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  • The Abject AtlanticThe Coloniality of the Concept of "Europe" in Its Maritime Meridian
  • Ashley J. Bohrer

"The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place."

—Edouard Glissant (1989, 2)

"The production of the unsymbolisable, the unspeakable, the illegible is . . . always a strategy of social abjection."

—Judith Butler (1993, 190)

When one thinks about the geographical limits of Europe, one is inclined to look to Asia or to North Africa, to the uneasy and shifting boundaries that separate Europe from "the East." When considering the question of borders, it is Europe's relationship to its surrounding landmasses that is considered the most interesting, problematic, and contested. In a volume dedicated to the history of the idea of Europe, Anthony Pagden expresses this sentiment rather clearly: "'Europe' was, and always had been, a highly unstable term. No one has ever been quite certain where its frontiers lie. Only the Atlantic and the Mediterranean provide obvious 'natural' boundaries"(Pagden 2002, 45). This paper is concerned with displacing the certainty that the Atlantic is the boundary of Europe, that Europe is "naturally" bounded there. If we think about the borders of Europe as social, political, aesthetic, economic, cultural, and philosophical, then the Atlantic may prove to be the most unstable, vexing, and problematic of Europe's borders. [End Page 215]

In conceptualizing the boundaries of Europe, its edges and its fractures, its frontiers, one rarely thinks about the Western Hemisphere or sub-Saharan Africa. This is perhaps itself a trick of distance, a trompe l'oeil. When one thinks of boundaries and borders, or of limit-spaces, proximity and physical distance are often taken to be their defining characteristic. But as Mignolo and Tlostanova remind us, "'Borders' are not only geographic but also political, subjective (e.g., cultural) and epistemic" (Mignolo and Tlostanova 2008, 218). If one looks to define or problematize the borders of Europe or the borders of the concept of Europe, one must approach the study of those borders beyond the proximate and beyond the merely geographic; the borders of Europe are as much political as physical, cultural as geographical, and epistemological as phenomenological. If we look to define Europe today, we must urgently consider not only what those borders are, what they mean, and how they operate, but also—and this might be the most pressing task—how to incorporate the history of the border into our analyses of Europe itself.

This paper proceeds in three sections. In the first, I explore the historical significance of the Atlantic world to the formation of what is now called "Europe." In this section, I take "Europe" itself to be a complex phenomenon, one that refers not only to place but to an entire architecture of ideas, discourses, practices, and peoples thought to make up this place and to give it its meaning. I argue that not only did Europe give itself a form of unity through the process of colonizing the Atlantic world, but that, moreover, the content of "Europe" as an idea, an aspiration, and an imaginary was furnished through the violent conquest and exploitation of the lands and peoples of the Atlantic. I hence conclude that Europe is a thoroughly colonial concept, one that is irrevocably indexed to the history of the Atlantic. In the second section, I explore the concept of the abject, as elaborated by Julia Kristeva and others, to conceptualize Europe's relationship to the Atlantic world. Expanding not only on Kristeva's analysis, but also on Anne McClintock's work on the "colonial abject," I argue in section three for a concept of differential colonial abjection that can respond to the often de-historicized and non-intersectional diagnostics offered by many psychoanalytic readings of abjection. Doing so allows us to take seriously the specificity of the Atlantic world and the process of European colonization. In the conclusion, I return to the concept of Europe as a colonial idea and endeavor, one that continues to frame the way in which we talk about identity, race, and belonging in the contemporary world.

The Atlantic Genesis of Europe and Its Modernity

To begin to dramatize...


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pp. 215-240
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