Postmodernism Vs. World History

Loren Goldner

MULTICULTURALISM, POSTMODERNISM, post-structuralism and Identity politics” are, in 1993, overlapping but not identical phenomena. And in 1993, despite some cracks in their general indifference to a good old-fashioned economic crisis, they remain dominant.

This article will not attempt to deal with multiculturalism as such, as the term is understood in current debates about textbook revision, educational curriculum and the definition of cultural literacy. The subject will rather be the ideology of postmodernism as it is currently debated in the international intelligentsia and in academia, and which makes itself felt in “identity politics” of race, gender and sexual preference.

Eurocentrists and Their Mirror Image

For a number of years America, and necessarily the American left, has been in the throes of a debate about Western culture. To the well-funded and much-trumpeted theorists of the right, the self-styled exponents of “cultural literacy,’ the Allan Blooms and William Bennetts, Western culture is menaced in its very citadel, the university, by a generation of ex-New Left “tenured radicals” (if only most of them were half as radical as the right thinks).

For their part, these latter alleged radicals of the academic intelligentsia, who have turned social class into a “text,” the issue is the freeing of a “multiplicity of discourses, dissolution of the ostensible “phaIlologocentrism” of an ostensible “Western” cultural tradition. One important clue to the sterility of the debate, as currently posed, is a startling agreement between the opposing sides on just exactly what Western culture is.

So extreme is the situation that neoconservative critics like Hilton Kramer can present themselves as defenders of the safely embalmed “high” modernist avant-garde of the early twentieth century, of Joyce, Proust or Kafka, as if men of Kramer’s temperament did not, seventy years ago, revile such revolutionaries, and as if they would be capable of recognizing, and appreciating, a new Joyce, Proust or Kafka today. They take the works of artists who saw themselves as demolishing a tradition and attempt to turn that very demolition into a tradition.

At the other end of the spectrum, while the American population as a whole falls to forty-ninth place in comparative world literacy, the purveyors of the post-modem “French disease” continue a frenzied production of self-involved books and posh academic journals which communicate nothing so much as a basic ignorance of real history and the pathetic belief that the deconstruction of literary texts amounts to radical political activity.

In this article, we will not concern ourselves with the right-wing media assault on the current purveyors of “deconstruction” as the force primarily responsible for the palpable collapse of liberal education in the United States. The vacuousness of such claims, coming from the political camp which has been gutting the reproduction of labor power at every level of American society for more than thirty years, is beneath contempt

We will focus rather on the claims to radicalism of the postmodern advocates of Identity politics” themselves, or of any definition of human beings in society which is essentially cultural. From such a focus, we will develop a critique of the Eurocentric conservatives and of their mirror-image critics, from the vantage point of an emerging world culture.

It might be said without great exaggeration that the contemporary debate over culture comes down to a debate over the world historical status of ancient Greece. For an Allan Bloom and many of his ilk, all that is valid in the last 2,500 years of history is almost literally a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. For the postmodern critics of Eurocentrism, on the other hand, trapped as they are in the logic of relativism, ancient Greece must necessarily be just one “equally valid” culture among many. But given its centrality in the classical Western canon, ancient Greece cannot be only that, but also the very source of phallologocentrism.

When one probes the terms of this debate, however, what is truly amazing is that the ostensibly anti-Eurocentric radicals are, without knowing it, purveying a remarkably Eurocentric version of what the Western tradition really is.

Nietzschean Sources of Postmodernism

The ultimate theoretical sources of today’s cultural radicals are two very white and very dead European males, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. For the uninitiated, the continuity between these philosophers and today’s revolutionary claims for rap music may seem arcane. But they are also very telling. Even if Nietzsche and Heidegger must ultimately be rejected (and they must), one trivializes them at one’s peril.

Nietzsche, writing in the latter decades of the last century, and Heidegger, whose most important work was written in the second quarter of this one, could hardly have imagined the contemporary fin de siècle in which their names would be mentioned in the same breath with 2 Live Crew, Los Lobos or the Sex Pistols. Both men were haunted by a vision of a world of crushing uniformity which they saw taking shape around them, and of which the working-class socialist movement of the last century was the culmination. They sought the origins of this levelling process in the most remote origin of the Western cultural tradition, that of archaic Greece, and above all in the pre-Socratic philosophers.

What is today called “difference” with distinctly populist emphasis was, ironically, first articulated by Nietzsche as a radical aristocratic refusal of the culmination of history in a “closed system” of egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, science and technology, feminism and socialism, which for him were so many manifestations of a “slave morality,” the levelling wish for sameness which the “weak” foist upon the “strong.” That such an idea, one hundred years later, would become the basis for vaunting the radical “difference” of a gay Black cross-dressing woman of the underclass did not, in all probability, occur to Nietzsche. Nietzsche looked rather to the emergence of a new elite of aesthetic lawgivers, whom he called supermen, and who would have the strength and courage to shape reality like great artists without having to invoke debilitating universal truths valid for everyone.

Nietzsche’s specific solution, which has often (and wrongly) been seen as an important source of fascism (it was a minor source of fascism), interests his contemporary partisans far less than his diagnosis; but the idea of every individual as an aestheticized “will to power,” who shapes a world with no reference to supraindividual, universal laws and with no limits except those imposed by other such wills, is the direct source of Michel Foucault’s “microphysics of power,” and indisputably foreshadows something of the 1980s reality of a Donald hump or an Ivan Boesky, just as it foreshadows the reality of a postmodern literary theorist pursuing tenure on an Ivy League campus.

