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Modernity of this century: four ethnographic perspectives

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From an anthropological perspective, ‘modernity’ appears at once conceptually straightforward and theoretically elusive. Scholars seem to know it when they see it, yet specific definitions and approaches to the study of modernity rarely seem complementary. Some scholars, especially those steeped in European and North American philosophical and historical traditions, insist that modernity is a particular form of social and political organization with European origins. In this conceptualization, modernity is a product of processes which define the ‘modern period’: the expansion of capitalism, the rise of nation-states, and the development and spread of forms of rationality associated with scientific reason (Giddens 1991:1; Rabinow 2008: 2).  But these conceptions have not gone unchallenged. One particularly influential body of literature critiques the very concept of modernity as a repressive technology of differentiation involving the forced and largely fictional purification of nature from culture (i.e., Latour 1993), and of Europe from its colonial others (i.e., Dussel 2000; Escobar 1995; Mignolo 2011). Other perspectives critique the idea of a single modernity with discrete origins by broadening the concept’s reach to encompass and celebrate ‘alternative’ modernities not beholden to a single genealogy emanating from enlightenment Europe (Gaonkar 2001; Rofel 1999; Trouillot 2002). The differences are clear: some say modernity comes unequivocally from Europe; some say we have never been modern, that modernity is a fiction imposed on the world by powerful actors seeking to dominate others; and others say that everyone is potentially modern in her own alternative way.

Anthropological debates about the location, origins, and contents of modernity have been accompanied by the emergence of diverse methodological approaches, most of which emphasize the importance of contextualization. For instance, Harri Englund and James Leach decry the uncritical adoption of “a pre-given meta-narrative” (2000:236) of modernity by anthropologists as a betrayal of ethnographic integrity. It is impossible to know what modernity is until one has conducted on-the-ground ethnographic research. Others, such as K. Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Agrawal, have sought to understand modernities as contextualized social facts, employing the “stories” of their interlocutors to reveal a “more contingent process of narrative construction” among a wide range of social actors and institutions (2003:49). A more recent anthropological approach insists that modernity should be defined by the people who use and mobilize the term. In any given social context, a diverse array of recognizable people can be understood as modern because other people in that social formation commonly identify them as such (Barker, Harms, Lindquist 2013: 1).

Despite their differences, there are several unifying features to these divergent perspectives. For anthropologists of this century, it is safe to say that modernities are now understood as neither fixed nor singular, and that they can only be understood in relationship to specific social contexts. For this reason, the concept of modernity is best captured through richly textured ethnographies which show that modernities are not artifacts of a pre-determined time and place, but are constantly being reinvented and deployed by active social agents living in dynamic social worlds. Through a review of four recent books based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in West Africa, China, the Caribbean, and Latin America, all of which address aspects of the anthropology of modernity, we argue that any useful conceptualization of modernity must acknowledge both the concept’s checkered history(ies) and its live career within a multitude of contemporary practices that can best be studied ethnographically. As the texts under review illustrate, modernity is by no means univocal, but is comprised of manifold practices and mobilizations of ‘the modern.’ In one respect, claims to modernity advanced in disparate global contexts might in fact be understood as ways of staking claims to legitimacy and parity in a world heretofore dominated by the abstracted geography of the West. In this respect, a critical anthropology of modernity must attend to the continued power and salience of Western-centered discourses of the modern. But as all of these ethnographies show, modernity also transcends the West, and scholars wishing to understand the concept must examine alternatives and responses to this hegemonic discourse arising across an interconnected global terrain. An anthropology of this century cannot be glibly post-modern, because conceptions of modernity are still very much with us. The ethnographic record clearly demonstrates the surprising persistence of notions of modernity in diverse social settings around the world and in many languages. Yet the modernity described by anthropologists of this century is by no means an unchanged artifact of European provenance. Recent ethnographies show that a diverse array of social actors are in dialogue with Eurocentric conceptions of science, capitalism, politics, legal systems, and even style at the same time that they challenge these conceptions, introducing shifting reference points and attempting to assert their own modernity in ways that both reproduce and undermine received notions of what it means to be modern. Modernity is both a top-down discourse riven with hegemonic ideologies and a product of everyday tactics through which individuals and collectives manipulate the social possibilities available to them.

