In dominant Eurocentric thinking, modernity is understood as industrial civilization, and associated with the idea that society is composed of the sum of ahistorical individuals who are born equal and thus have the same possibilities and range of choice. This dominant understanding of modernity however obscures more than it reveals, and this concealment is one of the central characteristics of modernity. Indeed, the dominant understanding of modernity is more a description of Northern Europe from the white Eurocentric male experience, and less a useful definition of the time period it refers. Additionally, this flawed understanding of modernity is at the core of many theories and social practices, informing ideas about development, race and social change where European institutions and ways of thinking are seen as naturally desirable and “developed”.
The assumptions and analytical takes that the dominant idea of modernity carry with it thus need to be understood as emerging in a specific historical context and resting upon specific cultural, social, economic, and religious contexts. Only then can we understand modernity in its real dimensions, and thereby we can also critically assess how this dominant understanding is nothing more than the expression of how predominantly European white male thinkers think themselves in the world, understand their role in history and their own subjectivity. The dominant understanding of modernity rests on several assumptions that control the degree of understanding of the world this theory can achieve while simultaneously legitimizing a specific historical reality constituted on the basis of hierarchization, exploitation and dispossession, which is closely linked to the colonial endeavour since 1492.
The practices connected to the colonial endeavour in fact provide the grounds for the emergence of modernity as a theory, a theory that would allow producing and legitimizing the colonial endeavour and its historical perpetuation to this day. As such, modernity is a theory, a reality and a specific time period that, in dominant Eurocentric thinking presents itself as a totality, as the world while negating colonialism and its legacies. Modernity is then a powerful and, indeed, dangerous totalizing purview, which conceals its own true nature: that it rests on colonialism and coloniality and that nonexistence, negation and death are the conditions of possibility and continued existence of this totality. This is how Boaventura de Sousa Santos has characterized modern thinking as abyssal thinking: the theoretical, analytical and practical legacies of colonialism produce an abyss whereby peoples and places are relegated to inexistence or seen as dispensable. Modernity produces nonexistence through five interlinked logics (Santos, 2014):
1.) The monoculture of knowledge and rigor of knowledge whereby the criteria and definition of truth, valid knowledge and aesthetic quality are those formulated by the white, Eurocentric male. This divides peoples and subjects into those that produce valid and true knowledge, and true art, and peoples and subjects that are ignorant and cannot be expected to produce valid knowledge and true art. The monoculture of knowledge and rigor of knowledge then perpetuates hierarchies and exclusion based on criteria pertaining knowledge and aesthetics.
2.) The monoculture of linear time that produces those who are not white, Eurocentric males, as being backward, undeveloped or less developed, and as people who live in the past of the white Eurocentric male. Some people are contemporaneous, while others can never live in the same time as those who are developed – even while occupying the same space. The monoculture of linear time legitimizes, among other things, the practices of extractivism and exploitation carried out in the Global South.
3.) The monoculture of naturalization of differences that produces sociocultural hierarchies in which the white Eurocentric male is always at the top. This monoculture provides the idea that the world is inhabited by superior peoples and subjects, and that those inferior peoples and subjects have to become as the white Eurocentric male or perish.
4.) The logic of the dominant scale produces as local and particular all that, which is not the white Eurocentric male’s dominion, thinking, and experience. For example, this logic allows for the understanding of world history and universal knowledge as being the white Eurocentric male’s history and knowledge.
5.) The logic of productivity applies capitalist criteria to materiality, labour and value, favouring the white Eurocentric male’s material conditions, legitimizing the exploitation of labour, enslavement and extractivist practices towards those peoples and subjects who are seen as inferior or non-human at all.
Modern abyssal thinking has thus had profound effects in all areas of social existence, including knowledge, subjectivity, human rights, development, being, economy, law, and politics. Breaking from this legacy is a central task that involves a deep democratization of knowledge and an explicit working against the global structures of power which modern abyssal thinking has legitimized.
References and further readings:
Bhambra, G. (2014), Connected Sociologies. Theory for a Global Age. London. Bloomsbury Academic.
Santos, Boaventura de S. (2014), Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.
Suárez-Krabbe, J. (2016), Race. Rights and Rebels. Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Julia Suárez-Krabbe is a Colombian-Danish scholar and activist. She is Associate Professor of Cultural Encounters at Roskilde University in Denmark. Her work addresses the problems of race and racism in relation to (human) rights, citizenship, development, social movements, 'other'/Southern knowledges and decolonization.
Como citarSuárez-Krabbe, Julia (2019), "Modernity", Dicionário Alice. Consultado a 05.06.23, em https://alice.ces.uc.pt/dictionary/index.php?id=23838&pag=23918&entry=24325&id_lingua=1. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9