Against the West?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Michael Rothberg, Director of the Unit for Criticism

For some time I’ve been musing about a particular semantic, conceptual, and political matter: the persistent and frequently unreflexive use of the concept of “the West”—and the not-quite-as-frequent use of its correlate, “the non-West”—by cultural critics and theorists as well as just about everyone else. This usage is so omnipresent I don’t think it’s even necessary to cite an example—in recent reading I’ve encountered it in Derrida’s critique of “Western Metaphysics,” in Spivak’s critique of “Western intellectuals” in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” and in the sociologist Jeffrey Alexander’s work on “cultural trauma and collective identity” in both “Western” and “non-Western” contexts. What is surprising about this persistence of “the West” as a category of critical analysis is that we all know better—precisely because we’ve spent the last three decades deconstructing just such abstractions, whether they be “the Orient,” “race,” or what have you. But of all these terms “the West” seems to have a special staying power. When it comes to the West, we’re all fetishists: We know very well the West doesn’t exit, but all the same…

What is “the West” and why would we want to evoke this highly ideological and Eurocentric concept? I mean this question quite seriously. I should say that I’m less concerned by the celebratory use of the concept—usually a conservative platitude about the superiority of “our” way of life—than I am by its deployment among critical, Left intellectuals who are generally “against the West.” Shouldn’t we be worried that we’re reproducing the very terms of conservative hegemony even as we attempt to deconstruct it? Not only is the referent of “the West” highly elusive, I would argue, but use of the concept ends up confirming the racialized framework it seeks to mark and displace. As Naoki Sakai puts it in his essay “The West—A Dialogic Prescription or a Proscription?,” “the West is [n]either a geographic territory with an affiliated population, [n]or a unified cultural and social formation. It remains always a putative unity; its unity is preordained regardless of its inherent fragmentation and dispersal. It is in fact a mythic unity” (Social Identities 11.3 (2005): 180). My argument here is not with all generalizations (as I will make clear in a moment), but with the usefulness of this particular one. I would guess that many critical intellectuals and activists see “the West” as a practical shorthand for real-world, unequal power relations. Such inequalities most certainly exist, but are they best described by the West/non-West binary? I believe we should resist using this particular set of generalizations and seek other terms, for, as Sakai continues, “the West-and-the-Rest distinction can never be free of the aura of racism” (191).

I see this phenomenon—excessive reliance on an ideological, geo-cultural shorthand I’m tempted to call a “geologeme”—as the flip side of a problem diagnosed by our colleague in the Unit for Criticism, Matti Bunzl. In an essay that was first given as a Unit colloquium in fall 2005, Bunzl provides a provocative critique of the “postmodern turn” in anthropology. Scheduled to be published this month (March 2008) in the journal American Anthropologist, Bunzl’s essay targets the hyperbolic particularism of contemporary anthropology—its refusal of all generalizations and its valorization instead of the local, the complex, and the heterogeneous. In a move that clearly distresses Bunzl, anthropologists have turned against the category that once defined their discipline: culture. In recent anthropology, “culture” stands accused of essentialism, over-abstraction, and reification of difference. In one of his most striking examples, Bunzl cites a well-known essay called “Writing against Culture” by the celebrated anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod. As Bunzl writes, citing Abu-Lughod, “When Abu-Lughod urged anthropologists to ‘write against culture,’ she suggested a particular specification of discourse, namely to replace ‘the term “Bedouin culture”’ with attention to ‘what life is like for one old Bedouin matriarch’” (Bunzl 5). Bunzl describes this turn toward hyper-specificity as an ironic resurgence of positivism in an otherwise thoroughly postmodern and postcolonial field, and he likens it to Borges’s famous story about cartographers who created “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” (Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” qtd. in Bunzl 5). Such a drive for exactitude, as evidenced by Abu-Lughod and as satirized by Borges, strikes Bunzl as intellectually and politically dubious. Borgesian cartography can neither supply useful knowledge nor orient political practice; it is precisely too particular, too . . . precise. In place of the particular, Bunzl ends with a call for a “middle ground” of generalization that he thinks will be epistemologically and politically more powerful than the refusal of culture he sees everywhere in his discipline.

