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A Manifesto in Disguise

Nishant Shah ( is Dean, ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands and teaches at the Leuphana University, Germany.

Subjects of Modernity: Time-space, Disciplines, Margins by Saurabh Dube, Manchester University Press, 2017; pp 248, £75 (hard cover).

It is only in this accelerated part of the 21st century that we can finally announce that the project of modernity, equally reviled and rejoiced, can &finally be dissected through the microscopic lens of distributed time. Modernity, a project of uneven spread, ambiguous antecedents, ambiguous approaches, and unexpected consequences, has often been characterised as the defining standpoint of a post-war global reconstruction. The fold of modernity has grown from geopolitical impulses of the West/Europe and expanded to becoming a global wrapper that shrouds the various contestations of imperialist nation building, militarised democracies, pop&ulist cultural hegemonies, and global wars against straw men identified by nation states seeking to reinforce their claim at defining the legitimate global subject of modernity.

There have been many attempts at conceptualsing and rewording the scripts of what it means to be modern. Arjun Appadurai’s positing of “scapes of enc&ounter” (1996) and Saskia Sassen’s idea of “flows of intersection” (1991) have been useful to define the visual form of modernity. David Harvey’s notion of “time-space compression” (1989) and Anthony Giddens’s forwarding of a “double edged” (1985) temporality have made us aware of the unevenness of modernity. Bruno Latour’s philosophical inquiry into the modes of existence of the moderns (2013) and David Theo Goldberg’s scathing critique of the conflation of the postmodern and the post-racial (2015) have shown how the long tail of modernity continues to perpetuate systemic and structural ine&quities. The phenomenon of moder&nity, in its materiality, ope&rations, and mec&hanics, has found many scholars and theorists inquiring into the nature and form of what constitutes the condition of being modern. The idea of “modernity” has found equal critique in postcolonial articulations that point &towards the invisible roots of European imperialism and provincialism and the invisible risk of gendered, sexual, and racial bodies that have borne the task of building foundations of modernity that are essen&tially oriented towards extended forms of exploitation.

When faced with the daunting task of entering a discourse so heavily saturated in disciplinary approaches and theoretical analyses, Saurabh Dube, in his Subjects of Modernity takes up a playful, creative, and lyrical approach. For Dube, the scope of the book is to not only expand the scope of inquiries into the bewildering bowels of modernity, but to also identify a blind spot in the discourse that often obliterates the subject of &modernity in the quest of understanding the complex and wicked contours of modernity. He lays bare and eschews the persistent binaries of modernity that continue to operate in its inquiry, and rises above the usual theorisations of contestations, contradictions, and contingencies, which an analysis of modernity ultimately seems to delve into.

For Dube, the responses to understan&ding modernity seem to be pre-wired: universal history versus distributed history, the inescapable presence of the West as a reference point even in the emancipatory politics of modernity, and the ineffable nature of modernity that rests on the opposition of “enchanted spaces” and “modern places.” He argues that the object of inquiry into modernity cannot be a revealing of the narratives, oppositions, and enchantments’ of moder&nity. Indeed, these need to be treated as the de facto conditions of knowing under modernity, and thus the task at hand is threefold: (i) To make visible the formations of modern know&ledge is to look at conditions of disci&plines that are formed under the aegis of modernity, precisely to observe and theorise modernity. (ii) To bring back the subjects of modernity as subjects to modernity, thus rescuing, recusing, and rearranging the mat&rices of modernity by examining the notion of identity that is not just granted by modernity but also becomes the staging ground for modernity to find its valence. (iii) To recognise that time and space have been particularly reformulated and consti&tuted under the advance of modernity, especially through the formation of social subjects, and that it is necessary to denaturalise these notions of scholarly persuasion, which often miss out the actual antinomies of everyday practice of life.

