All About The West

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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

My primary hope for Kritik has been that it would provoke a new forum for discussion among people in and beyond Illinois about the important theoretical, political, and cultural issues that we face. With that goal in mind, I’m very pleased about the thoughtful and substantive responses we received after my last post on the persistence of a discourse of “the West” among critical intellectuals. I’d like to try to continue the discussion by engaging with those remarks from the comments section. (Incidentally, the easiest way for those of you who, like me, are not registered with Blogger to contribute comments is to click on the button that says “Name/URL” and simply enter your own name before writing up your comment.)

The starting point for my piece “Against the West?” was the observation that a discourse of “the West” is ubiquitous despite decades of poststructuralist-fueled skepticism about such abstractions and despite a marked tendency toward localism and particularism in many fields in the humanities and social sciences. There seems to be agreement among the respondents that a discourse of “the West” is widespread—at least in certain contexts. As Keguro writes, the notion of the West “is everywhere,” especially in contemporary “mainstream” journalism. Although coming at things from a different angle, Emanuel seems to second this point about the mainstream; he writes 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 . . . rather than a persistent philosophical term.” As Emanuel also points out, however, the “West” in Derrida’s “Western metaphysics” (one of the examples I gave last time) is really the “Occident”—as in, “la métaphysique occidentale”—a term with a different etymology, genealogy, and contemporary significance. Emanuel’s comment is an important reminder that the discourse under discussion here works differently in non-English-language contexts—though my hunch is that “l’Occident,” “das Abendland,” and other linguistic variants play similar roles to “the West” in Europe today despite their different genealogies. Observers of other “Western” contexts should feel free to check in on this.

I agree with Keguro and Manuel that “the West” pervades, among other things, the language of the US media. I don’t think, however, that this is simply a media discourse; rather, it is also omnipresent among English-language critical thinkers and theorists. As I mentioned in my original post, it is particularly that persistence that troubles me. For me, at least, the question remains how to address that omnipresence. Like Keguro, I also think it’s urgent that we figure this out—but I don’t take it for granted that the wide circulation of a popular discourse requires that we remain within its terms. Perhaps, as Bruce joins Keguro in implying, and as Derrida dedicated many words to demonstrating, it isn’t so easy to get away from “the West” after all. I’d admit that, but still urge us to think twice before repeating the terms of mainstream discourses. Indeed, here I think Derrida can be methodologically helpful in prompting us to try to pry the discourse free from its dominant terms, while also remaining aware of our inevitable complicity in dominant structures. To clarify: I’m not against all generalizations, but I’m still not convinced that the East/West binary provides our best purchase on the urgent matters that we confront—even if those matters appear dressed up in that geo-ideological guise.

What are other possibilities for mapping the contemporary or historical terrain? Both Martha and Sharif bring up an alternative figure of the contemporary critical imagination; the North/South divide. Martha is right that in the post-Cold War world, this way of dividing the globe has started to appear alongside the more familiar Occident/Orient coding. As Martha guesses, I’m ambivalent about this turn. Let me register a couple of observations about this matter. First, it seems to me that the North/South opposition appears almost uniquely in the discourse of what I’d still like to call the Left—while West/East is strikingly promiscuous in terms of political orientation. (The relevance of “orientation” to this discussion reminds me of the important work of Sara Ahmed, the University of London theorist and author of Queer Phenomenology with whom we were lucky enough to have a seminar last week.) To me, the political clarity of North/South is a plus—that is, it has a polemical bite that is less ambiguous than West/East. Why? Because—and this is the second point—North/South describes material inequities first and foremost rather than inevitably invoking cultural and religious differences. (I suspect there will be some disagreement about this last point from those working on “the South,” but I would maintain at least tentatively that North/South is relatively less overdetermined by pernicious discourses of cultural difference and more “oriented” toward the uneven, capitalist world-system.)

