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I Application: Modernity's Classics


This anthropological and historical project aims to examine the reconfiguration in the modern period of the respective civilizational 'classics' in different cultural traditions where they provided widely acceptable foundations for accommodating the far-reaching changes coming with modernity in its  manifold articulations ranging from  colonialism to nationalism, from secular scientism to religious fundamentalism. As this reconfiguration involved a global transcultural flow with close interaction, it presents a challenge to the established scholarly fields. The project will take on this challenge by assembling an international team of scholars from different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds to cooperate in analysing this global, and hotly contested, flow of ideas and scholarly practices. The study of the 'classic' will provide insights not only into changing conceptions of pastness but also into modern constructions of the self and of the educational process. The project has held the first of three planned workshops/conferences in Budapest. The present application is for the two remaining workshops/conferences. They will be held in Heidelberg. Four Cluster member (or hopefully future members) are involved (Juneja, Harder, Kurtz, Wagner). Strong interaction with Cluster scholars during the meetings is planned. The resulting book will be part of the Cluster’s publication record. It will give a boost to one area that still is sorely lacking in the Cluster’s profile – history of scholarship. Several of the envisaged participants (such as Prof. Inden and Prof. Most, both Chicago) have indicated their willingness to give seminars in Heidelberg outside the conference framework before or after the conference.

Modernity's Classics 

The Problem

It is not part of the general horizon of knowledge even of very educated people that recasting the classics of the past is a core ingredient of a huge and global reorganization of the configuration, teaching, and development of knowledge that accompanied, commented on, promoted, and obstructed modernity, and was pursued in different environments with relatively little time delay, albeit in a largely asymmetrical flow.

The modern period constructed itself in terms of rupture with the recent past: as progress in scientific knowledge and towards rational, secular government.  This modern dispensation, however, anchored itself in a social imaginaire located in the deep past but surviving in a selection of texts, objects, institutions, values, and practices deemed ‘classical’. While they had been overlaid and become incrusted with much later accretions, these could still function as objects of contemplation, food for the spirit, treasures of a national or universal heritage and – after they had been thoroughly cleansed of these accretions and reconstituted to their “original” purity – could lend authority to innovations.  The idea of the 'classical' was not new; every civilization that had ancient texts had given some of them a privileged status and time and again reforms had been articulated as efforts to return to these origins.  But now the question of their relationship to modernization became a global issue, stimulating flows of ideas in East and Southeast Asia (Japan-China-India), across the Islamic world, in all areas affected by colonization, along routes travelled by Western missionaries, diplomats, amateurs of Asia, and businessmen, but also by Asian businessmen, students, diplomats and amateurs of Western cultures. It was disputed between those who resisted modernization and its promoters.  In the process similarities and historical relations between these classical dispensations were discovered, claimed, or contested, while their reconfiguration was informed by the actual interaction and confrontation going on in the world. The radical change in the present and the rejection of the recent past opened a gap, a space for desire, in which anxious work began accumulating around the 'classical' objects that were left to stand in place of the past.

These tensions between modernization and a search for authority in the past produced new configurations and classifications of classical canons both within and across cultural areas:  as anticipating modern university disciplines, as timeless creations of the human/national spirit or stages in a narrative of progress, as sacred or secular.  Texts, authors, scholars, and periods that did not fit modern agendas were dismissed as forged, 'late', 'secondary', 'medieval', etc.:  we have to study the processes and effects of exclusion as well as inclusion.

While the project will focus mainly on texts, it is important to recognize that analogous processes of reconfiguration dealt with ancient music, material culture and monuments, art, etc.:  some participants will address these areas of research.

