- Engaging the Image of Art, Culture, and Philosophy: Particular Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity and Modernism
As the editors of Callaloo said in the February 2010 Ethiopia issue, “Appraising the literature, life, and culture of Ethiopia is a daunting undertaking. Like its history, Ethiopia’s literary and cultural traditions are so vast, and so rich, that they exceed the grasp of a single volume.”1 Indeed, many volumes of critical texts of Ethiopia’s influential history are needed to illustrate the range of images that conjure up Ethiopia. The specific complexities of Ethiopian modernity and modernism are often circumscribed by canonical viewpoints and often confused by scholars with conventional preconceptions of processes of modernization, complicit in projects of nation and empire. Existing scholarship frequently neglects to construct the processes of modernity within the discursive space of its multiplicity and cultural specificity. This issue is yet another investigation that can possibly shed light to the nation’s untapped body of knowledge and discursive practices from scholars across academic disciplines. These essays, from various [End Page v] academic disciplines, are instrumentalist in character: to yield different insights on past and present canonical conceptualizations of Ethiopian modernity; to deal with Ethiopian modernity from a critical perspective; to clarify the way in which we think about the social sciences of the non-West; and to think alternatively of the circumscribed universality of European modernity. In this regard, this volume depicts Ethiopia from within, foregrounding an interior perspective, to articulate the way Ethiopians have imagined themselves.
How did the meanings of Ethiopian literary texts and popular languages perform in articulating Ethiopian modernity? How did power relations condition the production, dissemination, and reception of these texts and linguistic expressions? How did the sport-body politic conceptualize the Ethiopian “modern”? How have cities transformed, and how have these changes resulted in new social conditions? By positing such questions, this volume examines the intellectual and cultural contexts of the making of Ethiopian modernity and attempts to portray the multiple manifestations of modernity that pertain to contemporary Ethiopian identity.
We begin with Andreas Eshete’s “Modernity: Its Title to Uniqueness and Its Advent in Ethiopia,” two lectures given in March 2009 and November 2011 as part of the series What is “Zemenawinet”?: Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity, organized by the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, the Goethe Institute, and Friederich Ehbert Stiftung. Engaging with modernity’s strategy, limits, structures of exclusion, and the totality of this experience, Andreas Eshete eloquently issues the philosophical construct of modernity’s uniqueness and explores the disciplinary identity and purpose of modernity as an inquiry of thought. He interrogates the variegated narratives of the experiences of modernity and its intellectual enterprise. The essay principally charts the central values of modernity and, more importantly, the significance of fraternity as one of modernity’s imperative ideals.
In the second part of his lecture, Andreas Eshete looks into specific contexts that he thinks are unique to Ethiopia, and that he believes offer a highly vibrant contribution to the debates surrounding modernity. In this regard, he invokes the resonance of the Ethiopian Student Movement [End Page vi] that he says not only disrupted the realm of Ethiopian politics in a radical way but also played a critical role in the making of Ethiopian modernity. He looks into recent global anticapitalist movements that have fundamentally altered the notion that capitalism is the only successful economic system. He says that current inequities of the global capitalist system have given rise to a worldwide popular consciousness against capitalism, henceforth announcing that socialism is undeniably back. He evaluates the striking similarities of the radical socialist imaginaries and sensibilities of the Ethiopian Student Movement to contemporary global experiences and states:
What is arresting about the anticapitalist protests is that deep doubts about capitalism itself are now vividly visible in the citadels of capitalism. My immediate motive for invoking the anticapitalist protests here is to indicate that there may yet be reason to resist the widespread temptation to declare the death of socialism, a leading public ideal of modernity embraced by the Ethiopian Student Movement. Though I am certain that there is no single explanation for the rise of modernity anywhere, I shall...