“Tibet and Modernity” with Sperling, Venturi, & Vitali: What is Tibetan modernity?

On Saturday while surfing Facebook, I came across a video titled “Tibet and Modernity” posted by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamsala. I was immediately interested. The video contains the following description:

“Round-table discussions moderated by Prof. Elliot Sperling of Indiana University, participated by Dr. Federica Venturi of Indiana University and Dr. Roberto Vitali, an independent scholar from Italy at LTWA Conference Hall on 11th March 2016”

I’m currently in a graduate seminar titled “Modernities and Alterities,” taught by Dr. Carla Jones at the University of Colorado. The title of the video alone grabbed my attention since I’ve been thinking a lot about Tibet and modernity. The topic of modernity in reference to Tibet has been on my mind since I began my academic track as a MA student in 2011 (I’m now doing my PhD)—especially since Tibet has so often been narrated by the Chinese state and Tibetans alike as having failed in securing its sovereignty due to having been anti-modern. So the concept has resonated with everything I do since my research is based in Tibetan Studies. Coming from that perspective, I became excited when this video came across my newsfeed. The following are my thoughts on the discussion. But before I begin, I want to thank all three panelists and LTWA for holding such an interesting topical discussion and making it available online, I look forward to more. I view this effort by the speakers and LTWA as an important grassroots public engagement that contribute to broadening Tibetan understandings surrounding our histories, which highlight the diversity of Tibet. I view such engagements as empowering endeavors that could positively impact Tibetan approaches to our futures. As such, I’d like to thank everyone involved.


Thoughts on the “Tibet and Modernity” discussion:

In the following, I discuss thoughts regarding each speaker’s approach to either Tibet and/or Modernity; I’m specifically interested in how each speaker approaches the concept of the modern. 

The video begins with Dr. Elliot Sperling discussing his newly published article on the biography of Mewang Pola from the 18th century. Afterwards, Dr. Federica Venturi poses some questions concerning the article and is followed by Dr. Roberto Vitali who responds to both panelists. All panelists agree and disagree on certain ideas concerning Tibetan history and the concept of modernity.

Following Dr. Elliot Sperling’s introduction of his article, Dr. Venturi began. She starts off by stating that Sperling should have included a section that explained what he means by “the modern order” and how European ideas and trade (during colonial times) were somehow “seeping” into Tibet. In other words, how is Sperling employing it in the context of Tibet and what does he mean by modern? Clarification on the concept, she argues, was much needed. I agreed with this part. Yet, she also disagrees that the concept of (colonial) trade and modernity go together (despite multiple researched books over two decades old that look at the connection between modernity and colonial imposed trade, resources extracted from the colonies made European urban metropolitan landscapes). She further emphasizes what she would and would not term modern, without specifics to what her concept of the modern is. She further emphasizes her “strong” belief against the idea of modernities, that:

“humans are all the same, as a consequence, we should employ the same measure, same standard to everybody, so we cannot have a modernity that works for Europeans and a different one that works for Asians, Africans and so on. We need to apply a standard that can be applied to everybody. That can be decided by seeing how humanity developed.”

She continues with a discussion on tribes and how their system “as a unit,” as including the different institutions of social, political, economic, and religion all mixed together as “one bundle.” “Once civilizations developed,” she continues, “than you begin to see the separation of this bundle.”

Scholars of modernity call this the separation of domains (institutions) (see Christian Moderns by Webb Keane on European practices of separating domains during and after colonialism), instituted heavily during European colonialism in order to keep the colony under (bureaucratic) control and simplify management of the colony and its resources (see “Colonial Governmentality” by David Scott). Dr. Venturi’s definition of modernity seems to align with the idea of modernity as a singular category, moving along a linear historical trajectory that moved toward becoming modern civilization–in this assumption, culture is described in evolutionary terms, in which, cultures go from primitive to civilized. Such assumptions have their roots in European colonialism; in order to legitimate its colonial projects in the colony, such discourses surrounding modernity was constructed to justify their presence. (Also, to give the example of Japan as an example of a modern state without acknowledging their ties to imperial powers ignores Euro-American roles in forcing Japan to adopt a form of governance informed by western ideologies, which included the separating of “the bundle.”) This same trajectory was reproduced during the time of decolonization following the World Wars under the guides of western economic institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and the United Nations who reproduced the evolutionary assumption that to develop into a modern state was to reproduce western ideologies (surrounding governance) and institutions in western fashion in non-western contexts (since the West served as the ultimate example of the modern). Structural adjustment policies, implemented in countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia, operating under the ideology of development, have been criticized for this approach for destabilizing local systems of control (indigenous systems of governance) and contributing to conflicts often resulting in violence. Dr. Sperling seems to highlight this when he argues against Dr. Venturi’s argument that colonialism was prevalent and not specific to Europe, however, Sperling interjects to emphasize that current ideology surrounding modernity (employed as a standard in constructing modern nation-states) has been shaped specifically by the European colonial enterprise.