Nietzsche and Heidegger saw the origin of planetary uniformity and levelling in the Western conception of reason, with its universal claims. They, like their postmodern followers, did not trouble themselves with analyses of material conditions, modes of production and the like. They felt that in taking on the problem at the philosophical level, they were aiming for the jugular. While socialism was the culmination of the trend they denounced, Nietzsche knew next to nothing of Marx or Marxism (although he did brilliantly intuit the bourgeois character of the German Social Democrats long before most Marxists did). Heidegger was more familiar with Marx—above all through his student Herbert Marcuse—but rarely treats Marx directly in his work.

For both of them, Hegel was a stand-in for the kind of historical rationality which culminated in socialism. The meaning of the contemporary fashionable word “deconstruction” is a distillation of their attempt to overthrow a dialectical rationality, and what they attack in Hegel is subliminally imputed to Marx. (The occasional assertion that Marxian and deconstruction theories are compatible is like saying that Marxist and monetarist economics are compatible.)

Their target is a rationality for which “otherness,” i.e. difference, is sooner or later subsumed in a higher synthesis or supersession. For Nietzsche, such a dialectic was (as it also was for Hegel), the dialectic of master and slave, but in contrast to Hegel, a dialectic which grew out of the resentment of the slave, a slave morality. For Nietzsche, the critique of the dialectic was a defense of the “difference” of the aristocratic master, the higher aesthetic lawgiver he called the Superman.

Having said this, it is important to point out that there are false universals, which conceal the specific interests of class, caste, racial or gender elites within empty pretensions of all-inclusiveness. The error of the postmodern theorists of difference, however, is to conclude that because such false universals exist, no other kind could exist.

For Nietzsche, universal values (or what the post-modernists call “master discourses”) were invented by the weak to rein in the strong for the postmodernists, who get their Nietzsche through Foucault, such values, including Marxism, are “discourses of power” over the powerless. If the French Communist Party, or Stalinism generally, used Marxism to justify totalitarian bureaucracy, the logic goes, then all Marxism must necessarily lead to totalitarian bureaucracy. If Ronald Reagan speaks of morality, then all morality must be like that of Ronald Reagan. And so on.

Heidegger’s Nightmare

Heidegger carries the critique of the dialectic much farther. All of the stages of his complex evolution cannot be traced here. While deeply influenced by Nietzsche, Heidegger saw both Nietzsche and his own early phase [which was summarized in Being and Time (1927)] as the culmination of the very tradition he was attempting to overthrow. Nietzsche’s solution had been to see every individual as a “will to power,” strong or weak, master or slave, and every perspective articulated by individuals as a “will to power,” an aesthetic attempt to shape a reality that had no laws separate from such wills, because such wills are all that exist The Superman merely succeeded in bending other wills to his own, and did not attempt to justify his own condition—in aristocratic fashion—as something valid for everyone.

Heidegger’s early problematic is, like Nietzsche’s, strictly centered on the individual, using very different language. But for him, as well, the only interesting aspects of ‘Being” are precisely those that defy any general, i.e. social dimension, which the individual discovers in confrontation with death.

Like Nietzsche, Heidegger winds up aestheticizmg the “construction of reality” (to use a certain language). But the experience of Nazism, which he initially hailed as a revolution against the levelling forces of Western culture, convinced Heidegger that debate between structuralism and the Nietzschean “will to power” pointed invariably to a planetary domination of the earth by technology (again, the closed system of technique and science which was the nightmare of both philosophers, and which they equated with socialism). Further, in Heidegger’s estimation, this impulse was latent in the Western philosophical project from Parmenides onward.

After World War II, Heidegger devoted the rest of his life to tracking the impulse in Western thought that seemed to destroy all “difference,” culminating in Hegel and Marx, but subsequently realized in planetary technology. Though his focus shifts from individual existence to what he called “the history of Being,” the emphasis remains on Heidegger’s assertion that Western culture, virtually from the beginning, could only treat as real that which could be “represented,” essentially, turned into a picture. But authentic Being, in his view, was precisely everything that could not be “represented” in this way.

One might understand this by the example of a computer A computer can only record “information” about a person which can be transformed into a “byte”, whether height, weight, hair color, consumer preferences, etc. (or, more relevant to this article, race, class, gender, sexual preference). But for Heidegger, what is important about, for example, a white working-class heterosexual male is the way in which such a person is those generalizable “representable” byte-like categories, the very dimensions of a person that defy being turned into “bytes” without irreparable distortion.

For Heidegger, what is “representable.” “generalizable” about individuals is the least interesting thing about them. The technocratic prospect of a planet dominated by a single system of cybernetic technology was the prospect of the transformation of the earth into one such gigantic representation, the fulfillment of Parmenides’ view of being. This development was grasped ultimately as the fulfillment of an aesthetic “will to power” no longer individual but the collective dream of a whole civilization. The famous word “deconstruction” comes from Heidegger’s call to “overthrow” Parmenidean, and hence Western, culture, and to wait for its replacement by some new, equally aesthetic “sense of Being” that did not rest on “representation.”

But the postmodern cultural theory which has swept North American academia in the past two decades did not come directly from German philosophy, nor does it preoccupy itself directly with the Nietzsche-Heidegger diagnosis of the transformation of the planet into a single “representation” through technology. (The common thread is, nonetheless, the critique of representation.) The North American current is unthinkable without the Parisian Nietzsche and Heidegger as they developed after 1945, for it was in France above all that these philosophers acquired left-wing credentials.

