The coloniality of modernity

The Daily Guardian

In 2002, an interesting paper titled “Early Modernity: The History of a Word” was published in The New Centennial Review of the Michigan State University Press. The paper was authored by Prof. Patricia Seed, then a historian at Rice University, who specializes in early modern and colonial European eras. In the paper, she traced the origins of the word “modern” to the sixth century C.E. (then A.D.) when it was first used in northern Italy. This was when the Roman Empire still existed but northern Italy was conquered and ruled by Germanic Ostrogoths. According to Prof. Seed, the word modern made its debut in the context of architecture when the Ostrogothic ruler of northern Italy encouraged wealthy Roman families to undertake reconstruction of public buildings at their private expense. The outcome was that the new buildings had a different architectural style which distinguished them from those built under Roman imperial rule. Praising the contribution of a particular family for its reconstruction of the Theater of Pompey, the scribe of the Ostrogothic ruler called the family “a careful imitator of antiquity and the noblest founder of modern works” (translation). In this context, according to Prof. Seed, the word modern simply meant “different” without any value being imputed to it, neither positive nor negative.

Subsequently, for a brief period, the word doubled up as a synonym for “new”, thereby bringing in the element of time. In other words, the word modern was not only a reference to the time that something belonged to, it was equally, and perhaps more importantly, a reference to the period it did not belong to. Around the early fourteenth century, it was significantly used in Dante’s Divine Comedy wherein it acted as a synonym for contemporary. Importantly, it was used to compare the present with the past, with the present faring poorly compared to the past. Simply put, the use of modern was a coded criticism of the present.

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