Manifestations of modernity the new era and transitional societies

Posted on | oktober 6, 2011 | No Comments

Virginia Woolf

Seminal Bloomsbury-member Virginia Woolf expressed the hope at the beginning of the Twentieth century that ‘[a] political and social movement that give hope (……)’ would emerge. Indeed said epistemic community materialized, fostering and nurturing great thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell, Bertrand Russel and Lytton Strachey. Their ideas on how society should work were ground braking and trendsetting and expansive, stretching well into the late 1970s. The Bloomsburry’s were part of a larger trend in Europe and North America, and to a lesser extent, Latin- America. The Modernista’s in the center of Barcelona boasted similar aspirations, striving to modernize Catalan culture to match that of mainstream Europe. The early twentieth century is determined by movements, epistemic communities that strove for progress, modernization, and the uplifting of the society, to indeed give hope.

Post-Colonial Studies try to establish a possible ontology between the aesthetics and social and political phenomena, using critical discourse theory to analyze transitional societies. This essay argues that societies are a process in the making, that social developments gives rise to art, culture, the aesthetics and not the other way around. The examples of Bloomsburry and the Modernistas teach that these movements gave rise to new art-forms, new intellectual ideas and scholarly theories, novelties that indeed were hopeful.

By the same token, destructive events such as two world wars, the Civil war in Spain, Cold War and ensuing proxy wars in Indochina and Vietnam, neo-liberalism, modernization, and Diaspora impacted and transformed society to an even greater extent. And as the twentieth century came to an end, new movements with an equally powerful mission and strife failed to emerge, to inspire new intellectual communities, despite the emergence of social and political issues that beg to be addressed.

This essay focuses on the premises of the post-colonial studies, by analyzing why modernization and modernity in transitional societies is seen from the perspective of the aesthetics. This essay also questions why the conception of modernity, as used by scholars writing on the post-colonial is juxtaposed against Eurocentrism and regarded as negative, based on the argumentation that social and political developments are cyclical trends, influenced by global, regional and domestic occurrences, technological developments and the crossing-over of culture, art and knowledge and through the exchange of ideas.

Manifestations of Modernity the New Era and Transitional Societies
As the twentieth century kicked in, thoughts on Kantian enlightenment adorned European art, intellectual and culture scenes. These movements inspired not only great painters such as Picasso, Miro and Matisse, but also intellectuals such as John Maynard Keynes, Hannah Arendt and Sigmund Freud. Movements such as Bloomsbury exemplify epistemic communities that after the Victorian era gave impetus to new thought on society, justice, human rights and politics.
One can argue that the full bloom of Kantian enlightenment came after 1945 as classical principle on sovereignty and autonomy gave impetus to decolonization (see for example: Huntington 1990, p. 6). Decolonization brought on a new cultural and social movements that derived their raison d’étre from challenging the legacies of colonialism. In reality many of these movements blended European and North American with African, Asian or Indío traditions and religions into what is perceived as the process of Creolization (Heuman 2006, p. 173).

Creolization processes helped to reawaken the Caribbean Black identity [in Suriname (Wi Egi Sani), Jamaica (Rastafarianism); foster cross-over music genres such as meringue, son, plena, calypso and kaseko; stimulated and inspired writers such as Derrick Walcott, R. Dobru, Yerba Seku, Cola Debrot and George Lemming] but it’s power did not overarch national boundaries.

Even in Africa the reawakening and revaluation of Black identity in the 1920s or negritude (the reawakening of black spirit[1]), did not involve the birth of an epistemic community, negritude merely to an ‘aesthetic’ involving the blending of African with French and North American Black culture[2]. Seminal artists such as Huge Masekela, Femi Kuti, Miriam Makeba and authors such as Chinua Achebe exemplify black reawakening and social protest in Africa.

Political and Social Realities
The hope that became exuded by reawakening and revaluation movements such as the Bloomsburry’s sharply contrasted the political and institutional realities of war, mayhem and social inequalities. As the century took its course it became clear that imaginaries of modernization, the Renaissance Man, economic equilibration and nation-building could not be extended beyond ‘formal and procedural conception (….)’ [Diamond 1990, 10; Linz&Stepan 1996, et al]. The aftermath of World War II, set new standards for a world order determined by capitalism, consumerism and calls for economic modernization. The empirics demonstrate that decolonized- so called transitional- societies typically failed to establish the expected new institutions and policies oftentimes falling prey to authoritarian and disloyal regimes, lackey regimes, that in turn were supported by the international community. The grass movements that emerged in reaction to said developments were latched on a very narrow scope: as Mclellan (2007, p. 270) puts it [these movements can be qualified] ‘particular interest groups within the system’.

