The closer we look at “modernity,” argue Jean and John Comaroff in Modernity and Its Malcontents, the more “rapidly [it] melts into air” (xii, riffing on Marx). This is partly because there are always, and have always been, “many modernities” (xi).
Modernity “becomes especially vague when dislodged from the ideal-typical, neo-evolutionary theoretical framework that classically encased it, defining it less in reference to the ‘real’ world than by contrast to that other chimera, ‘tradition.’” Binary contrasts of this sort, they argue, are signs of “ideology-in-the-making” as “they reduce complex continuities and contradictions to the aesthetics of nice oppositions” (xii).
And, ultimately, to the structural clarity of myth: “It should no longer need saying that the self-sustaining antinomy between tradition and modernity underpins a long-standing European myth: a narrative that replaces the uneven, protean relations among ‘ourselves’ and ‘others’ in world history with a simple epic story about the passage from savagery to civilization, from the mystical to the mundane. . . . The story is, in fact, a Progress. It tells of the inexorable, if always incomplete, advancement of the primitive into civil society, of improvement in his material circumstances, of the rationalization of his beliefs and practices” (xii).
As Bruno Latour has put it, the only binary we’re left with is the one between Us and Them.
All salutary cautions. And yet people living in the past few centuries have thought of their world in precisely these binary terms. Some have advocated novelty over tradition, others standing athwart the battlements and shouting Stop. Let’s suppose they are wrong about the situation they’re in: But isn’t our perception of being modern constitute an important feature of the world we inhabit?