Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Depth of Eurocentrism

An exercise

Imagine life in the year 1300.

I’ll bet you’re imaging scenes of castles, knights in armor, ladies in flowing gowns, peasants in rags, medieval warfare, etc.  In other words, you’re imagining something like the land of Westeros in an episode of Game of Thrones!

Also, I’m betting you imagined not just a specific time, but a specific place: Europe (and probably Western Europe, probably even England).  You're probably also using the Gregorian calendar to tell you that the year 1300 is about 715 years ago.
Another way of looking at our world
This exercise demonstrates the pervasiveness of Eurocentrism – the privileging of the idea of Europe, its history, culture, languages, literatures, philosophies, religions, and so forth.  (If you did manage to imagine another part of the world, good for you!  Nonetheless, I hope a little armchair sociology will convince you that I’m on to something). 

In many cases, Eurocentrism dwells so deeply in the ways we conceptually organize the world that we fail to notice it.  Let’s engage in some conceptual excavation.

But first, in the spirit of thinking internationally, take a minute to consider HELPING PEOPLE IN NEPAL after the earthquake of April 25, 2015.

Conceptual excavation: Eurocentric examples

In science fiction, the depth of Eurocentrism is found in the ways that Western Europe sets the standards, not just for Earth, but the whole galaxy.  In a lot of science fiction (Star Trek is a salient example), extraterrestrial societies are understood in terms of their historical and technological progression, using the history of Western Europe as the sole measure (e.g., they visit a “medieval” planet or aliens use images from European history to communicate with humans, as in the Star Trek TOS episode, “Catspaw”).  

It’s as if science fiction authors are Hegelians who believe that history progresses in inevitable (and European) stages of advancement.  (There’s an echo of this in the somewhat odd claim that Islam needs a “Reformation” as if 21st century Islamic societies are identical to 16th century Europe and as if the Reformation didn’t initiate 150 years of bloodshed in Europe.)

In fantasy, note the tendency, starting with Tolkien, but still alive and well today, to rely on European history, literature, and mythology in world building at the expense of the histories, literatures, and mythologies of other cultures.  Even more problematically, note the Orientalist ways in which other cultures have been used in fantasy to indicate the uncivilized Other (I mean “Orientalist” in Edward Said’s sense of the term).

In philosophy, it’s extremely likely that American college students majoring in philosophy will earn Bachelor’s degrees with absolutely no exposure to non-Western philosophy, nothing at all from India, China, the Islamic world, Africa, Latin America, etc.  The chances of encountering any non-Western material in graduate school are even lower, since grad students are expected to specialize and few philosophy graduate programs offer non-Western specializations.

Thinking toward solutions

As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues in Provincializing Europe, the problem is that the idea of Europe has become the filter through which everything is interpreted (he also relies on other postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak).  Historians, for example, attempt to write histories of non-European places in European terms.  Chakrabarty suggests that we should try to “provincialize” Europe; that is, we need to make Europe one decentralized place among many rather than the place by which we understand all places, or as I’d call it, a Meta-Place or Ur-Place.
This isn’t going to be easy.  In our present global context Eurocentrism is impossible to avoid entirely, especially in non-Western postcolonial countries like India and in countries like the United States with strong cultural ties to Europe.  I am, for example, an American of primarily European ancestry writing this blog post in a European language.

It also won’t do to avoid things just because they’re European.  Some of those dead white guys and gals had good ideas.  The fact that modern science is largely – although not entirely – a product of European history is no reason to deny science. (On science not being as Western as we think, see Christopher Beckwith’s Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, which presents the hypothesis that some ingredients of modern science came from Buddhist and Islamic Central Asia.)

While Eurocentrism is an unavoidable feature of social reality for most of us, maybe we can take steps to work against it in the long run.  Doing more to acknowledge histories, philosophies, religions, and artistic and cultural achievements outside of Europe is a step in the right direction.  We should learn about non-European cultures, while attempting to understand, and perhaps even deconstruct, the Eurocentric frameworks through which such understanding typically takes place. 

In a previous post I argued that diversity in science fiction and philosophy is good for all of us.  Science fiction and fantasy fans can try to broaden their horizons by seeking out material from diverse perspectives.  My challenge to philosophers is that if you can teach Plato in Philosophy 101 without specializing in ancient Greek philosophy, you can teach The Questions of King Milinda in a unit on personal identity or Mencius in a unit on ethics. 

It may be that Eurocentrism will eventually fade away in light of geopolitical and economic changes.  In 100 years, I suspect the increasing political and economic power of Asian countries, especially China and perhaps also India, will dramatically change the geopolitical shape of the world. 

Will this create an Asian-centered global culture? Or will the global culture of 2115 CE be a pluralist hybrid of cultures?  Or something we can’t quite imagine today?  We ought to take up these questions, which is something we can do once we start peeling back the blinders of Eurocentrism.

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