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The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future by Prasenjit Duara

Reviewed by Feng-yi Chu, University of Oxford

The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future, Prasenjit Duara. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. £22.99. ISBN: 9781107442856.

There is much to be excited about in Prasenjit Duara's latest book, for the work has great potential for tackling three core problems that modern societies are facing today. Firstly, when encountering a series of setbacks in the late 1980s as communist regimes collapsed one by one and the capitalist model triumphed, what discourses, counter-ideologies, and strategies can contemporary left-wing intellectuals and activists offer to solve class inequality and the mass-scale exploitation of natural resources around the world? Secondly, when the concept of modernity has long been diagnosed as overly biased and Western-centric, how should the non-Western world respond to the problems brought by modernity, particularly the temptation of rapid economic development and the environmental destruction that inevitably follows, along with the demise of native cultures, social structures, political systems and local lifestyles? Similarly, when nationalism has been seen to be an imagined and socially-constructed ideology, one that has often been manipulated in ethnic and international conflicts, in what ways can people reimagine and redesign the global political system? All these questions point to a common theme: since competition and exploitation are the main goals of capitalism and nationalism, the two major products of modernity, they are leading us to a future of barrenness and conflict. In his new work, Duara is searching for and developing philosophies and strategies of sustainability to act as alternatives to Western modernity.


How does he approach such problems? Duara uses two concepts to lay the theoretical foundation for reconceptualising modernity: "traffic of transcendence" and circulation. Unlike past scholarly studies that usually see modernity as a socio-political rupture from transcendent religious power to secularized, “disenchanted” human authorities or sovereignties, Duara argues that the concept of contemporary sovereignty is still founded on the primitive imagination of (and need for) transcendence. Transcendence refers to “transcending the here and now of the world” (4). The concept thus implies a conventional structure of dualism between existing conditions (“here and now”) and a projected, imagined desirable status. As Duara notes, transcendence involves “a critique of existing conditions” and proposes “a non-worldly power and vision to morally authorize an alternative to the existing arrangements and structure of power” (ibid.). He argues that such qualities and attributes associated with religion in earlier periods can be redistributed in the creation of the secular—a process which he calls “traffic of transcendence.” Therefore, for Duara, “modernity” is another way of comprehending and explaining how humans master the world. The assertive rupture between pre-modern religious societies and modern secular societies is a false construct proposed by modern historians and researchers because they have accepted “the terms of methodological nationalism” too quickly.


If modernity is a particular conceptualization of linear history in which humans (and nation-states, their collective agents) are entitled to explore and to extract worldly resources, it is rational to search for substituted philosophies and alternative perspectives in order to resolve the crisis of modernity. Duara suggests that candidates for alternative cosmologies of sustainability and circulatory history can more easily be found in cultures or societies of “dialogical transcendence” (polytheist societies), especially in Asia, than those of “radical transcendence” (monotheist societies). The key themes—and the major contribution of the book—lie in this search and the theoretical discussion of historical sociology.


In Chapter 1, Duara shares his analyses and observations on some traditions and approaches of sustainability in Asia in order to respond to global crises of our time. He further offers detailed theoretical discussions on his concepts of circulatory history (Chapter 2), on the logic of global modernity in historical, economic, political and cultural terms (Chapter 3), as well as on transcendence, including the differences between what he calls “radical” and “dialogical” transcendence (Chapter 4). In Chapter 5, with a particular focus on East Asia, Duara applies his concept of transcendence and construes how religions (both faith-based ones, like Buddhism and Daoism, and redemptive societies, such as local folk religions) have been interacting deeply with politics. For example, this involves how regimes used religions to legitimate their authority and how they governed religious groups to control local politics. His comparative study of Japan and China sheds further light on the question of why “China was able to escape the confessional-communalism that deeply affected most other societies in Asia and perhaps the world” (193); the study is of significance for it adequately explains the diversity of strategies in the way different political communities in Asia reacted to Western modernity in the late nineteenth century. Chapter 6 demonstrates the idea of “traffic of transcendence,” illustrating how religious resources are channelled to build the ideal citizen for the nation-state in the cases of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. In Chapter 7, Duara views regionalism “in terms of the circulatory forces and networks that have created and often recreated interdependence” among societies in Asia and the world. Although, as he argues, “modern nationalisms sought precisely to create hard boundaries between communities by privileging a defining characteristic of community (say, language),” it is crucial to recognize the significant influence of the non-congruence created by various regional nexuses. The models of cultural circulation without state domination of identity, which can be seen in the maritime Asian networks and in contemporary Asian regional interdependence, offer invaluable intellectual resources to explore new possibilities for transnational and trans-local interactions.


