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Technological change accelerated with the Industrial Revolution and extended to all processes on all continents from smelting and mining to power production, to transportation, agriculture, and housing, and to communications. This chapter focuses on the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet Union because these nations have been the major engines of technological change since the 1750s for economic reasons; political reasons; military concerns; and the competition between these states for resources and power. A crucial aspect of the Industrial Revolution, tied to the others, was the rise of steam power. Historians have had their differences over the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution, particularly its impacts upon living standards. Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations have begun to tame the Mekong River delta with scores of hydroelectricity projects that raise questions of post-colonial oustees and environmental degradation. After 1750 a revolution in transportation changed the face of human interaction, commerce, military thinking, diet, leisure, and much else.
As a graduate student in the Boston area, I once encountered a stray sheet of paper in a library, the blank side of which I wished to use for notes. It was a photocopy of a handwritten page from an archived document of 1833, which mentioned the impending visit of the famous Unitarian from India to Salem, Massachusetts, Raja Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), who was currently visiting Bristol. In preparation for his visit, the Unitarians were circulating a locket with a curl of his hair in it. I was taken aback, because, as an Indian, I had known of Roy as the founder of the reformist Hindu Brahmo Samaj, a deist and the ‘father of modern India’; I also knew that he had visited England, but had no idea of his planned visit to the United States or that he was even known there, let alone the reverence with which he was held by some. Roy died in Bristol in 1833 and so never did step on the shores of Salem, although his ideas and a lock of hair had represented him there.
Over the years, I picked up other scattered pieces of information that began to coalesce into a remarkable history of circulations. For one thing, the New England Transcendentalists, particularly, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, read Roy’s translations of the Upanishads and the principal Vedas, texts they deeply admired and cited profusely. They were doubtless familiar with the exchanges between Roy and the British Unitarians, which were published in 1824.
But did we kill God when we put man in his place and kept the most important thing, which is the place?
Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, p. 71
The true philosophical question is, How can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? … Each fact is more than its forms, and each form participates throughout the world of facts. The definiteness of fact is due to its forms; but the individual fact is a creature, and creativity is the ultimate behind all forms, inexplicable by forms, and conditioned by its creatures.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 20
If both action and agent are non-existent, where could there be the fruit born of action? Where there is no fruit, where can there be an experience? (MKVP 328, 329)
Just as a teacher, through psycho-kinetic power, were to create a figure, and this created figure to create another, that in turn would be a created.
In the same way, an agent is like a created form and his action is like his creation. It is like the created form created by another who is created. (MKVP 330)
Nagarjuna, c. 150–250 CE
This and the following two chapters deal centrally with the theme of religion, spirituality and transcendence in China, India and other parts of Asia from a historical perspective. In terms of the conceptual framework of the book, this part foregrounds the logic of C/culture in the non-Abrahamic traditions in relation to political, and more distantly, economic logics. As such, a principal goal of this chapter is to explore the relationships between circulatory historical ideas and practices and Cultural anchors of transcendence.
In this work of historical sociology, I explore various Asian social and cultural responses – actual and potential – to the unsustainable nature of global modernity as we have known it. While the period of this study covers the last hundred years or so, I range back in time to better understand these responses in our present moment that is characterized by three global changes: (1) the rise of non-Western powers; (2) the loss of authoritative sources of transcendence (e.g., Marxism or religion); and (3) the looming crisis of planetary sustainability.
I believe that these changes require us to revisit the paradigm of historical sociology deriving from the nineteenth century which essentially seeks to explain the rise of the West. This narrative was most sharply and exhaustively theorized by Max Weber (1864–1920), a scholar for whose work I have the greatest respect. Weber believed that it was only in the West that knowledge came to have “universal significance and validity.” The overarching theme of Weber’s historical sociology was to trace the long history of the rationalizing process which culminated in modern Western civilization. Rationalization, by which he meant world mastery by calculability and prediction, was made possible by the process of ‘disenchantment’ whereby religious and irrational knowledge came to be replaced by science and technological knowledge. Yet, this very process was itself germinated by certain forms of religious knowledge, ethics and disciplines – namely, Protestantism.
The globalization of the last few decades has brought forth some unexpected developments that in turn have recast our perspectives on modern history. Regions such as the European Union, Mercosur, NAFTA and ASEAN have emerged as intermediate zones between the deterritorializing impulses of capitalism and the territorial limits of nationalism. The search for markets and resources drives corporations. Not-for-profit organizations are also seeking out and creating new transnational spheres of activity, and their numbers have expanded dramatically over the last twenty years. At the same time, still other considerations tend to limit the transnational drive to more geographically and historically familiar regions.
