The Modern Spirit of Asia:

Modern spirits

posted by Jason Ānanda Josephson

The Modern Spirit of Asia is like a brilliant pencil sketch for an uncompleted oil painting. Something inspiring appears in abstract, but the necessary shading hasn’t been done, and any effort at further illumination will necessarily transform what is depicted. The book traces in provocative outline the recent histories of India and China, arguing that neither formulations of modernity were merely derivative or defective imitations of the West, and that the degree of colonial encounter entwined religion and nationalism differently for each. While its larger goals are admirable, it fails to justify them by doing truly original research or rigorous theorizing. I agree with many of Peter van der Veer’s conclusions, but I fear that anyone who isn’t already singing from the same hymnal isn’t going to be converted.

The Modern Spirit is a literature review for a marvelous project that never takes place. Van der Veer’s groundbreaking previous work, Imperial Encounters, looked at similar issues in the entangled system of empire and took some effort to trace some of the specific connections and specific flows of discourse. In The Modern Spirit, however, the individual actors and historical sources have begun to drop out. Van der Veer discusses events like the Taiping Rebellion and the World Parliament and drops names like Vivekananda and Max Müller, all topics that have already been studied by others and explicated in reference to specific social conditions or political agendas. This is a history, more or less, that has already been told.

To be fair to The Modern Spirit’s intentions, we are being asked to treat it at a different level of abstraction: not as a work of political history, but as a piece of “theory” or perhaps abstract social science. It asks to be seen in the legacy of historical sociology like that of Max Weber and Robert Bellah. But at the same time it is not comparable to those other models, because van der Veer resists theorizing and fails to work out social mechanisms or generalizable effects—The Modern Spirit aspires to neither Erklären nor Verstehen. For all their flaws, Weber and Bellah were most interested in figuring out why societies took different paths. But The Modern Spirit aims to uncover no deep structures and rejects the idea of social, cultural, linguistic, or economic determinations. This would be fine in a work of history, but The Modern Spirit also largely disregards particular historical branching points and primary sources, is largely indifferent to the specific mechanisms of power, and is mostly uninterested in explicating the rationales behind the decision of individual actors. Put in simple terms, I think if van der Veer had done archival research, ethnographic fieldwork, serious translations of any Chinese or Hindi sources, or a close reading of primary texts, The Modern Spirit would have been a different and better book.


To boldly summarize, The Modern Spirit is sociology without tracing social structures, anthropology without fieldwork, history without primary sources, and discourse studies without close text analysis. It is synthetic. Synthetic scholarship can be very valuable, but if and only if it adds something significantly to the sources it works over. Despite these shortcomings, the book does do some valuable negative work, such as blocking out the idea that India or China represent failed or imitative versions of modernity, and reminding readers unfamiliar with the critique of the categories of “religion” and “secularism” that both are Eurocentric, and for that it is useful. But a prospective reader is going to want to know: what are its positive contributions to social theory?

The work asks us to take seriously at least two terms of theory—“interactional history” and “syntagmatic chain.” Van der Veer’s Imperial Encounters is an excellent example of interactional history or “imperial modernity,” but in The Modern Spirit we don’t really have China and India interacting, nor are the details of their imperial encounters worked out. Because The Modern Spirit retreads the contours of pre-existing Euro-American scholarship, it always locates India and China in interaction with European powers and largely misses the points where India and China interacted with each other. I cannot read Hindi or Sanskrit, but even a cursory look through Chinese language materials shows a long history of Chinese accounts of South Asia—from Buddhist-inspired narratives like the 693 Datang Xiyu ji (大唐西域記, “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”) to the compilation of references to India in the 1798 Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao (四庫全書總目提要, “Annotated Catalog of the Complete Imperial Library”) to strategic reflections on not only South Asia but the European position in it by Wei Yuan (魏源) (see especially Haiguo Tuzhì, 海國圖志)—as well as many periods of interaction between various Indian kingdoms and China. All of these are ignored because of the work’s exclusive focus on Western scholarship. Indeed it would seem there is a whole world of relevant Sino-Indian interactional history that is largely absent. I like the idea of interactional history, even think it is vitally important, but by bracketing off most of the interactional networks in this case, The Modern Spirit doesn’t live up to its promise.

The second, and chief, innovation of the work is supposed to be its reference to the “syntagmatic chain of religion-magic-secularity-spirituality,” which provides its organizing structure. When van der Veer introduces this term he gestures toward Ferdinand de Saussure. Let me provide a little background for this term of art: In Cours de linguistique générale, Saussure discusses two different sorts of semiotic relations, what he refers to as syntagmatic and associative. A syntagma or syntagmatic chain is a set of terms that gain their shared meaning from the linear nature of language. For example, “and” is a common conjunction, “stop” is a verb, “shop” is another verb, so they mean different things when they occur separately, but placed in the syntagmatic chain (in sequence) “Stop and Shop” one is referring not to a set of activities, but to a supermarket chain. So that is not what van der Veer means by syntagmatic chain; he probably means something more like what Saussure calls an “associative series,” but even then not in a way Saussure would recognize. The issue is not fidelity to Saussure. Scholars often ventriloquize their own conceptual innovations with reference to more famous progenitors. The real issue is that the “syntagmatic chain” seems like a Band-Aid, masking a complex set of relations the text doesn’t want to consider. They are an excuse not to think about how these terms relate to each other either in language, law or abstraction.