Foucault, Derrida and “Difference”

The two major mediators of Nietzschan-Heideggerian “difference” to North American postmodern academia are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In their work, “difference” is radically transformed. It is no longer, as with Nietzsche, the difference of the aristocratic radical against mass resentment; nor, as with Heidegger, the critique of a planetary project of “technological nihilism.” In France “difference” became, with Foucault, differences of “desire,” and with Derrida of “other voices”; in America, it became, in pseudo-radical guise, the ideological counterpoint to the pulverization of the social in the era of high-tech neoliberalism, the ultimate intellectual leveraged buyout.

Currents on the left which are hostile to or skeptical of French-inspired postmodernism have been at a loss to combat it because of their own disarray at many levels. The “race/gender/class” theorists of the postmodern persuasion sound radical enough, and few people of a traditional Marxist background are philosophically equipped to combat the theory at its roots (indeed, few of the “race/gender/class” theorists themselves know where the roots are).

Furthermore, most variants of the Marxist tradition find themselves shackled, in attacking the postmodernists, by certain assumptions held in common with them, flowing from the centrality of France and of the French Revolution in the revolutionary tradition. (This point will be developed a bit below.) The cachet of the postmodernists, internationally, is the French connection, and certain assumptions, now crumbling, about the position of France in capitalist and socialist history still create a space for them in the debris. (It was for this reason that the recent debate over the French Revolution, and the rise of the French revisionist school led by Francois Furet, must be seen as a broader context for the international impact of postmodernism).

At the beginning of Words and Things (1966), the book that established Michel Foucault as a major figure in France, there is a fascinating analysis of Velasquez’s painting “Las Meninas.” It contains in some sense the whole Foucaultian project Here we see how the Nietzsche-Heidegger critique of representation is politicized in Foucault’s “microphysics of power.”

In this analysis, Foucault identifies the king as the linchpin in the whole game of representation, which is the real subject of the painting. For Foucault, “representation” of disease, of madness, of whatever the dominant power wants to call “other,” is always a representation by someone, and therefore expresses someone’s power. (We see here the connection with Nietzsche’s will to power. In “Las Meninas,” all things appear in the representation, and hence the power, of the kin.) This equation of the king, philosophy and power is a very incisive characterization of Western rationality in the era of Enlightened absolutism, which Foucault called “the classical age.” (It unfortunately overlooks rationality in countries such as England, where there was no Enlightened absolutism.)

In all of Foucault’s early work, and above all in his innovative (but problematic) early studies of medicine and of madness, the project is the identification of Western reason with the ostensibly omniscient vantage point of the king, of representation, and of power. This project is the ultimate source of Foucault’s conception that all “representational” discourses of ostensibly universal knowledge—including Marxism—actually conceal discourses of separate power.

For Foucault, any attempt at such a universal “discourse,’ and by implication a universal class, which attempts to unite the different fragments of social reality or the different oppressed groups of capitalist society (particularly one which centers on the working class), must necessarily be a separate discourse of power, the game of representation centered on the “king,” or master discourse.

When attempting to fathom the French phase of postmodernism, it must always be kept in mind that the overwhelming experience of “Marxism” in that country was the experience of the highly Stalinist French Communist Party (PCF), of which Foucault was briefly a member at the beginning of the 1950s. But even more revealing than such biographical details (which are, for all phenomena emanating from the postwar French intelligentsia, real enough) is Foucault’s equation of rationality with the principle of the king, and with the French absolutist state of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the state overthrown (and then strengthened) by the French Revolution.

Philosophy and Enlightened Absolutism

For Foucault and the Foucaultians, there is no other reason than the reason of the “Classical Age,” that of French Enlightened absolutism. The aestheticized formalism of the French intellectual tradition, of which Foucault is a perfect product, has its ultimate roots in aristocratic Gallican Catholicism, and achieved its finished form in France’s “grand siècle,” the seventeenth century that witnessed the rise of Louis XIV’s prototypical enlightened absolutist state. Foucault could not be farther from the Cartesian tradition of “clarity” spawned by that state, but it is significant that for him, such rationality is the only rationality there is.

Of course Foucault was perfectly aware of, and deeply indebted to, German philosophy from Kant, via Hegel and Marx, to Nietzsche and Heidegger. But German philosophy is, like French philosophy, the product of another Enlightened absolutist state, Prussia, and therefore easily unmasked as another discourse of power. The tradition that remains opaque to Foucault is the English, in the same way that the revolution which remains opaque to him (and to all the contending parties in the postmodernism debate) is the English revolution, particularly its radical currents.

But the blindness of Foucault is unfortunately also the blindness of most of the Marxian tradition, including Marx, for whom the French Revolution was always of far greater importance than the English.* Because of this blindness, the contemporary crackup of statism, from France to Russia, and of which Foucault is in some sense a major theoretician, leaves the bulk of the international left, which had its own problems with statism, theoretically and politically disarmed.

Before probing this assertion, it is necessary to look at the common ground between Foucault and the neoliberal revival of the 1970s, which at first glance could not be farther from Foucault’s predilections. It is this common ground which allows us to see how the post-modernists are the unwitting pseudo-radical theoreticians of the Reagan and Thatcher era, giving a “radical” panache to the atomization of society in the new period.

Deconstruction in Progress

As we have indicated, the ideology of “difference” began with Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s attack on the universal claims of Western, above all, dialectical reason. In France, through Foucault and Derrida, this “deconstruction” of the unitary subject of Western philosophy (culminating in Hegel’s world-historical subject, the latter often seen as a stand-in for Marx’s proletarian subject) led to a view of a “plurality of discourses,” of “multiple voices,” that were never mediated in a higher unity (understood as illusory by definition).

