J’accuse: the eurocentricity of eurocentrism
All of the last entry in my weblog brings me on to my next rant: the meaninglessness of ‘eurocentrism’.
The quickest and easiest way to avoid responsible scholarship is to dismiss a subject as ‘Eurocentric’. Study ballet from an anthropological, psychological, feminist or sociological perspective, or smother it with cultural theory, and you can avoid all the things that make it difficult, like music & movement notation, knowledge of the repertoire, texts in multiple languages, or – dare I say it – dancing itself. You can sit in a luxury bath of texts in English, sculpting literary foam into a myriad new forms and subjects, and talking de haut en bas about eurocentricity. Throw in a few references to Indian classical dance, African People’s Dance, a tribe in Papua New Guinea and (for the sake of postmodernity) trance & hiphop, and you’ll look smart and chic, and no-one could call you – heaven forbid – Eurocentric.
But as the example of my pentilingual Prague friend below illustrates, this just wouldn’t pass for scholarship in many European countries; the concept and term ‘Eurocentricity’ is itself an instance of precisely the kind of blinkered generalization that it purports to describe. As Europe expands, the term becomes even more nonsensical. Did all the people who used the word five years ago experience a paradigm shift in May this year, and write cards to their friends saying “Oh by the way, when I say eurocentric from now on, I am now mentally including Estonia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta”?
Or do they, in a kind of post-Engelsian way, view these nations as ‘non-historic‘, places to get a cheap holiday and cheap beer, but not worthy of study, and incapable of contributing to respectable scholarship because they don’t publish in English?
Nationalism and racism
The trouble is, we don’t really have a word that is as immediately pejorative as ‘racist’ when it comes to this kind of thing. In one of the most bizarre pieces of educational writing I’ve ever seen, an unnamed author says
“Sometimes the meaning of words is changed in a racist way. If we then use these words we are ourselves being racist. For example, ‘palaver’ (see Programme 1, ‘Empire’) is an African language word for a meeting. In English this word is often used to describe unnecessary fuss or pointless chatter. It is therefore insulting to African culture.”
I use the word ‘palaver’ all the time, but until this morning, had no idea that this made me and many of my friends into racists. Channel 4’s ‘educational’ activity sheet, in my view, commits many more crimes against national cultures than me using the word palaver. For one thing, although I’m no expert, I understand that Africa has between 800-1,000 different languages in different language groups, and I would imagine that, as the second-largest continent in the world, ‘African culture’ is not just a blanket-term, but a whole darned king-size duvet of a term, not to mention the fact that ‘culture’ as an abstract phenomenon is a difficult thing to insult.
And what about the word ‘palaver’? Is it really an ‘African language word for “meeting”‘? The etymology in most sources I can find is Latin parabola via Portuguese (with metathesis) palabra, most probably 1735 sailors’ slang for a ‘negotiating with the natives‘. If you want to claim that the word is at all racist, the whole point is that it is not an African language word at all, but a Portuguese one that describes a visitor’s experience of the country.
Johnny Foreigner is still alive and well
Despite the internet, the expansion of Europe, low-cost travel and ‘education, education, education’, this kind of ignorance and generalization in the English speaking world seems to be getting worse. I recently introduced my friend and colleague the dancer Oxana Panchenko to one of my students, a second-generation Ukrainian from Canada who was writing a dissertation on Ukrainian folk dance. Before I’d finished the introduction, the student said to Oxana ‘Where are you from?’.
“From Russia” said Oxana.
“Hang on”, I said, worried that the whole point of the introduction was lost, “I thought you were Ukrainian!”.
“Well, yes, I am, but we [i.e. Ukrainians] don’t bother anymore in this country. We just say we’re Russian. Ivan Putrov says the same. People here think that Ukraine is in Russia anyway, so there’s no point”.
The situation is worse for other East Europeans. Many years ago, when the brilliant Croatian dancer Irena Pasarić first danced with ENB, some well-heeled guest with big hair and court-shoes at a reception asked where she was from. When Irena said ‘Croatia’, the other woman’s reply made it clear that she had assumed Irena was an asylum seeker fresh from Sangatte who had gatecrashed the party to steal a few sandwiches in between cleaning jobs. It didn’t occur to her that she might have chosen to come to England, bought her own ticket, or indeed, that the director of the company might have asked her to come because she was a world-class ballerina.
The view from Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Poland, France, Spain or any other country in Europe is not the same as the view from England or America. How on earth can you talk about something being ‘eurocentric’ if you are unable to read about or experience those perspectives? Is it any more worthy to be ‘global’ in your thinking, when your understanding of non-European culture is as crass and superficial as that demonstrated in the Channel 4 activity sheet above?
It is bad enough that eurocentrism assumes that European or Western values are the same wherever you go from Belfast to Brno. But if eurocentrism, defined by Western academics is “a worldview that believes European or Western values to be superior” then isn’t an abhorrence of eurocentrism itself a eurocentric concept, and therefore a ridiculous case of circular reasoning?
Presumably, too, as I am a European, the views I have expressed above are also Eurocentric. I would welcome comments by non-Europeans which will help me to overcome this problem.