The Abduction of Modernity
October 15, 2003 11:19 AM   Subscribe

The Abduction of Modernity. "Western thinkers, many of whom cannot speak or read any non-Western language, are held back in their analysis of modern civilization by the assumption that modernity is an exclusive characteristic of the West. At a time when the sole superpower is resurrecting the practice of imposing national will by military might, Henry C K Liu examines this assumption in a series of articles." Part 1: The race toward barbarism, Part 2: That old time religion, Part 3: Rule of law vs Confucianism, Part 4: Taoism and modernity, Part 5: The Enlightenment and modernity, Part 6a: Imperialism as modernity, Part 6b: Imperialism and fragmentation, Part 6c: Imperialism resisted.
posted by homunculus (13 comments total)
It is interesting, but it reads like a book report titled, "A Summary of Books By Smarter Men." Or a shorter, Eastern version of Diamond's "Guns, Germs & Steel." Or a phamphlet, "Why the Chinese Did and Will Resist the West: Thank You Mao!"

And I give you this memorable line, "It is an undeniable fact that the Communist Party of China, despite inevitable false starts and costly social experimentation, has evolved as the only social/political institution able to resist Western imperialism and its policy of dismemberment."

I don't care about Communists one way or another, but the entire article series conflates culture, economy, and social structure in useless and inexact ways. Grade: F minus.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:44 AM on October 15, 2003

Oh yeah, some more: There's no structure, or eventual point. Where's the thesis? It's notes made from other works, then re-fleshed as a series of facts and statements and historical events. It's over-simplified ("The relationship of Christianity to the modern world has been very complicated"; the (arguably) greatest cultural conflicts and historical influencers in the West are repeatedly described in a sentence, a few lines, a paragraph). It would take about 3000 pages to cover all the ground Mr. Liu has laid out for himself here. It reads like class notes, and cannot stand alone without the sources from which it is derived. Where's the bibliography?

I bet his agent was pitching this junk in Frankfort all last week.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:56 AM on October 15, 2003

Ya know, Mo, I thought the same thing, I'm not sure I've ever read so much, and felt like I learned so little.
posted by Blake at 12:12 PM on October 15, 2003

I gave up halfway through the second article feeling the same way as Mo. Here's the Cliff Notes version for those who want the basic idea:
"Many barbaric notions, racism being the most obvious, appear under the label of modernity, rationalized by a barbaric doctrine of pseudo-science. The West takes advantage of the overwhelming power it has derived from its barbaric values to set itself up as a superior civilization. The West views its technical prowess as a predatory license for intolerance of the values and traditions of other advanced cultures."
In other words, Said, Foucault, yada yada. But everybody gets name-checked here; statements on the order of ""Hegel, [Karl] Marx and Max Weber all shared the ethos that..." are ubiquitous. (I like the fact that he adds Marx's first name, lest we think Groucho was meant.) And most of his potted summaries are so general as to be useless or contain serious errors; I could write a paragraph on his misunderstanding of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), but why bother? Bottom line: neither he nor anybody else has the faintest idea what he means by "modernism," but he feels if he just writes another 5,000 words he may figure it out. I'm a bit more generous than Mo; I'll give it a straight F.
posted by languagehat at 12:36 PM on October 15, 2003

I think the concept has merit. Non-Western countries have modernized or are currently modernizing in ways that superficially resemble the Western model (skyscrapers, Levi's, pop music, elected legislatures, etc.), but have very different cultural and philosophical foundations. Ignoring these differences can't help anyone. Speaking just in terms of pop culture, North African rai isn't like hip-hop, Bollywood isn't like Hollywood, and Hayao Miyazaki's films may compete with American blockbusters for box-office dominance in Japan but the two are really not analogous. It would be nice to see more work being done to understand the differences comprehensively instead of passing them off as quaint or quirky, or raising them as some strident banner of cultural identity.
posted by halonine at 12:52 PM on October 15, 2003

Haven't managed to read it all , because of plain old lack of time..but not because of lack of interest. I have to agree it seems to be discontinuous and overly syntethized..maybe the bibiliography is on the last pages of the book (if it is a book) and it's not going to be published on the Web (bad bad bad idea) ..but how in the hell does he manage to jump to the conclusion that :

It is an undeniable fact that the Communist Party of China, despite inevitable false starts and costly social experimentation, has evolved as the only social/political institution able to resist Western imperialism and its policy of dismemberment

How ? Why ? Who ? When ? And I'm no sympathizer of imperialism and capitalism either.

On a tanget: I think the capitalist vs communist or dems vs reps diatribe is rather...useless. You can compare ideology as long as you want, at the end they become articles of Faith (according to my experience). I'd rather investigate the poor vs rich or if you prefer the have vs have not and why in the hell we consider ourselves so advanced when we can't solve basic problems like food , shelter and health (at LEAST for the population of our country) without starting a political debate on a problem that is ALL about cost of production, technique of production and technology.
posted by elpapacito at 2:12 PM on October 15, 2003

If they're so smart, how come Britney Spears doesn't live in China?
posted by Postroad at 2:28 PM on October 15, 2003

Grade: F minus.

I'll give it a straight F.

Really? You guys are tough. I agree that it could have been better written and some of the assertitions are bizarre, but I still found it interesting and enjoyable. Then again, I've been reading the series a bit at a time for the past few weeks as new parts were put online.
posted by homunculus at 2:39 PM on October 15, 2003

It's all Marxist. Underlying thesis: 'modernity/barbarism is a dastardly plot hatched by the rising Bourgeoisie'.

It reads like notes taken at a Perry Anderson undergrad. lecture, c. 1982.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:49 PM on October 15, 2003

I skimmed, but it reads more as an attack on "western modernity" than a defense of the thesis that the east is also "modern". Yes, we know there are many bad things about western civilization.
"I think it would be a good idea!" (Gandhi)
posted by uosuaq at 4:56 PM on October 15, 2003

I would make a comment on the content, if I were smart enough, or even if I just had enough gumption to read the whole series. But since I don't meet either of these criteria, I will only comment that the accompanying artwork on the first link is brilliant, embodying all that I feel about the "sole superpower resurrecting the practice of imposing national will by military might". So, kudos to the art director, at least.
posted by taz at 3:36 AM on October 16, 2003

I just ran across a quote from Simone Weil (in a letter she wrote to the anti-Semitic propaganda minister Jea Giraudoux in 1939) that sums up Liu's basic point (or, shall we say, the point that's actually worth making) in a single line: "And how can it be said that we brought culture to the Arabs, when it was they who preserved the traditions of Greece for us through the Middle Ages?"

homunculus: It's not that some of the ideas (once you extract them from the surrounding dross) aren't important, it's that they've been expressed many times, and better, by others. You don't boost a student's grade for plunking good stolen ideas rather than bad ones in their badly written essay (at least I wouldn't; opinions may differ).
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on October 16, 2003

Er, that's Jean Giraudoux. The preview button is there for a reason.
posted by languagehat at 7:10 AM on October 16, 2003

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