I am not in a position to know how “precise” Bunzl’s cartography of contemporary anthropology is—surely it is going to provoke much controversy and it has already attracted a response from two of its targets, Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson, which will accompany the publication of Bunzl’s essay in American Anthropologist. I do believe, however, that Bunzl has identified an important tendency that cuts across fields in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. Such localism can be found just as readily in literary and interdisciplinary cultural studies as in anthropology, and I’m happy to join Bunzl in the call for a “strategic generalization.” (I’m less certain about another central aspect of Bunzl’s argument—his assertion that the turn toward complexity and the particular helps explain anthropology’s absence from the public sphere and public debate—but I’ll leave that issue aside for the moment.)

What Bunzl doesn’t say, however, is that the kind of positivist drive he finds among his colleagues pertains most dramatically to accounts of the “non-Western” world, while “the West” tends to retain its terminologically monolithic aura, even among many of the same scholars. There may well be good reasons for this differential. Imperialism, after all, did extensive “epistemic violence” (to use Spivak’s apt term) to much of the globe, and a good part of that violence came in the form of imposed categories of thought and naming that erased or wrote over local conditions. There is a need to reclaim that overwritten terrain—in discourse as well as in national political sovereignty. That need helps, at least in part, to explain the turn to the local that Bunzl laments, and suggests that it has been a necessary step within anthropology and cultural criticism.

But that context doesn’t necessarily explain the persistence of generalization on the other, “Western” side of the divide—or not, at least, to my satisfaction. For if imperialism is the problem that led to an asymmetrical overgeneralization on one side and particularistic nominalism on the other, why don’t we say as much? The “West” often seems to stand for just this—the imperialist powers. Before 1989 it also played a plausible metaphorical role in the geo-political opposition between the capitalist democracies and the Soviet bloc. But the problem is that it can just as easily stand for other, more dubious abstractions of the kind many of us have been committed to questioning—the “Judeo-Christian tradition” or the supposedly homogenous cultural and philosophical legacy that traces itself back to the Greeks. Or for Europe and America. Or Europe and America and Australia—in other words, for countries whose dominant political classes and (for the moment at least) majority populations identify their heritage in (some notion of) Europe. There are legitimate reasons for referring to these different entities in particular discursive or political contexts. But if they can be described more substantively than with the geologeme “the West,” why not do so?

Ultimately, that is my main terminological challenge to the purveyors of “the West.” If the term has any consistent meaning, such as imperialism or Christianity or whiteness or European-derived culture, why not just say so? And if the term doesn’t have such a meaning, why not put it to rest, once and for all? I’m curious to hear where people come down on this question; I’m open to persuasion that I’m going in the wrong direction.


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mar webber said...

In terms of the influence of the term, I have been starting to wonder if the "West," particularly when it is invoked generally as you say in its relationship with the "East" has started to be replaced with the latest way to divide the globe in sweeping cultural paradigms (where I mean cultural to invoke scientific, economic, etc): the "global North/South" divide. This has been my impression particularly in recent readings on politics, development and nongovernmental organizations (where the North is developed and funding NGOs operating in the South in a subtle and not especially new form of imperialism/neoliberalism).

I'm not that happy with saying that one unsatisfactory binary is slowly shifting to another one, however. From your post I doubt you would be satisfied by that either. I like the specificity of Samir Amin's "America-Europe-Japan Triad" to describe hegemony today... but maybe I like it because it's not such a sweeping invocation as "the West" or "the Global North." In going along with what you recommend, it's getting at more specifically what it is meant to reference.

Sharif Islam said...

You nicely pose the "terminological challenge" and this is definitely the right direction. I think we also need to acknowledge that we have reached a certain limit in critiquing ideas like 'the West' , 'Eurocentrism', 'Imperialism', 'Judeo-Christian tradition'. That is not to deny the the importance of such critiques, rather understanding that the critique and the ideas are opearing within the same world view. The task is to acknowledge these limitations to create different level of theorizing (or re-theorizing) where we can get past the terminological challenges. The notion of the "the West" is closely related to the advent of modern social theory and for that matter, I think we also need to consider the theoretical complexities in addition to the to the "semantic, conceptual, and political matter".

