- Culture, Eurocentrism, and the Work of Ideology
BY QADRI ISMAIL
Rowman Littlefield International, 2015
In Culture and Eurocentrism, Ismail makes the compelling case that the concept of culture remains attached—as the pithy title of his monograph suggests—to the political and epistemological structure of Eurocentrism. More specifically, he argues that culture furnishes the "most potent signifier of subjectivity" within what he calls the "modern Anglo-U.S. episteme" (2). Breaching the commonsense distinction between the old "universal" model of culture that served to justify European colonial expansion during the nineteenth century on one hand and the new "relativist" model of culture that has been based on the scientific observation and ethical respect for different cultures since the turn of the twentieth century on the other, Ismail insists that these two apparently incompatible models of culture are rather mutations or iterations following the complex "itinerary" of a particularly Eurocentric concept: "The itinerary of culture would consist of (at least) two heterogeneous intersections: the singular, universal and the plural, relativist. As mutation signifies, the moments resonate, should not be taken as discrete: relativism doesn't disappear universalism; rather, iterates, repeats it with a difference. Culture in the plural bears the trace of that in the singular" (4). This Eurocentric concept of culture is bound together in all its iterations by the presumption that each and every subject is unequivocally determined or ineradicably imprinted by his or her cultural provenance:
The quotidian sense of culture may be overwhelmingly essentialist and so distinguishable from the disciplinary sense, dominantly anti-essentialist, if not purportedly anti-empiricist—this take never tires of repeating, as [End Page 166] if insistent, metronomic repetition turns assertion into argument, that culture is a construct (but also, somehow, "real"); nevertheless, the two share an understanding of the concept: a vital, veridic element of our subjectivity; phrased crudely, we "have" a culture …; it is discrete, unicitous, nominatable, available for study; it makes us different and has always done so. … We take it for granted, have naturalized the "fact" that we are cultured subjects; that this matrix inside and outside us enables, conditions, constrains our subjectivity, agency, if it doesn't constitute our very being.(2)
Calling for nothing less than a "(re)conceptualization" or "recharging of postcoloniality," Ismail thus draws our attention to the "continuing force of [E]urocentrism" that shapes not only our present concept of culture but all our present concepts of literature, identity, space, and time as well (1).
Ismail's ambition in Culture and Eurocentrism to "recharge" the field of postcolonial studies itself is a bold one, indeed. He maintains that although the intellectual work that inaugurated the field of postcolonial studies was marked by a "theoretical position/ing" or "questioning," subsequent work in this field has been dominated by a "reassertion of historicism" (1). While he drops Homi Bhabha's name and refers to Partha Chatterjee's early work in a note to evoke the initial theoretical direction of postcolonial studies, he alludes to Chatterjee's later work in the same note to decry its current "historicist [and] culturalist" bent (12 n. 1). Ismail delivers a more intellectually rigorous if not entirely winning argument for a "recharging" of postcolonial studies, however, in his critique of Dipesh Chakrabarty's influential work, Provincializing Europe. Ismail argues that although Chakrabarty's own aim to "provincialize or decenter" Europe from its privileged place within the discipline of history certainly defies the old historiographic and anthropological model of "universalism," it easily conforms to the new model of "cultural relativism" despite all claims to the contrary (198, 199–200). Insofar as Chakrabarty simply seeks to establish a "subject position" for non-European "cultures" or "life-worlds" rather than question the intrinsically Eurocentric structure of historical subjectivity, Ismail concludes that Chakrabarty "critiqu[es E]urocentrism within its terms," then, "leav[ing] the structure unmoved" and ultimately "discharg[ing] postcoloniality" instead of recharging it (199, 200, 201). Leaving Ismail's somewhat petty remarks aside—namely [End Page 167] that Chakrabarty is "[n]ot the most rigorous of thinkers" and that "he consistently fails to theorize" (199, 205 n. 8)–his book nonetheless offers a provocative intervention into postcolonial...