Nevertheless, I’d say once again that even this revised geo-imaginary starts to break down once we consider Sharif’s pertinent point that “immigration and displacement” have created an undeniable “proximity” of the West and non-West as of the North and South. It is key that we emphasize, as Sharif does, that displacement joins migration in fostering this proximity, since that former term better captures both the ever-powerful legacies of slavery and the ongoing colonization of indigenous peoples than does the also-crucial focus on migration (in the US as in many other places). (I also like Sharif’s citation of Bhabha’s “yes-but” logic—I do feel close to that way of thinking, even as I’d want to submit Bhabha’s own thought to such a dialectical critique!)

Here we may seem to be heading back to the very problem that stimulated this line of thought for me in the first place: Matti Bunzl’s critique of anthropologists’ propensity toward “Borgesian maps” and over-particularization. In short, I agree with Matti that we need maps and that maps require generalization, abstraction, and even a degree of reification. Such a requirement entails that the vision of proximity, overlap, and non-segregation that Sharif points us toward still has to be mappable. To pick up on Joe’s comments, and shift from a spatial metaphor toward a simultaneously spatial and temporal one, I’d say that we need narrativity even if we remain skeptical towards meta- or grand-narrativity. Joe asks us to consider that, despite our “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, xxiv), we may still rely on their negative example to ground our own alternatives, and he asks what our theories would look like if we broke from these metanarratives. I think this is exactly the right question and provides a description of the difficult but necessary task that I’m proposing we consider. The problem with the “meta-“ or “grand” narrative is not its narrativity—the way it helps give spatio-temporal order to our thought (something I don’t think we can do without)—but with the “supplement” that the prefix or qualifier (meta-, grand) supplies. The West (and also the Occident) is a grand narrative that seeks to orient all stories around a single axis—it is “heliocentric,” to use one of Derrida’s terms from “White Mythologies,” a text brought to mind by Bruce’s and Emanuel’s comments.

At the opposite pole from metanarratives would be something we might call “stories,” by which I mean the kind of small scale, local tale recommended by Lila Abu-Lughod: “what life is like for one old Bedouin matriarch” (qtd. in Bunzl 5). But stories are still written in the shadows of the master narratives, it seems to me. Abu-Lughod’s recommendation, for instance, comes in response to the metanarrative of “culture” that she sees as grounding anthropology in its phase of complicity with colonialism. What I’m wondering is whether we can imagine maps and narratives that succumb neither to the hubris of the “meta-“ nor to the potentially reactionary domain of the local. (Why equate the local with the potentially reactionary? Just think of states’ rights discourse in the US.) Neither meta nor local, this would be—to respond to Bruce’s equation of “the West” with historicity itself—“another” historicity.

But here my discussion is getting more abstract than I’d want it to. So I’ll conclude by rephrasing what I still think are the key questions: Do we really lose anything by avoiding the geologeme, “the West”? If so, what? Does our focus on the West ultimately reference anything other than the self-referential discourse of the West itself? Are there other such terms in critical theory that we might want to learn to do without?


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Joe Swenson said...

