fear. Overall, we have not had time to know them more than at a distance.

This tendency to treat the 'pre-moderns' as located at a distance in time is linked to the way in which the equally problematic concept of 'development' is used. The dominant distinction between 'developed' and 'developing' has for the last half century permeated the work of journalists, academics and practitioners. It carries the same sense of a Great Divide between them and us. For all of the attempts to find a different lexicon - Global North and Global South, Minority World and Majority World - the conditional terms 'developed' and 'developing' continue to form the dualism of choice. More than just being the comfortable fall-back position for most television commentators, trade negotiators and aid workers, it sets up a modernist assumption that, given time, there is no alternative. …

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