Civilization and Coercion

de-soto-mississippi    (Powell, William H., 1847. Public domain.)

      “There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” – Mark Twain

The notion of “civilization” is a particularly illusory concept, one in which the objective definition of it rarely matches the way it is appropriated. It has been used as a catalyst for propelling advancements in science and arts, but also for enslaving masses, dangerously exploiting living and nonliving resources, and more. Despite the popular notion, civilization does not require skyscrapers, iPhone 20’s, or constitutions, and yet, the global society is constantly bombarded with this concept of the ideal end a culture must strive toward. Rather, one must recognize that such a notion of civilization is heavily influenced by prior preconceptions about the norms of a social, political, and economic aspects within one’s own cultural experience. In fact, the narrative of European exploration is filled with this fallacious understanding of “civilization,” and serves in many ways as the primary source of this concept’s perpetuity. Overall, the idea of “civilization” is a significantly coercive concept and requires interrogation to be sufficiently understood.

250px-Landing_of_Columbus_(2)(Vanderlyn, John, 1846. Public domain)

The Exploration Rush

The explosion of exploration and colonization that happened from the 15th to the 18th century can be attributed to a number of factors.  Primarily,  the leaders of European nations were interested in wealth, power, and expansion of their domain.  The colonization frenzy began after Portugal and Spain successfully retrieved great wealth in the form of precious metals and other resources from their colonies in the 14th century.  This success drove the funding of more expeditions to find new lands that could benefit the colonizing countries.  Many famous explorations, such as those of Columbus, were inspired by the dream of discovering great wealth in foreign lands.  By the 16th century, other countries such as England chose to engage in colonizations of their own.  England’s powerful navy allowed them to assert dominance over their competitors and potential colonizations, and they quickly gained control over new colonies.  To maximize profit from their colonies, trade routes and merchant companies were developed that could make trade more efficient and lucrative, often at great cost to those who were colonized.  Another important factor in many colonizations was religion.  Religion provided a moral justification to the injustices done by colonizers.  The native people were often either forced to convert, or captured into slavery because of their pagan beliefs.  Capturing slaves also proved to be extremely profitable for colonizers, as strong, healthy slaves were in high demand.  This combination of incentives, including monetary gains, expansion of power, slave labor, and religious justification created the perfect conditions for an outburst of colonization.




As we have discussed of before, the term “civilization” itself is coercive in that people don’t have a certain definition of the word and cannot truly categorize particular societies as either civilized or not.  Those who use the word to categorize and describe are the ones who most usually define it, and their definition is centered around their own society and what they know.  This, of course, leads to unfair views of others and stereotypes based on untrue comparisons.  In terms of performative and prescriptive functions, civilization is also coercive in that some cultures may alter their traditions and structures in order to fit in better with a specific grouping.  Also, there is the fact that individuals can lay claim to the definition of a civilization and therefore jurisdiction of a society.

Due to this manipulative aspect of “civilization,” the European worldview exists as a significant example of a fallacious construction regarding the way a culture should operate. Operating within a rigid system of social hierarchy and economic realism, the eurocentric model of “civilization” evolved out of a collection of ideals grounded within the European norms. Aspects like writing, institutionalized government, and established currency were seen as tokens of a fully functioning society, one that the Europeans believed achieved the fullest that humanity could offer. Thus, due to the dualistic nature of language, if “civilization” is the aforementioned concept, uncivilized cultures must therefore, be the exact opposite: without writing, decentralized government, etc. Moreover, because those social and political components are what Europeans consider to be ideal, cultures that do not exhibit those components fall victim to an immediate, condescending reaction from Europeans with this mindset. In fact, many scholars like Pierre Clastres depict this condescending reaction as an evolutionary relationship, where cultures depicted as “uncivilized” are treated as immature manifestations of the European ideal. All the social, political, and economic components Europeans regard as “civilized” are seen through this evolutionary model as the end to be achieved through development. It is through this development that perpetuates the colonial mindset as the method for raising the immature “underdeveloped” societies to the level of European civilization, turning exploitive colonization into a noble mission.

Concluding Remarks

Civilization is a coercive system of power that requires one group to assert dominance over another. Civilization cannot be defined in a universal term; rather, certain groups define civilization in varying ways. “Civilizations” especially those of Western Europe, see it as their duty, or “The White Man’s Burden,” to impose their beliefs upon other groups that they encounter. This mission has taken various forms throughout history including slavery and colonization. Whites see it as their obligation to “educate” and “civilize” others that they encounter. They fail to realize that these groups have their own principles and ways of life. The European view of civilization leads to countless negative consequences. The European definition evolves to include sedentary life, monetary economy, writing, and religion. If a culture does not include these facets, it is instantly deemed savage and uncivilized. Exploration arose as a means to discover more wealth and further expand these values of civilization. Europeans would not stop until the entire globe encompassed their ideals and was “civilized.” Europeans justified their conquests using Christianity and religion. They converted pagans to Christianity and used this to justify slavery. The success of small colonies led to increased desire to colonize more, and this led to a rush to conquer all “uncivilized” areas of the globe. The world fell into a downward spiral and resulted in the world we have today: a world dominated by Western civilization, where self (Western civilization) defines the other.