In this review essay, we propose thinking of modernity as a set of contested ‘regimes of modernity,’ which allows us to avoid imposing a totalizing or otherwise bounded definition of the modern. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe a “regime of signs” in which “society is plied by several semiotics” rather than a stable and enduring referent (1987:92). Similarly, we argue that modernity and the structures it engenders cannot be reduced to either a singular or plural configuration.  However, while modernity is by no means static or unitary, it does enter into patterned associations with particular notions which may overlap and solidify at particular junctures. Modernity is not a tangible ‘thing,’ which is why it proves so difficult to define and why its meanings must be understood as often-contested social and cultural constructions. But like Durkheimian ‘social facts,’ these social constructions do work upon human social worlds as forces of exclusion or inclusion, depending on the particular power dynamics at play. In this sense, ‘regimes of modernity’ are much like the ‘regimes of value’ described by Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things (1986). Like regimes of value, in which the commodity form is deemed a product of contextual social factors rather than a definite stage of economic development, varying regimes of modernity might appear coherent within particular cultural and political-economic contexts. At the same time, this coherence “may be highly variable from situation to situation” (Appadurai 1986: 15), representing a contingent social practice of modernity rather than the attainment of some absolute state or status.

Like any social practice, modernity must be understood as a mode of apprehending the world which is always saturated with ideology and subject to counter-hegemonic contestation. James Ferguson’s Expectations of Modernity (1999) is suggestive of such an approach, tracing the afterlife of the idea of a coherent modernity that appeared ascendant in the Zambian Copperbelt in the 1950s and 1960s. Here, acting modern is acknowledged as a social performance undertaken to signal allegiance to particular mores, groups, and ways of being within a localized context. Donning modernity’s mantle has local social consequences, even in cases where the institutional and political-economic arrangements wrought through ‘modernization’ have been effectively discredited. Building from this insight and from a similar commitment to ethnographic richness, the four ethnographies discussed in this review all show precisely how important it is to understand modernity as something both deeply historical and constantly reinvented through contemporary practices.

The Modernity Bluff

The theme of modernity as a performance in dialogue with but never fully determined by ‘Western’ ideas of modernity is extended and deepened by Sasha Newell’s rousing ethnography of urban popular culture among young unemployed men called nouchi in Côte d’Ivoire. The Modernity Bluff (2012) posits modernity as a performative register, a ‘bluff’ in which sartorial performance, lavish consumption, and moneymaking savoir faire allow individuals to exploit localized hierarchies and regimes of value. In this vein, Newell turns to postcolonial Africa as a site in which the fictions of modernity are revealed, yet nonetheless deployed to generate ‘real’ capital, goods, and social status. Far from being unwitting participants in a false consciousness of conspicuous consumption, nouchi youth manipulate a collective societal investment in modernity as bluff to gain financial resources and strengthen kin networks through fleeting displays of ceremonial excess. While Newell is attentive to critics who decry modernity as a contrived discourse placing “Europe…at the center and the rest of the world around it” (2012:253), his project differs in its efforts to demonstrate the manipulation of modernity and its fictions by those who reside on its supposed margins.

Newell focuses on a community of predominantly young, male cosmopolitan acolytes dubbed bluffeurs by their urban Ivorian compatriots. Channeling the musings of Walter Benjamin on the Parisian arcades (see Benjamin 2002), his aim is not to demystify the fetish of wealth and success that les bluffeurs uphold, but to indulge the fetish and apprehend its social significance. As he writes, “[T]he relationship between representation and reality is not easily divided; fictions and fabrications are (and always have been) social facts…the representation of the bluff, even the imagination of it, was an activity with real-world consequences” (Newell 2012:109). This analytic commitment to the bluff as social fact emerges in a series of chapters that detail the performances of les bluffeurs vis-à-vis language, economy, and fashion. The first chapter, “Enregistering Modernity, Bluffing Criminality,” charts the popularization of Nouchi dialect, an urban amalgamation of French, ethnic Ivorian languages, and U.S. popular culture influences, which provides a linguistic register of modernity distinct from the metropolitan French privileged by Ivorian elites. Situated outside the mores of Francophone colonial respectability, Nouchi’s elevation as an esteemed national product speaks to the coexistence of multiple vectors of modernity informed by colonial histories and cosmopolitan urban acumen alike, suggesting that modernity cannot be reduced to a prescribed relationship between the West and non-West, colonizer and colonized.

While these larger colonial histories perhaps too easily fall out of view, Newell describes the postcolonial Ivorian urban milieu in rich ethnographic detail. Chapter two enumerates the often illegal sources of income mobilized by les bluffeurs, including forgery, phone fraud, and extortion, while chapter four considers the ways in which urban Ivorian performances of modernity are inflected by branded objects that are themselves “incorporated into the hierarchical schematization of modernity, such that a Swatch was more evolved, more urban, more savvy than a nameless watch off the street” (Newell 2012:173). Rather than passive victims of modernity’s destructive profligacy, les bluffeurs emerge as beneficiaries and tacit critics of modernity, acutely aware both of the false veneer of progress it perpetuates and the creative potentials it entails.

