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  • #NotAllEuropeans? Brennan’s Borrowed Light
  • George Ciccariello-Maher (bio)
Timothy Brennan, Borrowed Light, Volume I: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies. Stanford University Press, 2014. $24.95 (paper), $85.00 (cloth). 280 pp. ISBN: 9780804790543

This is a strangely anticipatory book. We are promised an analysis of the “new anticolonial spirit” of the interwar twentieth century, and yet the book in our hands is dedicated largely to Vico and Hegel, Nietzsche and Bataille (1). The second volume, Brennan writes, will directly address the interwar period, but even in the preview appended here, the subject is less anticolonial thought itself than “Vico’s legacies in the twentieth century,” and despite a reference to “actual writing from the global periphery” the names are mostly European (235). A partial explanation of this peculiarity—two volumes on anticolonial thought apparently centered on Europe itself—can be found in the multiple concerns motivating the pair of volumes.

Brennan’s Borrowed Light is concerned as much with contemporary debates between humanists and their opposite as with anticolonial thought. He positions himself both against the new communist turn—especially in its immediatist insurrectionist variants—and the posthumanist turn, be it “green misanthropy,” techno-fetishism, or new and object-oriented materialisms (7). Against these, Vico and Hegel appear peculiarly focused on the human, and as inaugurating a historical and philologically pluralistic approach that happens to also be amenable to decolonization. But arguably the central goal of the text is to salvage the relationship between communism and decolonization, and this is an important and admirable goal indeed, one that surfaces in a sort of triangulation maneuver in each of the two pairings that constitute the text. Vico and Hegel are simultaneously and for the same reasons proto-Marxist and progenitors of anticolonial thought. Inversely, Nietzsche and Bataille participate in what Brennan terms a coupling of barbarism (decolonization) with the Left (communism), and this coupling makes their work difficult to salvage toward radical ends.

The title—Borrowed Light—evokes an indirect illumination. But Brennan hopes “to perturb the expectation that accompanies this image,” turning it counterintuitively against the civilizing pretensions of Europe, “the colonialist cliché of the light of Europe brought to the world’s benighted peoples.” Borrowed light, he tells us, “shines in two directions, without contradiction, depending on the flow of history and one’s place in time.” But while Brennan is at pains to grant a degree of creative autonomy to “peripheral zones,” he nevertheless insists that this light “is as much European as non-European” (3). The image of bidirectional borrowing quickly and unfortunately gives way to something even less, however: to the language of “foundation,” “architecture,” and even—apparently unironically— “parentage.” Questions and doubts unavoidably follow: To what degree are our expectations perturbed? Who is borrowing, and from whom?

Vico and Hegel, Brennan’s affirmative pairing, provide “the methods and terms that would give later anticolonial thought its foundation” (5). By undermining religious authority, natural law, the market, conquest, and disconnected philosophers, they provided an “architecture” for others to use toward decolonization, and so before shaking these foundations we need first sketch the architecture.

Brennan gives three primary reasons for recovering Vico for the present: he understood “the human as a being beyond race and territory, language as a material exchange, and the need for philosophy to have a system character and polemical foundation” (14). These three elements simultaneously pave the way to viewing Vico as a progenitor to both Marxism and anticolonial thought. As to the first, Vico prefigures Marx by having developed a “nonpresentist form of historicism that is the genesis of Marx’s historical materialism” (20). Brennan insists that his goal is not to do with Vico what some have done with Spinoza—the “non-Vico” turned “anti-Hegel” who here serves as textual antipode—namely, to portray him as “the first Marxist before Marx” (21, 35). But it is nevertheless curious that he comes very close in his turn to the language of “genesis” and when he later describes Vico’s approach as a “protohistorical materialism” (78).

Vico’s particularly anticolonial resonance derives, for Brennan, from an additional three elements: the displacement of Europe as the sole origin of civilization; a rejection...

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