Occidentalism Research Paper

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As an inherently fluid geohistorical category that expresses varying understandings of the ‘West,’ ‘Occidentalism’ is a polysemic ‘conceptual monster’ (Latouche 1996, p. 7) that conjures up a sense of unity out of shifting geographical and historical referents. In light of the West’s role as a colonial and imperial power, renderings of Occidentalism are inherently normative and comparative and are thus exceptionally susceptible to political positioning and ideological perspective. In ordinary use Occidentalism refers to the ‘customs, institutions, characteristics, ways of thinking etc. of Western Nations’ (OED). In scholarly works influenced by critiques of Eurocentrism and of Orientalism, Occidentalism refers to the West’s self-representation, to other societies’ representations of the expanding West, or to representations of cultural difference framed in terms of Western political epistemologies. Occidentalism is thus an imprecise term that denotes a wide range of representations of the West as well as Occidentalist modalities of representation.



1. The Rising West And Its Hegemonic Representation

1.1 Westernization, Colonialism, And European Hegemony

Occidentalism’s multiple renderings have reflected the West’s imperial history and sustained or contested its rise to global dominance. Hegemonic accounts locate the West’s origins in ancient Greek civilization, even if some interpretations extend its roots deeper into Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. They present Rome’s assimilation of Greek culture and the expansion of the Roman empire—its project to create ‘one world’—as initiating a process of westernization or occidentalization.

Through the rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire and until the end of the Middle Ages, westernization and the West meant Christianization and Christendom. Concentrated in Western Europe, Christendom was overshadowed by the dynamic expansion of Islam after the seventh century, and it had no influence over the empires and civilizations of Asia, Africa, and what came to be known as the Americas. Occidentalism thus designated a rather confined political and ideological formation.

The colonization of the Americas was a turning point in the making of the modern West and in the occidentalization of the world (O’Gorman 1958; Dussel 1995). When Columbus landed in what Spain called the ‘Occidental Indies,’ Europe was still on the margins of the world’s major civilizations in the Middle East and China, and Islam was the most expansive of the major religions. The Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas made it possible to think for the first time in global terms and to represent Europe as the center of the world. Supported by the labor and wealth of the Americas, the Habsburgs constructed the most extensive empire the world had ever known, ‘the empire where the sun never sets,’ stretching from the Americas to Eastern Europe. This period of Iberian dominance saw the rise of Occidentalism as a legitimating discourse of imperial rule that concerned at once the evangelization and assimilation of America’s native populations and the making of Spain and Portugal as imperial powers.

The process of transculturation (Ortiz 1940) involving Europe, America, and Africa shifted power in the old world toward the Mediterranean and eventually to the Atlantic. Following the lead of Spain and Portugal, England, France, and Holland competed for control of the Americas, participating in the subjugation and conversion of its native populations as well as in the massive enslavement of African peoples and their forced relocation to the new world. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, through momentous transformations in politics (the English, US, French and Haitian revolutions), in culture (the Enlightenment), and economic relations (the expansion of global trade and production), power shifted within Europe towards its northwestern nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, their development as nation-states and their colonial expansion in Asia and Africa, conditioned by their earlier European colonial experience in the Americas, consolidated Europe’s position as the world’s dominant capitalist center.

During its rise as a global power, Europe fashioned itself as the apex of civilization in opposition to its overseas territories. It organized its rule both at home and abroad through taxonomies of cultures intimately linked with gender, class, and racial hierarchies. Since the nineteenth century and up to World War I, Occidentalism’s core referent was northern Europe, even as it included the United States as an emerging capitalist power with imperial interests in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. During this period of capitalist expansion, nation-state formation, and high colonialism, dominant renderings of Occidentalism were framed in terms of evolutionary schemes drawn from the natural and social sciences. The Occident, which during the early colonial period had fashioned itself in relation to ‘savages’ located in distant lands, was now defined in relation to ‘primitives’ who were projected backward into the distant past (Fabian 1983; Mignolo 1998; Trouillot 1991).

