mercredi, 14 juillet 2010
Cosmopolis: The West as Nowhere
Cosmopolis: The West as Nowhere
Translated by Greg Johnson
The old tradition is mistaken: the West is no longer European, and Europe is no longer the West. In its course toward the West, the sun of our civilization has dimmed. Starting from Greece, settling in Italy, then in Western Europe, then in England, and finally, having crossed the seas, installing itself in America, the center of the “West” has been slowly disfigured.
Indeed, today, according to Raymond Abellio, California has been established as the epicenter and essence of the West. Pacified at the edge of the Pacific, it is the symbol of the happiness where our civilization dies; land of the end of history, land of Hollywood’s simulacrum, it is the asymptotic approach to madness, to commercial society, to the society of the spectacle, and to cosmopolitanism.
The West as a planetary movement which is always-already underway will thus continue its course towards the West by establishing its center where it has already been prepared, in the Far East, in the archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean, from Japan to the East Indies. It is the absolute reverse of the movement across the seas departing from Europe in the 16th century . . .
The West thus becomes “something” global. It appears in the form of a vague whole composed of networks of decisions, dispersed territorial zones, cultural and human blocs distributed in all countries. If the United States still dominates it, the West will increasingly take on the countenance of a “qualification”—and no longer as a membership—which crosses national boundaries.
The West, or Western civilization, indicates those places where the “Western system” prevails. These places are less and less describable in political, geographical, and ethnic terms. If the epicenter remains localized in the United States, the foreseeable future leads us to forecast a dispersion of the West, of its transformation into a polycentric ensemble of quite Western nations (Germany), fairly Western nations (the Ivory Coast), partially Western nations (Czechoslovakia), and not very Western nations (Afghanistan). But few places will be able to “escape the West.”
In parallel, if the center is everywhere and that “everywhere” is at bottom nowhere, the West has to lose any specific virtue; to be Western is to be nothing rather than something. In this process, Europeans—and Europeans alone—lose the very possibility of designating themselves validly as anything but Western. The Indian, for example, can remain “Indian” and Western, but the German or the Dutchman has to be nothing but Western, i.e., at bottom, nothing.
Neglecting borders, states, religions, the West covers much more than a geopolitical reality or a diplomatic solidarity with the “free world.” It goes far beyond this framework. It is, in its essence, the global establishment of a form of society, that of the “Americanosphere.”
Not all people feel that they are founding members of the club called Western civilization. France, Italy, Spain, or Greece will never be as integrated into Western capitalist society as, for example, New Zealand which belongs culturally to the source from which capitalism drew its impulse, namely the Anglo-Saxon hegemony founded by England and continued by the United States.
The smallest deviation of identification from the primary source of ideas and the current seat of power inexorably causes national anxiety and dissatisfaction. Thus the whole planet experiences an identity crisis in relation to a global cultural standard that few participate in completely. The schizophrenic shame that results from this is, perhaps, from a psycho-political point of view, a powerful engine of Westernization.
Organized in concentric membership circles, the West has its center, its club house, in the so-called developed countries where English is the native tongue or at least the second language, as in Northern Europe, where the mentality has been shaped by Protestantism.
The “second circle” of club membership includes, for example, France, a moral member because of its democratic universalism and the memory of Lafayette; Israel, an honorary member; Germany and Italy, associate members due to military reverses, etc. As for Japan, it has made itself a member, and American industrialists are surely beginning to regret it.
In the countries known as the “Third World,” a Westernized class, often cut off from its culture, serves as the model of emulation for the population, whose identity crisis vis-à-vis the cultural standard of its “elites” makes their deculturation that much easier. Many Southern countries are thus internally divided by a cultural and economic abyss separating those who have hastily Westernized to the point of parody from the disadvantaged bearers of the wreckage of the traditional culture.
Delirious Americanism and traditional culture in decay—which appears in this regard as backwards and inferior—are violently opposed through the logic of ethnocide. Town planning, daily manners, arts, family and social structures are the places where the Western standards of “evolution” and “development” collide with traditional cultures that, as in Africa, end up thinking of themselves as backwards.
One can wonder if “Western civilization,” in particular its American aspect, is not also constructed on a rejection of Europe, although European culture is in part the starting point of Occidentalism.
Consider, for example, Greece, which with some justice is presented as one of the fundamental matrices of European civilization: Occidentalism of the Anglo-Saxon variety violently conflicts with the original Greek culture as if it were a cancer. Thus Greek culture, by an incredible reversal, appears—and not only, alas, in the eyes of tourists—“Oriental” to Westerners, whereas in Europe it remains an almost unique example of authenticity and ancestral rootedness, and for the historians and the sociologists its linguistic, musical, religious, economic, and family forms are deeply European. In Greece, and to a lesser degree in all the other European countries, the Western standard makes the people “foreign to itself,” foreign to its own culture, which becomes an object of ethnology or is classified and neutralized as “folklore.”
The essential difference between traditional cultural standards and the Western standard is that the former are defined in relation to the cultural standards of other ethnic groups, according to a logic of differentiation (relative standards), whereas the latter claims to be the standard, having universal value and indeed regarding all other cultures as atypical—“backwards”—or morally abnormal, as “savages” who need to be civilized., i.e., domesticated.
This “domestication” described, inter alia, as a mass global culture, is well analyzed in the artistic field by Theodor Adorno. In this mass global culture, anthropologist Arnold Gehlen saw signs of the appearance of a “neo-primitive” era.
In this respect three types of “standardized” cultures seem to coexist: (1) global mass culture, which imposes in music, cinema, furniture, clothing, food, etc., ever more uniform styles, and which is presented in the form of a distractive culture; (2) an abstruse and elitist culture, both abstract and universalist, whose function is social and discriminatory (to substitute for ethno-cultural divisions a vertical separation between two cultural spheres on the scale of the entire West); and finally (3) a “museum” culture that codifies the “ancient,” rationalizes collective memory, with the aim of transforming the cultural past unique to each population into a standardized folkloric stock described as the “inheritance of humanity,” etc.
The image of the Westerner (a socio-mental system common to all who are Westernized) has reigned since the 1950s. It is generally organized around a simplified American culture and sanctions the domination of the Anglo-American language even in the arts and sciences.
In this regard, the ideology of “communication” plays a central role. For example, Gaston Dommergues, a specialist on the United States, showed that the American doctrines of transparency of information, world freedom of communications, established in particular on the construction of television networks, planetary data communication, and data processing, are not free of hegemonic inclinations.
The universalization of a language, especially when it passes though the computer, means the generalization of an international mode of thinking, acting, and feeling “American style.” Even if “liberty” reigns as the supreme value, with this enterprise, one must wonder if this planetary standardization of culture, supported by communications technology, really encourages dialogue between men and peoples. Can one communicate through a code that is in itself deculturized?
The most striking example of planetary cultural standardization appears to be the international youth culture of the generations since World War II. This culture, presented as an anti-bourgeois ideology of “liberation” and protest, has in reality functioned in scores of countries to create the first Westernized middle class in history. The generation born just after the war first bought in. Today, a large part of Western youth—including those in non-industrialized countries—share the same music, manners, and “practical culture.” One can say, according to the expression of Robert Jaulin, that the West is no longer a place, a zone, but a form of life that “crosses” all boundaries, that is interiorized in each ego.
As much as the West is a cultural and geopolitical reality, it is also a coherent and structured ideology whose totalitarian aim is all the more present as it is generally not immediately apparent to those lovers of freedom who claim to be our intellectuals.
 Raymond Abellio, La structure absolue [The Absolute Structure] (Paris : Gallimard, 1965).