What Is Modernity?: A Response to Benavides’s Conception of Modernity

by Shaun Terry

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “their,” and “theirs” to refer to imagined persons)


Benavides’s point seems to be that modernism may have always existed within Abrahamic religions and that these religions provided fertile ground in the West on which to plant the seeds of modernism’s most pronounced characteristics. Benavides also gives examples of modernism in non-Abrahamic religions but he focuses more on the Abrahamic religions.

An interesting point that Benavides makes is how thinkers in the West have tried to understand scientific facts as in accordance with the will of a jealous god—at least in theory, rendering incompatible potential investments in magic (pp. 190-1). Something like, The world works as it does by God’s will, and looking outside God and His laws is (at least) foolish. This has the potential effect of legitimating scientific engagements, and it seems reasonable to state that, to some degree, this potential has been realized.

That said, Benavides’s way of discussing science strikes upon an irony. Central to his thesis is the notion that self-reflexivity lies (likely in conjunction with other aspects) at the core of modernism. On p. 188, Benavides refers to Elvin to say that one characteristic of modernism lies in “power over nature in the form of capacity for prediction.” Here, Benavides, by way of Elvin, appears intent on defining science. However, science was not framed in terms of predictive power until Karl Popper proposed Falsificationism as a response to backward-looking—and, in Popper’s eyes, insufficiently capable of prediction—theories from Marx and Freud. Today, we may properly assert that there are issues worthy of attention in referring to Marx’s and Freud’s theories as “scientific,” but this does not seem to have been the consensus before the early-to-mid-20th century. Benavides seems to clearly illustrate historical ties between science and modernism, as well as other issues.

One issue that Benavides is concerned with is that of ritual. On p. 196, Benavides mentions how ritual goes from the religious context to the economic. He refers to E. P. Thompson’s, “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism,” in which Thompson says, on p. 90: “In all these ways—by the division of labour; the supervision of labour; fines; bells and clocks; money incentives; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports—new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed. (found in Past and Present).” Work habits become banalized and serve to mark out our lives in industrial routines.

I am not convinced that Benavides does not fall short of completion in his analysis, though. Perhaps modernism is really about something more than the tension between aesthetics and technology, more than (the surely fraught) social relations and power, more than scientism, more than the internalization of ritual, and more than the dismissal of mysticism, among other points that Benavides raises. Is it not also true that modernism supposes that anyone can have whatever they want, given certain constraints (the accomplishment of any wish-fulfillment requires time and resources)?

At the end of section II, on the top of p. 190, Benavides suggests something that approaches the idea that modernist promises are unlimited, but he never fleshes the idea out. To consider a kind of genealogy of modernism, the Enlightenment was born of the Renaissance, which occurred as a kind of colonization of thoughts and practices of Arabic Muslims in Al-Andalus (Moorish Iberia). In essence, the Moors had translated Classic texts, and Western Christians decided, while killing and forcibly removing the Moors, to appropriate these Moorish practices. The practice of translation and reinterpretation of Greek and Roman texts eventually gave way to the Enlightenment period. Arguments made during the Enlightenment helped to justify colonization and what is sometimes referred to as “primitive accumulation.”

In the West, there has historically been a legitimate debate over what are termed “positive” and “negative” conceptions of freedom. Under the Enlightenment, freedom has been conceived of in such a way that fulfillments of desires for some, at the expense of the denial of needs for others, is sometimes thought of as a reasonable idea in the formation of, and debate over, social relations.

This liberalization of the promise of material gain, and the supposed happiness that might come with it, appears different from what would have been allowed by social relations in Rome, Greece, or in Europe’s feudalistic Middle Ages. However, this brings up another complication in Benavides’s argument.

When Benavides, on p. 190, claims that modernism has represented a tendency away from transcendentalism, perhaps it could be said that what he is tracking is the replacement of transcendental grace with a kind of transcendental satisfaction—i.e., instead of thinking of “a rejection of any notion of transcendence,” perhaps one form of transcendence substitutes for another. Or, we could think of it as secular enrichment in this life replacing sacred salvation in the afterlife. Finding satisfaction in one’s life by gaining material wealth seems to increasingly become a driving force for people’s regular actions. Previously, working to survive while adhering to religious laws may have more often been thought of as reasonable and good in its use of one’s time. This appears to be so true that even those who seek sacred salvation might sometimes still seek prosperity while they remain on Earth. No longer does “the virtuous poor” bear any real social significance.

Benavides, Gustavo. “Modernity.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. ed. by Mark Taylor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1998. 196-204.