“Les civilisations reposent sur terre”: Civilizing barbarianism or the re-location of geography as a path to liberty

Luis Alberto Velasco Ruiz

The aim of this paper is to gather the outputs of three different standpoints about the particular treatment of the concept of “civilization” in the European twentieth century. In order to spring up with a rather fresh proposal based on the outlines of three different scholars such as Reinhart Koselleck, Fernand Braudel and Edward Said, it does not seem worthwhile to summarize their well-known basic features, but instead, to deepen a bit into their scientific and epochal background, and underlying rhetoric and discourses. No topic is separated from its context of origin while at the same time it remains a changing issue, as “no one trying to grasp it can by an act of pure will or of sovereign understanding stand at some Archimedean point outside the flux” (Said, 1984: 251).

Facing civilization drives us in first place to misleading “common places” related to “evolutionist” statements traced back to the nineteenth century, a not very well seen historical particularity which the so-called Occidental society drags until now. From Koselleck’s exhaustive reading on civilization, we should consider of broad importance retracing the archaeology of the concept in the way that it conveys not only its (im)properly socialized meanings, but also its semantic transitions and translations from one language to another. How did the concept turn from being a noun to be an adjective and finally a verb? What does this transition tell us about the moment in which a sort of teleological process mathematically located civilization as the counter-part for wilderness?

It is true; progress entails the conquest of space while time goal is going back instead of forth. “Barbarians” have always been the outsiders of a culture that produces a hegemonic discourse out of it; a pattern repeated along different western and non western societies. Contesting the very “essence” of what civilization has meant throughout time, lifts until today a topic full of touching fibers. In this matter, Braudel’s “longue durée” eases world’s apprehension as a nonstop exchange of images constrained in spatial frameworks; especially what he calls “lâchages coloniaux”, which are –by the way- not random at all. History of civilization in this sense can be seen as the diffusion of exchanges, borrowings, omissions and refusals under which “dependence chains” appear not to be so hardly identifiable, as what for instance was clearly intended to be according to him the end of American hegemony 40 years ago.

With Said we meet a peculiar critic of “institutional or discursive setting” in the western production of knowledge. Said discloses “Orientalism” as a way of stripping the occidental gaze to its closest otherness: the Middle East. According to this, epistemology and methodology are more a matter of polity and ethic than we imagine. Orientalism implies the conquest of an origin confined to the antiquity, the one that equally raises fear and admiration. Braudel gives “literally” ground to Said’s discursive analysis. The risk underneath the former’s core-periphery model (without which the latter could not have been able to show a particular occidental gaze) is to fall in determinisms at showing the flow of historical structures. For instance, we could ask to what extent the periphery was the real core silenced by colonialism? Where is the core and where the periphery today?

On the other hand, both Koselleck’s and Said’s positions shed light about the way language carries ideologies; words are never innocent while they can seemingly appear as unaware. In this way, we need to be aware that those “ideological suppositions” are currently as well a set of images and fantasies that divulge desires. Exoticism is a return to those very longed-for origins we have mentioned. Though, we know that a fixed-in-time idea of the “other” is worthless as a subject to history and, therefore, we have to subvert the westernized way we transform categories into objects, constructed and positioned –time-spatialized- (coevalness in terms of Fabian, 1971) within a World-system of values, or what Koselleck silently announces as a sort of “historicism without historicity” (Dosse, 2007) in his chase for concepts.

“There could not be Orientalism without, on the one hand, Orientalists, and on the other, the Orientals.” (Said, 1984: 250). According to this, exoticism is deeply inscribed with power, and therefore applicable to what has been recently called the “Modernity/coloniality dilemma” (Mignolo, 2000). To put the matter simply: coloniality is the uncomfortable face of modernity, or as Mignolo warns: “the darker side of the Renaissance”. There is always hidden geopolitics of knowledge adjoining the “colonial difference”. For instance, the critics towards Said as an anti-Semitic reveals of course that the author could –and should- not get rid of his own experience as Palestinian. This is somehow clear, however, an unusual critic to these author (especially for the postcolonial school that came after) remains a claim on how attainable can it be to keep standing for social justice while talking from the North of the Atlantic?

