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The Topic

Ernst von Dussel:

"Subsuming the best of globalized European and North American modernity, “trans”-modernity affirms “from without” the essential components of modernity’s own excluded cultures in order to develop a new civilization for the twenty-first century. Accepting this massive exteriority to European modernity allows one to comprehend that there are cultural moments situated “outside” of modernity. To achieve this, an interpretation that supposes a “second” and very subtle Eurocentrism must be overcome. One can then shift to a non-Eurocentric interpretation of the history of the world-system, a system only hegemonized by Europe for the last two hundred years (not five hundred). The emergence of other cultures, until now depreciated and unvalued, from beyond the horizon of European modernity is thus not a miracle arising from nothingness, but rather a return by these cultures to their status as actors in the history of the world-system. Although Western culture is globalizing—on a certain technical, economic, political, and military level—this does not efface other moments of enormous creativity on these same levels, moments that affirm from their “exteriority” other cultures that are alive, resistant, and growing…. Postmodernity critiques the universalist and “foundationalist” pretensions of modern reason (Richard Rorty), but it critiques it as “modern” and not as “European” or “North American.” In principle, postmodernity also articulates a respect for other cultures in terms of their incommensurability, difference, and autonomy, though it expresses this in general, and not specifically with respect to Chinese, Hindustani, Islamic, African Bantu, and Latin American cultures (the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor are examples). It is not sufficiently aware of the “positivity” of these cultures, which have been excluded by the colonial process of early modernity (1492–1789), and by the “enlightened” industrial globalization of mature modernity (1789–1989), which Wallerstein (1995) situates under the hegemony of liberal politico-economic ideology, opposed to the conservative and socialist ideologies.

Postmodernity’s “post” does not eliminate its Eurocentrism since postmodernity assumes that future humanity obviously will reach the same “cultural situation” as postmodern Europe and the United States to the degree that humanity modernizes by the process of “globalization” (which is considered irreversible and inevitable). This belief in modernizing “inevitability” makes postmodernity profoundly Eurocentric. It cannot imagine that the cultures whose positivity has been excluded by the modern (since 1492) and enlightened colonial processes (since 1789, when Europe attained industrial hegemony in the world-system due to the disappearance of preindustrial—but not premodern—China and Hindustan) might be able to develop in an autonomous, “modern,” and creative fashion their own “universal” cultures in the next stage, that is, the stage after the extinction of European–North American modernity with its claims to “sole” universality, beyond its present crisis, beyond its limit, beyond modernity’s “post”-modern moment. It is necessary then, to think this matter more radically….

Like the tropical jungles with their immense quantity of plants and animals genetically essential for the future of humanity, the majority of humanity’s cultures excluded by modernity (which are not, and will not be, postmodern) and by globalization (because misery is “necessity without money,” without solvency, and therefore is not of the market) retains an immense capacity for and reserve of cultural invention essential for humanity’s survival. This creativity will also be needed if humanity is to redefine its relationship with nature based on ecology and interhuman solidarity, instead of reductively defining it on the solipsistic and schizoid criterion of increasing rates of profit."


The book

* Book: Eurocentrism. Samir Amin.



Loren Goldner:

"It is quite refreshing to read Samir Amin's Eurocentrism, a book by an Egyptian Marxist intellectual whose critique of Western ethnocentrism, including actually Eurocentric variants of Marxism, is not made from a relativizing discourse of cultural "difference" incapable of making critical judgements. Amin's critique of Eurocentric Marxism is not aimed at the latter's (unfulfilled) aspirations to universality, but rather on the premise that such Marxism IS NOT UNIVERSAL ENOUGH. Amin seeks a "way to stengthen the universalist dimension of historical materialism". He has plenty of problems of his own, though they are of another order. But his book has merits which should be highlighted before people read no further than the title and assimilate it too quick to the genre established by Said (whose world view Amin characterizes, drawing on the earlier critique by Sadek Jalal el-Azm, as "provincial".

Amin, who understands the "species" dimension of Marx's thought, believes many unfashionable things. He believes that there has been progress in world history, that such progress obviously antedated the emergence of the West, that the social formation that engendered Renaissance Europe was revolutionary, unique in world history, and superior to any that had preceded it, and that its achievements, including science and rationality, had laid the foundations for further historical progress, which must clearly go BEYOND the West.