Finally, in America, these currents became the extremely esoteric veneer of what amounts to a radical restatement of American pluralism, radical only in the radicalism of its insistence that people of various races, ethnicities and sexual preferences in fact have nothing of importance in common with one another. In this view, in opposition to Marx, even “class” becomes just one more difference, not a unifying element whose emancipation is the essential condition for all emancipation. (One recalls, in contrast, the assertion of the Wobbly preamble that “the working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common,” where the working class bears within itself the germ of a higher unity.)

For Hegel and Marx, difference is contradiction, pointing to a higher synthesis; for the postmodernists, difference is irreducible difference, and a higher synthesis just a new discourse of power, a new “master narrative.” The high irony is that for Heidegger, such qualities as class, race, ethnicity and sexual preference, as we saw earlier, are precisely in the fallen realm of representation, images “beneath” which real authenticity, always totally individual, is discovered. The current theorists of “identity” who base themselves on such collective categories, and for whom individuality is hardly a concern, have completely inverted the source. But in such a way do ideas migrate, particularly to America.

France and the Crisis of Statism

But there is more It is not often appreciated in the United States that Foucault, in France, anticipated both the media event of the “new philosophers” (Andre Glucksmann, Bernard Henry-Levi, et al.) in 1977, but also the neoliberalism that first gained currency under Giscard d’Estaing and then became an international tidal wave in the 1980s, fervently embraced by the “socialist” Mitterand government What is the connection?

As indicated above, France, because of the international impact of the French Revolution (which far exceeded that of the English Revolution) always had a central position in the mythology of the Marxist left Although the French working class, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had vital revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist currents, by the post-World War II period the dominant PCF and the erratic Socialist Party, like the trade unions which gravitated around them, were overwhelmingly statist.

This statism merely echoed that of the main French economic tradition of mercantilism, which had origins in the same pre-1789 ancien regime associated with Foucault’s “classical age.” It was a statism quite similar to twentieth-century versions, which proliferated in welfare, socialist, communist and fascist ideologies just about everywhere, and which also had roots in the mercantilism of seventeenth and eighteenth century continental Europe. Because France had participated, along with England, Holland, and the United States, in the first wave of bourgeois revolutions prior to industrialization, it was always assumed that France was a capitalist society of roughly the same maturity, and that the bureaucratic statism of the French left was a degenerate form of a movement that pointed “beyond capitalism.”

In fact, France in 1945 was still a deeply rural society, with fifty percent of the population still living on the land, engaged in micro-agricultural production. Yet only since the 1970s, when the French peasantry had sunk to eight percent of the population, has it generally been appreciated that the statism of the French left, like the statism of the left everywhere, was an expression not of maturity, but of backwardness, and that the Parisian culture which fascinated leftist intellectuals throughout the world was not so much about the supercession of capitalism as the absence of full-blown capitalism.

French statism, of which French leftist statism was an important part, oversaw the rapid industrial transformation of the country from 1945 to 1975. As a result, France became a country of the type pioneered (on the continent) by Germany, in which agricultural producers also fell to less than ten percent of the population. Then, as in other countries at the same threshold, the state bureaucracy became a positive hindrance to further economic development The result was, from the mid-1970s onward, an ideological and then programmatic wave of neoliberal decentralization in which the French left discovered it was no less trapped in statism than were the Gaullists.

Foucault’s “decentering” of the Hegelian subject, aimed at “Western” Marxism of the 1950s and 1960s, and beyond that at Marxism generally, had carried out ideologically what Giscard and then Mitterand carried out practically, the dismantling of the French mercantilist development tradition. The final connection was made by the “new philosophers,” who popularized Foucault in their slick paperbacks and media happenings.

At the cutting edge of this development were figures such as Andre Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Levy, both of whom had once been ultra-Stalinist militants of France’s post-1968 Maoist movement The appearance, in 1974, of Solzhenitzyn’s Gulag Archipelago was the moment of truth with their ostensible earlier “Marxism? After a decade of glorify-mg the most elephantine totalitarian state in modern history, Mao’s China, the “new philosophers” became famous by proclaiming, in the receptive neoliberal climate, that all Marxists, including those who had been corn-batting Stalinism fifty years before them, were of necessity totalitarians too. What they took from Foucault was the notion of the “master discourse,” the philosophy of the Hegelian or Marxist type which attempts, or purports, to unify fragmentary realities into higher, universal syntheses. Within a decade, suspicion of universalizing “master discourses” had become rife in American academia.

The Non-European Roots of Europe

Nevertheless, beyond these historical and sociological considerations, contemporary postmodernism does remain rooted in the original problematic of Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the defense of difference. And as such it retains Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s account of Western thought—one which is paradoxically in keeping with the highly Eurocentric view of history which supported such a view of philosophy.

For Nietzsche and Heidegger were pure products of what we will call, momentarily, the Greek romance of German philosophy. The postmodernists are thus caught in the trap of presenting and “deconstructing” a curiously Western” version of the Western “tradition,” a version which reads out of history a fundamental non-Western moment, the contribution of ancient Egypt and its further elaboration in Alexandria and in Islam.

