“What is the unrepresented past within our present?”, we are prompted to ask, and how does addressing that affect our understandings of the modern world and who we are as its legitimate citizens?
Video of lecture:Misunderstanding Modernity: The Social Scientific Neglect of Colonialism
Gurminder K. Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at Sussex, and the gold medalist of a personal rating I called “who can improve my worldview in under an hour?”. Her lecture marked the beginning of the ‘Decolonising Development’ Sussex Development Lecture series, tackling the issue of ethnocentrism in the very construction of the idea of modernity.
When social scientists think about modernity they invariably hold two assumptions: that it implies a clear break between a traditional agricultural past and an industrial future, and that this temporal break is spatially located, originating in the West and spreading to the rest. These assumptions are foundational in the way we are taught about the three main pillars of modernity: The Renaissance, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These events are portrayed as purely “endo-European, originating in Europe as a consequence of the actions of Europeans” Bhambra argues.
Narratives such as these weigh heavily on our minds; as Bhambra goes on to say, central to feeling modern is the sense that there is “new knowledge in the world that hasn’t existed previously”, which brings about a paradigm shift that creates a clear rupture from the past. To have a discursive monopoly over the creation of novelty in the world gives Western Europe such power that we don’t really stop and question whether the rest of the world really was just passively waiting to be “injected” with innovation. And indeed they were not.
That evening I found out that the supposedly lost texts discovered in the Renaissance were still being circulated in the Islamic world and brought back to Europe by trade, that the amendment abolishing slavery in the “Rights of Man and Citizen” was co-constituted by a delegation of Haitian revolutionaries and not least, that the English cotton mills were replicating Indian weaving and processing techniques using cotton grown in the colonies. Bhambra turns the game around arguing that it is not modernisation (and specifically industrialisation) that lead to globalisation, but globalisation which allowed modernisation to happen.
The Westerners in question make me think of toddlers with no sense of object permanence: if something isn’t in my face, surely it must not exist. However, we must not think that Bhambra is asking us to consider “other” histories just for the sake of cultural relativity and the observation of difference, or in her own words “it’s not enough to add native stir and continue as normal”. Her argument is that when thinking modernity, we include and exclude certain histories as constituent parts of it, and if we incorporate othered histories to inform our understanding of modernity, it will change something in how we view ourselves and the world; beyond idiosyncrasies, “the difference needs to make a difference”.
Let’s talk about Haiti, which is the example Bhambra used to illustrate how to “disrupt the discourses of modernity by shifting our view of events”. To use Cornwall’s term, “democracy” and “freedom” are two buzzwords of modernisation discourse, situated at the heart of the French and American states, and offered as gifts to the world by the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence. However, the Haitian Revolution going on at the same time was more radical than both. Revolting in order to self-emancipate from one of the most brutal systems of slavery, in 1804 Haiti created the most inclusive system of citizenship existent in the world and could be proclaimed the first free state. However, the Haitian Revolution is not on the curricula to inform our understandings of freedom and the nation-state. This comes to no surprise because the West already perceived itself as free; free for its citizens. This perception is possible because the West “doesn’t understand a dark citizen”. The Code Noir in France regulated free black people differently because they were not part of its ontological articulation of how the universal individual looked like: he was imagined as white (with emphasis on the “he” as well).
Bringing back histories and people of colour as co-creators of the modern world and its values is not only more accurate, but it extends belongingness and participation in this world as equals.
The floor was opened up to the audience and inevitably, there was a question about Brexit. This annoyed me a little not just because every single event I go to lately has to find a way to frame Brexit into the conversation, but because we are attending a talk about how to consider other places and perspectives, how to smash our ethnocentrism, and our instinct is still to say “alright, but what does that tell me about Britain?”. Anyway, unfazed, professor Bhambra responded, as insightful as before. Fun fact: Britain only legislated its system of citizenship as we know it today in the 1980s, and when it first articulated legal citizenship in 1948 it included around 400 million people under the status of “citizen of Britain and its colonies”. This process of inclusion made Britain understand itself: it was never a nation, it was an empire. Its processes of exclusion in the 80s also made it understand itself as insular and white; despite the fact that around 95% of migration to the UK comes from the former colonies, Britain didn’t want to conceive a citizen of colour, and so began a process that would transform its citizens into migrants both legally and discursively.
Why colour you may ask? Why do you think it’s about colour and not about origin, about a sense of belonging to that territory since the beginning of times (as absurd as that sounds because who ever did)? A personal story was the most compelling argument here. Around the time of Brexit, professor Bhambra found her grandparents’ old British passports, clearly reading “citizen of Britain and its colonies”. Also after Brexit, her consternated friends were thinking of getting Italian or German passports. When asked “but how do you aim to get these, you’re British” they replied, “Oh, well my mother is Italian”. Why then, Bhambra asked herself, do they, with their mother’s Italian passport get to be British, whereas she, with her grandfather’s British passport, gets to be a second generation migrant?
Beyond today’s hot topics of migration and citizenship, I feel like it’s important to return to the broader point made. We need to decolonise not only social sciences, or our universities for that matter, but our own minds. We need to see that extending our sources of information and understandings beyond Western Europe and the States will actively add value to how we make sense of the world. This search for value is a personal journey, but also an institutional one. It is institutional because often we need legitimate authorities to tell us that its ok to question history as we know it, that the information previously excluded is indeed of value and it changes something. It challenges your ontological assumption that you are cut off from these “other” people and places, and it changes how we understand global ideas and events. “Misunderstanding Modernity” was the push I needed to start changing my questions and framings because it woke me up to the realisation that the information given to me so far doesn’t have the monopoly over value.
Author Alexandra is currently undertaking her MA in Development Studies at IDS.