1.2 Westernization, US Hegemony, And Neoliberal Globalization

European global hegemony came to a crisis in the twentieth century as a result of two world wars, decolonization, and the consolidation of the United States as the dominant world power and new icon of the West. After World War II, the pursuit of competing visions of independent national Development turned colonial and postcolonial areas, designated as the ‘third world,’ into a battlefield in a global struggle between the major socialist nations or ‘second world’ and the advanced capitalist powers or ‘first world.’ In the context of the Cold War, the West (the first world), which came to include ascendant Japan, referred centrally to the ‘free (capitalist) world’ led by the United States, and the East, whose basic referent had been the ‘exotic’ cultures of the Orient, designated the ‘totalitarian (socialist) world’ behind the ‘iron curtain.’ This ‘three-world scheme’ (Pletsch 1981) has ceased to reflect the power relations resulting from the fall of Soviet socialism in 1989 and the widespread acceptance of the capitalist market as the foundation of social rationality and the source of new trans-national political and economic entities. While the fluid boundaries that had defined the West in relation to the rest of the world have been further detached from their customary geographical referents, Western economic and political power has become more concentrated and centralized through transnational networks that link dominant sectors across the globe. In this more abstract political cartography, the West has been variously identified as a cultural formation involved in a ‘clash of civilizations’ in an era of attenuated political conflicts and renewed ancestral cultural hostilities (Huntington 1993), or as the less visible imperial center of subtle modalities of westernization disguised as globalization (Amin 1997).

2. After Orientalism: Occidentalism Within Academia

The West’s rise to global dominance has entailed the hegemony of Western social thought. It placed ‘Europe’ or the ‘West’ not just at the center of history, but also as the source of the theories and academic disciplines in terms of which global and local histories have been narrated (Wallerstein et al. 1996; Chakrabarty 1992). A variety of oppositional Occidentalisms, reflecting different conceptions of the expanding West, have contested Western supremacy. For example, at the turn of the nineteenth century, for German romantics Occidentalism designated the soulless cultures of England and France, and for Latin American Arielistas it referred to the crass materialism of the United States. After WWII, for many Third World intellectuals and activists, decolonization entailed the rejection of Occidentalism as the expression of an imperial culture. At the close of the twentieth century, for Middle Eastern fundamentalists, Occidentalism means the decadent culture of a political rival, and for nationalist Japanese modernizers it denotes a civilization to be both emulated and counterposed to their own valued traditions. From different locations, struggles against Western supremacy have provided critical visions of the West and drawn attention to the connection between the West’s political centrality and the Eurocentric disposition of its epistemological order. Informed by this critique and conditioned by the worldwide erosion of modernist projects in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the examination of Western epistemologies and conceptions of historical progress has been reflected in developments in social theory associated with poststructuralism, postmodernism, and the linguistic turn.

2.1 Occidentalism And Orientalism: Inversion, Self-Reflection, Critique

Since the 1970s, in intellectual circles influenced by these transformations, critics of Eurocentrism have described in relational terms the mode of representation the West exerts on the East. Through the influence of Said’s (1978) path-breaking discussion of Orientalism as a form of discourse about the Orient rooted in Western epistemologies and political dominance, Orientalism has come to refer to eurocentric and stereotypical representations of any culture.

Reversing the gaze, scholars have generally used Occidentalism as the inverse of Orientalism to designate the study of the West (Hanafi 1991) as well as simplified or stereotypical renderings of the West by non-Western societies. In one of the earliest uses of Occidentalism understood as the opposite of Orientalism, Nader (1989) discusses how Muslim men deploy Western conceptions of women to subjugate women in their own societies. Along similar lines, Chen distinguishes ‘official Occidentalism,’ by which he means a negative image of the West used by the Chinese socialist government to control its own populations, from ‘anti-official’ Occidentalism, which refers to counter-discourses of Western superiority used by the Chinese intelligentsia to support their political opposition to the government (Chen 1992, p. 691; for a related oppositional use of Occidentalism, see Findley 1998).

