Revolution and Modernity

In his blog post “Print Culture and the Problematics of Revolution”, Haram referred to “the frictions and pressures that post-colonial nation-states encounter in the process of incorporation within the socio-political and cultural matrix of Western modernity.” This sentence brings up two questions that I have been struggling with for the past few months: What is Western modernity? Furthermore, what is the relationship between revolution and modernity?

Some of the scholars that we have read in this seminar would argue that modernity is a change in consciousness (here come the imaginary and representations again!), in particular consciousness of time. Lynn Hunt for instance claims that the French Revolution inaugurated a new relationship to time.(1) Arendt made a somewhat similar argument. In “The meaning of Revolution”, she wrote: “The modern concept of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, that an entirely new story, a story never know or told before, is about to unfold, was unknown prior to the great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth-century.”(2) Both Hunt and Arendt seem to imply that the new relationship to the past and the future that emerged in the course of revolutionary events was itself modern.

Did modernity start in the “Age of Revolution”, in particular the French Revolution, then? Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra has argued that at least French historians have thought so for a long time. She claims that the idea that the French Revolution marked the beginning of modernity has roots in the French revolutionary historiography: “As Furet argues, the Revolution was not understood simply as an event within a complex of events, but rather, was seen as constitutive of the advent of a new age (…).This heightened the sense of the present as unique and unprecedented and, as a consequence, problematized the way in which the relationship between the past and present was theorized.”(3) Yet, does the fact that revolutionaries thought that they were opening a new, modern, time, makes them, or their period, modern? Did revolutionaries think of themselves as “modern” and can historians use their self-definition as a unmediated category of analysis?

It is worth noticing that there is no consensus about where “modernity” starts- witness the debate about whether the Enlightenment marks the beginning of modernity. I wonder what is at stake in the debates about the chronology of modernity. Periodization is central to the writing of history, and it would make sense that historians discuss when modernity emerges, at least for purposes of communication. If we all start the “modern” age at a different time, discussing modernity becomes nearly impossible. Yet, there is something more to this debate, and I can’t quite figure out what it is. How important is it to trace modernity back to the “Age of Revolution” for example? What does the category of “modernity” teach us about the revolutions themselves? Does modernity, as a lens, further or hinder our understanding of the Haitian, American and French revolutions?

As I am writing these questions, I find myself wondering what modernity means, after all. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the “modern” refers to whatever resembles the world we know, the world of the 21th century: a world in which citizenship, nation-states, and technology frame and define our identities as individuals, and members of local and national groups. Thus, the attempt to locate the “modern” in the “Age of Revolution”, which still permeates the historiography, is part of a quest to understand who we are, and trace the genealogy of the world we know. There is nothing wrong per se about doing this, but I think that there is a great need to define “modernity” better, and ask ourselves whether and when it is a useful heuristic device, if we want to understand the past better.

1. Hunt, Lynn Avery. Measuring Time, Making History. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2008, p.68.
2. Arendt, Hanna. On Revolution. New York: The Viking Press, 1963, p.21.
3. Bhambra, Gurminder K. Rethinking Modernity. Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, p.106.

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