As it is emerging in recent serious characterizations of actual Eurocentrism, such as those of Samir Amin and Martin Bernal, one of the great crimes of Western ethnocentrism since the eighteenth century has been the writing of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Moslem world out of its history, not merely since the Moslem conquests of the seventh century, but also in the period prior to the emergence of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, perhaps best exemplified by the occultation of the historical importance of the civilization of ancient Egypt (Unlike their fans among the postmodernists, Amin and Bernal are not cultural relativists and do believe in world history) The merit of Bernal’s multi-volume Black Athena, whatever its other problems, has been to squarely pose the significance of ancient Egypt for the formation of the Western tradition.

The disappearance of ancient Egypt from the horizon of Western cultural origins is, historically, a relatively recent phenomenon, barely two centuries old. As Bernal and others have pointed out, the ancient Greeks themselves frankly acknowledged Egypt (whose civilization pre-dated their own by more than two millennia) as a major source of their world. For the other pole of Western origins, ancient Israel, the sojourn in Egypt, and the exodus from the land of the pharaohs, was a founding moment of the culture. The Egyptian provinces of the Roman empire, centered on Alexandria, were the source of the last important philosophical movement of antiquity, neo-Platonism, from which the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic directly derive. Further, Alexandrian neo-Platonism grew out of an international ferment in which all manner of Near Eastern philosophies and mystery religions, as well as Buddhism, mixed with the moribund remnants of Greco-Roman classicism, and decisively marked the early history of Christianity.

It was this very Alexandrian legacy that the Moslem conquests of the seventh century appropriated, and molded, by the eleventh century, into the apex of Arab and Persian civilization, associated with the urban splendor of Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba. During the same period, the knights of Charlemagne’s court were valiantly struggling to learn to write their names.

When, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the works of Avicenna, Averroes, al-Ghazali, and al-Farabi were translated into Latin, the cultural heritage of antiquity, but one thoroughly transformed by its Alexandrian and Moslem phases, passed into the then-impoverished “West” (The contemporary multiculturalists never tell us that “Oriental” Islamic civilization also claims to derive from both Jewish and Greek sources, and that therefore these “logocentric” legacies are not unique to the sources of the “West” Nor do they tell us that Islam spread the study of Plato and Aristotle from Morocco to Malaysia.)

When, in fifteenth century Italy, these Arab and Persian roots had contributed mightily to the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was again revered, through the writings of the so-called “Hermes Trismegistus,” as the ultimate source of neo-platonic wisdom, although in a way more mystified than had been the case among the ancient Greeks. Finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century phase of Enlightened absolutism, “Egyptian wisdom, ultimately of Alexandrian origin, was thoroughly entwined with the ideologies of the middle-class radical secret societies and sects, such as the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, which played an important role in preparing the ideological terrain for the French Revolution.

It should be kept in mind that prior to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822, most Western Egyptophilia was of a wildly speculative nature. What is important, for this discussion, is the continuity of the myth of Egypt, whatever the reality, and the fact that “Western” tradition had no difficulty acknowledging it. It is the highest irony that virtually every major figure in the “Western” “canon” from the – twelfth to the early nineteenth century, as defended by the actual Eurocentrists, from the French16 1 troubadours to Dante, by way of  the Florentine neo-Platonists Pico and Ficino, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Spencer, Milton, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Goethe and Hegel (to focus on the philosophical and literary currents) were deeply influenced by this “Egyptian wisdom” or “Alexandrian” legacy in either its neo-Platonist or Hermeticist or Jewish mystical (Kabbalistic) form—and acknowledged it more or less as such.

In actual fact, the Eurocentrists would be hard pressed to mention a more pre-Enlightenment figure who was not influenced by such currents After 1800, these same traditions passed into the legacy of romanticism and later the Bohemian avant-garde, where they remained a force up to at least surrealism. Nevertheless, in spite of the increasing tendency, through the nineteenth century, among West ern Hellenophiles, to see ancient Greece as a phenomenon unto itself hermetically sealed from Semitic and African (Egyptian) influences, figures of no less stature than Melville, Hawthorne and Poe (to cite only American examples) still bore the markings of successive “Egyptian revivals.”

Anglo-German “Hellenophile Romance”

But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, an ideological shift began to eclipse the “Egyptian” tradition. This shift was the Anglo-German romance with ancient Greece, which achieved its apotheosis in Germany after 1760. The causes of this shift are complex, and cannot be dealt with here. The Anglo-French intrusion into the eastern Mediterranean after 1798 made the “Eastern question—the struggle for the corpse of the moribund Ottoman empire—a major foreign policy question in Europe until 1918. This undoubtedly influenced the West’s desire to read the legacy of the Near East, over millennia, out of a new view of history, one that imagined ancient Athens arising quite in isolation from its historical environment Bernal is undoubtedly right to see a new anti-Semitism and racism at work in this transformation. But there are many other factors as well. The final phase of the “Egyptian” tradition within the mainstream of European culture was that of Enlightened absolutism, which had been destroyed or thoroughly reformed in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Once the absolutist state, which had contributed to the Enlightenment, was shattered, secular rationality could separate from the old “Egyptian” mystique. Indeed, the new militant Enlightenment world views had no need for, ( and every reason to dispense with, the apparent obscurantism of Freemason ritual (with its real or imagined Egyptian origins). This -decanting’ of Enlightenment rationality from its pre-revolutionary institutional framework pushed the “Egyptian” tradition toward the romantic and Bohemian margins of the ascendant bourgeois society.

