The quest for modernity in Latin American critical theory

Felipe Ziotti Narita
São Paulo State University (Unesp) – SP, Brazil

The quest for modernity in Latin American thought became a prominent issue with political independence from colonial order early in the nineteenth century and the constitution of national societies in the region from the 1830s and the 1840s onwards. It is worth noting that this preoccupation was born almost at the same time as the rising of the discourse of modernity in Western Europe and the US (Pratt 2010, Habermas 1983, Oehler 2004). The implications of this historical and sociological configuration are far from being solved. In broad terms, as Carlos Fuentes (1990) puts it, the problem of modernity is part of a historical destination of Latin America and its being in a “desperate search for modernity”. More than a quest for identity and a place in the West as its essential destination, however, Latin American modernity also means the very problematic condition of social formation in a (semi)peripheral region within the constitution of the capitalist world-system.

Since the 1990s, with the irruption of civil society and new forms of democratic demands in Latin America, Latin American social theory has suffered important theoretical twists. In this sense, a large number of authors have aligned themselves with a wide range of critical thought (Anibal Quijano, Eduardo Grüner, Garcia Linera, etc.) and decolonization theories (W. Mignolo, Grosfoguel, Restrepo, Dussel, etc.) in order to analyze the historical constitution of a region and its historical and sociological impasses in the course of modernity during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. From these new trends in Latin American historical-sociological theories, I would like to detach the formation of a critical theory that deals with conceptual interfaces in the social sciences in order to analyze the problem of modernity and its global structure in Latin American social formation.

By proposing a theory of modernity that highlights the Latin American position in its theoretical core, Brazilian social scientist José Maurício Domingues presents an important account of those themes. In this text, I present a short appraisal of the topic that is much broader than the limits of this critical commentary. For this reason, this text is more properly a first theoretical approach to a work in progress. It consists in brief theoretical remarks of a research approach concerning the problem of modernity in nineteenth-century former colonial areas (in this case, Latin America). So, I would like to focus my brief analysis on Domingues’ theoretical insights in order to discuss some points dealing with a critical theory that faces the problem of modernity in the region with special attention to the very origin of the discourses of modernity during the nineteenth century.

With a scheme to some extent derived from the theory of Peter Wagner, Domingues’ (2013, 54) analytical framework is based on three crucial moments for Latin American social formation: (1) a restricted liberal modernity, which was grounded in a rising liberal world market during the second half of the nineteenth-century; (2) a state-centered modernity, which was marked by corporatism, developmentalism, and modernization projects dealing with the constitution of strong internal markets between the 1920s and the 1970s; (3) a third phase marked by the crisis of the discourse of modernity and a network society that imposes new mechanisms of cohesion and political legitimation. It is worth noting that, since the author derives the problem of modernity in Latin America from the nineteenth century, this effort implies the inner relationship between Latin American social formation and a double turning point which, in a Marxian/Weberian key, Domingues calls the constitution of the nineteenth-century world market as a mode of production and the rising of rational-legal domination grounded in national states.

This theoretical démarche points to the historical situation of the sociological dynamics of modernity in Latin America: at the very moment when the discourses of modernity were built in Western Europe and the US, Latin America became the first region to be liberated from direct colonial rule in the long nineteenth century (despite the phenomenon of imperialism) (Domingues 2013, 56). In this sense, nineteenth-century Latin America encompasses, according to its historical/sociological insertion in the world-system, two modern movements that, from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, constituted important parameters for the rising discourse of modernity in the Atlantic world: the institutionalization of nation-states and modern constitutionalism (Domingues 2013, 271). As Susan Buck-Morss (2009) puts it in her seminal work, regarding political modernity and its universalist principles at the end of the eighteenth century, this historical experience linked eighteenth-century Western Europe to the realization of the Enlightenment goal of human liberty in a colonial space (in this case, Haiti). The French Revolution and its political modernity were “not simply a European phenomenon but world-historical in its implication” (Buck-Morss 2009, 39). If we analyze this thesis and its theoretical implications, it is worth noting that, in this case, the former colonial spaces are not placed on the margins of Western European social processes, that is, their raison d’être is not a formless mirror of Western European modernity.

In light of these questions, the critical theory proposed by Domingues criticizes the classical image of Latin American social formation as an opaque element in relation to the transformations of modernity. This topic of an incomplete social formation and a social inaptitude in relation to Western European modernity in Latin America is the very core of the problem of theorizing modernity in the region in the nineteenth century. For the notion of Latin America as an absence reifies the capitalist world-system by isolating its parts from the dynamic movement of the whole. Latin America developed a double tie with Western European modernity in the period: (1) as part of the social division of labor in a world-system of commodity exchange (in the movement of what Marx identified as the expanded reproduction of capital) and (2) with a political, cultural, and social imaginary of the region deeply linked to the dynamics of Western modernity. The criss-cross of these two realms indicates important dimensions to the analysis of a peripheral area in the circuits of modernity in the nineteenth century.

