Vernacular Modernities

Co-funded by the Ford Foundation “Crossing Borders” Program

[This inderdisciplinary and cross-world area program was directed by Professor Knauft at Emory University between 2000 and 2003.]

How is modernity configured–and contested–in different cultural and regional contexts? How do people in different world areas construct notions of progress vis-à-vis those of tradition or history? Reciprocally, how do our own notions of modernity reveal a Western vernacular view, for instance, the assumption that modernity is a globalizing process lead by the technological and economic and political superiority of the West? Considering these questions forces us to confront the cultural diversity of the contemporary world while considering a larger issue: how it is that people in different world areas are coming to have more in common at the same time that they are becoming increasingly diverse, for instance, through new forms of cultural elaboration and differentiation. This apparent paradox of global development exposes and foregrounds alternative meanings and conflicts concerning what it means to be progressive or modern. Area studies perspectives are particularly well-suited to address this issue; they help detail the way that contemporary change is negotiated in different world areas, and they can shed critical light on dominant Western discourses of modernity itself. More broadly, a concern with vernacular modernities ties our understanding of contemporary developments to deeper awareness of how local areas and regions become newly distinctive even as they are increasingly interconnected.

The Ford-funded VM initiative at Emory engages case studies drawn from different world areas and pursues broader analyses to illuminate dimensions of cultural change and comparative features of vernacular modernities. The three-year VM seminar considers especially (a) the comparative and theoretical significance of contemporary notions of “progress,” including their relationship to and within the West; (b) different configurations of identity, worth, or success, and how these relate to cultural and economic development in different locales and different world areas; (c) the relation between area studies and international or global configurations of modernity; and (d) features of representation-academic, artistic, performative, and/or literary-that construct, resist, or otherwise engage local, regional, or historical dimensions of modernity. On both local and regional levels, area studies perspectives are crucial for understanding the vernacular configuration of modernity and the dynamics of contemporary contestation and change. Local ethnographic, historic, literary, or artistic studies reveal the articulation between place-based knowledge and emphasis on development or progress. More broadly, perspectives drawn from area studies supply a crucial mid-level of geographic, analytic, and theoretical understanding that links cultural elaboration with the influences and pressures of global interconnection. The VM program will combine a range of perspectives to examine how cultural economies engage and resist configurations of modernity in different world areas. Local case studies drawn from different world areas articulate with broader analyses that illuminate regional processes, comparative trajectories, and patterns of global significance.

In addition to its inclusion of a wide variety of invited speakers, the VM seminar operates as a regular 4-credit hour course for graduate students in the fall and spring semesters. This class meets weekly and is taught by the VM Director. Students write a major research paper, research proposal, or equivalent, as part of this course. The graduate component of the VM program includes fellowship funding for between six and nine existing Emory graduate students per year, including stipend plus support for language training, research, and travel. During their fellowship period, VM fellows receive special language training and area studies specialization, take the VM seminar as part of their graduate course work, and participate in a VM graduate/faculty reading group.

The VM program includes an undergraduate component and a post-doctoral fellowship in addition to graduate fellowships. The post-doctoral fellow resides at Emory for two years, is integral to the VM seminar, teaches two courses a year, and makes public presentations. The undergraduate component of the project includes a summer foreign scholar research program and curricular articulations.

Emory’s Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) provides the structural framework for the Vernacular Modernities initiative at Emory. The VM program is governed by an Executive Committee comprised of the VM Director, the Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and faculty members representing various disciplinary and area studies perspectives. The VM initiative is designed to galvanize important new intellectual and teaching directions in Emory’s area studies programs and to link these with our humanities and social science departments. The VM program is also intended to stimulate Emory’s connections overseas and to expand our dialogue with non-Western scholars.

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