The new, Anglo-German and above all German romance with ancient Greece was already a break with earlier views of Greco-Roman antiquity as they had developed from the Renaissance onward. The revival of antiquity in the fifteenth century was first of all a revival of Roman civic culture, and the literary and historical models of fifteenth century Italy were above all models of Roman civic virtue and civic rhetoric. The philosophical revival of Plato, as indicated earlier, came through Arab and Byzantine sources and arrived in the garb of Egyptian mystery religion, which only later was discovered to have nothing to do with ancient Egypt When the rise of Enlightened absolutism, modeled on the France of Louis XIV, set down a cultural hegemony extending from Paris to St Petersburg, by way of Santo Domingo and Rio de Janeiro, the ultimate tone at this culture was again Latin and Roman.

The legacy of ancient Greece, prior to the eighteenth century (when Latin was far more widely known than Greek), was always filtered through a Roman garb: Empire, the state, law, the civic virtues of the citizen were remembered, not the communitarian dimension of the Athenian polis and the Greek city state. It was left to disunited, fragmented Germany, where national unification was still a distant dream, to lead the cultural revolt against the imperial mode of the Roman-Latin-French civilization of Enlightened absolutism.

This revolt, and the Greek romance to which it gave rise, is associated with figures such as Winckelmann, Goethe, and later Hoelderlin and Hegel; it cannot be explained through racism and imperialism alone, but it was German Hellenophilism, the ideology of a cultured, politically powerless elite that buried the “Egyptian” tradition and occulted it from the historical memory of Western origins. A similar development occurred in England, out of English romanticism’s involvement with the Greek war of independence in 1823 (and therefore once again with the “Eastern question”), but figures such as Keats, Shelley and Byron had no international cultural impact on the scale of the German Hellenophiles, who were, among other things, the direct precursors of another Hellenophile, Karl Marx.

The Real Eurocentrism

The disappearance of ancient Egypt, or the myth of ancient Egypt, from the horizon of Western cultural origins, where it held sway until the late eighteenth century, was essential for the constitution of a “modernist” view of Western history, which unfortunately was until very recently uncritically accepted by the great majority of the Western left and which made the left susceptible to the blandishments of postmodernism. This outlook traced a certain Western history from Athens to Renaissance Florence, to the London and Paris of the Enlightenment, to the culmination of Western high bourgeois culture which ended in the successive deaths of Beethoven, Goethe and Hegel around 1830.

This was a history written with an eye to the progress of a certain kind of rationality, which vaguely acknowledged the Hebrew prophets as distant precursors of that rationality (for their role as demystifiers). For such a sense of Western history, deeply shaped by the French view of the Enlightenment and by the French Revolution, and deeply critical of religion from a positivist point of view, nothing much had happened in the two millennia from Socrates’ Athens to the Florence of the Media. For such a sense of history, the Alexandrian and Islamic moments sketched above, because of their religious dimension, for all intents and purposes did not exist except possibly as transmitters, certainly not as shaping forces in their own right.

This was the legacy of the Anglo-German romance with ancient Greece, the world view in which the Near East, before, during and after Greco-Roman antiquity, dropped out of Western history. The disappearance of Alexandria and Islam from Western consciousness was inseparable from the disappearance of ancient Egypt, as part of a general isolation of ancient Athens from its eastern Mediterranean environment, before and after its golden age.

This is the real Eurocentric view. And what do the ostensibly radical multicultural postmodernists tell us about all this? Precisely nothing. And why? Because, through Nietzsche and Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, they have swallowed the Hellenophile romance whole, except to change the plus and minus signs. They ignore the Arabic and Persian sources of the Renaissance, and thus obscure the Alexandrian and Moslem mediation and further development of the Greek legacy.

Further, they agree with the Eurocentrists across the board that “Western” culture, like all “cultures,” is a self-contained phenomenon. Do they tell us that French Provencal poetry, from which modern Western literature begins, borrowed massively from Arab poetry and particularly from the erotic mystical poetry of Islamic Spain? Do they tell us that Dante was steeped in the work of the Andalucian Sufi Ibn Arabi? That some of the greatest Spanish writers of the sixteenth century siglo de oro, such as St. John of the Cross and Cervantes, drew heavily on Islamic and Jewish sources?

Do they tell us about the Franciscan heretics in sixteenth century Mexico who attempted to build, together with the Indians, a Christian communist utopia in defiance of a corrupt European Catholicism? Do they tell us about the belief in the Egyptian sources of Western civilization, which held sway from the ancient Greeks, via the Florentine Academy, to the eighteenth century Freemasons?

They tell us nothing of the kind, because such syncretistic cross-fertilization of cultures flies in the face of their relativistic assumption that cultures confront each other as so many hermetically sealed, and invariably distorting “texts.” So many “dead white European males,” alas, turn out to have massive debts to dead males (and in the case of Arabic poetry, females) from other cultures. The postmodernists are so busy exposing the “canon” as a litany of racism, sexism and imperialism that they, exactly like the explicit Eurocentrists, fail to notice that some of the canon’s greatest works have roots in the very cultures they supposedly “erase.”

