Conceptualising Modernity – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Conceptualising Modernity – An Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Collaborative Research Center 923, University of Tübingen, Germany; Chair of Modern History, University of Mannheim, Germany
hybrid (Tübingen)
Vom - Bis
09.12.2021 - 10.12.2021
Naomi Niemann / Lars Urbanski, Lehrstuhl für Neuere und Neueste Geschichte, Universität Mannheim;

Historians have recently debated the concept of modernity extensively. The main sources of criticism were underlying normative assumptions, which can be traced back to remnants of modernization theory. A critical reflection of the concept of modernity from chronological, temporal, and spatial perspectives was the main impetus for this conference organized by ALMUTH EBKE (Mannheim) and CHRISTOPH HAACK (Tübingen): Do we require modernity? Using a cross-epochal and interdisciplinary approach, “Conceptualising Modernity” brought together academics from history and sociology to discuss modernity as an object of research as well as to sound out its analytical value for historiography today.

JULIA ANGSTER (Mannheim) and FERNANDO ESPOSITO (Konstanz) both emphasized the significance of Reinhard Koselleck’s “Sattelzeit” for the concept of modernity. The imagined entity of the Pre-Modern, according to Angster, provides insight into the notions, self-interpretation, and world view of Western scholars between 1950 and 1980. By declaring that certain countries were “not-yet” or “behind”, modernization theory created a spatial as well as temporal difference thus “othered” the Western past and the non-West.

In his paper, Esposito examined at the temporalization and historicization of modernity by understanding Koselleck’s theory of historicization as an act of chronopolitics. He contended that Koselleck intended to "debunk an unhistorical understanding of history" as historicism since Koselleck considered historicism and modernity to be non-historicist. By proposing a meta-history that “reflected upon the conditions of possible histories”, Koselleck envisioned an alternative mode of thinking history, and, as a result, softened the “polemic” boundaries of periodization and modernity.

In his comment, WOLFGANG KNÖBL (Hamburg) criticized Koselleck’s semantic approach and suggested using more diverse criteria than language. He stressed the significance of distinguishing between linguistic and realistic representation. For Knöbl, modernity became an ending point of these long processes and thereby a fixed point from which historians and sociologists investigate the past. Following that, he raised several questions, including how we comprehend long historical processes, how much philosophy of history remains in these terms, and if the concept of modernity was a burden rather than of a useful tool.

In his keynote, DIPESH CHAKRABARTY (Chicago) noted the preponderance of older traditions of thought in the historical sciences: The realization that man-made climate change and man-made technologies are changing the planet makes clear how older narratives such as the concept of modernity are insufficient to capture the recent phenomena of ‘globalization’ and global warming. In contrast, the Anthropocene as the new planetary age, due to its comprehensive nature, requires decentering humans to account for their impact on the planet.

In panel 2, HANS HUMMER (Detroit) outlined the concept of kinship as “an artifact of the modern world”. In the 1860s, four lawyers and one historian discovered ‘kinship’ as a result of the ‘cultural wars over the French Revolution' and as a way to differentiate stages of human evolution shaped by European imperialism and encounters with indigenous peoples. Kinship became a symbol of the primitive in opposition to the modern, industrialized contract society, displaying an evolutionary and possibly final stage in the evolution of humanity.

By tracing the reflections on nomadism in an elitist intellectual discourse, SINA STEGLICH (London) showed how mobility and the nation-state are key concepts of modernity. Since nomadism eludes the common assumptions connected with the nation-state and represented a specific form of mobility, it was considered as “a-modern”. However, as Steglich showed, when the “progressive era of the territorial ideal of power and settled people” ended, the ‘homo nomadicus’ was embraced as “a role model of a vivid and vitalistic, dynamic, and individualistic lifestyle” in postmodern thought.

Even though the two talks of Panel 2 shed light on different periods, respectively the 1860s and 1970s, they both focused on intellectual and conceptual history while drawing in political and social aspects, as PETER WAGNER (Barcelona) remarked in his comment. Regarding kinship and nomadism as the “other” of modernity, both topics offered insights by focusing on concepts of modernity. However, Wagner also raised the question of how to treat historicity and conceptuality when dealing with modernity.

In her keynote, LYNN HUNT (Los Angeles) dealt with the relationship between modernity and the future by considering the fundamental changes in the perception of time and human dignity during the French Revolution. Following Carola Dietzsche, Hunt pleaded for an “anthropology without ruptures” by looking at the establishment of human dignity and the new meaning of human rights. Following Dipesh Chakrabarty, Hunt suggested taking apart the meta-narrative of modernity through provincializing its main tenets. Thus, losing its notion of western superiority, the concept of modernity allows the analysis of other research areas, such as globalization, democratization, empire, and nation-building, without the burden of modernity. In summary, Hunt concluded that it is possible to give up modernity without losing all its constituent elements and the positive notions of modernization, especially the conviction that the future can be shaped for the better.

Based on the apocryphal Vita of Adam and Eve, BEATRICE VON LÜPKE (Vienna) pursued the question to what extent the disappearance of a literary tradition at the transition between the Middle Ages and the early modern period refers to a caesura between pre-modernity and modernity. Since the medieval and early modern sources do show constant change but do not prove a sharp epochal separation, von Lüpke advocated that ‘modernity’ is unsuitable as an epoch designation. Following Hans-Robert Jauss, she argued that ‘modern’ could be a useful category understood as a counter term for ‘time-less’.

