The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 8, 2002

The myth of western civilisation
Review by Shelley Walia

Enduring Western Civilization
edited by Silvia Federici, Prager, Connecticut, USA. Pages 210. $ 42.

THE revelation about the evil capabilities of the human race would be revealed only after the holocaust. As Hannah Arendt points out in her book Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘We can no longer afford to take that which is good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dream of our tradition.’ This was abundantly obvious from the wreckage of the two wars and the rise of fascism scarring the deep-seated liberal philosophy prevailing in Europe.

Here it becomes obvious how Western culture’s totalising perspective came to be shaken. History as the product of the single undifferentiated subject, or the limited master’s viewpoint stood challenged. All institutional backing of cultural chauvinism is employed as a political strategy for the enhancement of power. We are, therefore, alerted to the constructed character of meaning and the paradigm of Western Civilization which stands from the 19th century onwards as the transhistorical region with an exclusionary connotation whereby the East is always an opposition to the European elitist standing. It is clear that the binary relationship between the centre and the margin is problematic within post colonialism. As pointed out by various critics, the centre is an imaginary concept always depending for its distinction and survival on the creation of the other/marginalised. On the other hand, the margin stands on its own. But where is the centre and can it ever be marginalised? The conflict goes on for the displacement /shift of each and will go on until different discourses exist in society and across the transnational boundaries. Subcultures as well as the underdeveloped colonised world struggle to move out of the subordinate location where the centre always desires them to stay.


Thus the re-evaluation of various texts is undertaken by critics like Silvia Federici, who has edited a remarkable book that consists of a number of essays exploring the hybrid aesthetics of contemporary debates on the concept of Western Civilization and its ‘others’. The collection shows the hegemonic position of the ‘centre’ as well as the question of mimesis and the sophisticated rhetorical strategies used by imperial nations. Martin Bernal’s essay on the historiographical models of Aryan and Mediterranean as applied to Greece shows the clash of cultures as well as some meeting ground in intercultural politics. The African roots of Semitic languages is explored by Necholas Faraclas, whereas John Rossa’s article on the political economy and the canonisation of the Indian civilisation will interest students of South Asian studies.

Over all, the essays indicate that the racialisation of the term ‘western’ began with the colonisation of Egypt, China and India; it was admitted by the imperial powers that other civilisations did exist, especially when they came across developed forms of art and philosophy. To a great extent Hegel, in his lectures on the ‘Philosophy of History’, was responsible in giving authenticity to the false belief that there existed a hierarchy of civilisations, the West being the culmination of development: history, according to him, moved from the East to West, for Europe is the absolute end of history’. Africa stood excluded from any contribution to history for him; as far as India and China went, he took them as rather static cultures, which were left behind in ’s progressive westward move, which he modelled on the westward migrations of the Aryan tribes, with the Germanic people playing a special role, as the carriers of the highest manifestations of the divine spirit’. Silvia Federici goes on to emphasise in her essay, ‘Origins and Crises of Western Civilization,’ that this school of thought is further corroborated by theories on philology that stated that European languages had originated in the East. Herder, Schlegel, and then Hegel all held this common and abiding view. Civilisation became synonymous with ‘Western’, marked by goodness, superiority and moral resolve as opposed to the other or the savage.

The contribution made by science to the bloodshed of the First World War along with the rise of nationalism and anti-colonial agitation around the world led to the consolidation of the idea of Western Civilisation. The undermining of the universalist claims once made by liberal humanists led to the recognition and validity of other cultures. Timeless and universal significance of Western philosophy or European literature meant the demotion or disregard of non-Western cultures as well as social, regional and national differences in experience and outlook. It would be rather narrow to judge anything by a single, supposedly ‘universal’ standard. This universalism stands rejected especially with the questioning of western values as is clear with many nations, especially Germany, moving towards the desire to know and learn from Eastern religions and philosophy. Science, technology and reason had let them down. The conflict between these followers of the Eastern mode of thinking that saw the demise of the West and the adherents of a right-wing Nazism that defended the idea of Western superiority became quite intense during the period after the war.

Eliot, Herman Hesse, Romain Rolland were among those who saw the rise of the Asiatic culture and mysticism that opposed the gross pursuit of materialism as the only saviour of a fatigued Europe. Many would turn to Bolshevism and its idea of collectivism that opposed the Western defence of individualism. Scientific rationalism stood in a defensive mood against oriental mysticism. A further blow to Europe came with the rise of American capitalism; international capitalism was no longer controlled from Europe. This ‘undermined the bourgeoisie identification of the goals of "civilization" with those of European culture’. International politics and economic dominance would be from now on in the hands of the USA more than Europe, which previously enjoyed the supremacy in international commerce and politics.