Contradictions of Orientalism

Edward Said’s omnipresent book Orientalism virtually founded this genre. Said tells us about how Western views of the Eastern Mediterranean world, particularly after the rise of modern imperialist rivalry (the so-called “Eastern question”) were a distorting discourse of power, and could essentially only be that (His discussion of Dante, for example, makes no mention of Ibn Arabi.) But Said tells us nothing about the Western “discourse” on the Orient when the balance of forces were reversed, namely from the eighth until the thirteenth centuries, when Islamic civilization towered over the West, culturally and militarily. As one writer put it:

“Were the Eskimos suddenly to emerge as the world’s leading artists and scholars, were factories in Greenland to outproduce those of Japan, and were invaders from the far north to conquer the United States and the Soviet Union, we would hardly be more astonished than were the Muslims two hundred years ago when they suddenly fell under West European control. (D. Pipes, In the Path of God, 97)

Centuries of Arab and then Ottoman hegemony in the Mediterranean and their very real ability, which receded only at the end of the seventeenth century, to militarily threaten the European heartland had blinded Moslems to the rising world power to the north, hundreds of years after their own actual ascendancy had been lost.
Said is of course not writing about “Occidentalism,” or a Moslem “discourse” on the West, and cannot be criticized for not including examples such as the statement of the Arab Ibn Sa’id, who described the Franks in the mid-eleventh century as

“resembling animals more than men … The cold air and cloudy skies (cause) their temperaments to become frozen and their humours to become crude; their bodies are extended, their coloring pale, and their hair too long. They lack keenness of understanding and acuteness of mind, they are dominated by ignorance and stupidity, and blindness of purpose is widespread. (Ibid, 81)

The point is not to multiply quotations proving the banal point that the Moslem (or, in another context, the Chinese) world at its apogee was as ethnocentric as the Europeans were at theirs. The point is rather that, in the periods of Moslem world ascendancy, the inhabitants of the Christian West appeared to Moslems as barbarians inhabiting a backwater which interested them as little as the blue-painted inhabitants of Britain interested the Roman cultural elite in the second century AD. An outbreak of primitivism (as opposed to an historical appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of “peoples without the state”) is a manifestation of cultural breakdown and decline. And relative to Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries, Western European society was nothing if not a backwater.

Thus we can criticize Said for not telling us more about “Orientalism” in the West in this period from the 8th to the thirteenth centuries when the cultural superiority of the Islamic world over Europe was a reality, and an acknowledged one. He does not tell us about the archbishop of Zaragoza in the ninth century who deplored the decadence of the Christian youth in his time and their enchantment by the brilliant Arabic culture emanating from southern Spain, to which all of Europe then looked:

“They are incapable of writing a correct sentence in Latin but excel the Moslems in the knowledge of the finest grammatical and rhetorical points of Arabic The Scriptures and the writings of the Church fathers lie unread, but they rush to read and of the latest manuscript from Cordoba. ”Said and the other analysts of Western “discourse” do not often discuss these realities, which challenge one of their most sacrosanct assumptions, whether implicit or explicit, that of total cultural relativism. (In fairness to Said, it must be noted that he steps back from the aggressive assertion of this relativism in his new book Cultural Imperialism.) They are loathe to admit that some cultures are, in the context of world history, at certain moments more dynamic, in fact superior to others, and that Arabic culture in Moslem Spain in the eleventh century towered over culture in Zaragoza or in Paris. To acknowledge this would open the way to acknowledging the unacceptable, unrelativist idea that in the seventeenth century, the situation had reversed itself and that some cutting edge of world historical ascendancy and superiority had passed to the West.

Yet one need only look at the direction of translations to see the change, as it was understood by both sides. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, thousands of works of Arabic philosophy, science, mathematics and poetry were translated into Latin and avidly read all over Europe, while little or nothing was translated in the opposite direction. After the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 (the event which, long after the West had laid the foundations of world hegemony, awoke the Moslem world to the new situation), amass of translations from French into Arabic began and continued through the nineteenth century.

In Defense of Progress

Donald Lach begins his multi-volume Asia in the Making of Europe with the following statement “It has often been acknowledged that gunpowder, the printing press and the compass were essential to the ascendancy of Europe. It is less often acknowledged that none of these were European inventions.”

This reality is acknowledged neither by the Eurocentrists, nor by the relativists of contemporary postmodernism. To do so, once again, would be to acknowledge a world historical process larger than any single culture, and a dynamism at the level of world history in which there is cross-cultural syncretism and progress.

To look seriously at world history prior to Western ascendancy would also undermine another cherished dogma of postmodernist relativism, namely that the global hegemony of Western culture in modern history rests primarily on superior “power,” i.e. military force.

For Edward Said, who is a Foucaultian and therefore a Nietzschean, the discourse of Orientalism is first and foremost a discourse of such “power.”

Yet history shows repeatedly that military conquest is usually followed by the cultural conquest of the conqueror, that cultural hegemony has often moved in the opposite direction from military superiority. The repeated Mongol and Turkic invasions of China and the Middle East up to the fifteenth century, so devastating to Chinese and Moslem civilizations (and no small factor in their later vulnerability to the West), invariably led within a couple of generations, to the integration of the Mongols and Turks into the cultures they had overrun. The Almoravid and Almohad invasions of Moslem Spain from North Africa in the eleventh and twelfth centuries similarly led to the integration of the invaders into the overrefined urban culture they conquered; indeed, the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun built his whole theory of universal history on this cycle of nomadic conquest and later absorption by the conquered.

The rather singular convergence of military ascendancy and of cultural hegemony by the West, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, is one “difference,” seen in the perspective of world history, which the postmodernists should tell us more about To do so, all they lack, like their counterparts the Eurocentrists, is a notion of world history and knowledge of it.

A look at world history in a contemporary context would also lead the theoreticians of “identity politics” to the question of the current economic and technological supremacy of Japan, which, one would think, might pose some difficulties for their assault on the ideology of “dead white European males” as the ruling ideology of our time The indisputable fact that the world’s most dynamic capitalist zone for the past three decades has been in Asia does not trouble these theoreticians in the least, since they are, among other things, profoundly bored by questions of economics and technology which cannot be connected to cultural difference.