The processes of reconfiguring the past and its scholarly and museum administration became part of a worldwide trend or fashion that interacted uneasily with evolving commercial and power relations. Strategies were developed to cope with the visible asymmetry in cultural flows, ranging in the extremes from a total rejection of recent and early tradition to the claim that the values and institutions of the present Western canonical dispensation originated in the Eastern golden age of antiquity. The insertion of such scholarly efforts in Asian societies into the agenda of national modernization was conscious on the side of most scholars, and reinforced by state structures that left little space for the internal dynamics of scholarly research. Thus, study of the development of scholarship and its public reception in Asia requires a much stronger attention to the actions of the state than is warranted for the most fruitful periods of humanities scholarship in Europe and the US. These different dynamics as well as their root causes will have to be explored.

However, these considerations of regional variation have to be set in an overall framework of anthropological questions that are sidelined by most analyses of the relations between ideas, institutions, and their wider sociopolitical environment: questions about a deeper structure of categories and dichotomies that was successfully naturalized around the globe in the modernization process, even if this success was based on significant variations in meanings and connotations.  While modernization of course continues, we are now sufficiently distant from high modernism to reflect critically on modernity as a project of conscious self-fashioning at its twin poles, the individual and society, and a project of rejection of 'tradition' (a reconfigured concept).  New conceptions of the self and its formation were central.  Modern man learnt about the past, not from it or in dialogue with it.  Images of the internalization of values or the preservation of inner spiritual space in an increasingly materialistic world were entangled in a complex of modern dichotomies:  modern/traditional, public/private, rational/irrational, masculine/feminine, secular/sacred, work/leisure, universal/local.  Modern conceptions of reading, authorship, and interpretation interacted with these processes of reconfiguration:  thus, whereas the Heidelberg Cluster of Excellence project 'Asia and Europe in a Global Context: shifting asymmetries in cultural flows' (see below) puts its main emphasis on dynamics and balances, 'Modernity's Classics' is more concerned with questioning common assumptions.  Such questioning, of course, implies discussion of contextual variations in both semantics and in practices.  We feel that this complementarity will enrich both enterprises.

To sum up:  we aim to open up an international debate about modern constructions of the “classic,” looking at flows of ideas and sources of resistance, overall trends and local specificities, focal issues and blind spots, and the disturbing question of the possibility of  unintended consequences.  To make such a debate possible, the project aims to bring together and, in fact, create a scholarly network and community able to handle such transcultural and translingual processes that transcend the individual competency of each one of the participants. The contradictions intrinsic to the articulations of modernity and the classic make this a strategic site for questioning current assumptions about cultural education and formulating new proposals about its relation to skills of critical thinking.  These issues will be discussed across as well as within disciplinary and national/religious/regional traditions by scholars of widely diverging cultural and scholarly backgrounds. This diversity should help us to uncover and scrutinize national and disciplinary biases.

The State of the Art

One of the main aims of the project is to question established frameworks of interpretation – temporal, spatial, 'cultural', and disciplinary, but also in terms of agency. It builds on recent work that is beginning to question these frameworks, but is still constrained by them.

Historicism is one of the modern period's most powerful and influential disciplinary perspectives.  It has become problematic because we are no longer sure what history is for:  grand narratives of historical evolution seem outdated, while the idea that history teaches cultural values has become politicized.  The historicist strategy of anchoring each manifestation of past activity in its own context does not account for the selective reception of pasts in later periods, and the historicist conception of 'authenticity' based on priority in time (Most, 'Zur Archäologie der Archaik', Antike und Abendland 1989) is problematic.  Recent work has usefully reminded us that memory and history differ (e.g. P. Nora, P. Ricœur; P. Papailias, Genres of Recollection: archival poetics and modern Greece on some common ground), but we need a more radical discussion of the basic concepts of sequence and context (starting perhaps from Foucault's 'archaeology of knowledge').

