Christopher Glen / ecologies building blog 3: expectations of modernity

by Chris Glen

The title, the phrase, Expectations of Modernity, is taken from James Ferguson’s anthropology, subtitled Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (1999). It is a book — and a phrase — that I think with pervasively. “Expectations of modernity” enter into the fabric of interpretative communities, imagined communities, and imagined futures. They are part of the mishmashmesh of the humanities/social science, always already, for any situated predicament, best approached by flexible interdisiplinarity.

“Expectations of Modernity,” summarily used, are extraordinarily complex and I think operate at quite different levels of agency from individuals to States. Ferguson’s usage is primarily anthropological and that is my own core usage. We all live with our expectations, our deeply formed presumptions of “ways of life,” saturated by material goods and services, institutional arrangements, and so on. There is a further summary phrase, “national settlement” that refers to, say, the Canadian expectations of modernity — recognizable and knowable as “Canadian” as opposed to “American” (think of expectations of health services) or for here “Zambian.” Ferguson’s work is in large part about the unraveling of expectations of modernity on the Zambian Copperbelt, and the failure of modernity to adequately deliver pensioned old age security, and thus the need for cast off workers to make their way on the margins of urban settlement, or in the rural sector, back in Anthropogenic Impact I. One could cast this as Anthropogenic Impact 11 (half a century of vast open pit copper mines) in a polity whose “national settlement” is widely set at the level of Anthropogenic Impact 1. This is no Sudbury.

As indicated, much of this happens within an anthropological register. We are all caught up in expectations of modernity which saturate our “consumerism.” We hear a lot about post-Fordist economies, but the trajectory that includes profoundly immiserized industrial labour, Fordism (in Gramsci, wages that allow an improved stake in industrialized production, and so consumption such that ones expectations of modernity become aspirational beyond “bare life”) through say Bourdieu, to Kirsten Ross whose Fast Cars, Clean Bodies suggests how far some have come from immiserization, and how distinct they are from retired Zambian copper miners. It’s not all about consumption, it is also about health services, education, pensions, governance, and so on. Much current anthropology works the seams of differentially placed peoples’ expectations of, and dealings with, modernity. It can be a productive phrase for thinking ones way into “the Arab spring,” for example. Expectations are of course historically shifting, most often for the better, although the new policy on old age pensions in Canada is a ratcheting back of expectations, an attempt to reset the national settlement on this file. It is part of the global political economy of difference that within and between states, expectations of modernity are so varied and in some senses of such importance in “national” cultural formations.

Most of modernity’s goodies fall in such a way that the differentials are expanded or become active in ways that reconfigure the meanings of difference. The tensions within modernity, the scope of its produced discontents are transformed and perhaps exacerbated. (See, for example John and Jean Cormaroff, Modernity and Its Malcontents 1993 and a lot of anthropology within that critical vein) Exemplary modernities are in a sense a “bar raising spectacle” (UN index endorsed), that in its own way, shapes expectations elsewhere (a huge comparative field that used to be suggested by first world/third world). The imperatives of “development,” always a can-do opportunity for some, belie anxiety about not staying well ahead in the extraordinarily dynamic field that the global economy is. Some material cultural shifts travel well. The solar-charged cell phone is an enormous enabler in very partially electrified Africa. Most of “our expectations” do not travel so extensively, and tend to be realized in enclaves. “Our” modernity expects a lot and there is little sign of recalibrating national settlements within a rubric of much reduced fossil fuel use and limits to growth parameters. At the sharp end of modernity’s trickle-down development conceits, Ferguson’s later writing, Global Shadows (2006) and the video, Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper’s 2005 documentary film), gets one closer to Agamben territory. Much of the Anthropogenic Impact 11 resource extraction in polities such as Tanzania and Zambia has gone to the market-met needs of Europe, North America, and more recently China and India. The national settlements in Africa, where there is no shortage of clear winners, remain clearly broken.

There is no expectation that Anthropogenic Impact 11’s set of techno-systems is generalizable for the populations at large, and the widespread reliance on Anthropogenic Impact 1’s biological productivity is increasingly insufficient or broken. This is why one finds in the “conservation” literature titles such as Fortress Conservation: the preservation of the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania (2002). This is the stuff of Quammen’s worst intimations, the further fragmentation or loss of biodiversity refuges. These are the fault lines where people whose expectations of modernity are (by Canadian standards) light, whose food web needs are under duress, and whose land use priorities are not those of capitalized “Conservation.” It is of course, a lot messier and more complicated than that, but the institutions and spaces of conservation are vulnerable, and the stresses of climate change will almost certainly make them that much more vulnerable. Climate change will put “human land use” and “wildlife” on the move in search of biological productivity. Conflict of interest, already clear, can only be exacerbated as people and species attempt to find spaces adequate to their needs. The “demographic pressure” at the margins of iconic spaces such as Serengeti will put them all in question.

The development politics of the post war era were themselves optimistic “expectations of modernity” writ large. But they had largely run out by the time of neo-liberalism’s heyday. Neo-liberalism’s set-backs have been somewhat overshadowed by the rise of other BRIC building blocks to the future. There are clearly many winners. There is, however, little sign that reducing the chasms in differentially placed peoples’ expectations of modernity are at the heart of “our” or “their” intended State-policy outcomes. All of which suggests fraught futures, wishful thinking notwithstanding.


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