This post reminded me of Homi Bhaba's idea of the yes-but tendency. He used this term in the context of exposing the inherent Eurocentrism of some of the major figures of social theory:
The importance of such an exploration does not lie in the exposure of these figures of freedom: yes, Hegel's view on Africa were ignorant and inexcusable; yes Sartre was unable to fully move beyond the Eurocentric historical schema; yes, Althusser, never fully articulated the plural and disjunctive identities and history (gender, race, sexuality) that constituted the 'relative autonomy' of the contradictions of apitalism....but Marxism
was a fast friend of peasant revolution; but Sartre was an inspiration to Fanon; but Foucault had a profound influence on the Subaltern scholars of South Asian history. It is a sign of the steadfast character of the critic that he or she should engage the complexity of 'yes-but' movement of dialectical thought as it creates a language of historical understanding and political action that, in different ways, can be both emancipatory and imprisoning. (Foreword by Homi Bhaba,
in White Mythologies: Writing History and the West by Robert Young, Routeledge, 2004)"

We also need to pay attention to the current geopolitical situation that creates a certain space for West/non-West binary based theorizing. With immigration and displacement, 'the West' and 'non-West' are in close proximity, physically and also ideologically. In one hand, this proximity invites the generalized, 'clash of civilization', shorthand mode of thought. On the other hand, it requires the 'Western' theorist to study the 'non-West' which probably wasn't the case Hegel and Sartre. Most importantly, this study is happening within the same generalized mode that creates the notion of "the West". Not to invoke the cliche (is it a cliche yet?) that when we write about the Other we end up writing about ourselves, but I want to emphasize the limitation of theorizing.

Recently, I encountered the work of Raewyn Connell where she is suggesting the idea of Southern Theory:"a case for a new ‘world social science' - one that is inclusive of many voices - by arguing for a more democratic global recognition of social theory from societies outside the dominant European and North American metropole."

This also introduces the North/South binary issue but that is another matter. Interestingly, she includes Australia in one of her definition of the South. But I haven't read the whole book to examine how she uses it.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Joe Swenson said...

One might wonder if the persistence of ‘the West’ provides us with the sneaking suspicion that many theorists still need to rely upon such meta-narratives in order to anchor their theories even if they also have doubts whether such grand narratives really or coherently exist. One could probably say similar things about Logocentrism, Identity-thinking, and other big themes that often still serve as focal points for critiques that aim to be more localized, pluralist, or non-totalizing in their outlook. I think Michael is right to point out that such grand concepts like ‘the West’ seem questionable when broken down into their putative constituent parts (a certain history of philosophy, of imperialism, of religious identity, an instrumental relation to nature, etc.) and rarely (at least for me) add back up to some coherent grand concept or meta-narrative. Yet, this realization does not mean that reliance upon ‘the West’ is not a hard habit to break. While it might be the case that much theory today is heavily invested in having an “incredulity to meta-narratives” (to use Lyotard’s term) such an affirmation might only mean that we no longer endorse such narratives positively or as something we should be proud of. It says nothing about our need to employ these general concepts, themes, and meta-narratives negatively—that is, as objects of critique, as foils, and as focal points from which to situate the identity of our contemporary particular and localized theories that we claim stand in contrast and opposition to such general characterizations and narratives. So I think another question to ask is “what would happen to the identity of many current theories that criticize ‘the West’ if a day comes when ‘the West’ is finally won? That is, if we actually quit thinking about ‘the West’ in this way. Perhaps many of these theories, in their heart of hearts, need ‘the West’ if only as something to define themselves against. Anyway, I sometimes worry about that problem in my own work and would be curious to see if anybody shares such worries.

Bruce said...