At a theoretical level, this movement is far removed from any kind of irreducible national narratives (as if discussing the particularity of a nation’s historical realities were mutually exclusive  with conceptualizing its structural location in the world-system) and Sonderweg approaches. For Daniel Chernilo and Aldo Mascareño (2011), theorizing modernity leads to a conceptual impasse that deals with historical particularity as an universal moment in the structuration of the capitalist world-system: in the Latin American case, this challenge consists in analyzing the historical position of the region within the universality of its relationship with the world-system, which is to say, the particularity of the social formation as a theoretical moment of the universality of world society.[1] Against the image of Latin America as a limited version of Western European and North American modernity, the authors argue that this idea of an incomplete modernity in Latin America can be analyzed in two ways: (1) a structural obstacle that constitutes modernity in the region as an opaque relationship with Western ideas and institutions, which would be reduced to exotic, imported versions coming from the capitalist centers in Western Europe and the US; (2) the domination of particularisms in political order and the absence of authentic national societies since their political institutions in the nineteenth century.

This argument can be read as a criticism against the idea of structural inauthenticity of social processes in Latin America. As an inauthentic formation, then, Latin America would be conceived either as an absence (according to the conceptual poles of civilization/barbarism, a widespread perception in the nineteenth-century social imagination in the region) or as an incomplete social formation due to its structural heteronomy to the capitalist centers. A lack of civilization (according to nineteenth-century rhetoric), a weak civil society, and the absence of bourgeois revolutions; understood as heteronomous, social formation would be reduced to the passive effect of bourgeois reason coming from central countries. This view emphasizes an alleged social inability of the region to deal with modernity and to break with the traditional past. Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco (1972) argues that, in this case, nineteenth-century social formation in a peripheral area is conceptually obliterated in terms of its inner structures of production and reproduction of world-transformations in capitalist modernity. Nineteenth-century Latin America, in this key, would constitute opaque social formation in relation to the large-scale transformations of the capitalist world-system due to their colonial heritages.

If the argument of inauthentic or limited modernity reifies the capitalist world-system in two poles (the true content of Western European modernity versus its corrupted form in peripheral areas), the theoretical challenge for Latin American critical theory, following the steps of Domingues’ researches, consists in analyzing the very peripheral condition as a moment of the universal dynamic of the whole. Domingues (2009, 202) emphasizes modernity as a “heterogenous global civilization”. In this sense, this heterogeneuos expansion of modernity deals both with a kind of uneven and combined development (especially in relation to the integration of peripheral areas into the world market since its effective global expansion in the nineteenth century) and the development of history as universal history, which is to say, multilinear processes of cultural configuration, social rhythms and dispersion of subjectivities, and space-time constructions. This relational perspective, beyond all sorts of dualisms that are present in the modernization theories of the 1950s and the 1960s (which has been criticized since the 1970s in the Latin American social sciences, with the seminal works of Ernesto Laclau and Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco), promotes a critical theory that analyzes a former colonial area not merely as a passive effect of bourgeois expansion, but rather in the framework of a theoretical critique of modernity and its universal and uneven realization of the capitalist world-system.

At this point, the constitution of world society and its structural configuration according to the inner dynamics of modernity imply that this very autonomization of modernity can be understood as a world-historical phenomenon. I would like to situate this process in the very origin of modernity as a discourse in the nineteenth century. Since the former colonial areas in Latin America in the nineteenth century are not merely condemned to reproduce an imperfect imitation of modernity, they constitute particular relations to it as part of the universal content of the capitalist world-system. José Maurício Domingues proposes a Latin American critical theory that emphasizes “modernizing moves” (giros modernizadores), that is, social attempts aiming at strengthening cultural ties between the region and Western European processes by concrete modernization efforts. Modernizing moves in Latin America have constituted the core of the development of modernity in the region since the nineteenth century; this is not a case of structural patterns and functional regulation of their dynamics, but rather a focus on the action of diffused collectivities and subjectivities (citizens) towards social modernization. This thesis implies that “modernity was not simply there and was then transplanted to the subcontinent. Instead it has developed simultaneously in the West and in Latin America” (Domingues 2009, 16). Since his theoretical effort consists in understanding the historicity of this particular form of modernity in former colonial spaces, he is not saying that this process illustrates a reproduction dynamic (as if modernity were a kind of replication). The particular historical situation could only be generated by the modern world-system, which provided the very basis for cultural interchanges in light of material reproduction of capital (Domingues 2009, 17).