Ultimately, Newell succeeds in his efforts to foreground the social actors involved in constructing and negotiating ‘modern’ discourses of progress and distinction. Yet his commitment to the creative potential of the bluff sometimes circumscribes a more substantive engagement with political economy, as well as with the tenacious colonial logics of modernization that les bluffeurs only partially upend. On this note, Newell issues the following provocation:

Is modernity an objective reality explained as the material differentiation of the world into haves and have-nots through the rise of a global capitalist world system, or is modernity a culturally specific explanation of global inequalities, one therefore subject to multiple incarnations and interpretations and whose existence is fundamentally indemonstrable because it is culturally relative? (2012:19)

While he rightfully avoids reifying an originary ‘real’ modernity against its counterfeit, mimetic counterparts, we propose that this question need not be formulated as an opposition. The uneven development of global capital and the perpetuation of social hierarchies by postcolonial elites are always coproduced with formulations of modernity like those posed by Newell’s interlocutors. Newell’s ethnography forces us to ask how anthropologists can chart the limits of the bluff without abandoning the liberatory potential it holds for its everyday practitioners.

New Masters, New Servants

In New Masters, New Servants (2008), Yan Hairong turns her attention to these limits as she investigates how young rural women have pursued ‘modern’ subjectivities in China’s post-reform ideological landscape. Writing based on fieldwork conducted between 1998 and 2000, Yan traces the rural-urban journeys of women, mostly from the interior province of Anhui, as they seek and obtain employment as domestic workers in well-to-do Beijing households. Like Newell, Yan conceives of modernity as an illusion which produces real-world effects; her term for this illusory quality is ‘mirage,’ in place of Newell’s ‘bluff.’ The illusion, for Yan, is that modernity can ever be obtained by an aspiring subject. Yan attends closely to the uneven social terrain produced through the articulation of particular ideologies and particular political-economic formations; and she finds that individuals attempting to maneuver towards modernity within this terrain can face insurmountable obstacles. In China’s case, the spatializing metaphors of ‘social terrain’ and ‘ideological landscape’ capture the immediate way in which a differentiated geographic landscape, composed of cities and countryside, forms the grounds for the ordering work of modernity.

Yan observes an ‘emaciated’ countryside during the time of her fieldwork: young people have flocked to the cities in search of opportunity, and little is left of the social vitality remembered from the collective era. Her younger interlocutors describe rural life as “inert and meaningless”: they find few opportunities for material advancement in the countryside, but more critically, they find no way to construct meaningful identities or hopeful futures there (2008:46).  Yan argues that this attitude should be understood “as a product of the discourse of modernity itself, which has redefined ‘peasant’ and rural life in both material and ideological aspects” (ibid).  The location of a shifting “ideological high ground”—the location of the modern within Chinese social terrain—is at issue throughout the text (2008:38). Yan suggests that these shifts can be understood partly through shifts in dominant state-centered narratives of modernity: while Maoist modernity privileged rural revolution, collective enterprise, and development through primary production, post-reform modernity privileges urban growth and an ethos of every-man-for-himself entrepreneurialism. But she also shows how particular narratives of modernity are (re)produced, internalized, rejected, and negotiated by ordinary people, who are mapped by others even as they map themselves within ideologically-saturated social terrain. Yan sketches the contours of this terrain in the second and third chapters of the book, demonstrating how it takes shape in and through the “chiasmic play of gender and class” (2008:107).

In the second chapter, Yan explores how “employers’ minds and migrants’ bodies are discursively aligned along the split between intellectual and manual work” (2008:79). In the 1980s and 1990s, national development was seen to require the mental contributions of educated classes. Manual labor, and specifically domestic labor within the home, was constituted as an improper burden for (urban) ‘intellectual workers.’ Rural migrant women, by contrast, were seen as ‘fit’ to take up the burden of domestic labor. Yan registers employers’ assessments of migrant domestic workers as being like “pile[s] of dead flesh,” ‘mere’ bodies (2008:96). Employers complain that newly-arrived women must be constantly ‘worked on’—educated, chastised, ‘conducted’—so that they will perform domestic tasks to the correct standard. From the perspective of employers, migrant women’s subjectivities are like “blank slate[s]” awaiting inscription (2008:92).