In his conclusion, Duara introduces another attribute of transcendence, “hope”, asking whether hope can be seen to be “the kernel of the sacred?” (285). He finds the concept sharing a similarity with transcendence, particular dialogical ones: “Hope by itself is based on reasonable expectations and efforts made to realize them. In its pragmatic character, it is more open to reason than faith and belief” (285).


I believe that first exploring the essence of hope is able to facilitate our apprehension of the role of hope in transcendence: What is the essence of hope? What is "hope"? What do people have hope for? An intuitive answer could be: people hope for better conditions. It is the unbearable nature of the present condition that drives people to create transcendence. From this point of view, one of the basic facets of the sacred (transcendence) is dissatisfaction, discontent, and disappointment. And when encountering this disappointment and dissatisfaction, people usually react in two ways: One is reacting pessimistically, believing the miserable condition will remain the same and nothing can be done about it. The other is reacting hopefully and optimistically, expecting the miserable condition will be amended. Transcendence, i.e., a better future, more desirable conditions, and a view of projected utopia, emerges in the latter mentality.


Therefore, the process of transcendence, or the competition between different transcendence, is a perpetual movement. With hope, the movement continues, until we reach a state in which we are entirely enjoying our existence. Hence, I believe what Duara proposes is not to “overcome” transcendence, because, after all, it is a key element in human society that cannot be eradicated. Rather, he is suggesting, as he puts in the description at the beginning of his book, that the physical salvation “must become the transcendent goal of our times” to deal with the global crises we are facing nowadays.


However, a problem remains: although circulatory histories and sustainable traditions—which can be found in the cultures and the societies of Asia, as Duara illustrates—can become the means by which we may overcome modernity, it is also a matter of fact that in terms of the development of history, these societies have now been arguably dominated by capitalist logic, an ideology of linear history, and nationalisms. Perhaps the ultimate predicament is more material—the tremendous economic and political power held by those who are eager to accumulate their own wealth and to satiate their greed by exploiting resources of the world. If so, then the question will be: how could we gain enough power, particularly in economic and political terms, to stop them?


The conventional approach is suggested by the intellectuals and theorists of late nineteenth century Asia (and most of the Third World countries)—establishing a competitive powerful nation state to fight against the encroachment of imperialism and colonialism of Western nations. The Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yet-sen, for instance, stated that one of the most important functions of nation states is to counter balance the adverse effects of capital. (Sun Wen xuanji, 2006) Yet, this approach (i.e., methodological nationalism) is one of the marks that Duara endeavors to criticise. In many cases, political leaders of nation states in fact share vested interests with capitalists, bankers, and entrepreneurs of multinational corporations. By provoking and manipulating nationalism, they aim to mobilize the masses to attack (false) enemies for political gains. (e.g. Slavoj Zizek on the 2015 Paris attacks)


The lesson of Duara’s analysis is this: if we keep framing ourselves methodologically in nationalism, we can no longer obtain the power we need, nor can we formulate feasible strategies. He suggests that the establishment of cooperation within transnational and trans-local nexuses of organisations and societies can act as possible solutions. With resources gathered from individuals who share common values, goals, as well as care for the future sustainable development of the Earth, these communities and societies may possess competitive momentum not only to resist the exploitation by capitalists but also to demand assistance from nation states. Duara’s work offers us the theoretical foundation to avoid the hegemonic narratives of modernity, linear history, and nationalism. When starting to realise that the ways we used to think, to comprehend, and to live are not the only viable options, we will be able to think of new strategies to direct the world to a sustainable future.