April 12-14, 2012

The annals of European social thought are replete with accounts of modernity and its defining characteristics. For some, modernity begins with the rise of the capitalist world-system and its colonial forays into Africa, Asia, and the Americas. For others, it originates in the rise of biopolitics or the construction of the secular state. But whatever its key features, it's clear that the modernity to which Europe gave rise has now gone global--no longer the sole domain of the relatively few societies in the far western reaches of Eurasia, "modernity" defines the life of the world at large.

To say that modernity has been globalized, however, is not to say that modernity has in each instance been globalized in the same way. Across the globe, what passes for tradition often seems to live alongside the modern, and forms of religiosity and other cultural practices deemed primitive by the champions of modernity exist along with the forms of production and exchange said to leave all that behind. Many are quick to suggest that this is, in one way or another, a failure of modernity as it appears in these sites, but an important vein of contemporary social theory often suggests otherwise. Rather than failures of the modernizing impulse, these diverse practices are best understood as signs of something else, namely alternative modernities and the complex dynamics of cultural and social modernization implied therein.

This seminar tries to examine the fraught terrain of alternative modernities, exploring, across the humanities and social sciences, the ways in which European modernity has given rise to its others and the promises and pitfalls of the perspective this concept tries to bring into being. It asks first about the origins of the idea and the uses to which it has been put: How can we trace a critical genealogy of the notion of "alternative modernities"? In what sites does it originate? And in relation to what problems does it develop? Second, the seminar considers the ways it has shed light--or, in some instances, failed to shed light--on the study of capitalism in China, on the historiography of Afro-Caribbean cultures, and on the problem of modernity and modernization in Africa. What does “modernity” mean in contemporary China? What defines the modernity of the Afro-Caribbean world? What can the problem of technology transfer and diffusion tell us about the dynamics of modernity and modernization in West Africa? And third, it tries to examine how and why literature has served as an important venue for the elaboration of alternative modernities around the world. What has literature meant to the understanding of modernity in China, India and Latin America? In what way do literary accounts of modernity in these sites alter or inflect what we understand the modernity of social theory to be?

In recent years, the idea of alternative modernities has become ubiquitous in the humanities and social sciences, and for good reason. Conceptually, it tries to come to terms with a whole series of phenomena that, dealt with through the lens of unreconstructed social theory, are easily distorted. And ethically, it insists on the coevalness of European modernity with those iterations of modernity too often dismissed as backward, primitive or irrational. The very popularity of the concept, however, has too often led to uncritical or simply distorted applications of it. Our seminar hopes to re-examine the concept in order to bring its pitfalls and promises into view and thus to make better use of it in scholarship and teaching alike.

Speakers will include Jennifer Cole (Anthropology), Dilip Gaonkar (Rhetoric, Northwestern), Rochona Majumdar (South Asian Languages and Civilizations), Emily Osborn (History), Stephan Palmié (Anthropology), and others.


  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Two Histories of Capital” from Provincializing Europe (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), 47-71. [Download]
    • An account of the relationship between capital and historical difference in the theory of alternative modernities.
  • James Ferguson, “Decomposing Modernity” from Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham: Duke UP, 2006), 176-193.[Download]
    • A critique of the alternative modernities thesis from an anthropologist working in Africa.
  • Fredric Jameson, “Preface: Regressions of the Current Age,” from A Singular Modernity: Essays on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002), 1-14.[Download]
    • A rejection of the idea of “alternative modernities” in favor a singular account of modernity linked to the development of global capitalism.
  • Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity” from Alternative Modernities, ed. Dilip Gaonkar (Duke: Duke UP, 2001), 172-196.[Download]
    • An explanation of the difference between “cultural modernity” and “acultural modernity,” and of the importance of this difference for work in history and the social sciences.

Specific to Stephan Palmié’s presentation

  • Stephan Palmie, “Introduction,” from Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham: Duke UP, 2002), 39-78.[Download]

Audio Recordings

  • Dilip Gaonkar: Rhetoric and Public Culture [Download]
  • Emily Osborn: History [Download]
  • Judith Farquhar: Anthroplogy [Download]
  • Report on Discussion Groups: Friday April 13th, 2012 [Download]
  • Stephan Palmie: Anthropology [Download]