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Under the Occasional Lecture Series Program, the Centre for Contemporary Theory organized a panel discussion on "What Does Modernity Mean to Us?" on Friday, February 1, 2008. The panelists were Prafulla C. Kar, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Theory and Bed P. Giri, Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. The discussion was moderated by Lajwanti Chatani, Convener of the Forum on Contemporary Theory.
Introducing the theme, Lajwanti Chatani raised the puzzling question of how we understand modernity, positing that it carries multifarious characteristics and points of reference, which in turn suggests the presence of "multiple modernities" in contrast with the thesis of a singular universal modernity.
In his presentation on what modernity means to us, Bed Giri sought to unravel the underlying meanings of the terms in the question itself, namely “modernity”, “meaning”, and “us”. According to Giri, when discussing the idea of modernity we cannot escape the hermeneutics of modernity and the meaning of us. While uncovering the meaning of the term modernity, Giri focused on three important aspects. First, is the historical aspect which Giri employed to trace the roots of the idea of the modern. The idea of the modern here, he suggested, was not just a fact but more a value, which emerges through story-telling and/or narrative approaches. Second, is the contextual aspect which locates modernity in the history of ideas and practices such as feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the revolutions. Through this reading, modernity appears clearly different as well as in some ways a continuation of these ideas and practices. And third is the conceptual aspect, from which modernity can be understood in terms of progress and improvement, a better state of affairs achieved though reflexivity and the primacy of reason and knowledge. Yet, according to Giri, modernity contains a darker, parochial, oppressive and violent dimension which is reflected in the ambiguous nature of notions such as secularism and the death of God. Here modernity, Giri feels, can be characterized in terms of “the opium of the intellectuals”. Reflecting on the meaning of meaning, Giri referred to Max Weber's concerns with modernity as resulting in the loss of meaning and of epistemological importance, mainly because of its mechanical character. Finally, teasing out the category of "us", Giri suggested that this term is fundamentally couched in the politics of identity, a politics that has come to dominate the mainstream discourse of modernity. Having uncovered the meanings of these different terms, Giri commented on South Asia's tryst with modernity wherein modernity is essentially a part and product of the process of colonization as well as a condition of self-generation and reform.
In his presentation, Prafulla Kar attempted to explore the conceptual and contextual basis of modernity. According to him, the issue and idea of modernity is profoundly relevant to us mainly because of it being implicated by its "western" meanings. Kar suggested that modernity to us is in many ways a result and an expression of the aesthetic longing of an order, a disciplining process, in the midst of a chaotic world. Modernity, in this way, he felt, had demonstrated the superiority assertion of western cultures over other cultures of the world. Kar, in his presentation, dealt with different dimensions of modernity and with many of its exponents such as Descartes, Newton and Kant. Underscoring its exclusionary bias, he pointed at its underlying claim of "white is right," where modernity is seen to reside in the realm of a superfluous transparency syndrome, which in turn serves to justify colonialism as being altruistic. For Kar, it is imperative for us to look critically at modernity's acts of the exclusion of others, which exemplifies its darker side. Criticizing the universal and scientific justifications of modernity, Kar argued that there is and can be no Archimedean Point or "neutral" ground from which we can understand modernity. Interestingly, Kar saw modernity to have generated its own oppositions, such as the right to agency through which we can choose not to be modern – for example, the Gandhian opposition to modern forms of mechanical progress and mercantilism. He commented on what he sees to be the “self-induced immaturity" of modernity, which necessitates its openness.
The discussion which followed sought to engage with such questions as: can we escape modernity? Is there a choice and space to decolonize one's mind? How can we explain and understand the justification for modernity? And if modernity does contain a dark side how do we legitimize its opposition and denunciation of tradition?
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