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Before and Beyond Modernity

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

‘Modernity’ is a polysemous word, meaning everything and anything to the people who use it. To some, it is synonymous with modernism; as if both are interchangeable. To the purist, however, the first refers to a period of time while the second, a particular trend in art and literature. And herein lies a crux. Nowadays, both students and common readers resort to the internet first. Their eyes boggle when they read the entry on ‘Modernity: Meaning, Definition and Aspects of Modernity’. It starts off with the following sentence: ‘Generally the meaning of Modernity is associated with the sweeping change that took place in the society and particularly in the fields of art and literature between the late 1950s (sic!) and the beginning of Second World War.’ One can only guess what the correct form of ‘1950s’ should be – 1590s, 1900s, 1890s or whatever.

Previously, we read of and believed in three broad periods – ancient, medieval and modern. Such a tripartite division, so popular with the historians in general, both in the West and in India, has its advantages as well as limitations. One limitation is glaring: Capitalism, Socialism, Late Capitalism and the People’s Democracies in East Europe are all included in the modern period. The concepts of ancient and medieval in Europe (West Europe in particular) and India cannot be the same. If West Europe embarked on the modern era in the fifteenth century, with three spectacular inventions – the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass (as Francis Bacon once claimed) – the two old civilizations of Asia, China and India, had to wait for several centuries to get out of their medieval past. In India, for example, we cannot think of the modern era before the collapse of the Mughal Empire. South India has its own course of development. The death of Aurangzeb did not affect them directly.

This tripartite division was found to be extremely useful in the study of literary history. Literary historians used to speak of Old English (Anglo –Saxon, the Middle English (Anglo-Norman) and the Modern periods. There was of course the question of linguistics: Old English was as much different from Middle English as from Modern. There is a continuity between the Middle English and Modern English but the break between Old English and Middle English is glaring. Therefore, this kind of tripartite division was considered to be generally acceptable.

In any case the term ‘modern’ (used both as adjective and noun) came to be used in English as early as the sixteenth century and ‘the battle between the ancients and the moderns’ rocked France in the seventeenth century. Its echo was also heard in England in Jonathan Swift’s famous essay. Thus we have the good old Modern, Modernism, and finally Modernity. All the words are quite old. ‘Modernity’ dates from 1635, ‘Modernism’, from 1737. We should not forget the title of the seventh and last volume of The Pelican Guide to English Literature: The Modern Age, from [Henry] James to [T.S.] Eliot.

We know how the connotations of the three words – modern, modernism and modernity – have changed in the course of time. However, we should not imagine that no more changes would happen in the significations of these words. With the advent of postmodernism, new issues concerning modernism have already arisen. One of the major concerns is in the domain of literary criticism. Roman Jakobson and his followers wanted to avoid all ‘subjective chitchat’ in the name of criticism. So, very much like the Russian formalists, they developed a purely grammar- and rhetoric-based approach to poetry. It was essentially ahistorical (if not anti-historical) and avoided all issues related to the content. Phonetics thus superseded semantics, stylistics usurped sociology. J.S. Merquior rightly complained: ‘Jargon has now made much of humanities anything but humane – and the gain in knowledge is far from being, as a rule, substantial’ (From Prague to Paris, 247). Various neologisms such as ‘Derridadaism’, ‘post-structuralitis’ and ‘theorrhea’ have been coined to brand all this.

The choice of names, postmodernism, and post-structuralism, has been unfortunate. If postmodernism succeeds modernism and post-structuralism follows structuralism, what would happen when new trends appear – as they are bound to appear one day?  Names have to be given to them too. Would they be Post-postmodernism, Post-post-structuralism and so on? 

Let me end with a timely reminder. No man in the medieval times ever thought that he was living in the Middle Ages. No man ever said, ‘We men of the Middle Ages must not forget that tomorrow we set out for the Hundred Years’ War.’ Names are given after the events, not before they occur. Since everything is in a flux, the words that are no more than jargons would also disappear or their connotations would change beyond recognition. [January 22, 2019]

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Oct 19, 2019


Ramkrishna Bhattacharya [email protected]

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