I’m not sure if this is a helpful point of departure but one way to think about why we hold onto a grand narrative like ‘the West’ is because it allows us to make linkages between the smaller narratives that we really do care about such as: racisms, colonialism, a certain metaphysical picture of human beings and the world, a certain view of history, etc. And it is because we want to show that these are not discrete problems but that they share certain underlying assumptions, exploitations, and the like that we place them together into a grand concept that then serves as a critique of the linkages we find connecting all of these problems. Take, for example, the exploitation of a certain people for capitalist gain compared with the exploitation of natural resources for capitalist gain. While these are different forms of exploitation one might argue that they share linkages with one another that reveal something about a general attitude of instrumental exploitation. Traditionally, we then claim that it is an assumption or attitude or theoretical predisposition of ‘the West’ that underlies or generates the subject of our critique. But the abstract concept of the ‘West’ might be just a spinning wheel that does no real work in this type of explanation.
To borrow a concept from Ludwig Wittgenstein, one might claim the narratives of ‘the West’ share a family resemblance with one another. While none are identical to one another, we can isolate shared features and link them together in much the same way that I can see that I have my Mum’s eyes, my uncle Larry’s nose, and my aunt Gertrude’s propensity to be a poor dancer. I share some features but not others with those individuals. This does not mean, of course, that we are all participating in some Super-being that gives us those qualities—it just means that there are properties that we meaningfully share and that linking those properties in relation to one another is generally helpful by way of explanation.
Could the ‘West’ be re-conceived along similar lines? Yes, there are many narratives that make up what we traditionally call the ‘West’ and it is important to note the linkages between those narratives. But to reify the term beyond an acknowledgment of the many linkages between various narratives does no more good than to try and explain me and my Auntie Gertrude’s features in terms of some Super-relative. And I think the linkages found between persecution, exploitation, transcendent metaphysical assumptions, instrumental reason, history, and the like are far more important than the grand concept they supposedly add up to. If one were to focus on the ‘family features’ of various narratives perhaps one could remain moderately local while also going beyond mere particularity by acknowledging that the so-called big problems of the ‘West’ are actually linkages between the various types of problems, narratives, and injustices still worthy of critique.

Sharif Islam said...

I don't get Wittgenstein but I like this idea of 'family' resemblance. The narrative of 'the West' comes with the family from 'the East'. The smaller narratives you mention, such as racism, is not solely a matter of 'the West'. And this could be said for other narratives like democracy and secularism.

Joe Swenson said...

Yes, you are right. I didn't mean to suggest that this type of explanatory method would only apply to the 'West.' But, that it could possibly apply to many so-called big-picture concepts or narratives.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent and useful debate. Michael is absolutely correct in saying that the categories east and west, especially in their hardened geo-political forms, need to be critically revisited. The processes of globalization in our time make this an imperative. Today we witness Ukraine, Romania, and Georgia push for NATO membership. In terms of development, one could perhaps increasingly think of a new metropolitanism that dominates societies of globality. What is coming to the fore is a new transnational ruling consensus that gives rise to what Arif Dirlik has called the ‘Astronaut class.’ The financializations of the globe and global information networks have created infra-statal portals of metropolitanism that make positive east west distinctions of yore redundant to a certain degree. This has perhaps been obfuscated, in an affective level, by post 9/11 US militarization, neo-conservatism, and the right wing resuscitation of the ‘War of Civilizations’ debate. However, once we look beyond the Middle East, matters are different. The Brave New India for instance (projected to be one of three biggest economies of the world in the not so distant future by Goldman Sachs), has its own Silicon Valleys and Cyberabad (for the ‘powered’ creation of which the then Andhra Pradesh state government yanked electric supply from the countryside), but it also, according to a Newsweek article last year, hides three Somalias. We are reminded of a new metropolitanism when we see the right wing government in the state of Gujarat, as well as the ‘communist’ government of the state of Bengal adopt similar repressive, genocidal policies to clear the countryside for dogmatic neo-liberal development. Planetary capitalization thus reminds us of Ernest Bloch’s telling theorization of the ‘non synchronous’. It has created a landscape of infra-national temporalities rather than a positive spatial east-west cartography (we live in an epochal moment; for the first time in the history of the world, more people will be living in cities than in villages). This is attested further by the fact that many theorists are talking about the global order in terms of ‘new medievalisms’. This is precisely why I think Bruce’s suggestion that the west should be understood in terms of historicity is a very valid and frankly, quite brilliant one. Spatial distinctions between the east and west have been virtualized. The astronaut class roams the cyberspace, which, as Lev Manovich points out, is a space without gravity (precisely why it takes nanoseconds to affect the Tokyo share market if there is a crash in New York). Increasingly thus, when we think about the ‘west’, when we think about empire, and when we think about capital, entities, as they say, are up in the ‘air’. The west does not have a ground beneath his feet.

Anustup Basu

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