June 3, 2016 – University of St Andrews

Welcome to the home for the June, 2016 workshop Nation, Culture and Civilisation: Talking about and beyond ‘the West’ (1860-1940). A handful of studies have shed light on the conceptual origins and shifting meanings of ‘the West’, but historians are still in the dark about many facets of its discursive construction. Building on the recently published volume Germany and ‘the West’: The History of a Modern Concept, this workshop seeks to explore the transnational discourse on ‘the West’ from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (1860-1940). Placing special emphasis on cultural transfers and the role of translation, it investigates the meanings of this concept in both European and non-European contexts. The first leg of the workshop (which took place in Munich last December) focussed on France, Britain, Russia, Germany and the United States; the second leg (to take place in St Andrews) will focus on China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Muslim world. More specifically, it examines (1) the relationship between different scales of spatial identities: national, European / Asian / Islamic, Western / non-Western, and civilizational, (2) the repercussions of social Darwinism, racism, and imperialism on semantics of ‘the West’, and (3) the significance of notions of a ‘German cultural mission’, a French mission civilisatrice and a British (and American) mission to spread ‘Western civilization’.

In addition, the workshop sets out to test two hypotheses: (1) The literary critic Christopher GoGwilt claims that, between the 1880s and the 1920s, the concept of the West eclipsed the concept of Europe as the pivotal ideological term in the register of British imperialist rhetoric, and that this came about through a complex ‘double-mapping’ of Europe and the Empire. (2) The geographer Alastair Bonnett argues that the idea of the West came to displace the idea of ‘whiteness’ in political and academic discourse: Since it avoided untenable assumptions about racial homogeneity without precluding racist overtones, the notion ‘Western’ trumped the idea of ‘white civilization’. It is hoped that an engagement with hypotheses such as these, which are focussed on the identification of problem-solving rhetorical innovations, will generate new answers to the question as to what people were doing in using the concept of the West.

What still needs to be examined on a more global scale, moreover, is the entanglement of European concepts of the West with notions of Westernization and the Occident discussed in non-European areas. From the mid-19th century onward, China, Japan, India, Korea, and the Muslim world became the place of intense debates on national identity which were based on competing images of ‘the West’. There is a growing literature on this, and the term ‘Occidentalism’ has become the watchword of this blossoming field of research. Much quoted but less typical of the field is the polemical essay by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit who, in the wake of 9/11, took an impressionistic journey through the history of anti-‘Western’ stereotypes – those depicting a shallow, rootless, materialist society – and tried to constrict ‘Occidentalism’ to ‘the dehumanising picture of the West painted by its enemies’. More typical of the field is a collection of essays edited by James Carrier which features British and American anthropologists investigating a variety of ‘stylized images of the West’. For example, they examine constructions of ‘the other’ in Japanese advertising campaigns and the ‘uses of the West’ in the politics and anthropology of South Asia.

Research on Occidentalism counteracts the Eurocentric perspective of a ‘world revolution of Westernization’ and focuses on processes of non-Western self-assertion. It shows the deployment of conceptions of ‘the West’ to shape national identities in non-Western regions that have become increasingly incorporated into the communicative networks of Europe and America. A good example of the process of non-Western ‘Othering’ is provided in Cemil Aydin’s study of ‘visions of world order’ in pan-Islamic and pan-Asian thought around the turn of the century. Aydin argues that Ottoman and Japanese educated elites imagined a ‘universal West’ in the 1860s and 1870s but turned to pan-Islamic and pan-Asian ideas afterwards – in reaction to a ‘legitimacy crisis’ of a ‘Eurocentric international order’. In the late nineteenth century, he claims, Orientalism and racism increasingly undermined the moral justification for European imperialism and, by extension, that for ‘liberal civilizationism’ as well. The concept of a ‘single universal civilization’ therefore gave way to a ‘revolt against the West’.

The context of globalization, imperialism, and non-Western self-assertion around the turn of the century most certainly furthered the evolution and circulation of powerful notions of Western civilization. The role of Western European orientalists, however, as mediators who disseminated these notions at home yet remains to be explored. This is but one example for the need to further explore the entanglement of European and non-European concepts of the West – something that this workshop seeks to achieve.

University of St Andrews and Institute of Contemporary History, Munich

Header image source: Ḫayāl, 1:23, 9 Kānūn-u ānī  1289 [21 January 1874].