However, back to the discussion. Following Dr. Venturi, Dr. Roberto Vitali begins his response, in sum, his approach to modernity is that it is “plural.” That to judge the past from the viewpoint of the now, would be to use the wrong “historical yardstick” to measure modernity. To judge the past, he insists on viewing the past as it was happening for people during that time. He further argues for viewing different cultures as producing different advancements over time, rather than comparing specific cultural advancements with another—this suggests that cultures should be given its specificity especially when it comes to time. For example, 17th century Markham history looked very different from 17th century Lhasa history, both places produced specific figures who produced specific happenings (histories) that shaped specific locations. Lhasa and Markham may share overlapping features in the form of Lamas or institutional affiliates who may have ties to both areas, however, both places had their own specific regional histories that at times diverged and at times overlapped with one another. What is clear is that each specific place was influenced by its own specific time-lines, specific events and/or figures brought along change, whether one chooses to describe such change as “modern” depends on which definition of the modern you chose to employ. Dr. Roberto Vitali seems to critique Eurocentric baggage associated with Dr. Venturi’s idea of the modern; instead, he asks to think of modernity as multiple and as place and time specific. His approach reminds me of Janet Gyato’s article, “Moments of Tibetan modernity: Methods and assumptions” (2011) in which she writes:

“the idea that the phenomenon of modernity is better considered in the plural elicits critical questions about some of the most central issues in the humanities and social sciences today. These include the nature of culture, human agency, progress, the impact of colonialism, how the past affects the present, and the very category of ‘the West’. The consideration of such matters in light of non-Western cases promises to help us fine-tune our larger understanding of what we mean by modernity at all.” (2011: 2)

While Dr. Vitali’s emphasis on modernity as plural rings very close to Gyatso’s elucidations, I do not agree with his assumption that Greek culture should be considered “superior.” This contradicts his emphasis on plurality and comparison of the modern and forgets to consider how such evolutionary trajectory is implied in Euro-American notions of modernity and governance, which historicizes modernity as having been influenced by a mythologized ancient Greece. Both Gyatso and Vitali’s approach seems to go against Dr. Venturi’s assumption that “humans are all the same, as a consequence, we should employ the same measure, same standard to everybody.” This “standard” assumption ignores historical specificity and plurality. Humans do not move along the same time-line, individuals are instead shaped by different historical circumstances (human made or environmentally caused) which affect their perception of their present, and therefore shapes how they approach their futures. This may also help answer Dr. Vitali’s concerns regarding Tibetans in the current moment focusing too much on loss and not enough on the future (or preinvasion past). Loss itself was part of the collective Tibetan experience, thus, it becomes historical (trauma). Loss can also serve to make sense of the present and how to proceed in the future, I don’t think the concept of loss should be so easily dismissed, especially in regards to Tibetan approaches to their present and future–from loss Tibetans of the 1960s built a whole diaspora community, as such, loss becomes a powerful concept in imagining the future.

Gyatso’s approach to modernity isn’t actually new, although kind of new in Tibetan studies, this approach has its roots dating back to the 1970s and 1980s when intellectual movements like the Subaltern Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Indigenous Studies and Women’s Studies (shaped by criticisms from grassroots intellectuals) began critiquing academia’s ivory towers for its role in helping western colonial and post-colonial powers in its project to promote this singular Euro-American notion of modernity as universal.

While Sperling’s take on Tibetan moderns seem to align with Gyatso and Vitali, his agreement with Dr. Venturi that certain parts of the world are “not modern” conflicts with his consideration for Tibet. He uses the example of the Middle East to demonstrate “fundamentalism,” which he associates with “traditionalism.” Yet, as a historian, he leaves out the significance of imperial histories playing major roles in shaping the recent history of the Middle Eastern states. After all, Afghanistan of pre-war 1970s looked much different from contemporary war-torn Afghanistan. To understand the current Afghani predicament, a close look at the interaction between Afgani history and foreign imperial forces will tell a much different history than the narrow framing of Afghanistan as being just about fundamentalism or traditionalism. Postcolonial scholars like Dr. Talal Asad have done a much better analysis on the association of the Middle East with fundamentalism/traditionalism (a recent modern construct according to Asad) alongside the modern construction of “the secular” (as informed by western ideologies from a particularly Protestant strain) in his works that could be considered for how we approach secularism in contemporary Tibetan discourses.