Yan expands these themes in the third chapter through a discussion of the important and slippery concept of suzhi, often translated as ‘quality,’ which has been used in the eugenicist discourse of state planned birth policies since the early 1980s. Initially, suzhi referred to ‘quality’ over ‘quantity,’ as parents were enjoined to invest more of their resources in raising fewer children; later the term came to signify certain deeply embodied traits, thought to be both cultivable and heritable. As Yan points out, suzhi is “most confidently stated in terms of a differential”; and differentials of suzhi are fundamentally pegged to differentials of development (2008:116). Yan argues that the legitimacy of the post-Mao regime rests on the promise of its developmental vision, in which ‘backward’ people and places will be brought into modernity through their participation in open markets for labor and commodities. Suzhi, like ‘value,’ is a vehicle for making the inherently diverse and specific—in this case, human subjectivity—commensurable. Under the logic of suzhi, the developmental lack of the countryside is reconstituted as a deficit of ‘qualities’ among rural people, who must then be taught to recognize their deficits and desire to fill them. The countryside’s material and ideological emaciation is wholly depoliticized, even as rural-to-urban migration is framed in pedagogical terms as a means for migrants to improve their levels of suzhi in the ‘school’ of the city.

Having set out these contours of the social terrain inhabited by rural migrant women, Yan uses the later chapters of the book to investigate how these women work against their ‘lack’ in metrics of the modern. Under the narrative of modernity at large in 1990s China, the ‘right’ kind of commodity consumption could mark a person as a valuable, cosmopolitan subject. But unlike les bluffeurs, migrant women are perpetually cast as “mimicking subjects-in-transition,” behind the curve of cultural knowledge and bodily habitus required to be of modernity and not simply in it (2008:147, 222-223).  Rather than the bluff described by Newell, in which the performance produces its own social reality, Yan describes a double-bind in which migrant women desire modernity but can never properly perform it. If they do attempt the bluff, their bluff is always called. No matter how perfectly they copy cosmopolitan styles, their efforts are belied by the ‘true’ reality of their classed identity as rural laborers. Only when returning to the more-backwards countryside do consuming migrant women appear as valuable tokens of modernity.

In scattered moments throughout the book, migrant women emerge as canny, resistant subjects: poaching small change from the grocery budget; taking shortcuts to keep their workload light; using native-place ties to band together against mistreatment by employers. But Yan is wary of the model of subaltern resistance put forth by James Scott; and for the most part, she describes her interlocutors as having more-or-less internalized dominant narratives of modernity and dominant understandings of (self-)development. They feel their ‘lack’ deeply: they strive for better footings in the uneven terrain marked out by modernity precisely because they feel excluded and marginalized in the cities and lost and lifeless in the countryside. Although Yan is careful to say that subjectivity is never simply the product of power relations, she shows that the combined effects of state-centered ideologies and unequal material relations of production can leave individuals powerfully constrained. The space of hope in the book, such as it is, is presented at the end of the final chapter through the words of Hua Min, a migrant worker and activist. Hua Min, who sees her own relative success as contingent and accidental, outlines what Yan terms a ‘politics of presence’: “We hao time, hao youth, and hao life in the city. It is like saying that unless there is a real change in living conditions in the countryside, we will not go back. We will stick around and hao in the city” (2008:246). Hao means ‘to deplete or use up,’ and Hua Min employs the word to call for “a tactical process of persistently producing a presence at the expense of self-depletion” (2008:247).

Now, more than a decade after Yan’s fieldwork, one is left to wonder how her interlocutors might respond to her grim conclusions. An updated critical ethnography of Chinese modernity might attend not only to new shifts in the ideological high ground, but to the quotidian strategies employed by rural residents and urbanites alike to make life more comfortable and dignified—even from a position of ostensible lack. Comparing Newell’s account of provocative, agentive bluffeurs with Yan’s less optimistic account of rural-urban migrants in China, a central question emerges about the degree to which historical and political context conditions the meaning of ‘modern’ agency.

Insurgent Citizenship

For James Holston, situated practices of modernity in Brazil must be understood through the juxtaposition of practices of city building against the history of democratic citizenship. In contrast to the pervasive pessimism of Yan’s ethnography, Holston finds liberatory potential in emergent social movements whose participants stake creative claim to political participation and ‘modern’ subjecthood.  In Insurgent Citizenship (2008), the central notion of ‘autoconstruction’ names a pair of intertwined processes of concerted creation: how people make the material ‘stuff’ of the city by building their own homes, and how they make themselves into rights-bearing citizens through this labor. Rooting his ethnography in the historical development of São Paulo’s urban periphery, Holston argues that working class participation in the production of urban spaces (through the physical construction of homes, roads, and infrastructure, and less directly through paying taxes and quotidian consumption) has engendered a novel, ‘insurgent’ form of citizenship. Holston describes a new class of urban Brazilians who, conscious of their active role in building the modern metropolis, economy, and nation, are using this participation as the basis for mobilizing the language of citizenship and rights to claim access to resources long-denied under the nation’s regime of ‘differentiated’—inclusive and inegalitarian—citizenship.