Carrier coins the category ‘ethno-Occidentalism’ to refer to ‘the essentialist rendering of the West by members of alien societies,’ and reserves the term ‘Occidentalism’ for ‘the essentialist rendering of the West by Westerners.’ Regarding the ‘essentialization’ of concepts as inherent to ‘the way Westerners and probably most people think,’ he argues that relating representations of otherness to those of the West would lead to a better understanding of cultural representations of difference (1992, pp. 198–207). Armstrong (1990) uses Occidentalism to refer to the formation of specific forms of racialized and gendered Western selves as the effect of Orientalist representations upon Western societies. Reflecting on its use in scholarly works, Ning (1997, p. 62) suggests that Occidentalism, understood as the counterpart of Orientalism, is an even more imprecise and indeterminate term, a ‘quasi-theoretical concept’ that has not led to an independent discipline like Oriental studies. In a discussion that focuses on the genealogy of Occidentalism in the Americas, Mignolo (1998) shows how Latin American thinkers have used this term as a critical category to refer to Western imperial culture as well as to the project to transcend it, as in Fernandez Retamar’s concept of ‘postoccidentalism’ and Coronil’s call to go ‘beyond Occidentalism.’

2.2. Occidentalism As An Imperial Epistemology

Treating the partiality of imperial representations of cultural difference as the effect of historically specific unequal power relations, Coronil (1996, pp. 56–58) argues that Occidentalism is an imperial epistemology that expresses a constitutive relationship between Western constructions of difference and Western worldwide dominance. He develops Occidentalism as an analytical category that links the production of Western representations of alterity to the implicit constructions of selfhood that underwrite them. As an ensemble of representation practices, Occidentalism consists of accounts which produce polarized and hierarchical conceptions of the West and its others and makes them central figures in narratives of global and local histories that separate the world’s components into bounded units; disaggregate their relational histories; turn difference into hierarchy; naturalize these representations; and thus participate in the reproduction of asymmetrical power relations. These operations are apparent in three dominant Occidentalist modalities of representation: the dissolution of the other into the self; the incorporation of the other into the self; and the destabilization of the self by the other. The subordination of geography to history in these modes of representing modernity contributes to the narration of local histories in terms of the West’s alleged universal history and thus to obscuring the participation of nonWestern societies in the making of the modern world. In this usage, Occidentalism is an analytical category that refers to representations of cultural difference framed in terms of Western political epistemologies rather than a term that designates characterizations of the West; it refers to the conditions of possibility of Orientalism, not to its symmetrical counterpart.

2.3 Occidentalism And Globalization

The conditions that have enabled Western representations of cultural difference in the modern world in terms of radical alterity, subordination, and exoticism include colonialism and imperialism, a hierarchical system of nation-states, capitalism as a global mode of production of regions, persons, and things, a division of the person into private individual and public citizen, faith in secular science, and an expansive uni ersalism supported by the sciences and by ideologies of progress. At the onset of a new millennium these conditions are being modified by transformations epitomized by the hegemony of neoliberal globalization. The intensified commodification of social life and the breakdown of commodities into bundles of risk spread across space and time have heightened the significance of the market as an organizing principle of geopolitical and cultural differences. Critical accounts of globalization treat it as both a unifying and divisive process that involves a dialectic of globalization and localization, universalization and particularization, spatialization and temporalization, and cultural homogenization and ethnic diversification. In contrast, hegemonic discourses of globalization emphasize unity over difference and produce an image of an increasingly integrated globe no longer radically divided between the West and its others, thus masking persisting operations of othering that continue to take place through various forms of naturalization such as the racialization of class distinctions and the essentialization of cultural differences.

Insofar as discourses of neoliberal globalization emphasize the potential equality and universality of humankind through the market, they imply a shift of focus in the representation of cultural difference from alien subjects located outside Western centers to subordinated populations dispersed across the globe. As the West seems to dissolve into the market and westernization appears as globalization, political projects to civilize alien others are being recast as self-induced processes of incorporation by willing citizensconsumers. In contrast to Occidentalist modalities of representation based upon a binary opposition between a superior Western self and its subordinate others, prevailing discourses of globalization appear as a compelling but circuitous form of Occidentalism whose power derives from its capacity to obscure the presence of the West and the operations through which it constitutes itself in opposition to others. Its mode of constructing cultural difference through subalterity rather than alterity reflects conditions that continue to contradict ideals of equality and universality, and yet open up the possibility for their fuller realization (Coronil 2000).


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