Marco Polo and the Eastern Fantasy

Marco Polo’s account of his extensive travels through the lands, cultures, and people beyond what is considered medieval Europe serves as one of the most important works in the narrative of European exploration. The work was both an initial catalyst for many adventurous minds and a projection of already existing conceptions of the mysterious “East.” While Polo was by no means the first European to venture into the lands he writes of, his work serves as a particularly significant source due to its degree of reception by the rest of the European populace. Polo’s tales became a source of fascination for not just a select group of nobles, but a vast expanse of common people, becoming for the majority of people, the only source of information about the land of the unknown “East.” Beyond this role, Polo’s account as a whole exemplifies the process of novel culture encounter, his lived experience acting as embodiment of a great “east/west” conjunction.

Polo’s Work as a Conjuncture

Marshall Sahlins writes in his book, Islands of History, about what he terms the “structure of the conjuncture,” the process through which persons of a culture utilize their pre-existing categories to understand foreign territories, applying their own customs, language, and ideologies to novel concepts. In many ways, Polo’s account serves as a significant example of this epistemological clash. Regardless of the city visited, throughout his account, Polo appears to continually focus on the same type of observations, including religious practices, military capability, societal order or hierarchy, marriage, and resource productivity. Such a methodology of observation is inherently manipulative as he not only decides what is and is not important to acknowledge, but also applies his own eurocentric method of qualifying what he sees within those selected categories. For example, whenever discussing the religion of a certain city, Polo, before even specifically describing the religion, groups all non-Christian religions together as those who practice idolatry. Such a practice erases the individual significance of a society’s cultural expression and patronizes them as a whole, even referring to their practices as “blindness,” implying that the Christian tradition holds the only source of truth. However, the cultural manipulation did not end with religious misunderstanding. To ensure reception of his account by the typical European individual, Polo’s mystification of the Eastern people saw many peculiar manifestations, describing the people he met (as the picture below shows) as dog people or people with faces on their bodies. Such blatant manipulation of something as basic as a person’s appearance allows for even further otherization of the East, as a place where the people were simply just not people. These images essentially served as physical manifestations of the European feelings of shock and awe with the novel “East.” If they did not act the way Europeans considered civilized people acted, then they must not be humans in the first place.




Polo’s Work as an Inspiration

Marco Polo’s work was popular in Europe because it provided a fantastic form of entertainment for the literate people of Europe. Marco Polo definitely exaggerated the truth about his travels, and the writing and translation of the travels changed the nature and reality of the story. Polo’s Travels provided a base for the imaginations of the people. They expanded upon their current ideas and let their imaginations run with fantastic ideas of beasts and alien-alike people. His story serves as an early ancestor to the modern day novel and was a big contrast to the previous writing styles of medieval literature. This allowed individuals to take a break from the normal and read new and exciting material.

Specifically in regards to European exploration, Polo’s writings served as inspiration for many, fascinated by the East’s vast lands of exotic wonder.  Polo’s work, though filled with a multitude of inaccurate, incomplete, or exaggerated tales, still set the foundation for a greater awareness of the world by stoking the interests of future explorers.  The wild stories of wealth, resources, and strange people and traditions sparked a blaze of interest in discovery amongst the Western world.  Without this interest, legendary expeditions such as those of Columbus may have never come to fruition. However, the outlandish nature of Polo’s writings was a blessing and a curse for future explorations.  While Polo may have inspired explorers like Columbus, he was also the source of many unfortunate preconceptions that would drastically alter the outcomes of encounters between explorers and the inhabitants of foreign lands.  For example, Columbus entered the Americas with the expectation that he would find the exotic people and places described in Polo’s Travels. Under the assumption that Columbus was, in fact, in the Indies and that Polo’s writings were true, Columbus convinced himself that he had witnessed mutant peoples. He was certain that cities of great wealth and power were just around the corner.  Ultimately, Columbus’ findings were shaped by what he read in Marco Polo’s writing.  In part, the discoveries of Columbus and his crew were determined before he left the shores of home.

Concluding Thoughts

Today, we remember Marco Polo for his records of travel to the East and his experience as one of the first explorers.  His writing are, of course, valuable for the facts and information on Eastern history and culture, but also for understanding the concepts of foreign travel and discovery from this time and for the mindset and thoughts of a European encountering new and different cultures.  As we know, later explorers such as Columbus used Polo’s writing as a reference, and in present times, we can see the various aspects of thirteenth century travel.  Also, we have discussed the fact that Europeans had many misconceptions about and important interactions  with those from other places which are shown through Polo.  These would be displays of the other and  metageography between cultures which we still find significant today.  However, at the same time there is uncertainty as to whether Marco Polo was writing about the location and culture that he claims he is.  It is hard to say, but there is some evidence, or lack thereof, which brings about the questioning of his accuracy.  Nevertheless, even if we were to find out that Polo was not writing about a place as far east as he says, that would lead us to crucial realizations about another similar culture or about European culture of false records.