- Modernity: Its Title to Uniqueness and its Advent in Ethiopia From the Lecture What Is “Zemenawinet”?: Perspectives on Ethiopian Modernity
There have been varied, truly impressive attempts by towering talents—among them Hegel, Marx, Weber—to establish that modernity was born in the right place at the right time. Success or failure, this exercise itself manifests a conspicuous mark of modernity: historical self-consciousness or a capacity to step back from our own time and to compare it with others. That said, the claim stated at the start is highly controversial. Though there is considerable convergence on birthplace—the West—there is little agreement on the birthdate of modernity. The dispute over the advent of modernity is bound up with competing claims about the conditions decisive in the making of modernity: the ascetic spirit of puritan Protestantism, free labor, the rise of towns, modern science, and new opportunities for trade, industrial manufacture, and varied new technologies. I doubt that either the [End Page 1] key originating elements can be definitively singled out or the when and where of its appearance be fixed with finality.
It may well be that the quest for the advent of modernity is a category mistake, as G. M. Trevelyan suggests: “Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussion, but very often leading historical thought astray.”1 More importantly, rival claims about the advent of modernity rest on conceptions of human history that cannot be sustained. I do not believe that there is an overarching rational explanation of human progress. Perhaps the most developed theory of this kind is that offered by Marx and intricately developed by the late Jerry Cohen. Roughly, Marx proposes first, that there is throughout history a necessity to improve the technical forces of production, and second, social forms undergo change so that arrangements hospitable to technological improvement always prevail. The attempt to account for all social change as driven by the necessity to march in step with technological innovation seems implausible, not least because it involves the glaring anachronism of projecting peculiar features of the modern world onto the entire past.
Still, the historical self-consciousness of modernity noted earlier, as well as a sense of its uniqueness, can exist in the absence of any commitment to grand narratives about the course of human history. Consider, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s astonishing observation occasioned by the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition:
On or about December 1910 human nature changed. All human relations shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.2
Note the striking similarity between this pronouncement and the famous description of the modern age in The Communist Manifesto:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed fast-frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can [End Page 2] ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.3
It is of little importance that Marx’s remarks were made in the middle of the nineteenth century and Virginia Woolf’s in the first decade of the twentieth century. After all, it was after the Second World War that the salient features of the modern world that we identified are fully realized in the European corner of the world they inhabit. As Perry Anderson points out:
After 1945, the semi-aristocratic or agrarian order and its appurtenances was finished in every country. Bourgeois democracy was finally universalized. With that, certain critical links with a pre-capitalist past were snapped. Mass production and consumption transformed Western Europe along American lines.4
Both Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf capture defining features of the modern age well before it became entrenched in practice.