Returning to Modernity? Shifting Historiographies and Histories of the Soviet Union, Germany, and China

AHA Session 198
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 6 (Washington Hilton)
Christopher J. Lee, University of the Witwatersrand
Sino-Japanese Debates on Modernity
Tani E. Barlow, Rice University
What Was German Modernity?
Geoff Eley, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

The panel seeks to explore how the notion of "modernity" works as a concept, analytical category, and interpretive paradigm for the discipline of history.  Having become a working category of analysis, our five participants argue, "modernity" now bears a history of its own urgently in need of critical historiographical conversation.  The guiding questions will be as follows: What kind of work does the concept of "modernity" perform in different historiographies?  What are the category's conceptual and ideological limitations and possibilities?  By engaging historiographies of the Soviet Union, Germany, China, Japan, Africa of the past two decades, the panelists seek to explore explanatory currency of the resultant concepts of "modernity"/"multiple modernities"/"colonial modernity" not only in relation to different national, transnational, and colonial settings but also to explore its making in relation to larger disciplinary developments (such as the rise of cultural history) and in the context of the global turn to neoliberal politics.

Professor Krylova’s paper addresses a paradoxical state of the study of “socialist modernity” in the field of Modern Russian History.  She asks how a pioneering comparative approach to the study of the Soviet socialist modernity that aimed at integrating the Soviet experience into transnational history of modernity and argued for the indispensability of this intellectual move for a better understanding of both Soviet and Western twentieth century trajectories, ended up with a vision of the Soviet socialist modernity as the familiar radical other of the West: anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-individualist.  Drawing on her research on post-World War II Soviet industrial society, she critically engages ahistorical implications and neoliberal logics that underlie the field’s discourse of “socialist modernity.” Professor Eley examines how historians might usefully historicize an understanding of the multifarious usages of the language of “the modern” and “modernity” posed both in the work of historians today and in the contemporary discourse of the later 19th and early 20th centuries? At the center of his paper is the changing explanatory valences of “modernity” as it appears in the languages of historiography during the past two decades and, in particular, in the debates of German historians of the period between the fin de siècle and the 1930s. In her paper Professor Barlow explicates a thesis of colonial modernity. She argues that it should be possible to consider modernity as an event rather than an ideology.  She proposes to consider event focused history writing which privileges the contemporaries as those who did the thinking about their given circumstances. She demonstrates her points by turning to the Chinese modernity debates which she reads against a historiographic convention that uses capital accumulation as a synonym for modernity.  Professors Julia Adeney Thomas (discussant) and Christopher Lee (chair) will contribute their own insights to the conceptual issues raised by the three panelists.  Professor Thomas has started to investigate historiographies of modernities and their histories in her work on Japanese political ideology. Professor Lee’s has worked on issues of modernity in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly southern Africa.

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