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Full Access Thinking Modernity Historically: Is “Alternative Modernity” the Answer?

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Thinking Modernity Historically: Is “Alternative Modernity” the Answer?

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This essay offers a historically based critique of the idea of “alternative modernities” that has acquired popularity in scholarly discussions over the last two decades. While significant in challenging Euro/American-centered conceptualizations of modernity, the idea of “alternative modernities” (or its twin, “multiple modernities”) is open to criticism in the sense in which it has acquired currency in academic and political circles. The historical experience of Asian societies suggests that the search for “alternatives” long has been a feature of responses to the challenges of Euromodernity. But whereas “alternative” was conceived earlier in systemic terms, in its most recent version since the 1980s cultural difference has become its most important marker. Adding the adjective “alternative” to modernity has important counter-hegemonic cultural implications, calling for a new understanding of modernity. It also obscures in its fetishization of difference the entrapment of most of the “alternatives” claimed--products of the reconfigurations of global power--within the hegemonic spatial, temporal and developmentalist limits of the modernity they aspire to transcend. Culturally conceived notions of alternatives ignore the common structural context of a globalized capitalism which generates but also sets limits to difference. The seeming obsession with cultural difference, a defining feature of contemporary global modernity, distracts attention from urgent structural questions of social inequality and political injustice that have been globalized with the globalization of the regime of neoliberal capitalism. Interestingly, “the cultural turn” in the problematic of modernity since the 1980s has accompanied this turn in the global political economy during the same period. To be convincing in their claims to “alterity,” arguments for “alternative modernities” need to re-articulate issues of cultural difference to their structural context of global capitalism. The goal of the discussion is to work out the implications of these political issues for “revisioning” the history and historiography of modernity.

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