Author’s Roundtable I

Response: On the Use and Abuse of History

Thursday, September 18, 2008

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Carl Lehnen, English

One of the primary goals of postcolonial studies has been to deconstruct articulations of cultural difference that depend on binaries like East and West, primitive and modern, colonizer and colonized. Such scholarship has shown that Europe does not exist in splendid isolation, but in complex networks of migration, imperialism, and capital. Yet, insofar as postcolonial studies has tended to put Europe’s internal divisions in brackets, it risks leaving unrealized its insight that “Europe” is as much a rhetorical invention as “Africa.” As such, Professor Dainotto’s genealogy of the idea of Europe offers an excellent opportunity to rethink how such articulations of cultural difference operate both inside and outside of Europe. What’s important here is not just the assertion that Europe had internal as well as external others, thus giving us a bigger pool of “others” to apply our critical tools to, but that this genealogy questions the Europeanness of Europe, or the identity on which such a logic of othering depends. In shifting our attention from an inter-continental distinction between East and West to an intra-continental distinction between North and South, I think this book raises a number of important questions for how we think about culture, geography, and history, and in the remainder of my response I’ll try to sketch out just a few of them.

First, if the European south takes the place of the Asiatic east in the dialectic of European self-definition, then what’s at stake in this substitution? In other words, does making the negative term internal to Europe just change one of the terms of the dialectic, or does it change the way the dialectic itself works? In some ways, Greece or Italy could be quite convenient analogues to the Islamic world. Both are the sites of civilizations that, so the theory goes, gained the benefits of civilization quite early because of their hospitable climates, but were then unable to develop any further. On the other hand, whatever the attempts of writers like Montesquieu and Staël to define the origin of modern Europe as Franco-German rather than Greco-Roman, it simply wasn’t possible (or perhaps even desirable) to exclude the south from a history of Europe in the same way that it was to exclude Africa and Asia.

Which brings me to a related concern about method and terminology. Given the widely recognized cultural heritage of places like Greece and Italy, and given the southern “periphery’s” proximity to the northern “center,” does it even make sense to call the south an “other,” or do we need some new vocabulary to discuss its position? I would argue, as I think Europe (in Theory) also implies, that we do need such a vocabulary, and that the language of othering is not just tired but also inadequate to describing many articulations of cultural difference. The essential question here seems to be, how are cultures narrated in history and mapped onto space? In the story that this book tells, it turns out that “Europe” doesn’t just come into being through some primal encounter of self-definition and negation, but through an ongoing process of self-narrating and self-mapping. Europe and its others aren’t just like or unlike, but temporally and spatially situated: young or old, developing or decadent, near or far, here or there.

A third question that this attention to space and time raises for me is how we might extend Europe’s insights in order to make sense of writers who not only position the south as under-developed, static, or decadent, but who also seem to find this underdevelopment attractive. That is, instead of getting caught in an unfruitful opposition between “othering” and “identification,” perhaps the language of past and present selves can give us a better way of explaining this variant of romantic primitivism. Of course, Europe gives ample attention to those like Juan Andrés and Michele Amari who challenge Montesquieu’s narrative of historical development, but these writers seem less interested in questioning the desirability of modernity than they are in redefining the south’s relationship to it. What, then, about writers like Staël or Byron who more or less accept Montesquieu’s version of a modern north and a pre-modern south, but for whom this denial of coevalness does not necessarily constitute a denial of the possibility of dialogue?

Finally, I can’t help but think about the historical aporia with which the book ends. Amari, hoping to rescue Sicily from northern denigration through an Arabocentric approach, finds that the real Sicily remains as much an obscurity in the Islamic archive as in the European. Given this failure, should we take a moment to reflect on our own methodologies? If, in the words of Dipesh Chakrabarty, historicism “posit[s] historical time as a measure of cultural distance,” then can its contradictions and exclusions be remedied through more historicism? What does the framework of history reveal, and what are its limits?


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Madame said...

These are great questions and I offer I offer just one small reply to one aspect of them (which is also a reply to the Curbelo-Serrano post). Toward the end of the discussion on Monday Bruce Rosenstock brought up the idea of the difference between Catholicism and non-Christian religions such as Islam in terms of constructing what Dainotto calls the "rhetorical unconscious." Bruce's comments provoked me to wonder if the homology between Southern (Catholic) and Eastern (Islamic) works best within a liberal social imaginary like Montesquieu's and Hegel's in which (as Manuel Rota pointed out in his response), human nature is conceived as ultimately universal-- so that all human difference is understood temporally. It seems to me that what's distinctive about today's "clash of civilizations" narrative (and what was different about many post-Hegelian accounts of difference from the nineteenth century) is the introduction of race to mark a category of absolute difference: a kind of difference resistant to liberalisms's developmentalist logic. Although the Huntingtonian mode of civilizational discourse may not be explicit in its use of race, it clearly racializes--and thus absolutizes--difference in a way that rationalizes the substitution of "clash" for dialectics.

This leads to any number of questions For example, is Catholic difference always figured as temporal in relation to Protestantism or is too sometimes strongly racialized just as Orientalism itself appears in racial as well as temporal forms. Even nubbier still: given that almost all temporal accounts of difference produce asymmetrical effects comparable to those that racial discourses produce is it worthwhile to distinguish between the two? (My answer would be yes.)

The questions that interest me most, however, concern liberalism and the dialectic. In the terms that Carl presents above: is a dialectic of internal otherness the very best that dialectics can offer (in Marxist as well liberal varieties)? What choices do we have beyond the Southern-Oriental form of dialectics that Dainotto describes and the racialized and absolutized impasse of clash narratives?

Bruce R said...

The Protestant/Catholic divide as Weber constructs it is a temporal progress away from a sacramentalized world to a disenchanted world, as everyone knows. The North is therefore both more progressive than the South, and also more cought in the "iron cage" of capitalism as the religious sanction for capital accumulation falls away. What is left of "religion" in the North, on this account, is consigned to the realm of "private belief." I think that what the "clash" signifies is in large part the return of the repressed, that is, the return of religion into the public sphere, and radical Islam is construed not as temporally less advanced (as in Orientalism's scheme), but as a competing claimant for the *future* of public religion. Radical Islam is thus on the same longitude, so to speak, as neo-Calvinist Protestantism (the radical evangelicals), and thus we see a realignment between North (Protestant) and South (Catholic) together against the East (radical Islam), and also against the internal enemy (liberal separation of Church and State). The lines of division thus shift in new ways, so that in effect the classic North (Protestant Europe) becomes opposed term (because it is so successfully secularized) to the "new" North, which turns out to have its heartland in the American South (bible belt)!