Their implicit, if not explicit, agenda is to present the values associated with intensive capitalist accumulation as “white male,” so that “non-white” peoples such as the Japanese or Koreans who currently embody those values with a greater fervor than most “whites” somehow lose their difference, and certainly their interest The executives and R&D teams of the Asian firms currently pounding American and European industry with their cutting-edge products would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that their values were “white.” (It used to be the case that the association of cultural attributes with skin color was called … racism.) Somehow when a Third World country is industrialized it ceases to be different.

In this connection, to conclude, it is necessary to consider the “material conditions” in which postmodern thought has come to center stage. It is only slightly an exaggeration to say, as indicated earlier, that it emerged out of the collapse in the West of the model of capitalist accumulation based on the assembly line, of which the automobile, in production and consumption, was the symbol par excellence.

The vision of “modernity” we have analyzed throughout had as its implicit or explicit teleology the transformation of the planet into a world of mass production workers, a transformation which France, from which the theory emerged, underwent after 1945 as few other countries. The end of this model of accumulation in the post-1973 world economic crisis dissolved the climate in which various “archaisms” could be assumed to be on the verge of extinction.

This is not to offer a narrowly economic analysis of the current ideologies of identity, or to imply that there was something fundamentally healthy about the 19451973 model of accumulation, or to suggest that a new expansion based on a new model of accumulation would restore the old notions of modernity and rationality, which were shared at bottom by Western capitalism, the Eastern bloc and Third World development regimes. It is merely to suggest that “identity politics,” and their theoretical sources, are symptoms of and not a solution to the breakup of a phase of capital accumulation, and the resulting breakup of the long-received ideas of the international left.

*There are several reasons why the legacy of the French Revolution eclipsed that of the English Revolution in the international left The French Revolution was made against the prototypical Enlightened absolutist state in Europe, and therefore seemed a more relevant model in the many other countries which had emulated the French monarchy. England on the other hand never had Enlightened absolutism in the continental sense. From the thirteenth century onward, political and economic factors were creating space for a civil society which checked absolutist tendencies in the monarchy, whereas in France the centralizing tendency of the state was repeatedly crushing independent political and economic forces. As historian Robert Brenner has shown, labor shortages and peasant revolt following the Black Death in the fourteenth century had already created a wage-labor system in the English countryside, a development that did not occur in France until the nineteenth century.

In addition to its greater international impact, the French Revolution is associated with the Enlightenment, the state-sponsored rationality of the “classical age” attacked by Foucault. The ideologies of the English Revolution on the other hand were articulated, even in their most radical moments, in pre-Enlightenment and religious terms by such groups as the Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchy Men, Ranters and Muggletonians. In contrast to France, these currents constitute a revolutionary tradition not compromised with the state, as was the Enlightenment, and they had a serious impact on Western hemisphere radicalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although their radical and even communist tendencies were recognized as distant precursors by the international left, their religious aura hid their importance from nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements steeped in the Enlightenment.

But England, not France, was the more mature capitalist society, as is now being recognized as France sheds its statist tradition and the politics and culture that went with it. By drawing its inspiration more from France, the international left was confusing aspects of a struggle for capitalism with the struggle to go beyond capitalism. Foucault. and postmodernism with its heavily French roots, move into the vacuum left by the collapse of the French leftist tradition.

A Brief Bibliography

ASIDE FROM BOOKS cited in this article, readers wishing to pursue some of its ideas can consult the following works. The best overall book connecting postmodernism to the post-1973 restructuring of capitalism is David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). A more polemical engagement, focusing on postmodernism and politics, is Christopher Norris, Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (1992). Good background on the “He!lenophile Romance” and the ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger can be found in Josef Chytry, The Aesthetic State: A Quest in Modern German Thought (1989). A more general situating of Nietzsche is Karl Lowith’s From Hegel to Nietzsche (1964, reissued 1991). A very good comparison of the relevance of the English and French historical experiences and their implications for the contemporary left is Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (1991).

On the effacement of ancient Egypt and of Islam in the creation of Eurocentrism, the first half of Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (1989) provides good material, but the second half unfortunately connects it to Stalinist politics. Vol. 1 of Martin Bemal’s Black Athena is also indispensable for an account of how Egypt disappeared from Western historical consciousness in the 18th and 19th centuries, but is too reductionist in attributing it primarily to the emergence of the “Eastern Question.” On the continuity between ancient Egyptian religion and the neo-Platonism of late antiquity, see Karl Luckert, Egyptian Light and Hebrew Fire (1991).

An excellent critique of Edward Said by the Syrian Marxist Sadik JalaI al-‘Azm is Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,’ reprinted many times and most easily available in Jon Rothschild (ed.), Forbidden Agendas (1984). For the Arab impact on the medieval West see Norman Daniel, The Arabs and Mediaeval Europe (1979, 2nd edition). On the influence of Ibn Arabi on Dante, see the classic of the Spanish Arabist Miguel Asin Palacios, Islam and the Divine Comedy (English translation 1926; reissued and abridged 1977); readers with a knowledge of Spanish should consult Luce Lopez Baralt, San Juan de Ia Cruz y el Islam (Mexico D.F. 19856, a model analysis of cross-cultural influence without a trace of postmodern jargon. On the Franciscan communist utopia in Mexico see John Phelan, The Millenarian Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World (1970). —LG.

July-August 1993, ATC 45