In the book’s first four chapters, Holston makes the historical case for understanding Brazilian citizenship as marked by grossly uneven access to material and political rights and benefits.  Citizenship rights and benefits were historically restricted to propertied classes, and property in land was historically produced through the conversion of illegally seized lots into legally recognized tenure. Holston situates the Brazilian case within the broader international history of citizenship, cautioning that the Brazilian form should not be read as a deficient copy of a North Atlantic ideal type, but as one among many particular, and sometimes contradictory, forms operative around the world. Through the legal lens of land tenure, Holston details the process by which access to property ownership and full political participation were systematically denied to the vast majority of the population, undermining their claims to residence and stymieing their ability to contest the way their land and rights to the city were classified. Illegality, here, both underpins and threatens modern legality.

In Holston’s rendering, the disjuncture between the rising ideal of political democracy and the actual experience and practices of social exclusion in cities provided the seed for later ‘insurgent’ contestations. Brazil’s rapid industrialization in the middle decades of the twentieth century encouraged mass migration from the countryside to the cities. Excluded from residence in city centers by prohibitively high rents, migrants poured into the ‘bush’ of the urban peripheries, where they built homes, roads, schools, shops, and other essential infrastructures of urban life with minimal assistance from the state. While the conditions under which the land was acquired were often legally murky, rates of homeownership in the peripheries were, and remain, extremely high—87% according to the 2000 census, well above the city’s 69.4% average (2008:184-185). Exclusion in the city’s center led to ownership in its hinterlands. In a legal system linking rights to property, this process prompted insurgent efforts to legalize uncertain or illegal land tenure arrangements, producing a massive class of urban citizens with a new basis for making claims on the state. The book’s later chapters detail the ways in which the citizens of São Paulo’s peripheries have articulated such claims, including their increasingly deft maneuverings over land ownership and legal standing.

The slippage here between making (the act Holston frames as the key to insurgent forms of citizenship) and owning (the legally valued and recognized basis of claims-making) is worth noting, and suggestive of the book’s most frustrating lacuna. While Holston argues that the ‘autoconstruction’ of the periphery is the key mechanism in the production of new forms of citizenship, the reader encounters little ethnographic evidence about the actual process of this city-building. As presented in the book, autoconstruction is always an achievement about-to-happen; or a time of hardship already completed and stored in memories. For a text that emphasizes the political significance of this form of labor (as distinct from the forms undertaken within a factory or firm), more detail about the particularities of the work of construction would have been welcome. Without descriptions of actual city-building, the reader develops a sense that it is people’s ideas of themselves as city builders (and as builders of the nation and the economy) that matter more than material acts of autoconstruction.

Holston takes great pains to emphasize the significance of the city in this particular moment of transformation; but more attention to everyday practices of living in the city might clarify what it is about cities, in particular, that fosters insurgent agitations for citizenship. In some ways, it seems to boil down to the material condition of urban density – cities are unique because they bring dissimilar persons into close proximity. City crowds:

[C]atalyze these new combinations into the active ingredients of political movements that develop new sources of rights and agendas of citizenship concerning the very conditions of city life. The chemistry in turn transforms the meanings and practices of national belonging. (Holston 2008:23)

While such claims may be plausible, they certainly leave open the question of why crowded cities in other contexts failed to produce such catalytic chemistries of insurgency—or what is different here from earlier cases of urban revolt. Unlike Yan’s case in China (where the ideal of liberal democracy and the power of the vote does not play a similar role), Holston’s evidence suggests the key difference may lie in how São Paulo residents can claim standing: they anchor their claims to rights in the possession of private property, rather than within a moral economy framework. When set against other contexts, where the link between property rights and citizenship rights are less clearly defined, it becomes difficult to assume that the power of insurgent citizenship is only tied to certain properties associated with ‘the urban.’ In exceedingly urban Chinese (or Vietnamese, or Cambodian) contexts, the insurgent citizenship Holston describes is often met not by political integration but by forced eviction (see Harms 2012, 2013; Springer 2010; Zhang 2001).

