What is modernity? One of the characteristics of this notorious term is that among different people and different disciplines, there is strikingly little agreement about its meaning and definition, its time frame and origins. Is this an epoch, a condition, a mental state, an idea, a method, or a technique? There is a modernity of science, of art, of modern nation states, a technological modernity, a social modernity, a colonial modernity, a capitalist modernity, the modernities of the colonized, and the hyper-modernities of contemporary capitalist cities and worlds. And yet, if there are multiple modernities, what do they have in common? There are modern mythologies, among them the myth of one single modernity with only one trajectory of “development,” one model of progress, the myth of the anti-traditionalist ultimate break with an archaic, non-modern or corrupted past—a once powerful picture in the imaginary of modernity that in the present has become deeply destabilized and uncertain, as it appears that no present is safe from the “returns” of the past.
In all cases, the question of just what constitutes “the modern” in modernity remains undecided and perhaps undecidable. By constrast, there is no scarcity of “primal scenes” and myths of origin. What qualifies a “primal scene”? All scenes of modern origins appear to be scenes of “division”—whether this is the severing of a head from a body or an ultimate break from a tradition or past. A “scene” or “scenography” also entails a relational diagram—a constellation that includes conscious actors, passive onlookers, and anonymous structural or systemic agency, which together create a complex moment in time that staged the paradox of modernity. All definitions of “modernity” have such “primal scenes,” events of rupture and myths of origin against which the very definition of “modern” is measured.