At the Edge of Postmodernity – Reflections on the Contemporary from the Global South




The term ‘contemporary’ is often used synonymously with ‘the present’. It is often used to connote ‘newness’. But there is another sense where it refers to the idea of inhabiting the same time (as for example in the statement: ‘Gandhi was a contemporary of Tagore’) or of the industrial revolution being contemporaneous with the emergence of the steam engine. In this sense, it is not newness but ideas of simultaneity, co-presence, coevalness etc that are sought to be invoked through the use of the term ‘contemporary’.

The problem of the contemporary is therefore also a problem of multiplicity, of many different modes of being, and in a sense, can be seen as distinct from the idea of ‘the present’. For the category of ‘the present’, on the other hand, assumes a singularity and lies at the root of all attempts to understand ‘our times’ in relation to some specific characteristic or feature in relation to which others become ‘the past’. Thus ‘our time’ could be defined in terms of the ‘information technology and communications revolution’, ‘the digital revolution’ or the ‘era of post-truth’ and ‘populism’ and so on.

Not only do such descriptions suggest a certain sense of linearity, of some societies or modes of life, ‘being ahead of’ or ‘behind’ others, they also seem to suggest that there can be some single element that defines a particular time. Usually terms like the ‘time of globalization’ or ‘era of post-truth’ are meant to suggest that globalization and social media-driven post-truth conditions are dominant and driving forces of these times – as though every other logic is subordinate and subservient to the dominant logic defied by them.

Thinking about Time and temporal concepts from the global south is a daunting task, especially so because we are always in the position of Alice in the Queen’s race – always running to stay in the same place. The pace of change is determined elsewhere and that is where ‘the Present’ always is. The global south is always somebody else’s past. We had barely begun to be modern than we are told that modernity is passé – it is a chapter long over. We are now in the heart of a new condition, the excitingly throbbing condition of postmodernity. The old and stolid structures and sensibilities of the modern have now been overtaken by the postmodern. This was a condition, we were told, that marked the exhaustion of and widespread incredulity towards metanarratives. If that was how Jean-Francois Lyotard read the new condition, there were others like Jean Baudrillard who marked this new phase by the advent of the hyperreal, of the high point of consumer society where the simulacrum and the map preceded ‘the real’. Baudrillard’s ‘precession of the simulacrum’ was indeed an uncanny anticipation of the post-truth condition where reality is carved out through the operations of fictive and often utterly false narratives. At one level, this was the result of the explosion of new media technologies – the television and the digital revolution whose breathtaking powers have continued to unfold over the past decades with ever greater vigour.

Marxists like Frederic Jameson saw in the arrival of the postmodern – especially the postmodern aesthetic – the expression of the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’. To Jameson, this new postmodern aesthetic represented an irruption of the popular in the form of the commercial where kitsch became representative of the new aesthetic. Kitsch too mimicked the original but unlike parody that entertained a secret admiration for that which it parodied, the kitsch was either irreverent and defiant or utterly indifferent to it. Jameson also saw in this new development, primarily originating in the American art scene, the rise of a new sensibility that rejected of all kinds of critique and even irony – a simple affirmation of the new ‘aesthetic’ of late consumer capitalism. Other Marxists like David Harvey began looking at the transformed nature of the economic entity called ‘capitalism’ itself. Harvey announced that the condition of postmodernity was but the reflection of major changes in the nature of capitalism’s production apparatus itself, with flexible accumulation taking over from old-style Fordist production system.


If the 1980s and 1990s represented the high point of ‘postmodernity’ in the Euro-American world, these were the decades of tremendous social unrest and violent conflicts in most parts of the global south. Largely directed against what most social and political analysts then saw as the limits of ‘arrested development’ or of a ‘retarded capitalism’, many of these conflicts were directed against the attempts imposed by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF to open up their economies to global capital and to do away with public spending, especially on the social sector.

In the annals of the global south, the decade of the 1980s, we might do well to recall, is remembered as the decade of the Debt Crisis. Almost all of Latin America and large parts of Africa were reeling under the weight of debts, the servicing of which was draining those economies of any possibility of building up their own capabilities for things like public health care, education or transport systems etc. This condition, we might recall, led to a situation in which eventually Mexico, unable to pay back accumulated debts, defaulted in 1982, to be soon followed by Brazil. Using that as an excuse, the IMF and WB stepped up their intervention in the southern economies across the world in order to ensure what they called ‘macroeconomic tightening’. Structural Adjustment Programmes were administered to them across the board.

As is well known, heavily indebted countries face enormous pressure to generate foreign exchange in order to service their debt and purchase essential imports. The international financial institutions often offer financial assistance to countries in this situation and use their leverage to compel the countries to accept structural adjustment and stabilization policies.

This decade therefore saw ‘reverse flows’ of wealth from the South to the North. Susan George had calculated that by the end of the 1980s, the third world had transferred to the North, in real prices, a sum equivalent to six Marshall Plans.

