Contemporary (HUM415)


Defining the contemporary period is an inexact project at best, and what counts as contemporary shifts between disciplines. Historians and philosophers tend to conceive of the period in larger terms: most world histories date the contemporary period as beginning with WWII. Philosophers are even further removed from our present moment and many date contemporary philosophy as beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. These periodizations are further complicated by dictionary definitions of “contemporary”: the Oxford English Dictionary defines “contemporary” as “belonging to the same time, age, or period; living, existing, or occurring together in time.” In this sense of the word, contemporary has more to do with the condition of being contemporaneous. All of us are contemporaries, as are the texts we’ll examine in this course.

My argument for periodizing the contemporary from the 1970s to the present is based on changes that have occurred in economic, social and cultural life. Some of these transformations are difficult to explain as they entail major shifts in production and consumption. The Fordist model of production, for instance, which was predicated on the existence of major industrial centers and full employment has given way to new methods generally grouped under the rubric of “postFordism” (Harvey).

Some key features of the contemporary period:

I. Growth of megacities (urban agglomerations, which are usually larger than the city proper)

1. Tokyo, Japan (32,000,000)

2. Mexico City, Mexico (25,600,000)

3. Seoul, South Korea (23,100,000)

4. New York City, USA (21,800,000)

5. Mumbai (Bombay), India (21,100,000)

6. Delhi, India (20,800,000)

7. São Paulo, Brazil (20,300,000)

8. Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Japan (19,900,000)

9. Shanghai, China (18,600,000)

10. Los Angeles, USA (17,900,000)


(Also, suburbanization– the tendency toward population growth on the outskirts of a city. In most of the world, as is increasingly true in the United States, ghettos are located on the periphery.)

II. Globalization of financial markets and “globalization” in a more general sense.

Globalization (1): “in economic terms… the worldwide domination of free-market capitalism and its local accommodations and resistances. In political terms… the changing nature of the nation-state and the emergence of NGOs both of which negotiate with border-transcending capital for the governance of peoples and the sustenance of their interests. In cultural terms… an individual’s inevitable mediation with the hegemonic regime of commodification and consumption that either universalizes desires or particularizes traditions” (“Introduction: Globalization and the Humanities”).

Globalization (2): is characterized by “‘time-space compression’…an extraordinary speed-up of social life on a global scale together with the shrinkage of physical space through technology and the reduction of time to a perpetual and schizophrenic present” (The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey”)

Globalization (3): “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by distant events and vice versa” (Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens).

III. New communication technologies that have transformed the place of culture in social life and impacted concepts of identity. Despite remarkable disparities in internet connectivity (ex. compare the number of computers and internet providers in Africa with North America or Europe) we live in an age of information supersaturation. The ceaseless circulation of signs– images, bytes, texts– has produced a kind of social vertigo.

IV. Rise of religious fundamentalism– while not peculiar to the contemporary period,  there are some indications that religious fundamentalism (Islamic, Christian, Hindi, Buddhist, etc.) has become a more powerful presence in the world. Described by many experts as a response to modernity’s ills and alienations, fundamentalism is itself a product of modernity.

V. Further fragmentation of social life– In 1893 Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe the breakdown of the traditional social fabric in the face of massive changes occasioned by industrialization. This process seems to be on-going. Social fragmentation may, then, be a constituent characteristic of modernity.

VI. Massive migratory flows– people are moving on a scale which exceeds the huge waves of migration to the United States and South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Diasporic populations now circle the globe. For instance, South Asian workers and their families can be found in Toronto, Los Angeles, Bahrain, Surinam, London, and Tanzania.

VII. Shift from Fordism to postFordism– a complex transformation related to a more general phenomenon usually designated as “neoliberalism.” See item IX.

VIII. The entrenchment of “risk society” and consequent growth of the security industry– the nations of the so-called “first world” are increasingly surveilled not only by the State’s security apparatus but by private corporations. The assessment of risk and the possible loss in (usually financial) value crises may incur has driven the growth of firms who “provide solutions” in the form of paramilitary contractors (whether rent-a-cops or Academi mercenaries), actuarial analyses, surveillance technology, etc.

IX. Multinational corporations. In the final decades of the century, the character of multinational business operations changed markedly. Production was de-centralized. Corporations were increasingly de-linked from their national origins. Yet in spite of the rise of trans-national corporations (TNCs) the nation itself, as a (relatively) recent means of organizing populations, remains intact. As Ellen M. Woods has argued, “What global capital needs is not a global state but an orderly global system of territorial states, which maintain economic and political order within territorial boundaries and at the same time permit and facilitate the penetration of those boundaries by global capital, without presenting any dangerous challenges or competition” (“Democracy as the Ideology of Empire).

X. Postmodernism.