Pankaj Mishra describes the arrival of modernity in South Asia

The arrival of modernity has occurred at different times in different places.
Prior to postmodernity, as Burke (2005) has noted, modernity held the stage.

Charles Taylor, in Malaise of modernity (1992), highlights the cultural origins of modernity. Theodore Rabb, in The last days of the Renaissance and the path to modernity (2006) also outlines the steps to modernity.

With regard to the consequences of instrumental reason, the term Charles Taylor favours, Rachel Carson has spoken with eloquence of some of the consequences that follow from blind adherance to this aspect of modernity. Those particular consequences haven’t changed.

How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and beyond

Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond, first edition (2006), describes the arrival of modernity in South Asia.

The book highlights Mishra’s early experiences in Benares (p.20):

“The small unnoticed tregedies of thwarted hopes and ideals Flaubert wrote of in Sentimental Education were all around us. And this awareness, which was also mine but which I tried to evade through, ironically, the kind of obsessive reading that led me to the novel in the first place, had been Rajesh’s private key to the book. Thus, where I saw only the reflection of a personal neurosis – the character of Frédéric in particular embodying my sense of inadequacy, my harsh self-image – he had discovered the social and psychological environment that was similar to the one he lived in.”

Valuable resources addressing related topics include Literary occasions: Essays (V. S. Naipaul 2003), Cultural hybridity (Peter Burke 2009), and Communication power (Manuel Castells 2009).

I began to read work by Pankaj Mishra after reading an online excerpt from his recent book, From the ruins of empire: The revolt against the West and the remaking of Asia (2012).

The latter book was reviewed in the New York Times on September 21, 2012.

What can we learn from history?

Discussions about modernity bring to mind the question: What can we learn from history?

This is a topic that Harald Welzer discusses in Climate wars (2012, pp. 22):

“Commemorations of the Holocaust are always associated with the idea that we can learn from history, that historians can provide the knowledge required to ensure that what happened then ‘never happens again.’ But why should it ‘never happen again’, when the evidence shows that human beings – even those of unquestionable intelligence and with a liberal education – are able to find meaning in the most anti-humanist theories, definitions, conclusions and actions, and to integrate these into their familiar conceptions of the world?

He adds (p. 23): “It is a modernist superstition that allows us to keep shrinking from the idea that, when people see others as a problem, they also think that killing them is a possible solution. This often has less to do with aggressiveness than with purposive thinking. According to Hans Albert, the production of weapons has ‘in many cases been more useful than the production of tools’ for problem-solving. So, where does that leave us with ‘learning from history’?”

He has further commented (p. 27 of Climate Wars) that social and cultural theory has been characterized by what he describes as ‘immateriality.’

He notes it would be helpful for theory to find a way back “from the world of discourse and systems to the strategies through which social beings try to control their fate. The fact is that a considerable part of the world’s population will face increasing difficulties in the future, as desertification, soil erosion and salination, oceanic acidification, river contamination, aggradation [filling and raising the level of (the bed of a stream) by deposition of sediment: The Free Dictionary] and overfishing limit their survival chances.”


A July 24, 2015 article by Pankaj Mishra is entitled: “How to think about Islamic State: Islamic State is often called ‘medieval’ but is in fact very modern – a horrific expression of a widespread frustration with a globalised western model that promises freedom and prosperity to all, but fails to deliver.”

“In an irony of modern history, which stalks revolutions and revolts to this day,” in Pankaj Mishra’s take on things, “the search for a new moral community has constantly assumed unpredicted and vicious forms. But then the dislocations and traumas caused by industralisation and urbanisation accelerated the growth of ideologies of race and blood in even enlightened western Europe.”

A journalistic take on things provides one form of analysis; my own preference is for the kind of evidence-based historical analysis demonstrated in Masters of the Universe (2012) and Extremely Violent Societies (2010).

A recent study by Pankaj Mishra is entitled: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017).

A Dec. 7, 2019 Guardian article is entitled: “England’s last roar: Pankaj Mishra on nationalism and the election.”

An excerpt reads:

T“The life of nations,” Powell argued, “no less than that of men is lived largely in the imagination.” But nations that are too extravagantly imagined eventually pay a steep price for their system of self-delusions. Postcolonial India turns on itself in fury and frustration as its dream of power and glory explodes. England’s post-imperial self-reckoning feels harsher, largely because it has been postponed for so long, and the memories of power and glory are so ineradicable. In the meantime, the most important elections of our lifetime approach, and, as Orwell warned, “a generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like a necklace of corpses”.


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