David Shulman on Asia’s Autonomous Discovery of Modernity

In his review (‘The Revenge of the East, New York Review of Books, October 11, 2012) of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  David Shulman provides an interesting disputation of Mishra’s claim that Asia’s–as yet incomplete and flawed–encounter with modernity began via and through a series of interactions with the West and its intellectual and technical products. Taking as his starting point, Mishra’s claim in his epilogue, of an “an ambiguous revenge,” one suggested by the “the rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, [which] consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.” This success is “ambiguous” because it,

[C]onceals an immense intellectual failure…. No convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though those seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

Shulman rightly asks,

But why should we aspire to a universalist response? Something is wrong in the way the problem is formulated. Perhaps something interesting can be retrieved from intellectual failure after all.

One might begin by setting back the date of Asian modernizing in general and by distinguishing various meanings of the word “modern.” As Velcheru Narayana Rao has eloquently shown for southern India, a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century. It had nothing whatever to do with Western influence or the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Highly original thinkers and poets, writing in all the languages of the south, discovered, or invented, a series of interlocking notions that together comprise a novel anthropology.

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.

Shulman’s counterpoint is interesting for several reasons. First, it provides a refreshingly different historical perspective on our standard narratives of the Modern West modernizing the Not So Modern East. Second, on a personal note, it did so by introducing me, an Indian ignorant of the work of Rao and of South Asian studies in general, to Indian scholarship that by focusing its investigative lens on South India, took me outside conventional North Indian understandings of India. Third, it rightly disdains the need for a ‘universalist response’ – why not highly particularized ones? Lastly, and most importantly, in the last paragraph quoted above, Shulman provides a set of distinctive attributes of ‘modern.’  Some of these are familiar, yet others provide us a richly textured and articulated conception of a term often-used, but very rarely fully understood.

Note: It has become all too common for me to write little promissory notes on this blog where I indicate my intention to return to explore a theme touched on only briefly in a post. I will have to do so again today: at some point in the future, I will attempt to explore Shulman’s conception of  ‘modern.’

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