Let us recall that the cartographic representation of Asia does not represent any natural or cultural unity. Indeed, Asia was merely the name of the area east of the Greek ecumene in ancient times. But that does not mean that there were no empires and networks of activity spanning and linking different parts of the region. Today, Asia, centered on ASEAN, is one of the more important – though by no means the only – core areas around which Asian societies and nations are coalescing. These coalescing networks evoke historical patterns of circulation whose salience evaporated or was marginalized by the centrality of national histories during much of the twentieth century.
In this chapter, I will develop the analytics to grasp what I am calling global modernity and in particular to grasp the crisis of sustainability that it has produced. At the same time, by viewing modernity in a wider global and historical framework, I will explore the conceptual grounds for a more sustainable modernity. Analysts of modernity from at least Hegel through the modernization theorists have explored the philosophical and sociological conditions of rational approaches that promise material and spiritual emancipation. Yet, these approaches have not only had exorbitant historical costs, but they have also generated counter-finalities – Jean-Paul Sartre’s term – and what Ulrich Beck specifies as ‘reflexive’ or ‘second’ modernity to refer to the modernity of advanced capitalist societies. ‘Second’ modernity is no longer concerned with development per se but with management of the risks that are typically compounded by earlier modernization achievements (such as the nuclear fallout from the Japanese tsunami). Today the counter-finality stares us in the face as the crisis of planetary sustainability in the Anthropocene.
By exploring the global and historical underside of modernity, we can gain a more comprehensive view of our situation today when the rest of the world is seeking to catch up with the North Atlantic model of life. Further, I want to show how an alternative set of dynamic concepts can lead us to recover a relatively neglected source of historical transformations that may be critical to achieving a sustainable modernity. Among these concepts is the notion of ‘transcendence’, which, in my view, works – among its other functions – to control, direct and channel the ceaseless circulatory networks that transform society. To anticipate a principal theme of the chapter, the ‘high Culture’ of transcendent ideas seeks to anchor, subordinate and deploy the ‘small culture’ of circulatory transformations to its own projects and purposes. What differentiates modernity from such earlier modes is not merely the accelerating transformations of capitalism, but also the disenchanted cosmology of linear time that brooks no limits to the human conquest of nature.
The chapter explores the fate of religious practices and ideas in the realms of dialogical transcendence in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Asia when these traditions sought to adapt to the new models of religion emanating from the powerful West. They responded in two ways – sometimes combining both. The first was the confessionalization of religion built around the self–Other distinction, which was sensed as critical to survival and advancement of nations in the new world.The second was the development of the modern realm of spirituality as a source of self- and collective formation that often accompanied the demarcation of the secular from the religious spheres.
In the last chapter we saw that the binary of religion and secularism developed from modern Western histories cannot quite capture the distinctiveness of Chinese religious and political experiences. Here by developing the idea of ‘traffic’ between the religious and secular spheres, I hope to grasp the impact of secularization more meaningfully. Accordingly, I will discuss the recent debates about secularism and then proceed to analyze several episodes, practices and figures in modern Asian history to illustrate how the transcendent and other religious ideas often do not disappear but, rather, migrate into different spaces and institutions with sometimes remarkably generative and equally constraining effects in the moral, social, political and even, environmental spheres (explored in the last chapter). The static binary upon which much social theory of the modern has been constructed has to be rendered mobile in order to grasp new possibilities for a sustainable world.
In this major new study, Prasenjit Duara expands his influential theoretical framework to present circulatory, transnational histories as an alternative to nationalist history. Duara argues that the present day is defined by the intersection of three global changes: the rise of non-western powers, the crisis of environmental sustainability and the loss of authoritative sources of what he terms transcendence - the ideals, principles and ethics once found in religions or political ideologies. The physical salvation of the world is becoming - and must become - the transcendent goal of our times, but this goal must transcend national sovereignty if it is to succeed. Duara suggests that a viable foundation for sustainability might be found in the traditions of Asia, which offer different ways of understanding the relationship between the personal, ecological and universal. These traditions must be understood through the ways they have circulated and converged with contemporary developments.
Three developments in the present century frame my study: the rise of Asia – in particular, China; the crisis of planetary sustainability; and the decline of transcendent and universalist ideals. To what extent are Chinese and Indian intellectuals and activists beginning to address these issues? I will first consider some Chinese approaches and subsequently also turn to Indian responses. The rise of China has been accompanied by a palpable need to understand the significance of this ascendance and project a vision of the world – a universalism – that does not reproduce the injustices of the earlier orders, whether under the empires or modern imperialism.
The Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 triggered a moral awakening in China which led to an intense debate about ‘universal values’ (pushi jiazhi) as a goal of the Chinese people. Supporters, both within and outside the Communist Party, upheld the idea of a universal human bond transcending nation and ideology, whereas opponents decried universal values (which include democratic values, human rights and philanthropy) as eyewash to advance Western capitalism. Chinese intellectuals and others have turned to resources within the Chinese tradition of universalism and transcendence. Given, as I will argue later in the book, that all nations originate in and remain deeply embedded in global norms and institutions, this is a welcome recognition of the necessity of aligning the global and circulatory conditions of national welfare. But approaches to sustainability, which we will consider here, have yet to be integrated with these espousals.
For the roughly ten years I have been researching, thinking about and writing this book, I was sure I wanted to call it “Transcendence in a Secular World” accompanied by a subtitle that included Asian traditions and sustainability. My editors at Cambridge University Press wisely counseled me to change the title to “The Crisis of Global Modernity.” Since the latter better captures the imperative of the work, I quickly saw the wisdom of their advice. However, in my personal journey, it remains a book that seeks to understand the wellsprings of human commitment to a larger good beyond or ‘after’ religion and across various historical circumstances. The existence of the so-called altruism gene is a neutral matter because epigenetic conditions may allow it to be expressed in many ways or not at all. Thus, if the book is first of all about the crisis of sustainability, it is also about the crisis of transcendence and the search for sources and resources of self and communal regeneration in historical cultures.
A book composed in the later stage of one’s career cannot but also represent a stock-taking of one’s previous writings, recognizing how ideas and materials that once seemed to belong to a different realm fit into this. As such it draws on several of my earlier works and also more recently published essays. In each case, however, the original essay or material is transformed in this study. The database has been empirically expanded and the arguments intellectually developed to contribute to the overall theses of this book.
When religious systems began to cease legitimating political structures over the last few hundred years, they were replaced, ultimately and in most cases, by secular nationalisms. After an extended period of religious wars in Europe from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, the Europeans, according to a broad understanding of secularism, brought religion under an enlarged state order and sought to protect minorities from majority religious groups, and, ideally, from the state itself. While much of this narrative may still hold, the complex and implication-laden history of the transition in its global context is still poorly understood. As we will see, nationalism inherited and reconfigured confessional polities rather than rejected or annulled religious politics in Latin Europe. As a kind of secularized confessionalism, the nation became an engine of conquest over peoples and nature.
Although the details of this transition are obscure, nationalists, reformers and leaders in Asian societies began to recognize the importance of both confessional nationalism and secularism in order to resist and compete with the Western powers from the late nineteenth century. In this chapter, I explore these processes in East Asia, where institutionalization was less affected by direct colonial rule than the rest of Asia (examined in Chapter 6). In order to track the impact of these forces, I will explore the changing relationship between state and religions in late imperial China, focusing mostly on the Qing period (1644–1911). I also examine the impact on segments and groups in Chinese popular religion who accommodated diversity by modes of dialogical transcendence. What became of the techniques of self-formation linking the self/body (shen) to the local and to universal ideals in late imperial China?
As I thought about hope, I suddenly became fearful. When Runtu had wanted the incense burner and candle stand, I had secretly laughed at him: he could never forget his idols. But is the hope that I now cherish also not an idol? Only his was within easy reach, mine was remote and harder to reach.
In the twilight, a stretch of jade green sand opened up beyond the sea in front of my eyes. Above in the deep blue sky there hung a golden moon. I thought hope is not something that can be said to exist or not. It is just like a road on the ground. On the ground itself there is no road, it is made only when many people walk on it.
Lu Xun, “Guxiang” (“My Old Home”)
This study has developed several interrelated arguments and I present them in their bald form, throwing caution to the winds, for the reader to assess them and their relationships to each other.
The model of modernity and modernization based on conquest of nature and driven by increasing production is no longer sustainable. The crisis it has created cannot be adequately addressed by the existing system of competing nation-states and heroic histories of national progress, but only by recognition that our histories are shared and our destiny, planetary. Archaic histories tended to merge their linear representations of community with cosmological and universal ideals, while contemporary histories have yet to join theirs with the cosmic imperatives of our times. These histories need to be guided by circulatory realities that index our common belonging in a battered and ever more fragile planet.