A closer look at said movements teaches us that said groups derived their raison d’etre from other international movements such as Marxism streams and schools of thought that proliferated the message that a revolution Cuban style would end the ailments brought on by colonialism and imperialism.
The thetical – antithetical antimonies that determined schools of thought in the world after the Second World War were in turn based on utopian-dystopian antimonies; in other words, societies positioned themselves within the international bi-polar order, by organizing themselves either as a capitalistic economic system, based on free market principles, or as mercantilist state (economic nationalism) based on the ideas of the state-led economy. Indeed, the bipolar world order of the late 1900s did not leave wiggle room for newly emerging democracies to learn-by –doing, to experiment, to develop institutions to befit the demands of their citizen.

In such an environment where systems and institutions came pre-fabricated, developed on conceptions and principles which were both foreign and insidious, intellectual communities remained at bay.

Indeed, these new societies became breeding-grounds of culture, of a new aesthetic, the full bloom of Kantian enlightenment as classical principle on sovereignty and autonomy that also gave impetus to decolonization (see for example: Huntington 1990, p. 6). But these new cultural and social movements derived their existence from challenging the legacies of colonialism, from criticizing Eurocentrism, capitalism and imperialism.

Within this milieu of criticism and protest, the inclination to look beyond the banal, the anecdotal was minimal. Works of fiction filled the void of actual academic exercise, adorning western thought instead. Indeed, Western scholars were not trained to recognize, albeit study atavistic phenomena such as intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic violence, civil war in the newly emerging societies, organized their trains of thought on non western societies based on works of fiction.
It was convenient to study non-western societies through the lens of a fictional writing, to analyze complex social phenomena and systemic flaws inherent to transitional societies. Research of non-western phenomena occurred strictly confined, attenuating to its particularistic and affective most likely confounded on the idea that ‘primitive societies’ were more oriented toward the collective. Western societies on the other hand were more oriented toward private interests.
There is little evidence to corroborate this rather stark position that derives its rationale from social interaction and ideas of a class-less society (Larrain 1989, p.89). Instead this stark division cloaked, as Utopian ideas and Weberian antimonies, gave rise to what today is qualified as post-colonial aesthetic.
Is it possible to establish an ontology between two diverging scholarly conceptions, an ontology which is encased in existing socio- political realities, that gave impetus to a new aesthetic that Puri (2004, p19) calls ‘hybrid, (…) border crossing, [and overtly] metropolitan?

Is it possible to argue that political and social occurrences gave rise to mechanisms that took the decolonized societies past their initial transitional phase into the postcolonial, by creating new socio-political realities that are expressed as aesthetics? What if any constitutes the ontology between this perceived new aesthetic and political and social realities? If such a correlation exists then how are both phenomena intertwined? Is it possible to tie different scholarly disciplines together to analyze and conceptualize phenomena in non-western societies?

The Intellectual Confusion of the Post-colonial
Post-colonial studies pertain to tie different scholarly disciplines together, looking at society from the angle of the aesthetics, its avant-garde propensities to discern certain social and political phenomena. The first urgent question that pops up is what they perceive to be avant-garde[3]. Can one qualify grass-roots protest movements in Latin America, Africa and the Arab world as aesthetic? What is the role of art, artist in social movement? Harking back to the Bloomsburry’s and the Modernista’s in Catalan, to argue that their works of art, their ideas and intellectualism did not bring on social transformation, it merely adorned , enriched. The exception of course being the practical applications of John Maynard Keynes economic theory, that indeed had a transformative effect on society and politics, part of a new epistemology.

The influential nature of the works of Keynes and others was the avant-garde quality, vanguard ideas and conceptions that gave rise to new ideas and intellectual schools of thought.

One can by no means argue that the works by VS Naipaul and Gabriel Garcia Marques gave rise to new ideas on social and political issues in the South-America, despite its critical rendition of society and politics.

Conway (1992, 29)[4] but also Larrain (1989) write that the agendas of many Caribbean and Latin American economies (and many developing societies for that matter) are driven by colonial/metropolitan conceptions. These conceptions seem to be fueled by an urgency to do away with the remnants of the plantation, to eradicate poverty, factors that determined many of these societies from the early 1900s until today. This so called urgency reflects the desperation of transitional societies to find solutions against poverty and under-development, thereby overemphasizing the center, the city, the urban, the cosmopolitan (Larrain ibid; Bhabba 1996).

The problem with these conceptions on accelerated economic development is lack of heuristic quality that allows modification and adaptation to the domestic.
But the critique on said conceptions of accelerated economic development did not come from experience, observation and evidence. Critics valued economic policy in terms of modernity, imperialism and culture, arguing against what they perceived as ‘crude modernization’ (Sharman 2011, p.499). The problem is that critique attenuates to that what they perceive as critical, the normative, how society should function.