If Domingues (2009, 132) assumes that in nineteenth-century Latin America the nation constituted a major reference for the dynamics of modernizing moves, I think that, in addition to this collective identity and beyond the cultural horizon of the nation (which would be elaborated throughout the period), it is important to emphasize the political and social content of the nation: the citizen. Although the limited conditions of citizenhip and political participation (in this sense, slavery and the exclusion of indigenous populations are the most striking examples of the blocked effectuation of civil, social and political rights in Latin America), the rhetoric of the citizen and the people as objects of governamentality show the elaboration of a tangible civil society. From vassals and subjects to citizens, this is not only a case of semantic change: to some extent, the very problem of the citizen as a reference of subjectivities in modernizing moves illustrates the integration of Latin America into the circuits of transformation of modernity by echoing a political vocabulary coming from the Enlightenment and the modern bourgeois revolutions (Chiaramonte 1989; Sabato 2009; Negretto and Aguilar Rivera 2000; Chambers 1999; König 2009; Narita 2014; Narita 2016). Besides a new moral grammar of subjectivities in a peripheral area, modernizing moves, in this case, emphasize some conditions of autonomization of modernization and its correlate social processes in Latin America.

With these approaches, the very condition of Latin American modernity is conceived as a mediation within a world-system generated in the context of nineteenth-century capitalist expansion. Instead of an image of social absences, which is based on dualisms (archaic/modern, authentic/inauthentic content of modernity, etc.) and emphasizes a disconnexion between modern ideas and social practices in Latin America (despite, for example, the deep relationship between Latin American social formation and liberalism as an ideology of nation building and social organization – see, for example, José Luis Mora, Tavares Bastos, Alberdi, Lastarria, etc.), Latin American critical theory allows us to see the structural interface between a peripheral area and the inner dynamics of the constitution of capitalist modernity. In this sense, there is no place for social formation structurally blocked from the large-scale transformations of modernity (due to the colonial heritage, the traditional society, and slavery) (Zeuske 2016). Rather, the very components of social formation are analyzed as historical and sociological mediations of modern forms of sociability and the public sphere in the autonomization of modernization processes (Terán 2000; Pas 2012; González Bernaldo de Quirós 2000).

The theoretical trends discussed in this text in light of some of Domingues’ theoretical contributions propose conditions of the incorporation of Latin American social formation into the circuits of transformation of modernity. However, they do not point to an important dimension of modernity since, at least, the second half of the nineteenth century: the circuits of ideas and their spheres of interaction with social processes in urban areas. If Domingues recognizes the autonomy of modernization processes in the region as modernizing moves, he discusses these moves as a kind of telos, which is to say, a dynamic based on disembedding and re-embedding processes that take Western modernity as reference (Domingues 2013, 273). The idea of modernizing moves is very useful in analyzing the rise of modernity in the nineteenth century as a world dynamic carrying a universal content, but, since this approach supposes a telos, it takes for granted an inner dialectical movement that illustrates important social processes of a peripheral condition in the circuits and spheres of circulation of nineteenth-century modernity: the deep relationship between technical and cultural transformations and the structural presence of religion, that is, a dynamic unity between traditional components and bourgeois dynamism.

This is why nineteenth-century Latin American social formation is not a form of traditional society. Tangible experiences of modernity in the period in Latin American cities such as Valparaiso, Veracruz, Rio de Janeiro, Barranquilla or Buenos Aires, in this sense, implied the formation of life-styles in those urban spaces and the development of commercial capitalism, which counted on structural ties with financial and industrial expansions of the centers. This set of urban-based activities and life-styles constituted the very core of the problem of the inner conditions of production and reproduction of modernity in nineteenth-century former colonial areas. This research insight, besides the transferts culturels (cultural transfers) of ideas and practices, can emphasize the structuration of circuits grounded in material and cultural processes of production and reproduction of modernity in a peripheral area in the formation of modernity as a discourse within the nineteenth-century capitalist world-system.


* I would like to thank Jeremiah Morelock (Boston College) for proofreading an earlier draft of this paper.



[1] The universality of the constitution of modernity as a world society since the nieteenth century, according to Chernilo and Mascareño, produces a functional differentiation of systems (based on their particular interpretation of Durkheimian historical morphology interwoven with Luhmann’s theory of functional differentiation) internal to the development of modernity. This idea leads their theory in another direction by emphasizing the question of modernity as a problem of world society, which is decomposed, in analytical terms, into regulative and normative realms.



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Felipe Ziotti Narita

Felipe Ziotti Narita

Ph.D. in History. He is a lecturer at the Postgraduate Program in Public Policy Analysis of São Paulo State University (Unesp) - SP, Brazil. He is a member of "Historiar: identity narratives, concepts, languages" (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, CNPq, Brazil). His research interests include social theory, social history, theory of history, and history of education. Currently, he is working on a research project which examines the possibilities of theorizing modernity in peripheral zones (former colonial areas) in the 19th century.
Felipe Ziotti Narita

4 thoughts on “The quest for modernity in Latin American critical theory

  1. Felipe, você traduziu ou escreveu em inglês. Se existir versão em português, é possível ter acesso? Obrigada

  2. Prezada Cristina Simões, muito obrigado pelo interesse. Infelizmente, o texto só está disponível em inglês. Ele foi escrito exclusivamente para a Critical Theory Research Network. Um abraço!

    Dear Cristina Simões, thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, the article is available only in English. The text was written exclusively to Critical Theory Research Network. Kind regards.

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