Put differently, the “syntagmatic chain of religion-magic-secularity-spirituality” suggests connections—ligature and opposition—that it refuses to explore. Despite its pretentions, the terms “religion,” “magic,” “secularity,” and “spirituality” did not emerge during the same historical periods, nor do they determine equal shares of the conceptual space. I agree that these terms have entangled meanings and that they are more or less important, but their relationship needs to be articulated at either a metalevel or in specific texts. How does changing the ground of one change the meaning of another? One should not just say they are all related, and then fail to specify how.

The main issue is not Saussurian linguistics, but that The Modern Spirit continually blurs meta- and object-level language. When it uses the term “spirituality,” for example, are we meant to take this as something van der Veer’s sources are using or something that he is contributing as a redescriptive part of his analysis? If it is not his, but the categories of empire, then where do they exist in laws, language or texts? The problem is that half a dozen different Chinese terms could be used to translate “spirituality,” and some of those same terms could be used to translate “magic” or “religion” or “ethics.” In no case does van der Veer provide an example of Chinese intellectuals actually encountering the word “spirituality” and then trying to figure out how to translate it, nor does he spell out why he decides some term or Chinese institution should be slotted into the category “spirituality” as opposed to some other term. That would seem to indicate that there is a different set of distinctions being made in Chinese, ones that surely changed with the imperial encounter, but I would suggest not according to this “syntagmatic chain.”

To turn to my own research (The Invention of Religion in Japan) for a moment, I’ve shown how Japanese culture was transformed in the nineteenth century as indigenous traditions were reassembled according to new categories for the secular, religion, and superstition. But in order to show how that worked, I made sure not to assume what counted as a “religion” in the period, but to look at the places where Japanese translators and policymakers themselves made comparisons. This made it possible to trace how and in detail the manner by which Japanese taxonomies operated both before and after the European encounter. So I don’t see my terms of analysis as an undifferentiated mass, but as a contested hierarchy worked out in specific texts for different reasons.

Before concluding, I want to note that the broader issues I have highlighted are not just van der Veer’s problems, but rather a symptom of the whole discipline. Having partially weathered a decades-long assault on metanarratives, false universalism, and “totalizing” theories, followed by a few years of rather poetic but less useful language-games of second-order poststructuralism, much of the contemporary humanities and social sciences is stuck between a kind of radical particularity (nominalism) which is frightened of generalization, and a kind of theorizing that doesn’t want to name itself as such. It is symptomatic that van der Veer was forced to defend the very act of comparison in a discipline where discussions of India and China can’t help but be comparative, because the study of both requires translation into European languages. Van der Veer is right—we are all are in a comparative business and need to think on those terms. I’d argue that retreating to the sociological survey, the functional magnetic resonance imagings of neuroscience, or philological techniques are not solutions in and of themselves, but temporary gestures. Nor can we merely deconstruct or shut down conversation while claiming to reject all theory. Scholars are already invested in theoretical and comparative goals: in ethics and politics, aims and assumptions, that they rarely make explicit. But because of a taboo on a sort of generalization, when positive theorizing appears, as it does in The Modern Spirit, it often has to do so on the sly, and without being fully committed to. So for all our sakes, I would like to use this venue to call on our respective fields to permit a chastened, humbled, “provincialized,” perhaps post-post-colonial form of theorizing back, out of the shadows, and into our work.

Specifically, I have been working toward what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that different sociological techniques are required to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence. Put differently, a new kind of sociology is necessary to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. What I want to call for is the equivalent move in Religious Studies. I want and am working toward a “Reflexive Religious Studies” that examines those societies in which the concept of “religion” and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as higher-order concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions. But I think crucially it would not merely re-stage preexisting scholarship, but enlist the tools of historical research, anthropology, and discourse analysis to trace these shifts empirically.

* * *

There is a standard kind of review that criticizes an author for not writing a different book (e.g. your book on Voltaire would have been much better if you had actually made it about Rousseau). I want to make clear that this is not what I’m suggesting. I meant what I said earlier about the book being a beautiful sketch for a future project. I like where it is pointing, but don’t think it has gotten there. I do not want to leave the reader of this comment with the sense that van der Veer’s book is weak; it works admirably well as a synthesis of normally disparate secondary literature, and charts a number of well-pointed critiques. In the first case, it is useful because it places China and India on the same plane (without suggesting that they are both failed modernities) and thus will facilitate dialogue between South Asian and East Asian scholarship. In the second case, it does a lot of valuable negative working knocking out sociological commonplaces of modernization theory and civilizational essentialism. (I haven’t had the space to dwell on the book’s many virtues here and I suggest you read Richard Madsen’s piece for balance).

I want to suggest, however, that the book could have been even better, especially had van der Veer gotten his hands dirty by doing fieldwork, going to archives, closely reading texts, or even really committing to working out theoretical mechanisms. Then it might have really avoided the morass of retreading old pathways. In the oral exchange, van der Veer referred to scholars of my sort as “archive rats” and while I too would resist fetishizing the archive, I think the conception that one has to be either a theorist or someone who cares about the details is a false choice. All of this is to say that I think of van der Veer as my senior brother-in-arms working to dispel similar myths about civilizations, modernization, Eurocentrism, and fixed categories like religion/secularism. Maybe my whole argument has really been just an impolite form of praise, a way to say that I basically agree with van der Veer’s aims, but not their implementation.

Tags: , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.