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Modernities: A Geographical Interpretation

Peter Taylor
Polity Press: Cambridge
1999
0745621309 (pb); 0745621295 (hb)
12.99 (pb); 39.50 (hb)
172

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In this short and accessible book, Peter J Taylor presents his contribution to the ongoing spatialisation of social theory with his 'geohistorical' analysis of modernity. By 'being geohistorical', Taylor's aim is to move beyond taken for granted notions o f modernity as a universal and homogenising process and reveal the different times and places where 'being modern' has been pursued and practised. Arguing from (firmly) within a modern perspective, Taylor contends that while modernity ought be seen as an ongoing 'single system' (page 34), uncovering its contours and consequences requires grounded and concrete analyses of modernity as a 'network of opportunities and constraints which vary by time and place' (page 5).

Following Ulrich Beck, Taylor moves beyond the common conflation of modernity with 'industrial society' to posit the existence of 'multiple modernities'. He chooses to illustrate through an emphasis on the geohistorical importance of what he calls the thr ee 'prime modernities': 17-18th Century Dutch-mercantile modernity, 18-19th Century British-industrial modernity and 20th Century USA- consumer modernity. These hegemonic modernities are analysed as discrete case studies, each is identified as creating a distinct 'modern world', becoming dominant by successfully transcending their state origins, either through force or more pervasively through politically and economically driven 'non-coercive leadership based on social emulation' (page 40). Taylor examine s, in convincing fashion, how each of the prime modernities, came to stand as figureheads and leaders of their respective mercantile, industrial and consumer 'ages'.

The book is successful in that by attempting to spatialise modernity, it also temporalises more effectively - the spaces and times of the three 'prime modernities' are evoked and evaluated with both clarity and economy. Taylor allows the distinctive chara cter of each hegemon to come to life, while the connections between the three are also made transparent. In an interesting chapter on 'Ordinary Modernity' Taylor shows how the characteristic art and culture of each of the prime modernities help reinforce the political-economy of each regime - the domestic genre painting of the Dutch, the mannered civility of the English novel and the safe cinema and TV of the USA all point to what Taylor calls the 'bourgeois domesticity' (page 50) necessary to reinforce t he common sense values of the prime hegemon. He shows how prime modernities created new 'domestic worlds', lavished with comfort, yet ordered and arranged to be 'self-consciously modern' (page 51) - the comfortable home, being, for Taylor, the secret of m odernity's success. It is to Taylor's credit that a such a (necessarily) broad analysis remains focussed and convincing throughout.

Despite claiming an interest in 'cultural consternation' (page 40), the book is less surefooted in its discussion of 'other' modernities - non-'prime', oppositional, counter or competing modernities. Baudelaire's 'other' side of modernity, or Berman's 'lo w' modernity of the streets - characterised by flux and flow, disorder and dissent - are less apparent in Taylor's work. In preferring to focus only the 'prime' opposition to the (two most recent) prime modernities (socialism to industrial modernity, env ironmentalism to consumer modernity) - Taylor moves away from a full examination of how myriad cultural conflicts have been central to each of the prime modernities outlined. The overall effect is, perhaps, to somewhat clean up rather than dirty the water s of modernity's 'geohistory': where prime modernities only exist alongside 'prime' opposition - the 'purveyors of alternative worlds' (page 80) that Taylor writes of, remain implicit.

The omission of 'low' politics, cultural conflict and 'shouts from the street' is made more puzzling given the final chapter's interest in Ulrich Beck's notion of 'sub-politics' under a (now) more reflexive modernity. As US led consumer modernity enters i ts down phase, and a more global hegemon emerges, Taylor ponders where politics will go - but with his glossing over of 'other' modernities, the geohistorical precedents and possibilities raised by this turn are only hinted at (using Beck's reading of fem inism). To be fair, given the agenda setting nature of this book, future works may move more in this direction. Much of the ground has been cleared to allow Taylor a fuller examination of sub-politics and, more tantalisingly, the 'ordinary modernity' char acteristic of this now more globalised phase of modernity.

Overall, Modernities is to be recommended. It is highly accessible and presents complex ideas in clear and entertaining fashion. It will interest proponents and opponents of modern thought, and would find much favour amongst sociologists, geographe rs and students of the social sciences more generally. The book highlights the continued importance of geographical approaches to the study of the rich and varied histories and geographies of modernity.

Mark Banks
Manchester Metropolitan University

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