Dube takes up this rather ambitious task by locating himself at the intersections of historical anthropology, postcolonial thought, subaltern studies and critical humanities. The book, drawing from these fragmented but coexisting positions, offers a six-part essay that draws from multilinear, multimodal facets of the anomalies and anachronisms of contemporary modernity in an atte&mpt to present the consequences of power, organisation, and life under the aegis of the logic of modernity. His ambition is informed by multiple tropes of inquiry making. In the first section, thus, we see him recounting an “ethnography of the self” where he maps his encounter with the illegible, illegitimated, and &illicit encounters with geographies and subjects that the universal logic of modernity has either ignored or erased. He deals with his own encounters within the global South, as an archival trace. The trace is inflected by postcolonial and subaltern studies writers like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha and Gnyanedra Pande who help set out the limits and the edges of postcolonial modernity that defines the geography through conditions of sovereignty and temporality through the interplay of relationships in the colonial encounter. Dube’s storytelling is powerful as he recasts his own lived history and his journeys of &privilege across academia and universities, as a way of fishing for the flotsam and jetsam of life that escapes the dredge nets of postcolonial critique of modernity.

The book identifies these invisible continuums and contradictions of time-space as endemic to the articulation of the modernity and suggests that our &attempts at decoding modernity have been informed structuring, stitching, rupturing, and suturing of these planes of time-space. However, it seems, for Dube, these discursive practices of time-space manipulation have not often been gro&unded in the ontological and experiential dimensions that mark us as subjects of modernity. Dube writes against what he perceives as a particular trope in inquiries of modernity, where, once identifying its “enchantments” of paradoxes and ambiguities, the scholars &often invest themselves into understanding the root cause of these enchantments. For Dube, this taking at face value of the enchantments of modernity—the inherent and almost incomprehensible binaries and contradictions that we have been revealed—is a futile exercise. He argues that these enchantments are not objects to be studied within modernity, but that they are the divining &devices that reify and give form to the impulses of modernity. For Dube, these are not objects but lenses, and they need to become our points of departure into understanding how we can disentangle the “possibilities of modernity, plurality and democracy” (p 83) towards imagi&native and critical formulations that go beyond the sceptre of “alternative &modernities.”

An Easy Rhythm

It is from this framework that Dube takes up the task of demapping the disciplines, recalibrating time-space, and giving voice to the margins of modernity. In setting up this framework, Dube writes with an air of erudition, a flair for lyricism, and a conscious selection of an academically specialised audience that would be interested in investing a committed scholarship into engaging with the book. Despite this overwhelming scholarship, Dube has been, largely through the insertion of his first person experience and his easy writing style, able to maintain an easy rhythm which might help a reader persist through the frame&work and even grasp it tangibly. However, once the framework has been established and the book takes up the mammoth task of unentangling the discourse on modernity, it takes on a foreboding tone and a denseness that is as formidable as it is uninviting. The hair-splitting of concepts and approaches, which has been, ironically, the forte of modernist academic writing and theo&retical grandstanding, seeps into the chapters where Dube picks bones with the disciplines that shape modernity &discourse.

Through two chapters of densely layered prose and an intricate close reading of creative, scholarly, philosophical and historical texts, Dube belabours his manifesto to both attack and save the discipline of contemporary historical anthropology. There will be readers who are particularly interested in this des&truction and then wilful recon&s&truction of this specific discipline, and who might benefit from the arguments around knowledge formation practices under the aegis of modernity. However, the first chapter is a tough entry point for anybody outside of these niche circles of scholarly discourse who might be inte&rested in reading this beyond a quick &extraction of the main learnings. Fortu&nately, Dube does exactly that. In the coda to the chapters and the intro&ductions, he tells us that he is arguing for a better relationship bet&ween anthro&pology and history “in order to discuss formations of modern kno&wledge as themselves forming critical subjects and crucial procedures to modernity” (p 105). The chapter ends with a new historio&graphy of modernity that extends, while being critical, the post-Foucauldian pro&ject of framing new processes of histories.

