The Joy Of Eurocentricity

What do we mean when we say Eurocentric?

J. M. Blaut called Eurocentrism “the colonizer’s model of the world” and argued that for most Europeans, history only ever happens in Europe and that outside its geography, however, “…everything seems to be a rockbound, timeless, changeless tradition.” [J. M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, The Guilford Press, 1993]. Eurocentric discourses posit a linear progressive idea of history, with Europe as the engine of historical change and evolution and the centre of scientific, economic, and political innovation. It claims the creation of liberal democracy, secular politics, capitalism, and the industrial revolution as if these were indigenous to Europe. Eurocentricity claims a historically inevitable European movement towards democracy as inherent in the social, cultural, political and religious institutions of Europe, eliding any aberrations–genocides, religious persecution, wars and conflicts–that detract from this progressive narrative.

Eurocentricity ignores non-Western political and cultural traditions and, most importantly, entirely erases the entanglements and influences on European thought, industry, society and politics that come from its relationship with the rest of the world. [Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Duke University Press, 1995].

Eurocentricity ignores the West’s oppressive and violent histories, including colonialism, Atlantic slavery, and imperialism and refuses to see these as the definitive and driving forces of European modernity and wealth. Eurocentric thought ignores the politics, histories, and social forces outside of Europe, leaving others as “fixed” in time, apolitical, apathetic, and unworthy as makers of history and creators of changes. Eurocentricity appropriates for itself the cultural and material production of other cultures while denying the sources and claiming the benefits.

Eurocentrism places peoples and places outside of the West in states of “lack” and in need of “catching up,” and the world is left divided between “…two poles of the homologous sets of oppositions, despotic/constitutional, medieval/modern, feudal/capitalist.” [Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Post-coloniality and The Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ pasts?” Representations, (37): 1-26, 1992].

These Eurocentric tendencies manifest themselves in specific practices, most of which will be discussed in the rest of this book. After working as a professional photojournalist for over twelve years and publishing works in major American and European publications, it became apparent to me that the Western media “constructs” the world through a very rigid Eurocentric frame and, in the process, erases self-reflection, historicity, trans-national influences and entanglements of economics and politics that inform the experience of most of the nations and peoples of the world.

At its worst, Western media remains mired in Samual Huntington’s rather bland and simplistic “clash of civilization” discourse, where all that is civilized, modern, liberal and decent resides in the West, and all that is violent, barbaric, indecent and backward lives there.

It also relies on a terrifyingly simplistic depiction of “the Other” as needing intervention, saving, modernizing and “Europeanizing.” This “white-saviour complex” not only creates distorted ideas about the rest of the world, misrecognizes local struggles for emancipation, equality, justice and liberty, but blinds journalists to struggles for social justice, gender inequality, economic poverty, state violence, and corruption within Western society.

That is, it encourages a refusal of self–reflection. In the aftermath of 9/11, it has only gotten worse as an entire series of Orientalist and essentialist ideas about a large swath of humanity, particularly in the Arab and Muslim worlds, have become mainstream journalistic, political and cultural currency. As writer Pankaj Mishra argued, “Never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet’s billion-plus Muslims.” [Pankaj Mishra, “A Paranoid, Abhorrent Obsession”, The Guardian, 8 December 2007].

Our publications of note–from The New York Times to Time Magazine, remain at the forefront of much of this “nonsense”, peddling the worst and most reductive ideas and representations of the non-Western world that they seemed to not want to engage with, despite the profound economic, political and military entanglements that exist between us Americans here, and “them” there. We have seen a resurgence of pundits, writers, academics and journalists celebrating imperialism, white-washing colonial histories, defending racist and exclusivist historical and cultural knowledge, and doubling down on “our” right to intervene and “civilize” other nations, peoples and communities.

This reversion to Orientalism in media, with its appeals to imperialist intervention and reduction of entire societies to simplistic cultural essentialisms, is in contradistinction to what has been happening in other disciplines.