Shalini Randeria's concepts of 'entangled history' and 'uneven modernities' (see i.a. S. Conrad and S. Randeria, Jenseits von Eurozentrismus:  transnationale und postkoloniale Perspektive in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, 2002) provide a basis for our project in stressing that modernity has been a global phenomenon, with ideas and thinkers moving from colonized and 'westernizing' areas back into the west, and among non-western areas.  Reaction against historicist periodizations – for example, the tendency to regard Islamic thought as neither 'ancient' nor modern – has also led to a reconsideration of spatial boundaries.  Garth Fowden'sEmpire to Commonwealth (1993) portrays a 'long late antiquity' that stretches across political, linguistic, and religious boundaries; Sanjay Subrahmanyam's Explorations in Connected History(2005) shows that work in Mughal-period Indian history opens up perspectives both on a Persian-speaking oikoumenê stretching from the Middle East into India and Central Asia, and on the active exchange of ideas in the early modern period between India and Portugal.  In the modern period, the role of Japan as a model of modernization for China, India, and the Ottoman Empire has only begun to be studied for the first case.  (Jansen, Japanese and Sun Yat-sen, 1954, Iriye, The Chinese and the Japanese, 1990, and Douglas Reynolds, China, 1898-1912 :The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan, 1993.) At the same time, the transfer of concepts of critical humanities scholarship to Asia has produced ironical results. For example, the radical textual criticism imported from European classical philology to China has justified the rejection of large part of the Chinese canon as fake because no manuscripts survived and often early imperial book catalogues did not carry the titles. While this fitted into a scientific and rationalist agenda and involved most of the leading lights of the interwar years, the import carried an unspoken understanding that faking canonical texts is an anthropological constant. The last thirty years have seen an ever growing number of well-preserved early manuscript texts emerge from tombs with a solid dating context, and each find rehabilitated with silent irony a few more rejected texts, and confirmed a scribal tradition that would rather copy an evident mistake than dare to change. (Edward Shaughnessy, Rewriting Early Chinese Texts, 2006).

Because the sciences represented the future in the modern university, history of science was for a long time written only as a story of progress towards current knowledge; in reaction, historians of science are now leading the way in using historicist contextualization critically to show that the great discoveries of the past were often made within 'unscientific' frameworks, and that notions such as 'objectivity' have a complex history (Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, 2007).  This is even more the case where scholarly “methods” came in a package deal with sciences and steamboats, imbued with the glamour of progress and modernity. The cultural dynamics of this very rapid absorption process, which continues to be operative to this day, are little understood. There is now growing interest in disciplinary history in the humanities (for western 'classics', G.W. Most, ed., Disciplining Classics, 2002; J.I. Porter, ed., Classical Pasts, 2006), though much of the work concentrates on individuals in a quasi-hagiographic style, ignores the influence of the wider environment, or overstresses political agendas.  Anna Morpurgo Davies's History of Linguistics: the nineteenth century (1998) provides a good analysis of the discipline-building process in the West, complemented by Elisabeth Kaske’s study on the development of a national Chinese pronunciation and the field of Linguistics in China in her The Politics of Language in Chinese Education 1895-1919, 2007; for archaeology one may cite Garvin and Peebles, eds., Representations in Archaeology (1992), Tapati Guha-Thakurta,Monuments, Objects, Histories:  institutions of art in colonial and postcolonial India (2004), Monica Juneja’s Introduction to her collection of historical documents on the history of South Asian Archaeology (Architecture in Medieval India, 2001), and Stefan Tanaka, 'Imaging History:  inscribing belief in the nation', Journal of Asian Studies 53, 1994; for geography in  Japan and China, Zou Zhenhuan, Wan Qing xifang dilixue zai Zhongguo, 2000), for Japanese historiography Stefan Tanaka (Japan’s Orient, 1993), and for key concepts and science terminology the studies coming from the big project on late imperial China’s new science terminology (Lackner et al., New Terms for New Ideas, 2001.and id., Mapping Meaning, 2004).

There has been rather little work on the effects of the positioning of disciplines within the modern university, and this is even more the case with regard to the particular institutional and political configurations into which the disciplines have been inserted outside Europe.  For Germany we now have an excellent study of the debates and tensions surrounding the reconfiguration of theology (Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the making of the modern German university, 2006), but it does not analyse the effects of this Verwissenschaftlichung of theology, in conjunction with the modern classification of languages into families, on Islamic and Judaic Studies, both seen primarily as aids to a critical historical approach to the Bible.  A conference recently organized by Aziz al-Azmeh on the relations between Judaic, Islamic, and Biblical Studies showed that specialists are still reluctant to cross disciplinary boundaries.