In the first section of the book, presenting an overview of the mainly Mediterranean "tributary" (pre-capitalist) societies prior to the Renaissance, Amin lays out a theory of successive innovations, from ancient Egypt onward, which were breakthroughs for humanity as a whole, and which made possible further universal breakthroughs. "The universalist moral breakthrough of the Egyptians", writes Amin, "is the keystone of subsequent human thought". Later, in ancient Greece, there was "an explosion in the fields of scientific abstraction" in which "empiricist practice-- as old as humankind itself--finally came to pose questions of the human mind that required a more systematic effort of abstraction". The accomplishments of ancient Egypt, moreover, later evolved to an all-encompassing metaphysics that furnishes Hellenism, and later Islam and Christianity, with their point of depature, as the thinkers of the period themselves recognized."

One might quarrel, even substantially, with the specific emphases of Amin's account of the creation, over several millennia, of what he characterizes as the general synthesis of "medieval metaphysics" in which the (Moslem) Averroes, the (Jew) Maimonides and the (Christian) Aquinas without qualms read, critique and borrowed from each other. But Amin is certainly right that the origins of Eurocentrism came from reading out of history the common Eastern Mediterranean origins of the medieval era in which Islam was long superior to barbaric Western Christendom, and out of which the capitalist West emerged. This artificial isolation of the Greek breakthrough from its broader context made it possible to forget both the earlier phase in ancient Egypt and particularly the later contribution of Hellenistic Alexandria upon which both Christianity and Islam drew so heavily, and later transmitted to Europe. In Amin's view, it was precisely the backwardness of Europe relative to the Islamic Mediterranean that made the next breakthrough possible there, where it did not have to confront the sophisticated medieval metaphysics of Islam. And presumably no one will call Amin an "Orientalist" when he notes "the reduction of human reason to its single deductive dimension" by Christian and Islamic metaphyiscs and when he regrets that "contemporary Arab thought has still not escaped from it".

Amin's critique of Eurocentrism is not, as we said, the latter's affirmation of modern capitalism's uniqueness and, for a certain historical period, (now long over) its contribution to human progress. He aims his fire at capitalism's rewriting of history to create an imaginary "West" which could alone have produced its breakthroughs. By rejecting theattempt to discover universal historical laws that would accurately situate the West's achievement with respect to all the societies who helped build its foundations (in the way that Bernal does for ancient Greece) the West created a powerful ideology denying the global historical laws that produced it, thereby undermining the very universal character of its achievement, and "eternalizing" progress as unique to the West, past, present and future. In Amin's own words, worth quoting at length:

"The dominant ideology and culture of the capitalist system cannot be reduced solely to Eurocentrism... But if Eurocentrism does not have, strictly speaking, the status of a theory, neither is it simply the sum of the prejudices, errors andblunders of Westerners with respect to other peoples. If that were the case, it would only be one of the banal forms of ethnocentricism shared by all peoples at all times. The Eurocentric distortion that marks the dominant capitalist culture negates the universalist ambition on which that culture claims to be founded...Enlightenment culture confronteda real contradiction that it could not overcome by its own means. For it was self-evident that nascent capitalism which produced capitalism had unfolded in Europe.Moreover, this embryonic new world was in fact superior, both materially and in many other aspects, to earlier societies, both in its own territories (feudal Europe) and in other regions of the world (the neighboring Islamic Orient and the more distant Orients...) The culture of the Enlightenment was unable to reconcile the fact of this superiority with its universalist ambition. On the contrary, it gradually drifted toward racism as an explanation for the contrast between it and other cultures...The culture of the Enlightenment thus drifted, beginning in the nineteenth century, in nationalistic directions, impoverished in comparison with its earlier cosmopolitanism."

In light of the above, it goes without saying that Amin has no use for Islamic fundamentalism and other Third Worldist culturalisms, which he diagnoses as an anti-universalist provincialism existing in counterpoint to the provincialism of Said and of the post-modern critics of "white male thinking" (Amin does not use the latter term; I do). This conflation of "white male" with the humanist universalism produced by world history actually reproduces dominant ideology by denying that the Renaissance was a breakthrough in a broader human history and by failing to recognize the contributions of "non-whites" to key aspects of "Western" culture, as Bernal showed in Black Athena. (Bernal leaves to black nationalists the problem of putting together his corroboration of the African dimension of ancient Egypt, which they have always maintained, with his claim that it had an important influence on Greek culture, which they have always denounced as "white".) Neither Eurocentric provincialism nor anti-Western provincialism draws much solace from a truly universalist approach to history.

But despite these undeniable strengths of Amin's Eurocentrism, Amin's book is deeply flawed by its own baggage, of quite another type. What Amin gives brilliantly in his diagnosis, hetakes away clumsily in his prescription for treatment."