Since modernity is a global phenomenon, the notion of the ‘double project of simultaneously adapting to and overcoming modernity’ should apply worldwide.footnote1 However, my discussion will refer mainly to the Korean Peninsula and, more briefly, Japan and China. East Asian languages are better endowed than their major European counterparts in having two different terms to stand for ‘modern’: jindai (Chinese; Japanese kindai, Korean kŭndae, all three using the same Chinese characters) to indicate the historical period following the medieval or pre-modern era, and xiandai (J. gendai, K. hyŏndae) for ‘modern’ as something quite recent or up to date. Of course, there can be no clear-cut line separating jindai from xiandai if one defines the latter, the modern era, as the age of capitalism, which extends to the present and thus encompasses xiandai. These languages allow for another distinction. By combining either of the substantive terms with xing (Japanese sei, Korean sŏng), which signifies qualities or characteristics, they can differentiate between ‘modernity’ as a historical period and ‘modernity’ as the characteristics of that time.footnote2 On the other hand, they possess no single word capturing all these meanings at once.

The linguistic potential for fine distinctions has not been fully exploited by East Asians themselves. There are inevitable careless uses by individuals, but the Chinese policy (or convention) of saying xiandai or xiandaixing, where one should say jindai or jindaixing, presents a problem of another order. It reflects the periodization in the official historiography of the People’s Republic of China (prc), according to which the May Fourth Movement of 1919 marks the passage from jindai to xiandai, which in turn gives way to dangdai (contemporary) in 1949. It would make for general conceptual clarity if jindai and jindaixing were reserved for the historical period and its characteristics, xiandai and xiandaixing referring to its more recent phase and the quality of being equal to the new times. ‘Modernity’ in my title would thus mean jindai, while Rimbaud’s injunction, ‘Il faut être absolument moderne!’, would be a call to be true to the living present (xiandai) rather than to become fully compliant with capitalist modernity (jindai).

Even where it is agreed to equate ‘modernity’ with ‘worldwide capitalism itself’,footnote3 the question of when it all started prompts answers differing by as much as 200 years—the lapse of time between the agricultural revolution of the sixteenth century and (still the likelier choice) the birth of industrial capitalism. This divergence tends to involve different views of the characteristics of the capitalist age (jindaixing) as well as its dating. Hobsbawm’s four-volume history epitomizes one view, which liberal orthodoxy more or less shares: the age of the dual revolution (political in France, industrial in Britain) followed by those of capital, empire, and ‘extremes’. If, on the other hand, with Braudel, Wallerstein and others one locates the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century, then the age of capital precedes the dual revolutions; and if, in agreement with such major interlocutors as Enrique Dussel and Aníbal Quijano, we see capitalist modernity as practically coterminous with colonial and neocolonial exploitation, then the entire modern era arguably constitutes an age of revolution, empire and extremes as well as one of capital.

The last of these orientations is one I share, and indeed I do not claim that the notion of ‘double project’ was wholly new. Dussel’s term ‘transmodernity’ expresses a similar idea, insofar as it envisions ‘a project of overcoming the world-system itself, such as it has developed for the past 500 years until today’, and defines an ethics of liberation ‘as transmodern (because the postmoderns are still Eurocentric).’footnote4 But the prefix trans- here seems strongly tilted toward the ‘beyond’, and less concerned with the exigencies of working ‘across’ modernity; and to that extent Dussel did not adequately capture the double aspect of adaptation and overcoming. Indeed, we may go back to Marx for a fuller anticipation of a ‘double project’, in his almost celebratory recognition of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary transformation of the world, combined with a clear aim of transforming that new world in its turn. By extension, those who would embrace the project of the Communist Manifesto and adopt the materialist dialectic may count among those who in effect work for the simultaneous adaptation to and overcoming of modernity—though, naturally, with results that remain a matter for scrutiny.

In my own case the notion of ‘double project’ has its roots not so much in such reflections as in the felt ambivalence towards the received national literatures of the West among those of us involved in South Korea’s ‘national literature movement’ since the early 1970s: a desire to emulate their achievement coexisting with the urgent need to resist them as tools of colonial and neocolonial domination.footnote5 This ambivalence towards modernity has been common to many of the pioneers of modern East Asian literature, including Natsume Sôseki (1867–1916) in Japan, Lu Xun (1881–1936) in China, and Yŏm Sangsŏp (1897–1963) in Korea. It may even be a shared characteristic of all great works of modern literature—as we have some reason to believe and good reasons to hope, since if so large a hypothesis were to prove persuasive, the idea of a ‘double project’ on the global scale would be greatly strengthened. However, the specific phrasing was derived from the then current modernism/postmodernism debate in South Korea. Aesthetic modernists, including Rimbaud, were mostly vigorous critics of capitalist modernity—quite in contrast with the promoters of social ‘modernization’—but it was often doubtful whether their anti-capitalism was sufficiently rooted in an adequate apprehension of modern realities and thus capable of actually overcoming them. The self-styled postmodernists, who thought to have transcended the limits of even the aesthetic modernists (not to mention the proponents of modernization), slipped too easily into a claim to have actually superseded modernity and entered a literally post-modern era. This betrayed an underestimation of the enduring power of capitalist modernity, and often ended up in virtual accommodation with its consumer culture. Of course, this charge cannot be laid against all the theorists of postmodernism. The very title of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) makes clear that he takes capitalism as very much a persisting reality. Yet Jameson himself invites confusion by deploying the ‘modern’ element of his ‘postmodernity’ in a different sense from his general definition of modernity as ‘world capitalism itself’.footnote6

At any rate, it seemed advisable to define a position differing both from mainstream modernizers, who saw adaptation to modernity as the unambiguous achievement to be aimed at, and from anti-capitalists (whether called postmodernists, socialists, or whatever) whose efforts to overcome modernity fell short in actual practice because of inadequate grounding in capitalist realities. Avoidance of the word ‘achievement’ was a deliberate choice. Even though achieving the more desirable—or at any rate necessary—features of the modern age constitutes a large part of adaptation, modernity should not be prejudged as something worthy of achievement, but rather seen as something usually thrust upon people for them to live and cope with. ‘The double project of simultaneously adapting to and overcoming modernity’ thus emerged as the actual wording, and offered itself as a crucial test to assess the adequacy of various political, social, and artistic practices in our time.

The division of the Korean Peninsula, which since the end of the Korean War in 1953 has taken on certain ‘systemic’ features,footnote7 presents a phenomenon without parallel in the world. However, it also presents a typical case of the double project. Hallmarks of modernity usually include: a modern nation-state; effective participation in the world market; and a society displaying some or most of the ‘modern values’. These last are a highly contentious subject, and often incorrectly equated with modernity as such. But if we were to understand them loosely as generally positive values shared by modern societies, they would include political (or procedural) democracy, modern science, emancipation of the individual, and something called ‘national culture’. Assessed against those hallmarks, Korea presents a conspicuously uneven record.