Ethnographic specificity shows that ‘insurgent’ citizenship is not always emancipatory. Holston himself notes that other movements fitting the category of insurgent citizenships—the National Socialist party, for example—are hardly obvious improvements of the status quo. Yet Holston’s close attention to the Brazilian case of autoconstruction itself precludes him from fully developing his prescient observation that “the dominant historical formulations of citizenship both produce and limit possible counterformulations” (2008:4). He focuses primarily on the just and inclusive futures that the new forms of citizenship are opening up rather than on the politics of exclusion and violence they quietly usher in. The fate of those without the resources to claim the benefits of citizenship through autoconstruction is the most obvious and pressing issue here. While Holston attunes us to the contingencies and potentials opened up by claims to ‘modern’ citizenship which seemingly work against the grain of established power relations, attention to the ways this mode of claims-making may (re)produce and exacerbate political and material inequalities also seems crucial to an adequate anthropology of these processes. Any anthropology of modernity must therefore embrace ethnographic specificity while also working to place such specificity in a wider comparative context.

Exceptional Violence

Like Holston, Deborah Thomas mobilizes an anthropological consideration of citizenship, writing on the analogous yet distinct context of post-independence Jamaica. In Exceptional Violence (2011), she traverses seamlessly across conjunctural moments—from the plantation society of eighteenth-century Jamaica to the state-initiated Coral Gardens Massacre of Rastafarians in 1963 and the extradition of Christopher “Dudus” Coke on charges of arms and drug trafficking in 2010. Through an historical genealogy and rich ethnographic vignettes, Thomas argues convincingly against ‘culturalist’ explanations of violence as an endemic and ahistorical feature of postcolonial Jamaica. Instead, she situates ‘Jamaican’ violence within the longue durée of Western modernity, a project she argues is founded upon, rather than in spite of, circuits of violence (see also Silverblatt 2004).  This is not an unfamiliar argument, but one notably presaged by Karl Marx’s indictment of the “brute force…[of] the colonial system” (Marx 1990:915); as well as Hannah Arendt’s effort to locate the origins of totalitarianism in the “race-thinking” of imperial expansionism (1951). Exceptional Violence, though, is centrally concerned with forms of social performance and political participation that emerge in the wake of imperial formations and decolonial struggles. Thomas attends to these concerns most directly in the monograph’s second, third, and fourth chapters.

In the second chapter, Thomas constructs a critical genealogy of social-scientific approaches to the African Diaspora, tracing the discourse of a Jamaican ‘culture of violence’ to the infamous ‘culture of poverty’ thesis, which champions the nuclear family as a precondition for citizenship. Thomas reminds us that modern citizenship must be understood in light of enduring racial hierarchies and normative practices of gender and sexuality that are products of particular histories. The third chapter mines recent historiography of colonial Jamaica and scours the lyrical musings of reggae and dancehall artists to explode conceptions of twentieth century political violence as a phenomenon without historical precedent. Thomas notes instead the ways in which colonial structures were founded in “repertoires of spectacular violence” (Thomas 2011:89) that were later deployed in service of postcolonial state formation. By enumerating structural continuities from the colonial period, Thomas condemns misguided social-scientific diagnoses of violence in post-independence Jamaica for their deliberate neglect of a popular memory that identifies substantive linkages between the brutality of plantation society and the factional violence of contemporary Jamaica. In her attention to the ‘folk,’ Thomas indicates that anthropologists may attend more substantively to the critical genealogies of modernity put forth by ‘vernacular intellectuals’ who deliberately engage art as a means of social commentary and criticism (see Farred 2003).

In the fourth chapter, Thomas turns to circuits of Jamaican migration to Europe and North America, reading literary and filmic representations of a ‘transnational Jamaica’ against creole nationalist anxieties surrounding cultural heritage, colonial gendered mores, and sexual respectability in the Caribbean postcolony. Thomas ultimately regards the anxieties induced by migration as generative of new, deterritorialized practices of citizenship, but cautions against a celebratory register that fails to question the ways in which such ‘flexible’ citizens are constrained by hierarchies of racialized, gendered, and sexual oppression (see Ong 1999). In other words, alongside efforts to advance a global, cosmopolitan vision of citizenship, we must contend with the structures of exclusion that they inevitably perpetuate.

