Author's Roundtable I: Roberto Dainotto replies

Friday, September 19, 2008

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
Written by Roberto Dainotto, Department of Romance Studies, Duke University

In a note on “Methodological Questions” penned in his Prison Notebooks around 1933, Antonio Gramsci wrote: “If one wants to study the conception of a world-view that has not been exposed systematically… (and whose essential coherence is to be found not in a single essay or in a series of essays, but in the entire development of [a body of] intellectual work in which the elements of such view of the world are implicit), we need to do careful, preliminarily philological work…”

Philology may well have been, in Gramsci’s time as in our own, “the least sexy” of disciplines and methods of inquiry, as Edward Said reminded us only a few years ago in his “Return to Philology.” Yet, what philology helped Gramsci to do, and can still help us in doing, is to “better understand the concept a word means to express: the concept can be brought back to the historically determined cultural world that conceived it. Similarly, it can be useful specifically to determine the limit of the word, thus avoiding the almost mechanical reification of that word” into truth statements.

Europe (in Theory) begins with a set philological hypotheses: that the word “Europe” alludes, more than to a specific geographical fact (which is notoriously difficult to define: is Turkey Europe? And what about Russia?), to certain “conceptions of the world” which are “historically determined”; that these “conceptions of the world” are immanent to certain historical situations, and therefore change when the situation changes even if the word remains the same; and that all of these “conceptions of the world” determine specific “limits” to what the word, in each different historical setting, signifies.

Through this set of philological hypotheses, I looked at the origin of “Europe”: the word, once relegated to mythology, emerges “as a moral and political concept” (Chabod) in the context of the Persian Wars. It is in that context that “Europe,” whose geographical extension is limited to the Greek city-states around the Mediterranean, starts meaning nothing else than the antithesis of Asia. Aristotle’s Politics, for instance: “The nations in cold regions, particularly in Europe, are full of [courage]... which is why they continue to be comparatively free... . By contrast, those in Asia... lack [courage]; which is why they continue to be ruled and enslaved.” “Us,” not surprisingly, is defined by an opposition to “them.”

Yet, what for me was more interesting than this original conception of Europe, was a shift in what Europe started to mean in the Eighteenth Century. Not only the territory of what “Europe” supposed to cover had extended far beyond the Greek city-states. What was more curious was the antithetical principle to Europe (Asia as non-Europe) had been, so to speak, internalized. It is not that an opposition of Europe to Asia was ceasing to exist. Rather, this opposition was being supplemented by a new—modern—one. In Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Law, in fact, the essence of Europe—its progress from a state of nature to the modernity of social laws—relied on antithesis that was internal to Europe itself—on its south, a sort of pathological, backward non-European Europe; a Europe (in theory), that is to say

It is not surprising that the cowardice of the people of hot climates has almost constantly rendered them slaves, and that the courage of the people of cold climates has kept them free…

You will find, in the climates of the north, peoples who have few vices, many virtues, and much sincerity and candor. As you move toward the countries of the south, you will believe you have moved away from morality itself…

What “conception of a world-view,” what “historically determined” concept was being re-articulated in such shift and re-orientation of what “Europe” was starting to signify? Certainly, the fact that Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Law was written at the heyday of a controversy between ancient and moderns was likely to mean that “Europe” expressed now a faith in progress and modernity of which the ancient and classical south could only be an “origin”—an imperfect beginning, that is, impervious to the magnificent progress of history, and closer still to a state of nature—a club Mediterranée, indeed. And the fact that the Spirit of the Law was written at the moment in which capitalist and mercantile classes were already waiting to displace the old aristocracy, was likely to hint at a new conception of economic and political power—a power no longer dependent on feudal and territorial accumulation, but on the exploitation of natural resources (the plentiful south), and on the exploitation of labor (a labor whose ethics, before being Protestant, was already antithesis of the “lazy” south).

The larger, and most problematic theoretical shift (by “theory” I mean, again, a “conception of a world-view”) engendered by the internalization of the (Asiatic) Other into the (European) South, however, remains one: the shifting signification of Europe points to a reform of classical dialectics (Aristotle’s) into a modern dialectics that, starting from Montesquieu, finds its systematic theorization in Hegel. This is a dialectics of the same. The Other, in this dialectics, is no longer something external to the self, but, at best, a previous developmental stage in the progressive unfolding of the self towards the end of history. In this dialectical shift lies, in my opinion, the pernicious essence of what we often refer to as “Eurocentrism.” Eurocentrism, in this reading, is not the alleged centrality of Europe, but its totalizing spread. Non-Europe, to put it differently, is no longer the “other” of Europe, but a stage of Europe itself yet to be Europeanized—or modernized, or democratized, or rendered free, and so on.


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