The question of what 'the West' means is tied up with what 'history' means. 'History' is ambiguous: it can refer (1) to the changes in economic, social, and cultural conditions of a certain population of human beings, or it can refer to (2) the study of or reflection upon those changes. Is there any group of humans whose history (1) is inseparable from its history (2)? That is, is there any group of humans whose changes are (the result of? the expression of?) their reflections upon themselves as actors in history (1). Is some group the privileged subject/object of the 'history of the consciousness of history.' This question, as a matter of historical fact, has been answered by reference to 'the West' (in, for example, Hegel). If 'the West' means to Hegel (and Heidegger) 'posing the question of history to oneself', one can certainly (and should) challenge this identification and recognize how it is an expresion of certain historical forces: imperialism, ethnocentrism, racism, etc. However, this does not touch the question itself about whether human beings are so related to history (1) that their history (2) must be invoked in any account of their history (1). That is, to get rid of the term 'the West' does not necessarily eliminate the problem of 'the West', the problem of historicity itself. To get rid of the term 'the West' should not commit us to empty, homogeneous time as the medium within which history (1) and history (2) unfold. I fear, though, that this may be the result of getting rid of 'the West' too quickly, that is, without enough historical self-reflection.

Michael Rothberg said...

I'm grateful to everyone for the thoughtful comments that have come in so far. I'm going to be out of town for a few days, but I'll respond when I'm back. In the meantime, I'd love to see some discussion of these responses as well....

Keguro said...

A few years ago, Ania Loomba gave a talk at UIUC that opened by citing a number of articles in the mainstream press, all of which were engaged in what Renato Rosaldo terms "imperialist nostalgia." One of her fellow panel members, I forget who now, opened his response to her by implicitly dismissing her "archive," her turn to what was immediate and, in its immediacy, less scholarly. What does this have to do with this discussion?

I am fascinated by the notion that "the West" exists as an abstraction that we have, variously, deconstructed, critiqued, undone, and that its persistence in "Leftist" scholarly debates might be nothing more than a melancholy attachment, perhaps a form of attachment without which certain forms of critique cannot exist.

Yet, a turn to the popular, to the immediate, to the mainstream, reminds us that "the West" in all its hubris has returned as an object of discourse and desire in the resurgent empires of the now. We are told repeatedly that there is a difference between "the West" and the "rest of the world." Here, it's as simple as switching from critical theory to the local headlines.

What we are presented with is not "eurocentrism," or "whiteness," or "civilization," though these might be more nuanced ways to think about such discussions. Instead, it is a consolidated, re-consolidating West. There is, I would suggest, a particular urgency to dealing with this "West" as it is being created and circulating in the mainstream.

The question of whether leftist critics "need" the West seems, to my mind, to overlook the fact that it is everywhere.

Keguro Macharia

Anonymous said...

Occidente from the Latin occidentem, past participle of obcidere, "falling," "declining."
By Emanuel Rota

Did Derrida use the word "west" when he wrote in French? As far as I know, in Italian and in French nobody says "west," except in specialized geographical terms, and the word used, "occidente, "occidentale," have meanings (coming from obcidere) radically different from "the west." If anything, occident is tied to the concept of decadence (see Derrida's L'autre cap, Minuit, Paris), in a long discussion that goes from Nietzsche's beyond good and evil (Vol II, tome 2, p.62 Colli's edition) to Valéry to Derrida. (incidentally as a concept, the west doesn't look Eurocentric either, since the ultimate western society, from a European perspective, is the US and not Europe.) It is only with the cold war that something called Eastern Europe could become part of the European mental geography, but, before that, in the 20s and 30s, the image of the US as a continental power, radically different from Europe, dominated the political imagination of the far left (Gramsci's Americanismi), the liberal/conservative imagination (Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses) and the far right (Drieu de la Rochelle's Geneve ou Moscou). There,in the interwar period, the idea of the Abendlandes was the subject of Spengler's crazy best seller on the decline of the declining and its ultimate eskaton. The long standing German tradition (up to WWII) opposing Mitteleuropa to Europe (see Franz Naumann), with Heidegger's insistence on the middle position of Germany, spatially, temporarily, and metaphysically, also suggests that Derrida's "western metaphysics" is already a highly problematized reference to Heidegger himself, rather than an unproblematized term. In conclusion, it seems to me that the use of the "west" under critique in Michael's post is the one prevalent in American newspapers and tv news, perhaps a reflection of American political theory (see Hannah Arendt's discussion of the role of non-national alliances for the American republic in On Revolution, chapter 5), rather than a persistent philosophical term, being only a distant cousin of the word occident, which is so important in the European history of philosophy of the past 150 years or so.