Friday, April 18, 2008

Notes on Alastair Bonnett’s 『The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History』 (2004) (Part 1)

Alastair Bonnett is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Newcastle whose publications include Radicalism, Anti-Racism, and Representation, White Studies Revisited, What is Geography, and most recently, The Idea of the West (2004), which attempts to answer the question, What is “the West,” and what are the origins of the concept?

Bonnett's main thesis in The Idea of the West is that the “the West” is largely a creation of non-Westerners. "Indeed,” he explains, “it appears that non-Western ideas about the West, in many cases, precede Western ones; that it was the non-West that invented the West" (2). Bonnett also challenges the commonly held notion that the Eastern world simply imported the West and adapted it through a process of hybridization. Instead, he finds that a closer look reveals that non-Western cultures often actively and creatively constructed representations of the West that suited the political demands of the day, and that these representations were more often than not entirely different from the West itself. Finally, Bonnett also takes aim at the "belligerence exhibited by [Victor] Hanson, [Avishai] Margalit and [Ian] Buruma" (2-3),” contemporary writers whom he condemns for continuing to propagate myths of an inevitable East-West showdown and Western triumphalism.

The idea of “the West” has been used over the years as a sort of undefined variable into which pretty much anything could be inserted. He points out that its assigned meanings and associations have varied considerably throughout history: in the ancient world “the west” was associated with the setting of the sun, death and whiteness, while to those in the mid-19th century “the West” came to signify progress, science, technology, and military prowess. Its geographical parameters proved equally flexible, so that to some the West was limited solely to the United Kingdom, while to many living during the Cold War it was broad enough to include Japan.

Bonnett also identifies two opposing narratives that can be found in every era since the 19th century. On the one hand is the alarmist narrative, which warns that the West has gone into decay (e.g., James Little, Oswald Spengler, Pat Buchanan), while on the other is the triumphalist narrative that celebrates the recent victory and enduring supremacy of Western civilization (e.g., Benjamin Kidd, Victor Hanson, John McCain) while barely managing to conceal deep insecurities. The fact that these two opposing narratives can exist simultaneously proves that the notion of the West, as a tool, possesses "extraordinary intellectual and political utility" (6).

Bonnett's argument poses serious challenges not only to the alarmists and triumphalists, but also to the founder of post-colonial studies himself, Edward Said. Bonnett sees the recent discourse on Occidentalism as divided into two camps: those "who define Occidentalism as a Western project of self-invention [e.g., Said] and those who ally it with the examination of images of the West from across the globe" (e.g., Bonnett) (7). Bonnett faults the Said camp for not sufficiently focusing on the "uses and deployment" of Occidental discourse, something which he, Xiaomei Chen, and others consciously strive to do. Bonnett faults the geographers, too, who, "paralyzed by memories" of a colonial past, are afraid to address these questions of use and deployment.

Bonnett's methodology is to "use influential intellectuals as . . . prime sources," focusing on the 19th and early 20th century for the first four chapters, and on the 20th century for the final three. (For this article, I focus most of my attention on the first four chapters.) Bonnett’s top-down approach runs the risk of becoming myopic; yet by focusing on a handful of influential intellectuals he is able to see beyond the limits of popular national narratives, so that the larger, transnational narratives can be discerned.

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