Donald Preziosi's work on art history as a discipline and the museum as an institution (1989, 2003) has been particularly influential in shaping our questions.  He argues that modern arts disciplines characteristically separate the positions of author/creator, interpreter/expert, and consumer/reader/spectator, emphasizing originality in the case of the author and constructing the consumer as both passive and (without expert help) inadequate.  The work of art is museumized, separated from the reader/viewer by "the glass case of history".  The process of education in the arts/humanities delivers 'cultural literacy' (R. Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English:  reconstructing English as a discipline, 1998); due to the combined effects of historicism and information technology, this 'literacy' tends to be seen as the accumulation of contextual background data.

Critical disciplinary history therefore asks how disciplines construct knowledge, parcel it out amongst themselves, protect its claims to independence (even in oppressive environments) and position experts and novices in the transmission process.  It addresses the anthropologies (theories of personhood) embedded in disciplinary constructions.  Current discussions of the 'crisis in the humanities' (e.g. S. Settis, Futuro del 'classico', 2005) tend to focus on contents rather than skills; by examining premodern theories of poetics and hermeneutics in the world's major 'classical traditions' and the genres in which they were deployed (especially commentary and 'encyclopaedic' writing) we aim to problematize modern conceptions of reading and exegesis.  Recent developments in literary theory have prepared some of the ground here, rediscovering intertextuality (e.g. S. Hinds, Allusion and Intertext, 1998), pointing out that 'literature' is a modern concept (T. Reiss, The Meaning of Literature, 1992; L. Liu, Translingual Practice:  literature, material culture, and translated modernity – China 1900-1937, 1995; P. Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments, 1993), developing reception studies, and using W. Iser's work (Der implizite Leser, 1972) to examine examples of the author's dialogue with his fictional imagined reader.  The dialogue of readers with texts, however, has been harder to study.  There has been work on commentary, especially in the Arabic tradition (P. Adamson a.o. eds., Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic, and Latin Commentaries, 2004 – Greek/Latin and Arabic in separate volumes with no general discussion; the interplay between the Jewish and Christian traditions in work on the formation of the Jewish canon (Raz-Krakotzkin,The Censor, the Editor and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the sixteenth century, 2007); for China, R. Wagner, The Craft of a Chinese commentator, 2000), on readers' marginalia (A. Grafton, 'Studied for action:  how Gabriel Harvey read his Livy',Past and Present, 1990), and on the book trade (e.g. P. Chatterjee, ed., Texts of Power, 1995, for Bengal); but for readers' creative bricolage and dialogue with texts we still have little beyond suggestive remarks in Michel de Certeau's L'invention du quotidien:  arts de faire, (1980).

For other media we may cite a recent study of South Indian music (A.J. Weidman, Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern, 2006) which comes especially close to our concern with the ironic combination of innovation and reconstructed tradition in 'modernity's classics'.

Altogether, the angle from which these developments have been studied, retains the national history framework.  The fact that – at least in the modern period – we are dealing with a transcultural and global flow down to the details of academic dress, rhetoric, and classification schemes is relegated to the occasional footnote about external 'influences', or is treated as if comparing intrinsically unrelated phenomena.  The project will start from the assumption that every aspect under consideration is part of a globally linked process.

Modernity's classics' deals with the modern tensions between travelling into the future and salvaging fragments of the past; with the problematic articulations between political-social projects and the sociocultural imaginaire; with the global circulation of ambitious dreams and the local realities of practice.  It has been formulated in a context where education in the humanities seems to be facing the equally unpalatable alternatives of identity-politics and cultural-intellectual tourism (the World's Great Books).  To open up an international debate about modern constructions of knowledge, and of the education process, in the field of 'cultural heritage', may help us to reassess the role the humanities can play in teaching critical thinking. (See attached bibliography).

