PROGRESS: Always "headlong" and "ill-advised.""Modernity" is probably the greatest historiographical cliché ever devised. It flexibly encompasses five hundred years of history; it concerns the entire world; it is general enough to cover the entire cradle-to-grave spectrum of human life. Any historical work that purports to be about modernity acquires ex officio a veneer of interest and significance. But since there are so many of them, no one can read them all, much less force them to agree on a sensible definition. Even when subsidiary clichés are deployed to cover up this lack of substance--for instance, "rationalization" and "industrialization"--they rarely add up to anything interesting or even workable.
- Flaubert, "Dictionary of Received Ideas"
My greatest objection to "modernity" as a concept, I think, is that it amounts to a resurrection of the Whig interpretation of history, albeit at a sort of otiose critical remove. To deal with this problem, several revisions have been devised, most notably the idea of "multiple modernities" and Bruno Latour's thesis that we're always relying on "modern"-"premodern" hybrids even as "modernity" insists we're dealing with pure types. None of these, however, can adequately address the central historiographical problem, which is that "modernity" is something you always move toward and never something you move away from (unless you move beyond it to "postmodernity").
Human societies can, I think, move in a variety of different directions. Let me give you an example: the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Russian economy. It was overwhelmingly an agricultural one, which is typically considered a sign of being "premodern." Yet in this case, the exact opposite was true. By the standards of the mid-eighteenth-century enlightened conventional wisdom, commerce was worthy of being ignored or restricted, while agriculture was the staff of the state and needed to be supported by appropriate economic policy. Accordingly, around the turn of the century, economic thought in Russian government circles divided into two rough groups: the "modern" free traders, who wanted to preserve Russia as a morally conservative agricultural nation, and the industrialists, who appealed to rather Petrine cameralist rhetoric and wanted the state to encourage industry by heavily involving itself in the economy. Which of these groups represented "modernity" and which did not? Show your work.
The Russian economy's eventual choice of the second path did not represent an advance along a linear path towards anything called "modernity." The choices it made, if not just then, then later, kept its structure close to its Petrine roots on the one hand and brought it to a twentieth-century crisis on the other. The real eigentlich-gewesen here, in other words, is the absence of modernity as such--a blind spot historians must accept.