Sperling further emphasizes different kinds of futures that Gandhi (Traditionalist), Nehru (Post-colonial modern), communism or fascism imagined, yet there’s no discussion of Euro-American dominated capitalist concepts of the modern. This model of modernity is the same kind that went after the Middle East in pursuit of oil to run its capitalist trajectory to modernity back home (which constructed urban landscapes in the form of roads, cars, and oil industries) and how they imposed this foreign version of the modern (notions of secular democracy and freedom) to justify occupation (in a similar way to how the Chinese state imposes its ‘modernity’ in Tibet to justify its colonization and extraction). He also doesn’t discuss scholars of Subaltern Studies who took apart Gandhi and Nehru’s different ideas surrounding modernity—e.g., that they argued for a space in between, that modernity shouldn’t assume a singular meaning, how these two ideas of modernity were limiting and such promotion of modernity backed with state power having brought violence in postcolonial India (ethnic conflict, partition). They emphasize singular ideas surrounding modernity as promoting the belief that we are all moving along together on a single time-line, which, they argue, does not reflect reality. Instead, it leaves out different historical time-lines specific to peoples and places and the role power plays in being able to impose certain versions of ‘modernity.’ They also offered theoretical and methodological approaches that emphasized ordinary peoples’ histories and approaches to the violence both of these forms of modernity brought; how they were able to create spaces for themselves despite the violence (see McGranahan’s Arrested Histories for a Tibetan example). Subaltern Studies’ approach to modernity is aligned with Dr. Vitali’s. He argues Gendun Chopel “never marginalized Tibetan culture; he read [and used] them in a new way,” to create new future possibilities that challenged Lhasa’s state authority and made space for himself and those who he inspired. The same can be argued for Sera Khandro (a Lhasa aristocrat who became a prominent yogini in Amdo, Golog), who also used Tibetan (spiritual) culture in new ways to fight against patriarchy and achieve spiritual liberation.

If modernity should be viewed as plural, then how do we use it when considering Tibetan histories? I propose Janet Gyatso’s approach:

“…‘modern’ refers to what is relatively new, as compared to what is considered traditional or antiquated; ‘modernization’ refers to reforms and transformations meant to facilitate social and technological progress; and ‘modernity’ refers to the larger reified conception of a state of affairs in which modern practices, technologies, or ideas hold sway.” (3)

Such an approach grants specificity to subjective positions and place-specific histories that were particular to that time-line. For example, to understand the kinds of change Gendun Choepel brought and demanded, researchers need to analyze his personal narrative from his point of view and time-line. They have to also take into consideration the different histories associated with the places and people he interacted with and was influenced by, and use that information to understand how that went on to shape the kinds of changes he brought and demanded of Lhasans in Lhasa during that particular time. This position allows for the history of change to be told from the subjective position (for Gendun Chopel, Sera Khandro, or even Mewang Pola), to view specific historical characters from their specific time-lines, as stressed by Dr. Vitali and Gyatso. This grants Tibetan characters (that were place-specific) agency in their ability to shape local histories that may have had broader implications. This sort of subjective approach allows for an objective position to be written, rather than just the top down approach.

I think Dr. Sperling and Dr. Venturi are correct in saying we need to be clear when we use the word ‘modern’ in Tibetan studies. However, in such an engagement, following Dr. Vitali’s warnings, we also need to be careful we do not reproduce the same problems in reifying notions of ‘tradition,’ and assumptions of cultures as belonging on a singular (Euro-American) evolutionary trajectory that is assumed under the banner of the singular modern. This is the same critique that has been launched against academia in general for over 70 years, and something Tibetan studies has only recently begun to consider. In a way, new scholars on contemporary Tibet in the last decade has begun answering Peter H. Hansen’s question, “Why is there no subaltern studies for Tibet?” with their works (2003). It’s reassuring to see scholars of “old Tibet” contesting assumptions surrounding the notion of the modern too. I view such rigorous theoretical engagements in Tibetan studies to be a move for the better, I believe such a move will enhance Tibetan studies in a direction that not only empowers scholarship on Tibetan pasts, but will also have tangible consequences for Tibetan presents and futures. Thank you to all three panelists and organizers, I thoroughly enjoyed watching and engaging the discussion.

Works mentioned:

Asad, T., 2003. “Secularism, Nation-state, Religion” in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp.181-204.

Chakrabarty, D., 2002.“Subaltern Histories and Post-Englightenment Rationalism” in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. University of Chicago Press.

Gyatso. J. 2011.”Moments of Tibetan Modernity: Methods and Assumptions,” in Mapping the Modern in Tibet by Tuttle, G. ed.,  PIATS 2006: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006. IITBS, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH.

Hansen, P.H., 2003. “Why is there no Subaltern Studies for Tibet?” The Tibet Journal, 28(4), pp.7-22.

Keane, W., 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press.

McGranahan, C., 2010. Arrested histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Duke University Press.

Scott, D., 1995. “Colonial Governmentality.” Social Text (43), Duke University Press, pp.191-220.