Any exoticist gaze turns useless and nonsense, not because of misleading culture as a merchandise, not even for promoting the reification of identities, but even worse when its projects and rhetoric become a sort of “violent disagreement (…) [and] open warfare” (Said, 1984: 251). At some point, I think it is almost impossible not to surrender to the risks of defining the “otherness”. We are always writing from a certain “depaysement”. We are always foreigners; always abroad and everlasting changing travelers seeking to know who are still the “barbars crus” and who the “barbars cuits” (Braudel on the Chinese Empire approach to Indochinese ethnic groups, 1979). Otherwise, we would have to somehow give up indefinitely for a stubborn but inexistent objectivity capable of ending up as an extremely “polite” and frigid multiculturalism.

This could truly be “the clash of ignorance” (Said on Hungtington’s theory, 2001). What is the role of frontiers after the demagogic “end of history” and the triumphant “onset of globalism”? It sounds risky and thickily easy to spread that “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future” (Hungtington in Said, 2001: 146). Notwithstanding, Braudel cuts across Said with an interesting point to this extent, civilizations –from an optimistic perspective- can resist the standardization process of this “globalism” due to the possibility of refusal. Furthermore, civilizations should not be entirely opposed, for this would just keep on reveting the West in its fallacious and stubborn “uniqueness”.

I would like to come up with an example from what inflames me the most according to what Said calls the “internal dynamics” and “plurality” of every civilization. That is the revivals and beseeches of messianic social movements in Latin America, some of which are still rightfully anchored on Millenarism.

In México, to pay off the debt inherited from “golden ages” is not only a territorial issue but also an issue of taking into consideration what was lost as an effect of what could have been indeed a “clash of civilizations”. October 12, 1492: formerly called “the day of the race” was renamed more politically correct after 1992 as “the day of the encounter of two worlds”, polite euphemism that after 20 years has only led again to belligerent craves for the abolition of the holiday itself: “No hay nada que celebrar”, there is nothing to celebrate, or even as a counterpart, the day of “la Resistencia Indígena”, the indigenous resistance, 520 years later. Both perspectives are acknowledged by world-known scholars like Eduardo Galeano.

To this respect, I can say that until now I keep searching for the trustworthy length of “Mexican” memory (and of the Mexicans). We are still in the process of contesting what does it mean to be united as a country. It might not seem useful to split into 65 minorities (some of whom still defend their own nation- building project) after decades of being constrained to 32 federal entities. As an aftermath, the social struggle should not intend to strengthen further divisions but an exhortation for autonomy. The true role of the idea of civilization –now and here- is to enhance a “world that fits many worlds”, as the Zapatistas’ demands follow, a time to walk onward.

Overall, the three authors lead to expectation. Is there still space for geographies of the days to come? For “imaginative geographies”, as Said calls them, capable of exploring, as needed, the borders that separate social constructs, neither unchangeable, nor imaginary. To build on my own findings, I shall keep asking how to use Braudel’s “longue durée” to revert identities’ reification without disregarding the beseeches and the series of “faits non-accomplis” (which history has still to pay back) of those projects face to the blinding colonial difference.

Indicative Bibliography:

BRAUDEL, Fernand (1993) Grammaire des civilisations. Paris. Flammarion. Pp. 33-68. _______________(1969) « L’histoire des civilisation: Le passé explique le présent » in: Écrits sur l’histoire. Paris. Flammarion. Pp. 288-314.

_______________ (1979) « Les divisions de l’espace et du temps en Europe » in: Civilisation matérielle, économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIe siècle. Tome III: Le temps du monde. Paris. Armand Colin. Pp. 11-55.

KOSELLECK, Reinhart, Otto BRUNNER & Werner CONZE (editors) (1972-1997) Fundamental historical concepts. Historical lexicon of political and social language in Germany. (English extracts) Volume 7.

SAID, Edward (1978) « Introduction » in: Orientalism. New York. Pantheon. Pp. 1-28

___________ (2001) « Clash of ignorance » in: Nation. October 22, 2001.

___________ (1984) « Orientalism Reconsidered » in: Francis BARKER. Europe and its others. University of Essex.

Complementary Bibliography:

DOSSE, François (2007) La marcha de las ideas: Historia de los intelectuales, historia intelectual. Valencia. Universitat de València.

FABIAN, Johannes (1983) Time and the Other: How Anthropology makes its object. New York. Columbia University Press.

MIGNOLO, Walter (2000) Local Histories/Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

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