What do we mean by Modern?

Decoupling "Modern" from "European"

Let's take as an example the "modern" trait of a state's attempt to promote a national culture for political purposes:

Throughout Chinese history, much went on in Chinese intellectual life outside of Confucianism. There was much that happens in popular culture, certainly, outside Confucian precepts, and I do not mean to suggest anything to the contrary. But I do want to suggest that there was a deliberate, conscious, and instrumental usage of certain ideas and institutions by the Chinese state, under the rubric of "Confucianism," in order to promote a kind of unity, which has, in part, a cultural and social dimension. And it was political in nature. Now, does that mean when I see a kind of equivalence or connection between politics and culture I want to claim that the Chinese empire was modern?

No. But I want to claim instead that the congruence between politics and culture in nineteenth-century Europe was not modern; it was nineteenth century and European. And it is a fundamentally different proposition. It disengages the notion of modernity from those traits that appeared in Europe in the nineteenth century. And it says to us, "Let's be careful." Some of those features new to Europe in the nineteenth century may have been new in a global sense as well, and some of them not. And let's be very careful as a first step to distinguish between these two distinct possibilities.

It was the conjunction of a whole set of traits in nineteenth-century Europe that we may still want to call modern. But let us be clear that it really was the conjunction and not the individual traits. And I am using the noun conjunction deliberately because the causality between these various phenomena is, at least in my mind, often quite open and contingent or at least different across different cases. This situation suggests that part of our challenge is to explain how different kinds of phenomena end up getting connected together.

Why is it in the European case that at the same time as industrial capitalism developed, states wanted to promote national culture? I mean, these are things that happened together in Europe, but the connections don't have to exist in other parts of the world in the same ways or in the same period. And it seems to me that being able to decouple the various traits of what we think of was European modernity gives us a much more flexible approach to thinking about what modern means.

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