SITA STECKEL (Münster) pleaded for an interdisciplinary approach that is not shaped by the limitations of a prevailing secularization-modernization paradigm. History of religion could “generate historical descriptions of transformative periods in history” on a solid source basis without falling prey to a modernization- and secularization-theoretically induced telos. Assuming that religions were always pluralized and differentiated, Steckel emphasized continuities instead of a constructed opposition between pre-modern and modern religion. Looking at religion in this way can be fruitful for the analysis of today’s religious tensions.

The speakers of this panel affirmed the need to develop new narratives regarding the history of medieval and modern religion. STEFFEN PATZOLD (Tübingen) asked in his commentary where the caesuras were located. Although the solution remains to be found, it lies, as the discussion showed, in the interdisciplinarity of subsequent approaches. However, the danger of continuing to use normative concepts for historical research should not be disregarded. Patzold and Steckel stressed the need for critical reflection and distance from the sources to consider the ‘gap’ between our own ‘Sehepunkt’ and the frames of our work, i.e., the existent historiography.

By assuming multiple temporalities within the cultural experience of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Europe, JULIAN WRIGHT (Newcastle) argued to fundamentally reanalyze the concepts of modern time. The search for a human present could lead to a “richer, pluralistic understanding of modernity, its ruptures, and inconsistencies” and could function as a more authentic aspect of time of the nineteenth century. Considering the personal and private perspectives and thus dislocating and decentering the normative ideas of modernity, Wright aimed to position humane endurance, maintenance, relationship building, and psychological health within modern experiences.

ANJA RATHMANN-LUTZ (Basel) outlined how the field of modernity research had its provenance in medieval research. Addressing the question of the “Modern Middle Ages” or a “medieval Modernity”, she pointed out the challenges of hindsight or belatedness that are inherent in these concepts. She made clear that medieval research would not exist without the concept of modernity and the periodization based on it since the Middle Ages served as an object of alterity. By analyzing multiple layers of past, present, and futures, Rathmann-Lutz argued that the engagement with questions of time and temporality furnished the discipline with an opportunity to think anew about the ways we write history, temporal regimes, and periodization, and the nature of history itself.

Against the background of the various concepts of time that come into play when considering modernity, ACHIM LANDWEHR (Düsseldorf) added the aspect of the circularity of modernity, as pre-modernity continues to modernize until it reaches the criteria of modernity. Instead of trying to abolish it, however, Landwehr argued that it is necessary to read modernity as one of several narratives and to counteract its central position in the specialized discourse. This had to be done by ‘provincializing’ time and questioning the place of modernity.

In the final discussion, Haack and Ebke followed up on the discussion about historical periodization. Ebke raised the issue of translation: does the concept of modernity have the same meaning as “Moderne” or “modernité”, or hide different conceptual traditions behind these terms? As Knöbl noted, not even sociology was unanimous in its use of the term resulting in a discussion whether only certain parts of modernization theory could be useful for research. MARTIN DEUERLEIN (Tübingen) also remarked that the move away from ‘chronocentrism’ was touching upon constitutive assumptions of the discipline. Even though these and other questions had to remain open, the participants agreed on the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue in order not to let the common critical thinking break off.

Conference overview:

Almuth Ebke (Mannheim) and Christoph Haack (Tübingen): Welcome and Introduction

Panel I: Historicising historicism: writing the history of the modern
Chair: Martin Deuerlein (Tübingen)

Julia Angster (Mannheim): “Sattelzeit”: The invention of “Pre-Modern History” in the 1970s

Fernando Esposito (Konstanz): Coming to terms with modernity by historicising historicism

Comment: Wolfgang Knöbl (Hamburg)

Keynote I:

Almuth Ebke (Mannheim): Introduction and Chair

Dipesh Chakrabarty (Chicago): The Anthropocene and the ends of modernity.

Panel II: Key concepts of modernity
Chair: Ewald Frie (Tübingen)

Sina Steglich (London): Modern, postmodern, nomadic? Notions of nomadism in modernity Hans Hummer (Detroit): Kinship and modernity

Comment: Peter Wagner (Barcelona)

Keynote II:

Lynn Hunt (Los Angeles): Modernity and the future: Can we have one without the other?

Introduction and Chair: Christoph Haack (Tübingen)

Panel III: Religion, secularity, and the modern
Chair: Thomas Kohl (Tübingen)

Beatrice von Lüpke (Vienna): Coming to terms with the modern world: Continuations of the story of the fall of man in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

Sita Steckel (Münster): Modernisation/secularisation theories and Medieval Studies: Aspects of their entangled history

Comment: Steffen Patzold (Tübingen)

Panel IV: Time and the modern
Chair: Christina Brauner (Tübingen)

Julian Wright (Newcastle): The challenges of modern times and the search for a human present

Anja Rathmann-Lutz (Basel): ‘I’m already here (Ik bün all hier)’: Modern pre-modernity or premodern modernity

Comment: Achim Landwehr (Düsseldorf)

Final Discussion
Christoph Haack and Almuth Ebke: Input