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Nepantla: Views from South 3.2 (2002) 221-244

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World-System and “Trans”-Modernity

Enrique Dussel


In this short text I begin anew a reflection that has concerned me since the beginning of the 1960s. I will radicalize some theoretical options by finding in recent scholarship very plausible hypotheses that have until now been regarded as trivial. Understanding the “centrality” of Europe as just two centuries old allows us to suppose that what has not been subsumed by modernity stands a good chance of emerging strongly and being rediscovered not as an antihistorical miracle, but as the resurgence of a recent potentiality in many of the cultures blinded by the dazzling “brightness”—in many cases only apparent—of Western culture and modernity. This modernity's technical and economic globality is far from being a cultural globalization of everyday life that valorizes the majority of humanity. From this omitted potentiality and altering “exteriority” emerges a project of “trans”-modernity, a “beyond” that transcends Western modernity (since the West has never adopted it but, rather, has scorned it and valued it as “nothing”) and that will have a creative function of great significance in the twenty-first century.

To repeat: the thesis advanced in this essay is that modernity's recent impact on the planet's multiple cultures (Chinese, Southeast Asian, Hindu, Islamic, Bantu, Latin American) produced a varied “reply” by all of them to the modern “challenge.” Renewed, they are now erupting on a cultural horizon “beyond” modernity. I call the reality of that fertile multicultural moment “trans”-modernity (since “post”-modernity is just the latest moment of Western modernity). China, a privileged but not exclusive example, shows us just how recent a phenomenon European hegemony is, only two centuries old and only beginning to influence the intimacy of non-European everyday life in the last fifty years (since World War II), principally because of the mass media, especially television.1 [End Page 221]

A Hypothesis That Still Has Eurocentric Elements:
The “World-System”

The world-system “hypothesis” emerged as a response to the first Eurocentrism, which thought that Europe, since its supposed Greek and Medieval Latin origins, produced “from within” the values and the instrumental systems (as argued by Hegel, Marx, Weber, and Sombart) that were universalized in the last five centuries, that is, in the time of modernity. This Eurocentric position—first formulated at the end of the eighteenth century2 by the French and English “Enlightenment” and the German “Romantics”—reinterpreted all of world history, projecting Europe into the past and attempting to show that everything that happened before had led to Europe's becoming, in Hegel's (1955, 235) words, “the end and center of world history.” The distortion of history begins with the Encyclopedists (Montesquieu's The Spirit of Laws [1989 {1748}] is a good example)3 but continues with the English “Enlightenment” thinkers, Kant in Germany, and finally Hegel, for whom the “Orient” was humanity's “infancy” (Kindheit), the place of despotism and unfreedom from which the Spirit (Volksgeist) would later soar toward the West, as if on a path toward the full realization of liberty and civilization. Since the beginning, Europe had been chosen by Destiny as the final meaning of universal history.

Counter to this, the world-system perspective attempted to show that, starting with the discovery of America at the end of the fifteenth century, Europe began to deploy the world-system as a failed imperial world; such a “worldwide” system could not have existed before. Inspired by Fernand Braudel's historical exposition of the “longue durée,” Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 15) had the creative idea of writing the history of this process: “In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, there came into existence what we may call a European world-economy.” For many this perspective subsumes the older Latin American dependency theory, giving it a more plausible historical framework rather than negating it. By limiting Europe's “centrality” to the last five centuries, world-system theory removed the continent's “aura” of being the eternal “center” of world...