Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lost in the Swamp of Modernity

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Lost in the Swamp of Modernity

Article excerpt

His survey of scholars around the world convinced Peter Watson that, outside the west, there were no new ideas in the 20th century

Westerners and Muslims, according to Edward Said in these pages two weeks ago, are all swimming in the same seas. Both are stranded "... between the deep waters of tradition and modernity". The events of 11 September therefore represent no clash of civilisations, he said. That idea is "a gimmick... better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time".

The sad -- if admittedly bewildering -- truth is that "modernity" is in fact more like a swamp, a treacherous landscape where some civilisations can't get a footing. Modernity itself has magnified differences between civilisations and, in so doing, has helped bring terrorism to the point where it takes the form it has. This is not a "vast generalisation" (another criticism that Said makes about westerners), or at least not one that I alone make. I do not say my research has been exhaustive, but what follows is not just one westerner speaking.

A year ago I published a narrative history of the main ideas that shaped the 20th century. In my research, I visited roughly 150 scholars, leading specialists in their fields, in Europe, America and the Middle East. I asked each expert what were the three most important ideas in their discipline in the 20th century. I found a great deal of agreement, a strong sense of a great conversation taking place. In economics, for example, three experts (two of them Nobel laureates) overlapped to the point where they suggested just four ideas between them, when they could have given nine.

There is no Asian equivalent of, say, Darwin, no African Max Planck, no Arab Freud, no Japanese Picasso or Matisse. When it comes to ideas, the modern world is a western world, a secular world of democracies, free markets, science and self-governing universities.

That was agreeably surprising. What shocked me were my interviews with scholars of non-western cultures. Here, lam referring not only to western specialists in the great non-western traditions, but scholars who were themselves born into those traditions -Arab archaeologists or writers, economists and historians from India and China, poets and dramatists from Japan and Africa. All of them -- there were no exceptions -- said the same th ing. In the 20th century, in the modern world, there were no non-western ideas of note.

Is this an expression of defensive self-pride, as Professor Said also argued? In my survey, the views of non-western scholars matched the views of western ones. And I don't believe that western academics or intellectuals are blind to non-western achievements, where they exist. The whole "project" of postmodernism is designed to promote the "other", the non-western, the unorthodox. Look at the famine economics of Amartya Sen (now head of a Cambridge college), the magical realism of Salman Rushdie. They are warmly welcomed in the west and win all sorts of western-based prizes. But these are late-flowering blooms. Overall, throughout the 20th century, the non-western traditions lagged far behind the west in the realm of new ideas. Postmodernism itself is a western notion.

There are important Chinese writers and painters of the 20th century; and we can all think of significant Japanese film directors, Indian novelists and African dramatists. There is a thriving school of Indian post-colonial historiography, led by Gayatri Spivak. Distinguished non-western scholars and writers are household names, at least in smart households: one thinks of Edward Said himself, Chinua Achebe, Amartya Sen, Anita Desai, Chandra Wickramasinghe. But, it was repeatedly put to me, there is no 20th-century Chinese equivalent of surrealism, say, no Indian philosophy to match logical positivism, no African equivalent of the French Annales school of history. …

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