What Is Modernity?


We often think of modernity as a distinct time period in history – one that is said to start at different places, but which always includes us. Yet people have been claiming to be modern since at least the third century BC. Harvard scholar Michael Puett takes us back to ancient China, when a series of emperors laid claim to modernity in order to consolidate their rule. Puett argues that modernity is best understood not as a period on a timeline but as a claim to freedom from the past. By recognizing how “modernity claims” try either to erase the past or to master it for our own uses, we can appreciate what is at stake in our own invocations of “modernity."

Researcher, writer, and episode producer: Ryan McDermott, Associate Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh; Senior Research Fellow, Beatrice Institute

Featured Scholar:

Michael Puett, Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology, Harvard University

Special thanks: Travis DeCook, Rokhaya Dieng, Gina Elia, Thomas A. Lewis

For transcript, teaching aids, and other resources, go here.

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