Fortunately, this academic foray is confined to this one chapter and Dube picks up the threads of a more interesting argument in his succeeding and &con&clu&ding chapters. He is at his stro&ngest when it comes to examine the subject under the conditions of moder&nity, clearly questioning whether the identity of the subject that we have constructed is actually a challenge or is constricted by the knowledge formation of modernity. With great ease, and with the weight of the academic corpus behind him, Dube offers identities as both personal and collective proscriptions through which social processes are “per&ceived, experienced, and articu&lated.” He makes a persuasive claim, that more than sites of resistance and emancipation, the modernist identities are clearly in the service of legitimising and validating the onslaught of the contradictory conditions of modernity. Dube identifies the various prelapsarian stages of history, tradition, culture, and identity as producing configurations of “contested territory, ambivalent resource, ready motif, and settled verity” (p 145) that demand that we be tied to the condition of historicisation that modernity grafts us into. In a lucid argument that is persuasive as it is provocative, Dube thus exorcises the power of the “anti&monies” between the “universal” and the “particular” and “power” and “difference” (p 161) from understanding the subject of modernity and instead argues for the need for productive possi&bilities to reimagine the “soul, stuff, and substance” (p 162) of modernity.

As a fitting epilogue to a massive ende&avour, and also to a book that deman&ded particularities rather than generalisations, Dube convincingly mounts his framework as a lens to examine the formation and formulation of modernity in the heterogeneous landscape of South Asia. Poignantly, poetically, and persuasively, Dube produces a new dialectic where he “follow(s) chronology to rethink chronology” and “to use taxonom in order to undo taxonomy” (p 173) to unpack the various temporal and spatial modernisms in South Asia. Perhaps the most materially and viscerally impactful section of the book is where Dube draws from the arguments between Rabin&dranath Tagore and M K Gandhi around the idea of nationalism, community, and production. Dube takes these lofty debates and anchors them in the various experiments of premodern, subaltern, “Adivasi,” primitivist modernities that were the challenges of building modern India. He takes the reader by the hand into a fascinating debate about how the matrices of modernity, modernism, and modernisation were conflated in the making of a time-space entity of a modern South Asian nation state.

The Vulnerable Subject

The political narrative of the nationalist elites is bookended by his own work with the Santhali community as his &beginning point, and the critical overtures of Savi Sawarkar’s Dalit art exhibition that positions the subject of modernity as essentially one mired in vulner&ability. Dube’s own notion of the vulnerable subject is not one that can be rescued into empowerment by the logics of modernity, but as constituted by and constitutive of, being produced and reproducing the conditions of modernity that bind us into precariousness and contingency of an inescapable form.

Dube’s inquiry into the subject of modernity, then, clearly indicates that our inquiries into modernity have to be marked not by the joyous demystification of its conditions, but to recognise its conditions as creating vulnerable sub&jects who often bear the burden, or reifying the enchanting contradictions of modernity. With a fierce political call for action, he charges the historians and anthropologists engaged in studying modernity, to understand it as an hege&monic force that traps its subjects into self-fulfilling prophecies of oppression, exclusion and exploitation. With this unexpected trope, Dube brings an electric urgency to the task of historiography of modernity, a need to look for a way out and away from the exigencies of modernity. The book is disguised as a thesis. But Dube has obviously penned a manifesto. It has its academic creden&tials—and he is happy to invite readers to skip and scan, reading the book as six essays rather than as a monograph. But at heart, this book is a call for action. And it is this urgency to act that makes this book a benchmark by which we look at the future investigators of modernity and their ethical and privileged respon&sibilities for naming and changing the scripts that bind the subject of modernity.


Appadurai, Arjun (1996): Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Min&neapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1985): The Nation-state and Violence: Volume Two of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goldberg, David Theo (2015): Are We All Postracial Yet? New York: Polity Press.

Harvey, David (1989): The Condition of Post&modernity, Oxford: Blackwell.

Latour, Bruno (2013): An Inquiry into Modes of
Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns,
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sassen, Saskia (1991): The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, New Jersey: Princeton Univer&sity Press.

Updated On : 9th Jul, 2018


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