Per Frantz Fanon, Thomas sees violence as at once destructive and productive, leading to the exclusion of particular bodies from the rights and privileges accorded by citizenship while nonetheless generating new avenues of political possibility (see Fanon 2005). Thomas details the ways in which patterns of violence accompanying the partial retreat of the state as an executor of rights and social privileges have afforded greater autonomy to working-class Jamaicans, emboldening challenges to codes of colonial respectability. Neoliberalism, as it unsettles the sovereignty of the postcolonial state, also “opens the potential for citizenship to be defined in less patriarchal and heteronormative terms,” (Thomas 2011:237) indicating the potential for new forms of collective mobilization that strategically marshal, but are not centered in, the nation-state as an instrument of political authority.

In this way, Thomas highlights popular understandings of citizenship that include, but extend beyond, formal membership within the nation-state and the constitutional rights it accords. Instead, she proposes a more diffuse, ‘embodied’ orientation that encompasses a broad range of performances and practices deployed in quotidian appeals to state and non-state bodies. This account foregrounds practices of citizenship – that is, practices of claiming and forging political belonging – that exceed or circumvent the formal, national political arena. What distinguishes Thomas’s analysis from the work of fellow anthropological theorists of neoliberalism such as Aihwa Ong (2006) and James Ferguson (2006) is an acute historical sensibility that does not cast such practices of citizenship as newly emergent, or elide the violence underpinning modern state formations and their attendant forms of political participation. Rather than approaching citizenship as an ideal-typical relationship between state and commonwealth, Thomas crafts an understanding of citizenship as a contingent social practice forged at the juncture of political discourse—that of constitutional law and international human rights, for example—and popular mobilization.

This comes to light in later chapters, where Thomas enlists a more familiar register of ethnographic analysis. In the fifth chapter, “Resurrected Bodies,” Thomas revisits the Coral Gardens incident of 1963 in which Rastafarians across the island were detained and harassed by Jamaican state officials, and describes attempts by contemporary Rastafarian communities to enliven a collective memory of the incident to make claims on the state and international bodies. Most intriguing are the documented efforts by Rastafarians to be regarded as an indigenous population, permitting access to development initiatives of the European Union, for instance, and circumventing the traditional state apparatus. As Thomas observes, these efforts unsettle a conventional definition of indigeneity, as African-descended Rastafari practitioners “draw attention to a history of disenfranchisement” (2011:213) rather than a history of residence within a particular territory. It is with this in mind that Thomas poses a framework of ‘reparations’ as an alternative to ‘development.’  Reparations, understood to be “not just about quantification of redress for past wrongs,” but as an imperative to destabilize presupposed distinctions between ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped,’ ‘First World’ and ‘Third World,’ ‘global north’ and ‘global south’ (Thomas 2011:6), obliges us to scrutinize the histories we inherit and inhabit. In the first chapter of the book, for example, the author recounts the loss of a close friend and interlocutor to gun violence in the small community outside of Kingston where she conducted field research. By paying heed to the marginalized ‘bodies’ that both seek the rights and benefits of modernity and suffer its most tragic consequences, Thomas’ analytic of reparations demands that we hold historical legacies of colonial violence and everyday strivings for access to capital, resources, and social protections in productive tension.

Exceptional Violence suggests that the promises afforded by modernity—the ideals of citizenship, sovereignty, and freedom—require not the supersession of the past, but a measured deliberation on historical regimes of violence and oppression that structure the livelihoods and political futures of people at the peripheries of neoliberal capital. This approach supplies anthropologists with a newly expansive frame for apprehending the hydra-headed production commonly understood as modernity. Thus, Thomas’ framework attends to what might be termed the historical-structural dimension of modernity, demanding reparations for a teleological meta-narrative that locates Europe constitutively ahead of its subalterns in the forward march of progress. While scholars might provocatively demand a “nonmodern constitution” (Latour 1993) and “alternatives to modernity” (Mignolo 2011), reparations demand that we deconstruct this meta-narrative without allowing quotidian engagements with state, multinational, and development regimes to be simply dismissed without consequence. Nuancing the critique of development posed by Arturo Escobar, who pointedly identifies the quagmire of development as an “order of knowledge and discourse about the Third World” as the laggard of civilization (1995:11), Thomas posits reparations as a means of unsettling an extant order of things while appreciating the means through which this order is occupied and transformed by everyday actors. A notion of reparations highlights the importance of tracing the historical career of Western-centered narratives and structures associated with modernity – as forged through diffuse, contingent, and eminently local contestations.

