Lost in the Swamp of Modernity

By Watson, Peter | New Statesman (1996), October 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

Lost in the Swamp of Modernity


Watson, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Lost in the Swamp of Modernity
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.