Multiple modernity, photo: Markus Spiske (CC0 1.0), via Unsplash

Multiple Modernities

The great shock

ifa | Will we be able to get modernity under control? Not quite, says the philosopher Ken'ichi Mishima. 
Interview by Sebastian Blottner 

Sebastian Blottner: Mr Mishima, can modernity be equated with progress? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: It depends on how you define modernity. Modernity has many darker sides which are not welcomed or viewed as progress by everyone. Scientific and medical progress and normative achievements such as universal human rights have occurred in conjunction with wars, massacres and disasters. 

Blottner: Is modernity only characterised by crises and conflicts – or is it actually their cause? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: I would say the latter is the case. Modernity has spawned many tensions and conflicts on a previously unknown scale. We have basically been in a permanent crisis for at least 200 years. And these crisis-induced conflicts gave rise to normative principles such as human dignity.

Blottner: And that used to be different? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: In the middle ages there was no diversity of world views, and this used to apply to most regions of the world. It took until the historical period of modernity for humans to recognise that simply everything can be changed. That was the great shock that we are yet to come to terms with. It has deprived us of any sense of security. Let's look at a comparably harmless example from Germany: Initially, there was a need in the 1950s and 1960s to build car-friendly cities, shortly later the green movement started and car drivers faced growing criticism. Or consider the subject of supposedly secure pensions. And there are thousands of other examples for the permanent variability of views that were taken for granted.

Blottner: Since the publication of the eponymous book by Shmuel N. Eisenstadt in 2000, the debate has shifted from talking about only one modernity to multiple modernities – what is the basic idea behind this notion? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: It was a great shock for Europeans and North Americans that industrialised nations developed outside the Western hemisphere, which created modern societies despite their cultural differences. Thus, it became apparent that there is not only one modernity, and that cultural traditions or developments are not inevitable. By the way, this caused Europeans to discover that their concept of a homogeneous, Western modernity is not even applicable to Europe itself. After all, this historical process took a different course in France than in Italy or Great Britain. 

Blottner: You even speak of selective instead of multiple modernities. Can you explain what this means? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: That is an important point. This term is supposed to express that various aspects of modernity were defined or implemented to differing extents. For example, the mechanical industrialisation was fully completed, humanitarian questions, however, were never resolved. While the human rights were being declared in Paris, uprisings in the French colony Haiti were suppressed in the most brutal way – this is the intended meaning of selective. 

Blottner: You distance yourself from the term ‘modernity’, which is exclusively defined by Western imagination and notions – but there must also be something that unifies the various 'modernities'? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: I would formulate it differently: I distance myself from a one-sided harmonious notion of modernity, which has been propagated by the West for decades. However, all versions of modernity share a clear differentiation of all spheres of life, whether in art, religion, politics or the economy. 

Blottner: Under the heading ‘transnational public’ we subsume the process of increasingly tighter global networking – how does this development in turn affect the multiple modernities?

Ken'ichi Mishima: Of course, there is a global digital network, but I do not view this as such an important point. Worldwide modernity has given rise to protests, in particular on the local level, such as Stuttgart 21, demonstrations against nuclear power plants in Japan or unrest in South Africa. Local traditions are eminently important for protest and should be considered. For example, the green movement did not come into existence by coincidence, there was a long tradition which was occasionally cited.  

Blottner: History is written by victors is a famous quote from Winston Churchill. In contrast, you ask if history could not also be interpreted by the losers.

Ken'ichi Mishima: That is the message bequeathed by Walter Benjamin. We should return a voice to those who were silenced by protesting against the deformations and lapses of modernity. 

Blottner: Who are the losers of today, the losers of modernisation? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: They are the labour movements that started in the 19th century, the people killed in wars, the victims of environmental disasters or the inhabitants of Stuttgart who protested against Stuttgart 21. They were also silenced, even though the military is no longer used. 

Blottner: Is it at all possible to get modernity under control? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: I do not think it is possible to fully control modernity. I think this was illustrated by the global finance crisis. But it is possible to channel and flexibly shape social developments. 

Blottner: Do you think that the term 'modernity' will be able to maintain its positive connotation? 

Ken'ichi Mishima: I suppose so, despite all disasters one can hope for this. However, it is palpable that the enthusiasm mustered for the term in the 19th century and then again after 1945 has become less.  

Prof. Dr. Ken'ichi Mishima teaches at the Tokyo Keizai University.