Ethnographies of the Self in Modernity

The specifically anthropological contributions offered by Thomas, Holston, Yan and Newell can be found in the vocabulary and methodological models they provide for thinking through the phenomenological dimension of modernity. They are interested in the ways people position themselves in modernity, as modern subjects. Notions of constructing, imagining, bluffing and performing are presented in all of the accounts reviewed here as processes undertaken by agentive actors. Such parallels draw to mind Gaonkar’s observation of the “elusive and fragmentary band of similarities that surface” (2001: 23) between theories of modernity, despite their divergences. Identities and positions within the social fabric are not simply received, but built through diverse forms of labor and imagination such as those associated with autoconstruction, suzhi/quality, embodied citizenship and the bluff. The recurrent ethnographic elaboration of such conscious forms of self-making underlines the importance of self-perception for both the project of modernity and an anthropology truly adequate to it.

One of the most important contributions anthropology offers to the study of modernity has been a move in recent decades to ‘anthropologize the West’ by revealing enlightenment universalism as an outgrowth of a provincial, European-centered history (Rabinow 1986:241; see also Deleuze & Guattari 1987; Foucault 1984). New literature demands a substantive meditation on peoples located outside the West’s prescriptive borders as they concurrently adopt and disavow discourses of modernity. To this end, while Bruno Latour is correct to assert that we have never been modern in any totalizing sense of the term, we nonetheless encounter a world in which human actors consistently evoke the idea of modernity at opportune moments, when the language of rights, citizenship, and democracy, for instance, provides timely avenues of political possibility. Understanding modernity as a partial and differentiated hegemon, rather than a closed system, opens new space for an anthropology of modernity to chart moments in which the bluff, the mirage, or perhaps even the fetish surface as weapons for the weak (Scott 1985) – even as modernity itself thrives on processes of dispossession. The logic of deploying the language of ‘regimes’ in relation to modernity here becomes clear. As Appadurai argued of the commodity, the key move is to attend to the concept as a “thin[g] in a certain situation” (1986: 13), its meanings and uses never neatly pre-determined by a single evolutionary narrative.

Keeping in mind the intuitions offered by these and earlier authors, we propose an anthropological approach to modernity that keeps historicity and contemporaneity simultaneously in view. Following Latour, we can argue that the concept of modernity is itself produced through the exclusion and purification of particular others—the past, tradition, superstition, backwardness.  Simply put, modernity is never an absolute condition or quality, but exists in relation, against its others, as they are defined at given historical junctures. A critical anthropology of modernity requires scholars to take seriously the ways that people comprehend and act upon this relation as it stands, in dynamic tension, at the present moment.  At the same time, scholars must attend to the historical genealogies of the diverse elements recruited to, or excluded from, modernity. Paying heed to the uneasy valorization of the rural hinterland under Maoist rule in China (Siu 1989, Chan et al. 1984, Freidman et al. 1991), the outlawing of ceremonial masks and religious fetishes by the ‘demystification’ programs of Sekou Touré’s socialist regime in Guinea (McGovern 2013), and the consolidation of a totalitarian Haitian state under the banner of a populist noirisme advanced by François Duvalier (Trouillot 1990), it is apparent that modernity embraces a variety of forms and can be deployed toward dissimilar, and often contradictory ends. But tracing the constitution of its outcasts requires further attention to the specific objects and elements that are valorized or subdued. While acknowledging the modes of alterity it necessarily produces, modernity has emerged as a useful register for peoples of varied racialized, classed, gendered, and sexual identities across disparate global geographies. Yet, the question remains: For whom, and in what capacity, does modernity provide an avenue of economic viability and political claims-making? For instance, urbanity continues to be stably associated with modernity by anthropologists, as evinced by the four ethnographies under review, despite perpetual shifts in relations between city and countryside under particular regimes of the modern. If occupants of global cities are especially equipped and willing to consort with the rhetoric and institutions of modernity, what does this suggest about the nature of political possibility in the contemporary moment? And to what, if not the promises of urban cosmopolitanism, are our collective futures tied?

In our reading, anthropological considerations of modernity too often devolve into static debates over what modernity is—either a singular or plural structure, an injurious discourse of colonial difference or a liberatory actualization of the self. As we have established in this review, recent works in anthropology point to another position, which attends to the histories of modernity and the making of modern livelihoods through eclectic and non-teleological methods of research and analysis. An anthropological toolkit for this century must include archival, textual, and literary modes of analysis. Tracing the genealogies of particular modernities will require Youtube viewing and blog reading as well as the parsing of manuscripts, objects, and images made before colonial contact.  Most of all, it will require a keen sensitivity to threads of human connection running across space and time. It is ultimately an ethnographic sensibility – with its stakes firmly in the struggles of the present – that enables anthropologists to challenge universalizing theoretical models. Taking equal account of the historical legacies and present social lives of modernity, ethnographic research uniquely permits a sincere engagement with both its quotidian uses and structural dimensions.



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