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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 637-649

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Discrepant Modernities and Their Discontents

Lisa Rofel

Perhaps the most important question to ask of modernity is the following: What is it that critics and scholars want to challenge when we address the category “modernity”? Discussions of modernity were never meant to devolve into abstract niceties. For the stakes in confronting modernity are about politics, in all the fullness of that term. What is it that not just scholars but various citizens of the world find worth struggling over when they invoke modernity and all its attendant permutations? Rather than treat modernity as a reified certainty or, worse, a singular certainty—an era arrived at teleologically, a set of practices uniformly discerned, or a universal state of being—I have argued that we need to trace how rhetorics, claims, and commitments to modernity get put into play.1 Only in this way do we have a chance of finally moving beyond the forms of domination and exclusions enacted in the name of modernity. [End Page 637]

Modernity may well have some kind of universalizing power, though I do not think all people are equally invested in the category or the condition. We should not, however, be seduced by its universalist pretensions. On the other hand, it will not suffice to reduce the discrepancies of modernities to cultural pluralism. By discrepant modernities I mean a world of forced and violent interactions in which emerges an imaginary space that produces deferred relationships to modernity. Modernity is something people struggle over because it has life-affirming as well as life-threatening effects. This struggle is what people share, like the floor of a boxing match (including fixed bets and outcomes), rather than a universal form with its local particulars. The latter view is the ideology of structural adjustment programs.

Those of us intent on resisting and reworking the onslaught of imaginations and programs in the name of modernity have had to grapple with a number of paradoxes. One means of handling these paradoxes, through the method of “critical interruption,” recognizes the necessary multiplicity of political interpretations, using one position to critically interrupt or find the limits of the other.2 The method of critical interruption allows us to address two paradoxes in writings about modernity: One paradox is that between treating modernity as an overarching, universalizing force—a sui generis actor not simply in the world but the maker of the world—versus attending to the politics of representing modernity in that manner. The second paradox is that of assuming modernity to be an a priori unity versus analyzing it as the outcome of diverse conjunctures. Pheng Cheah has recently argued that to resolve the hoary dichotomy of universality versus particularity we should move beyond Hegel’s version of universality as the transcendence of finitude and specificity.3 Instead, we might conceive of universality as precisely the “radical openness to contamination by alterity,” thus confronting a universality that claims it is not located anywhere.4

These paradoxes of modernity and their critical interruptions continue to haunt scholarly works that purport to move us far beyond modernity. Take the recent book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Hardt and Negri paint a grandiose and oracular vision of a global order of postmodern empire in which, they claim, the modernist imaginaries of the old world order are no longer relevant. Thus the modern institutions of Michel Foucault’s disciplinary regimes, capitalist Fordist production, center-periphery [End Page 638] divisions of labor and wealth, and the nation-state, along with fixed boundaries and territories and the immobility of labor, have been transcended by new technologies of capitalism and political sovereignty. Imperialism, too, is over. Taking their inspiration from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories of power and subjectivity, Hardt and Negri imagine empire as the sovereign power that unites the globe under a singular logic of rule through networks of power that are flexible, rhizomatic rather than vertical, and move in nomadic fashion across decentered, deterritorialized space. This empire, according to Hardt and Negri, is irreversible and irresistible. It is the latest stage within the capitalist mode of...


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