Selection of Participants and Strategy for Work Organization  (for a list of participants and tentative paper titles see attached list, and appendix of CVs)

The persistent western conception of modernization as a western movement is currently exacerbated by the European Research Council's tendency to think of 'European' research as work carried out by scholars in Europe on 'European' topics.  While a more open attitude to global phenomena is not formally excluded, opportunities for rethinking the global dimensions of this process and its particular complex dynamics are being missed.  In particular, we think that scholars with an Asian or Middle-Eastern perspective will not only contribute to analyse the region in which they specialize, but also offer a new angle for the study of the European developments. We therefore felt it important, especially for a project concerned with topics also considered quintessentially European (the 'classic', modern university disciplines) to recruit a truly international team of scholars who not only have disciplinary expertise in fields as different as anthropology, art history, Indology or Sinology, and understand the emotional weight and social ramifications of processes such as the Hinduization of religion in India or the Chinese attempts to “radically break” with  the “feudal” past, but are also critically engaged in conceptualizing global developments.

To explore the topic of “Modernity’s Classics” in its transcultural complexity, a different type of selection of participants and of organization is needed. For established scholarly communities in established fields, one can rely on a familiarity of most of the leading scholars with each other’s work, as well as with the state of the art, sources, and methodological issues in their field. In such a case a well focused and well-prepared single conference or symposium can yield fine results. The challenges the project on “Modernity’s Classics” faces are twofold: The growth of a new scholarly community has to be facilitated, and for this a dense network of electronic communication has to be combined with a series of direct encounters in intensive workshops/conferences. Second, scholars of highest scholarly qualification have to be recruited from a great variety of fields ranging from Classical Studies to anthropology and Chinese Studies who share the openness for, the interest in, and the experience with such transdisciplinary and transcultural projects, are stimulated by changes of perspective, ready to question their own assumptions, and are interested in finding common ground between different scholarly cultures.  We are happy and proud that our outline has met with such an exceedingly positive response from many of the most innovative and creative scholars in this wide and complex field of research, and we are confident that the organizational solutions we propose – especially the three workshops/conferences -  are optimally geared towards managing the very specific and very unusual challenges of this project. Rather than assembling a group of fine disciplinary experts to produce a systematic survey of parallel national developments, we aim at generating a fruitful and controversial dialogue on a transcultural process and will conclude with a volume of innovative studies that converge on the topic from a variety of critical, original angles.

We recognise the importance of recruiting younger scholars, who may already be germinating the seeds of new approaches and a number of them (indicated by “junior”) have been included.  On the other hand, young scholars have in their training undergone a process of rigorous (and necessary) disciplinization, often culminating in intensive work on a relatively narrow dissertation topic; it can be difficult to identify those who are ready to contribute to a project of this scope (career pressures often favour more conventional research).  Our suggestion for mitigating these difficulties is to offer 6 bursaries for graduates and junior faculty from Europe, selected on the basis of statements explaining their intellectual background and reasons for applying:  they will take part in all discussions. In addition, the recent formation of junior research groups with a transcultural and transdisciplinary focus has created a pool of young scholars who have access to independent funding to attend such events ('From Europe' is here defined solely in terms of flight costs). They will be actively encouraged.

It will furthermore be beneficial for the community we intend to foster to link up with other projects pursuing questions of a related kind. The Heidelberg Cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context: Shifting Asymmetries in Cultural Flows” with its many associated scholars and projects is a natural candidate and we are also hoping that an active and critical exchange with scholars working in the Heidelberg Cluster beyond those who are part of this project would be of mutual interest and benefit, especially as many of the questions of methodology, sources, and organization of cooperative work in both fields are related. We therefore will encourage other scholars from the Heidelberg Cluster to attend the workshops/conferences and will reserve one afternoon of the first workshop in Heidelberg for an intensive “shop talk” meeting between the groups with some presentations by relevant Cluster projects. 


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