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AfricaSigns Of Modernity, Colonial Modernities, Bibliography

The debates and controversies over modernity, from its origins in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century western Europe to the various sites of its deployment following the formation of colonial empires, have given rise to an abundance of literature. Non-Western societies, by and large, in the formation of their cultural, political, economic, and social identities and their reactions to it, have appropriated or not, accommodated or not, resisted or not, in many different ways, what is usually referred to as the project of modernity (or modernization). Associated at first with colonization, and then with independence, modernity involves an understanding of several issues connected with modes of thought, action, and belief, the legitimacy and effectiveness of which are fed by absolute faith in human progress, thanks to the power of science and technology. This creative tension between a way of being (the philosophical dimension of modernity) and of acting (modernization, which involves concrete advances in the realms of social and economic, political and legal, military and health policy, with the aim of transforming agrarian peoples and non-Western communities into urban, industrial societies) is at the heart of the dispute between the partisans and opponents of an understanding of modernity as the exclusive sign of civilization, established and defined by Europe.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, supported by the arguments of Max Weber, established a strong internal link between modernity and Western rationalism. This led to the erosion of religious concepts and the emergence in Europe of a secular culture via both laicization and modernization. Habermas suggests that the concept of modernization proposed in the 1950s comprises a set of cumulative procedures that reinforce one another, such as the capitalization and mobilization of resources, the development of the forces of production, increasing productivity of workers, establishment of political power and formation of national identities, dissemination of the notion of the right to political participation, the growth of forms of urban life, public education, and the secularization of values and norms.

However, in the historical, anthropological, and sociological literature, the terms modernity, modernization, and, occasionally, liberalism are often interchangeable. Opposing the idea of modernity as a strictly European development set forth by Habermas is the approach of numerous authors who are non-European or who work on the periphery of non-European societies. They emphasize its pluralistic character and its responsiveness to local environments. Benjamin Schwartz, a scholar examining Chinese history, stresses two revealing signs of the ambiguous nature of modernity: first, the crises, shocks, and convulsions that have destabilized Western societies and have strongly influenced and redefined Western modernity, both in terms of its basic content and its having been put to the test nationally during and after World War I; and the multiple versions of modernity, in particular the Soviet Marxist version. Two other fundamental issues should be considered: Modernity is a preoccupation of intellectuals, centered on questions of tradition and development, with a focus on the description and understanding of certain practical procedures and ways of thinking and feeling; when modernity leaves the realm of the intellectuals and takes on the aspect of modernization, it involves practical problems of economic development. Modernity thus became a word connoting order and mobilization, a goal to work toward. Schwartz invites us to proceed by a double movement: first, accepting that modernity does not refer to a simple entity or to a homogeneous admixture of manifestations, practices, or modes of thought, neither in its place of origin nor in non-European cultures. And similarly, it is not any kind of complete or synthetic whole; rather, it is crossed with horizontal tensions and conflicts "among the various currents and countercurrents of the modern world" (Schwartz, p. 54). It is therefore necessary to pay close attention to the lively debates among the intellectuals in their specific historical context. In fact, for intellectuals in developing nations, in China at the beginning of the twentieth century, or in areas under colonial domination in Asia and Africa, the essential concern is to find the resources indispensable to the preservation of a community identity in their complex relationships to the past, in their traditions, and in the "European canon." In the case of Africa, novelists have tried to present these clashing trajectories, as exemplified by Cheikh Hamidou Kane in L'aventure ambiguë (English trans., Ambiguous Adventure) and Laye Camara in L'enfant noir (1954; English trans., The Dark Child).

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