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Backwardness: Rethinking Modernity, Conceptualizing Change

With contributions from Frank Kelleter, Katerina Steffan, Katrin Horn, Ilka Brasch, Abigail Fagan, Simon Strick, and Maria Sulimma

Kathleen Loock, Ruth Mayer

Pages 295 - 327



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Modernity is commonly associated with progress and future-direction. But from the early modern period onward, backwardness was an integral part of the modern. As modernity came to be tied up with a Western, and often a particularly (U.S.-)American positionality, backwardness just as persistently served to mark modernity’s others—both within and outside the West. The dynamics of turning toward or looking back at the past are complexly woven into the thinking of modernity and change, yet the critical discourses of modernity tend to balk at acknowledging them as pivotal elements of the modern. While current critiques of global disparity, capitalist accumulation, or anthropogenic climate change advocate concepts such as degrowth, sustainability, or deceleration, nobody promotes backwardness. At the same time, backwardness, together with its concurrent epistemic modes of retrospection and repetition, manifests itself as a steady undercurrent of ambivalence in today’s cultural debates around social change, and the imagery of a return to what came before operates as a staple trope in hermeneutical methodological reflections and phenomenological thought. This forum seeks to critically engage with a paradox that is at the very core of modernity. To foreground the principle of backwardness serves to highlight the messy temporality of the loop, the revision, the recursion, or inversion, and to rethink modernity and conceptualize change in terms of the past—as a manifestation of presences that are "still there" rather than newly emergent, and that need to be "reviewed" rather than optimized and overcome: remnants, traces, leftovers, unfinished business. We thus go up against teleological narratives of the modern, using backwardness as a tentative signal of recalcitrance to the idea of modernity as relentless optimization and material improvement. Backwardness may serve to indicate alternatives to such teleological narratives of the modern, as it allows the foregrounding of loose ends, blind alleys, failed starts, and buried knowledge together with the affective stances of mourning, shame, or regret which tend to get short thrift in forward-oriented research.

For this forum we solicited contributions from Frank Kelleter (“Brand New You’re Retro, Or, Do You Remember When Pope Francis Condemned the ‘Sin of Backwardism’?”), Katerina Steffan (“Recovering an Estate Lost: Backwardness in Puritan Culture”), Katrin Horn (“A Look Back to Queer Histor(iograph)y”), Ilka Brasch (“(A)Historicity and the U.S. Constitution’s Ties to the Past”), Abigail Fagan (“Asking for Consent”), Simon Strick (“Feeling Backward: Untimely Remarks on Fascism and German American Studies”), and Maria Sulimma (“Urban Backwardness: Fantasies of the Village in the City”).

Key Words: modernity; change; backwardness; progress; time

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