Friday, January 02, 2009

Modern Social Imaginaries

At the behest of a friend, I just read Charles Taylor's recently published Modern Social Imaginaries, which offers a pointed intervention into the debate about the relationship between "modernity" and "modernization," which was of course a central subject of Mandarins of the Future.

Taylor's core concept is that there exist popular "imagineries" (idea sets about how life is and should be led, in order to instantiate a "community") that are more important for defining the content of modernity than elite "theories." This is a useful distinction, albeit largely derivative of Benedict Anderson's original and much-cited phrase. What I like most about the way Taylor describes this concept is that it suggests a way to apply methods from intellectual history to popular ideas. Unfortunately, this isn't what Taylor actually does with the concept, choosing instead to focus most of his attention on the writing of the usual suspects in most debates about the rise of modern ideas in the from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries (Montaigne, Pope, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Mill).

I also like that the book suggests a way to revivify the generally scorned Hegelian concept of Zeitgeist. Certainly, it is a useful antidote to the unreconstructed, reductive bourgeois materialism (if you'll pardon my french) that subtends most discussions of the unity of the modernization process. Such discussions focus on the similarities of, say, the Japanese and German economies and demographic experiences, and ignore the fact that these two countries could scarcely feel more socially different if one of them were a paleolithic tribe.

The problem with all this is not that it's wrong, but that it's really pretty old hat. The entire "post-development" crowd (Escobar, Ferguson, Dirks, Chakrabarty, Kamali, and so on) along with various philosophers (Bauman, Volf, Eisenstadt) made the same basic point throughout the 1990s. What's more, Taylor doesn't makes his substantive case as strongly as he might have. Even though he claims that the intellectual payoff of his methodology is to "provincialize Europe," he ends up spending almost all his time focused on the evolution of, well, the European social imaginary. If provincializing Europe is really the point--that is, if the aim is to prove that there are multiple sharply contrasting modern social imaginaries that overlay a common material modernity--then wouldn't it have made better sense to spend time contrasting two really sharply distinct examples of "modern social imaginaries"? For example, Taylor would have made a far more powerful case if he had rigorously distinguished the evolution of the Japanese modern social imaginary from the European modern social imaginary, or the German social imaginary. As it was, I was left wondering whether the methodological distinction between theories and imaginaries really provides the foundational payoff for proving that there are "multiple" modernities.

Even if we ignore the evidentiary issue and assume that there actually are sharply distinct modern social imaginaries, it still seems to me that Taylor dances away from the key methodological problem with any concept of "multiple" imaginaries, or modernities, which is: what is the right unit of analysis? For example, can we speak today of the existence of a "European" social imaginary? Or are there still "Spanish," "French," and "English" social imaginaries? Or are there, actually, "Welsh," "Scottish," and "English" social imaginaries? Or "Glaswegian" and "Edinburgher" social imaginaries? It seems to me that all of these different social imaginaries exist as potentialities, and which ones get invoked depend on mood, leadership, circumstance. (Admittedly, this is the classic critique that a lumper and makes of a splitter. At the same time, it's a critique that must be met if the splitters are to convince any of the lumpers that they should stop lumping and start splitting.)

Finally, and most pointedly (because here's where there might be some policy payoff to the discussion), Taylor refuses to ask the tough moral question that his splitting would seem to me to demand. That is: are some sorts of social imaginaries more "useful," in terms of creating a stable polity and productive economy? That's a highly un-PC question, of course, since it suggests that some "imaginaries" and some "cultures" may be "better" than others in utilitarian terms--and even asking utilitarian questions about culture is to the post-development crowd suspect. (Unless, that is, you want to celebrate the supposed superiority of the hybrid cultures of postmodern post-peasantries.)

By my sights, if Taylor is going to make the sorts of positive splits between different modernities, then he must realize that some people (like me) are going to draw normative conclusions from them. Sure, the old modernization theory claim that modernity is singular was nothing but a varnish for the implicit idea that the "Western" social imaginary would eventually become universal, and as such was culturally imperialistic. But claiming that modernity is multiple doesn't get us around that problem. Instead, it merely begs the questions of which of these multiple modernities is superior or inferior.

That's the key, tough question that Taylor's distinction demands. But he ducks it, to my disappointment.


Michael said...

Thanks Nils for an illuminating post. I must re-read the offending work!

North said...

Normative questions are pretty unfashionable in the social sciences these days.