More on the Modern South Asian – 1

We are very far from clarity on the issue of the modern South Asian as would be obvious from the comments on the previous post on this topic.

First of all, the very word ‘modern’ is problematic leading us astray in our discussion. The point to note is that there is an episode in Europe called the Enlightenment that Europeans use to mark a break in their value system. We can just as easily call them pre- and post-Enlightenment values and ignore the fact that Europeans have appropriated the term ‘modern’ for the latter set. 

We have no interest in arguing whether post-Enlightenment values are ‘better’ than pre-Enlightenment values in any way. We are aware of the post-modern critique of ‘modern’ values, attributing to them all sorts of ills from the Holocaust and the viciousness of our ways to alienation and the emptiness of our lives. This is an important dimension but not what we are focused on at this time.

Nor are we focused on the alleged disconnect between the ideal post-Enlightenment values and the actual behavior of many ‘modern’ Europeans. Nor are we interested in turning this into an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ contest by judging South Asians against the benchmark of post-Enlightenment European values.

Finally, we mentioned in the previous post that we were not interested in scientific or technological modernity. In the same vein, we are not interested in political modernity. In Provincializing Europe Dipesh Chakrabarty has defined the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’ as “the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise” noting, incidentally, that these cannot be thought of outside the context of the European Enlightenment. Chakrabarty refers to Ranajit Guha to say that South Asian political modernity “brings together two noncommensurable logics of power, both modern. One is the logic of the quasi-liberal legal and institutional frameworks that European rule introduced into the country… [Accompanying] is the logic of another set of relationships… that articulate hierarchy through practices of direct and explicit subordination of the less powerful by the more powerful.”

This illustrates what we are trying to get at. We are not implying that South Asians are irrational or backward or pre-modern. They will use ‘modern’ technology or ‘modern’ institutions just as well or as badly as any one else mediated by their costs and benefits. But the nature of this use would be infused by a particular set of values (e.g., hierarchy). What exactly is that set of values today? How does the South Asian ‘think’ of the ‘scientific’ and the ‘political’? What does it mean to be comfortable with Islamic Physics or dynastic succession or lower orders? That is what we are after.

We will pick up on this theme in the next post.

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