- The Ethical Stakes of Critique
BY SEAN MEIGHOO
Columbia University Press, 2018
Sean Meighoo's The End of the West and Other Cautionary Tales opens with the following problematic: the concept of the West drives a certain form of Euro-centrism. However, Meighoo argues that many of the critiques of this very Euro-centrism are themselves complicit with their object of critique. The basis for this argument is that even these critiques presuppose a unitary concept and history of the West. Meighoo diagnoses this failure in a range of figures and texts from continental philosophy and postcolonial theory. While the demonstration of this failure forms a major portion of the book in the form of Parts II and III (136 pages of 222 pages) there is what might appear an unusual framing to these sections. Part I is a discussion of Martin Bernal's Black Athena and its critical reception, while the concluding part IV is a reading of "popular culture," more specifically a reading of the film Help! (starring the Beatles). Bernal's work is an apt introduction of the problematic of the West since the latter is often in-dissociable from Greece, and the concluding section on "popular culture" is meant to teach us ways to deconstruct the West, moving beyond the promises and practices of both continental philosophy and postcolonial theory.
Before moving to a discussion of Meighoo's readings, it should be stated at the outset that the sections on continental philosophy and postcolonial theory (Parts II and III) are in fact readings of specific texts of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Homi Bhaba, and [End Page 151] Trinh T. Minh-ha. There is an internal logic to this sequence. Meighoo begins with the need to dismantle the concept of the West and its Greek origins—in fact, the very concept of the origin—which was to have uniquely invented "philosophy, science and democracy." As he says: "The West binds together reason, progress and freedom in a way that remains absolutely unique to itself" (3). Within continental philosophy, Meighoo traces a shift from a "historical teleology" ("a discourse that celebrates the historical and technological progress of the West") to a "negative teleology" ("a counter discourse that laments its cultural and spiritual decline") (xi, repeated on 45). While Husserl and Heidegger embody this shift, this very shift is subtly reiterated in the texts of Levinas and Derrida. "Negative teleology" is reappropriated in postcolonial theory, an appropriation that is legible in the "critique of representation" (as a unique power of the West) in E. Said and C. T. Mohanty as much as in the "valorization of difference" in H. Bhaba and Trinh T. Minh-ha. Thus, even within negative teleology and its most radical appropriations, the subtle specter of a unitary West persists. It is in the face of this challenge that Meighoo proposes, in the concluding part IV, to alternate registers by reading the film Help!, in which he finds a "hyperbolic" practice of representation that might well be more subversive than the self-consciously critical practices of continental philosophy as much as postcolonial theory.
The fundamental methodological and substantive issue is not merely the accuracy and persuasiveness of the specific readings of the various texts under discussion but also whether Meighoo is successful in integrating these different texts and in diagnosing them all with a singular conceptual defect: the persistence of the "West" in their analyses. Moreover, one has to simultaneously evaluate the value of the concluding section where an alternative—unburdened by this defect—is proposed in the reading of film. On both counts, this reviewer remains unconvinced. Since the book involves readings of texts, there is simply no other way to critically engage than to closely and critically follow Meighoo's tread; needless to say, this cannot but be selective.
In part I, Meighoo admits that his discussion does not contribute any historical evidence to Bernal's work and its critical reception. Rather, the interest and investment lie in the "stakes" of the debate: "The significance of Bernal's Black Athena lies not so...