Wallerstein (1991, 141) writes: ‘The peoples of the modern world have not always been there. They have been created [and] it was a long time before ‘peoples’ emerged as a focus for political sentiment’.

Wallerstein’s (ibid) assertion defies commonly held notions and conception on western cultural hegemony, on Eurocentrism and on social backwardness of transitional societies. The wordings of Wallerstein (ibid) also help objectify the debate, specifically if one reasons from the premise that all peoples and states are created, that the ontology between culture, art and politics is that ‘peoples’ use their experiences in society and with society and its aberrations to create art.
The intellectual relevance of Wallerstein’s (ibid) wordings is that it places existing notions on western cultural dominance in perspective, that social and political developments in the transitional societies are processes in the making, that economic and political developments take time. Huntingtons’ seminal work on cyclical motion of democratization, reversal and re-democratization, underwritten by Diamond (1991), Linz&Stepan (1996) corroborate Wallerstein (ibid). The intellectual purity of the aforementioned social scientists, that hinges on their methodology, their analysis of the system, the empirical, does not leave extra wiggle room for the ambiguous among us. The sheer universalistic character of said theories does not view less developed nations as primitive, or as collective, particularistic entities. But there are too many grey areas and ambiguities specifically created by certain post-colonial schools of thought, who embrace the conception of the uniqueness of the Third World.

Scholarship views certain expressions of contemporary social forces in Central American that oppose westernized aesthetics, as political ideologies[5]. These social forces, that use certain art-forms to express social discontent, are by the same token regarded as ‘the image of the third world’, an image that challenges conceptions of western cultural dominance, at the same time creating its own global imprint through the revaluation of Indio heritage and culture. The ambiguity and confusion that arises from these theories that look at society from the angle of literature and the humanities, using conceptions of the social sciences, is massive and all-encompassing and does not help to broaden understanding of developing societies. In fact this methodology makes analysis more complex, less tangible, despite the fact that its expression is visual and immediately accessible.

The analysis becomes even more complex the case of the Caribbean, where the recalibration of identity and race as the primary heritage of the plantation, are regarded as a possible epistemology (see for example: Puri 2004). Confusing is for example the fact, that the revaluation of the black identity is viewed as the driving force behind the new aesthetics, while its role in political and social transformation remains assumed[6]. The fact that the importance of Black identity for social and political transformation is not established by existing scholarship is cause for concern. Could it be that Caribbean aesthetics showcase art and culture with a clear hybrid character paradoxically resounding colonialism in all its glory, but oftentimes reflecting what Babha (….) qualifies as a sense of ‘unhomeliness’ (see for example the works of Walcott and Naipaul). Unhomeliness inherently harks back to loss of cultural identity, subsequently loss of rooting, while at the same time reflecting the hybridity, the juxtapositioning between the colonial and between spheres of Black, Asian and European identity and cultures. This development, this hybridity, is the direct result of the recalibration of social communities in the Caribbean after slavery and immigration of indentured groups from Asia, corresponds with the conception of Hoetinks (1967,p 2) perceptions of ‘segmented microcosms’. This conception is by no means benign: Van Lier (1950) warns us that segmented societies are tied together by minimal bonds and inherently lack solidarity to foster nation-states.

The stark division in existing scholarship, as well as the pessimistic outlook on modernity and modernization is a cause for concern, because it does not help advance knowledge on social and political phenomena in transitional societies. It’s dogmatic and persistence to keeping the intellectual divide between developed and developing societies erect is moreover out-dated, specifically when looking at emerging world powers such as Brazil, China, Mexico and India and the role of technological advancements such as internet and social media that beg for different methods of analysis.

(No reference list was provided, because this essay is a concept, based on a wider research; references list is present in the original document).
(No citation without explicit consent from the author, © natascha adama, 2009-2011, durham, nc,- Leiden, Neth. )

[1] Source:, accessed, October 13, 2009

[2] Soyinka saw Negritude as belonging to colonial ideology and “otherizing,” or giving the African group an identity that so radically differs from that of Europeans that it comes to represent savagery and irrationality. Similarly, Conrad describes the African natives as savages who “howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity– like yours– the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Source: accessed, October 13, 2009

[3] I use the term Avant-garde to imply vanguard or in Spanish Vanguardia, being in the forefront, pushing borders, not to modernize, but to create, evolve and innovate and experiment with art, culture and politics: source:, accessed 10/29/2009.

[4] Dennis Conway (1992) Misguided Directions, Mismanaged Models or Missed Paths? in: Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context, Thomas Klak (ed). Lanham MD: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers Inc.,

[5] Workshop: De-colonial Aesthetics, October 15th 2009. The Center for Global Studies and the Humanities, Duke University. Paper presented by Kency Cornejo, Art History

[6] Unpublished paper, Natascha Adama, 2009

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@]


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