Wallerstein, Immanuel European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power

 

In this tiny but powerful collection of essays adapted from various conference presentations, Wallerstein traces contemporary rhetorics of modernity back to the Sepulveda/Las Casas debate in the 1500s over who has the right to intervene, when, and how in the treatment of Amerindians who were forced to labor in the Spanish system of ecomienda in South America.  As Wallerstein explains, today appeals to European universalism are alive in well the rhetorics of modernity that establishes a right to intervention (including war) in defense of human rights and democracy, its authority as superior civilization based on universal values and truths, and the lack of viable alternative to neoliberal economics. Wallerstein demonstrates that the universal values of civilization, economic growth and development, and/or progress, are passed as natural law today as justifications for impeding on “noncivilized” nations.  These values, however, are not universal; in fact, they bleed of the longstanding justifications to colonize so-called “barbarians.”  For instance, the four justifications of ‘civilized” communities to intervene in “un-civilized” zones are:  barbarity of others, ending practices that violate universal values, defense of innocent among cruelity of others, and the possibility of spreading universal values.  Wallerstein cleverly demonstrates how these justifications were at work in the Sepulveda/Las Casas debate as well as the recent interventions in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, etc.  Wallerstein wants his readers to realize that these universal values are nothing more than Eurocentric ethics and values imposed on the world and used to maintain structural power and dominance.  Even the postmodern viewpoint that we should be intellectually and politically tolerant of mulitiple views is an Eurocentric ideal. 

 

Wallerstein says the ultimate challenge for us is how we can create an alternative framework that allows us not to be orientalist.  “To be non-Orientalist means to accept the continuing tension between the need to universalize our perceptions, analyses, and statements of values and the need to defend their partiucularlist roots against the incursion of the particularist perceptions, analyses, and statements of values coming from others who are claiming they are forwarding universals” (49).    We need to dialogue about our need to universalize the particulars and our need to particularize the universals (49). 

 

He also exlains that capitalistic modernity is contingent on three elements of what he calls cultural-intellectual scaffolding:  combination of universalistic norms and racist-sexist practices; a centrist neoliberal geoculture; and epistemic knowledge that divides the world into the civilized and non-civilized-54.  Scientific universalism is, in Wallerstein’s eyes, the last and most powerful European universalism alive and well in the Western university system today.  Yet even scientific universalism is in crises today. 

 

So in sum:  three great European universalisms:  right of those to intervene based on ownership of universal values (moral justification to dominate); Orientalism (intellectual justification to dominate) ; scientific universalism (ideological justification to dominate).

 

Wallerstein says our biggest challenge is how to move beyond Eurpean universalism—to a “’universal universalism,’ which refuses essentialist characterizations of social reality, historicizes both the universal and the particular, reunifies the so-called scientific and humanistic into a single epistemology, and persmits us to look with a highly clinical and quite skeptical eyes at all justificantions for ‘intervention’ by the powerful against the weak” (79).  As intellectuals, we must operate at analyst in search of truth, moral person in search of good and beauty, and political persona seeking to unify good and beautiful (80).  The key question we must ask ourselves is how we can use our knowledge and expertise in the transitional phases we find ourselves (82).  We need to hystoricize by placing object of study in larger context/historical construct as he did with the contemporary rhetorics of power (82).  

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Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

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