What do we mean by Modern?
Redefining the Modern World
When we teach about the modern world, we tend to define "modern" as a set of traits—political, social, and economic—that came to exist in Europe in the nineteenth century. So, for instance, we think of "modern" as including a political system with democratic representation, an economy that has an industrial sector, and a social system with urban workers, professionals, and businessmen. We tend to think of a set of policies that governments pursue as being "modern" when these policies fit economic and social characteristics that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century. That is how we define what "modern" is.
Modern: The Tyranny of the European Model [VIDEO]
TRANSCRIPT: What I'm going to suggest is that we continue to live under the tyranny, conceptually, of a belief that a set of traits that emerges in nineteenth-century Europe is what is "modern." That's the proposition. One of the corollaries of that proposition is, we are not prepared to see phenomena in other parts of the world until they appear in nineteenth-century Europe.
So, for instance, if you study China, and you see that roughly from the year 1000 there's a civil-service bureaucracy that is selected through examinations, that acts according to a set of rules, and has some degree of specialization. In other words, has, in broad measure the traits that Weber told us we should expect in a modern bureaucracy. What we do is we invent reasons why it doesn't qualify as a modern bureaucracy. One of the favorites I remember when I was a student was, "They may appear to be a real government, but, they were really personalistic and corrupt." Well, it seems to me that ever since Watergate, the notion that modern officials can't be corrupt seems a little inappropriate. So it therefore seems to me that the marker of distinction, at least in the early seventies that was used, no longer can work.
What I want to suggest is that there are more similarities in the nature of that Chinese bureaucracy and the bureaucracy that emerges, let us say, beginning in England in the nineteenth century, there are more traits of similarity than of difference. Sufficient to make us wonder whether the emergence of civil-service bureaucracies, as we think of them as modern bureaucracies, is really a useful way to think of it. Rather, we should think about the emergence of a type of bureaucracy that takes place in nineteenth-century Europe. Well for European history, that's when it's important. Fine, no big deal, let us live with it.
Let me give you another example, one with which I, am pleased to say I get in much trouble when I speak, infrequently, though I do, I speak before audiences with large number of Europeanists. Not many of whom invite me back a second time, but I will, I'll give you one reason why they become uncomfortable. One of the principal arguments about nineteenth-century Europe is one that relates politics and culture. And briefly it goes like this: Before the nineteenth century in Europe, and inferentially the rest of the world, there was a real disjuncture between political rule and culture.
Elites shared a culture that transcended political boundaries. Think of European aristocrats, they all spoke French, they married each other, they moved from Poland to Spain, France, England, they were all over the place. A contrast between high culture that spaned political borders, and popular cultures that were rooted in locales. That is, well within the borders of any particular country. So that the culture of a peasant in Languedoc was very different than the culture of a peasant in Normandy, let alone a peasant in Alsace or in Bavaria, et cetera.
That the existence of common traits like Christianity, while true to many peasants, span political borders. So either you have culture fitting comfortably within political borders, or you have it spanning political borders, in the case of elites, or in the case of Christianity. In none of these instances do you find a kind of coterminous or a simultaneity of the borders of politics and culture. It is a modern phenomenon.
National states, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, start to promote the construction of national cultures. They develop educational systems, they develop the use of media to promote the notion that people living Languedoc ... and Normandy are both Frenchman. All right, that's the argument. Well I read this argument as an historian of China who has been struck that one of the strategies of this imperial regime that goes back at least to the fourteenth century—the data I know best is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century data—but I'm struck by the ways in which this regime quite deliberately and consciously develops cultural criteria to promote the integration of their empire, the degree to which certain Confucian ideas are used instrumentally to create common patterns of practice, whether it's of marriage, of funerals, that this state promotes common institutions like lineages. That this state also creates a civil-service curriculum, exams, the curriculum which commits elites to studying some of the same texts, and with a common purpose.
We define as "not modern" what existed in Europe before 1800 and what existed in the rest of the world until Europeans arrived and changed the way people did things or alternatively, until European ideas and opportunities were made available to people in other parts of the world to adopt and adapt to fit their local situations.
So there are two possible ways in which modern ideas and practices came to non-Western places. They came via either an imposition by Westerners or by other people adopting the ideas and institutions that Europeans first developed. Now there's a serious problem with this way of viewing modernity because it tends to ignore the existence in other parts of the world of practices before 1800 that, in fact, resemble in certain important ways what exists in Europe after 1800. In fact modern is fundamentally associated with practices in Europe in the nineteenth century to the degree that some scholars believe almost by definition that practices they label modern cannot have existed before they appeared in nineteenth-century Europe.