East Asia was, by and large, an exception to this trend. South Korea and Taiwan adopted an export-led growth strategy and Japan embarked on a major developmental intervention, challenging US-based old-style capitalism with new forms of production organization. By the 1990s, China too had embarked on the path of an authoritarian capitalist development. Thus, while the African economies shrank and Latin America stagnated, East Asian economies were flourishing in their own highly skewed ways, particularly in terms of their high levels of economic growth, rapid modernization and spiralling inequality. However, around the end of the decade, in 1997, almost all of East Asia was gripped by an unprecedented financial crisis that wiped out hard earned savings of large numbers of middle class people.

By and large, however, it was towards the end of the decade of the 1990s that many countries of the global south, including India saw a rapid integration of their economies with the metropolitan economies in the West. In India, this was the decade that signaled the arrival of the consuming middle classes. The decade of the 1980s had seen the gradual collapse of the Nehruvian developmental model built around the idea of import substituting industrialization that had emphasized the curtailment of current consumption so that individual and family savings could be marshaled for the purpose of capital formation. By the beginning of the 1980s, this model was already imploding. Consumerist desires, stoked and indeed, called into being, by a combination of the state and the new capital that had already appeared on the scene, were putting in place a new kind of desiring-consuming subject. By the 1990s, new media technologies ranging from satellite television to the Internet later in the decade, had made their appearance.

It was actually only around the beginning of the 2000s that we could say, we were properly in the midst of at least some of the developments gestured to by the theorists of the postmodern. Or so it seemed, at least for some time. I say this, because, even as the Indian middle classes and sections of the intelligentsia got ready to welcome the postmodern, hyperreal, new world of consumption, tough battles had been going on all the while, where tribal and peasant communities had been locked in a life and death struggle with the corporate capital-state nexus. This complicates our temporal picture quite a bit but I shall return to that in a moment.


It is interesting that by the time we got our heads around the question of postmodernity, strong rumours already started floating in of the passing of the postmodern itself. Even as we were celebrating the arrival of the urban, with all its new media forms, new cultures of consumption, the turn away from the avant garde to popular cinema and the end of critique and perhaps of politics as such – celebrating our postmodern so to speak, we started hearing the rumours of the end of postmodernism.

The passing of the postmodern was announced, not surprisingly, in the domain of art and aesthetics, which had been the one to usher it in, in the first place. Thus for instance, a symposium held in 2004 in the University of Pittsburgh, framed its concerns around the following question: “In the aftermath of modernity, and the passing of the postmodern, how are we to know and show what it is to live in the conditions of contemporaneity?” [Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds2008), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, Durham: Duke University Press]

In this symposium that brought together some of the most important art and social theorists from across the globe, the above question that thematized its key concern, was actually shot through with an anxiety. And the anxiety is spelt out quite graphically in the following extract from the ‘Preface’ authored jointly by the three editors of the volume that emerged from that symposium:

“In the twilight of postmodernism, and the resurgence of modern imperialisms and ancient fundamentalisms, three generations of thinkers came together to assess how the ideas of the modern, the postmodern and the contemporary were engaging these apparently unparalleled circumstances.” (xiii-xiv, emphasis added)

The reference above to the resurgence of what has been called ‘ancient fundamentalisms’ should alert us to the fact that what perhaps heralded this so-called demise of the postmodern was the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It is as if all the wonderful and exciting stories – those of simulacra and the hyperreal, of consumption and kitsch and the sundry deaths of theory, art, metanarrative, history and politics – were all suddenly over, as we sat staring at our television screens, watching the symbols of an arrogant empire crumble before our very eyes.

And yet, what was the assault on the twin towers but the blasting of the postcolonial present out of the continuum of History, to steal Walter Benjamin’s expression – out of the continuum of History with a capital H. In that history, the postcolonial past – or to use the more current term, the past of the global south – lay buried, as epoch after epoch passed us by in quick succession.

It is not entirely unexpected then that one of the editors of the volume remarks in his ‘Introduction’ that,

“The nagging concern right now is that, for all their history as outcomes of modernity, does not the evolution of these qualities amount to a fundamentally changed situation? Have not forces that preexisted modernity returned unavoidably, do they not insist on the validity of other worldviews? Modernity has not, for decades, been able to maintain its division of the world into those who live in modern times and those who, while being physically present, were regarded as noncontemporaneous beings.” (5, emphasis added)

In a sense, the idea of the organizers of the symposium in invoking the idea of contemporaneity is precisely to be able to accommodate this noncontemporaneous-yet-physically-present being in its notion of ‘epochality’, so to speak.

So far so good, we might say. After all, thinkers like Reinhart Koselleck and Ernst Bloch did, in their own time, talk of the ‘contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous’ (Koselleck) and ‘simultaneity of the non-simultaneous’ (Bloch). This way of thinking of contemporaneity certainly opens up the possibility of thinking of the heterogeneous forms of life that inhabit the same time. In the language of Johannes Fabian, it constitutes a recognition of the ‘coevalness’ of the other.

And yet, a difficulty remains with this idea of ‘contemporaneity’ insofar as it continues to see the ‘other’ as ‘forces that preexisted modernity’ or as resurgence of some ancient fundamentalisms. I say this not to complain, yet again, of Eurocentrism but to return to the point I made at the very beginning: how does one think of Time and temporal concepts from our location in the global south? Why is thinking about Time such a daunting task?

It certainly does not help to say, in some bland fashion, that we have different conceptions of Time; that ‘their’ conception of Time is ‘linear’ while ‘ours’ is ‘cyclical’ and so on. Nor do I want to repeat the point made quite often by scholars like Ashis Nandy that nonmodern peoples live outside History, in myths and that history has only one way of relating to the past. Nandy’s distinction is problematic because, in his rendering, myths constitute a different way of recalling or relating to the past from that of history. Now this may be quite misleading because the very distinction between the past, present and future as three distinct and discrete modalities of Time is itself quite modern and may not be there in many nonmodern cultures. Myths and nonmodern, popular notions of Time often see the past, present and future as themselves co-present with one another. While all of these may be true, those are not the issues that I want to raise here.


My point rather, relates to the position of the global south in the entity that we might recognize as an integrated world economy, world market or capitalist system. If what was happening in the West (broadly speaking) during the 1980s and 1990s, was theorized by the thinkers in the West as the advent of a new epoch and a new sensibility that they called postmodernity, it is not my intention to say, ‘what about the non-West?’ or ‘what about the global south?’ The difficulty that I wish to point to relates to the fact that while changes in aesthetic, political and economic practices the West/ North were always theorized as epochal ones by theorists located there, changes, often radical, at many levels in the global south remained untheorized by thinkers or theorists based in the global south. Even when there were debates among scholars of the south, they were basically couched in terms of ‘modes of production’ (Asiatic mode, Oriental Despotism for instance) ‘unequal exchange’, ‘dependency’, ‘underdevelopment’ and so on. The question of what I have referred to as epochality, remains a preserve of the West/ North. All epochal transformations, all changes from one time to another, remain a preserve of the West/ North: modernity, postmodernity and now contemporaneity. At one level, the reason is fairly simple: that is where the global Present always is; it is the present forever. We in the global south are always the past wanting to be the present, always running to stay in the same place, while the future is continuously becoming present somewhere else.

This circumstance, of course, has to do with the fact that we see the world, the globe as one single entity that can have only one present and perhaps only one future. Marx and Marxists had long held that though different societies had different pasts – even if some did not have a history – they were all, thanks to the world-historical role played by capital and colonialism, now part of a single entity which could now look towards a common future.

But that surely is not all. Our idea of what constitutes the present, what if any, is the defining feature of that moment we see as the present is likewise determined by a way of thinking that continuously privileges only certain features and developments as representing the frontier of Time. These features, if we look carefully, have to do with the privileging of the economic and the technological. We could do a thought experiment to make this point clearer. What if we were to say that one of the most cutting edge developments of the twentieth century was the process called decolonization – a process that was resumed in the last decades of the century by turning to the decolonization of the imagination and decolonization of thought? What if we were to say that the cutting edge of developments in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is the battle for the reclaiming of the commons? What if we were to argue that like in another time, when the Russian and Chinese revolutions were seen as instantiating another future-become-present, so too do current processes of decolonization? In the context of climate change, for example, and the search for and aesthetic of slowness and smallness, what if we were to argue that the future is likely to be closer to the present of the global south than that of the West/ North?

This certainly is a possibility. We can start telling the story of time as the story of the global south rather than as the story of the West with hugely interesting results. However, this way of looking at Time still stays within the highly problematic framework of periodization – for periodization always has to look for a single principle aligned to which it divides time into neat segments. The idea of the contemporary that I want to insist on here, however, is one that moves away from the problematic of periodization, recognizing that there are always multiple modes of being and no single principle can allow us to tell all the stories together.

What is true of the global or of the world-economy is equally true of specific societies. These societies too are internally differentiated and heterogeneous and there is no such thing as a ‘national time’. Nation Time in fact, represents merely the hegemonic presence of the global moment within a society like India’s. In this sense, the struggles of the tribal and peasant communities against land acquisition, for example, can be read as refusals to let their own present become inscribed as the nation’s past.

Equally importantly, we need to recognize that the neat separation of the past, present and future does not always work. An aspect of thinking the contemporary and of our specific contemporary has to do with ways in which ideas, objects and figures of ‘the past’ can re-emerge in the present, and re-write its script in fundamentally different ways. Thus for example the resurgence of the politics of Hindutva in the 1990s and the 400-year old Babri mosque as the centre of dispute, initiates a process of cultural transformation that completely changes the terrain of the so-called present. Or take the re-emergence of the figure of Ambedkar, for instance, not merely as a figure of ‘his times’ but equally powerfully, of our times, or of the resurgence of global Islam as a significant feature of our ‘present’: all these need to be understood and grasped not merely as some ‘remnants’ or ‘survivals’ of the past or as some kind of ‘revival’ (‘revivalism’ in an older language) of the past but as important elements of ‘our times’. In a very significant sense, they never quite went away though they may not have been visible to us moderns. Recognizing them as important elements of our present is also to underline that we cannot just drug ourselves into believing that the undesirable among them will simply disappear one day because they are the past.

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