Humans are living beings, and thus objective through their living. According to Marx, humans eat, drink, and interact with their surrounding world, and through this living, they locate themselves as objective beings. One does not act because he or she objectively exists, but objectively exists because he or she acts. It is this material basis that Marx grounds his understanding of reality. Now, an initial reaction one might have to this is the emotional aspect of humanity. Aren’t feelings something that situates individuals in reality?

While this response appears persuasive, the feelings are not independent of the objective actions. They are bound to them. For instance, when I feel hungry or sad, these feelings are not operating independently but are a direct result of objective occurrences. I feel hungry because I have not eaten. I feel sad because my friend died. The feelings are not separate from the objective world, but rather, are bound to it. Thus, an abstract methodology that focuses on the subjective nature of the individual fails to capture the material component that truly situates the individual.

Marx uses this philosophical basis to understand history through a methodology called historical materialism. According to this, the trajectory of history is one of a moving material power. The primitive society was characterized by little surplus and thus, relatively equal distribution of that material power, making it significantly different from the modern, capitalist society characterized by much surplus and unequal distribution. It is thus this material distribution that mediates relations among others because of the ways in which behavior is bound to material circumstance, as discussed before. A particular explanation for this trend is revealed in the theory of alienation of labor.

Alienation of Labor 

Marx, similar to his inspiration Hegel, has a complex opinion about labor, alienation, and their relation as displayed by capitalist society. Hegel had said that labor isolates the person from his or her self and prevents recognition of the self without an outside counter force. This was the master slave relationship that Hegel is known for speaking about, how the controlled labor of one person over the other allows both to recognize themselves by recognizing each other and thus gain skills. However, Marx argues that labor overall is a negative and results in no beneficial outcomes, only alienation. He says that labor distances the self and causes the worker to have the understanding of their products as only being an obligatory commodity for the master. This detaches the laborer from his or her efforts and its outcomes, preventing any form of self awareness or rewarding consequences. Also, the master in this situation is simply using the labor of the slave for the sake of the common community and not for self or other recognition.Overall, Marx is highly against the idea of labor and the believes that it alienates the self, other, and even greater population from the betterment of everything and each other.


Marx consistently refers to the principle of work in his writings. He emphasizes the intrinsic value of work; especially that of achieving a completed product. Marx references the idea of alienation of labor: dividing work into an assembly line process prevents the worker from realizing the full value of work. The wage takes this idea a step further. Traditionally, individuals worked for the benefit of themselves and their families. They produced goods and products for their value and utility. When an individual works for a wage, he completely loses touch with the intrinsic value of goods. Rather, a principle called the commodity of fetishes arises. The commodity of fetishes is best seen when the usable value of goods is replaced by monetary value. The wage is the enabler of this principle. The only reason to work for a wage is to save money to purchase various items. Individuals no longer work to create useful items; they work to achieve a sufficient amount of currency. Marx claims the wage turns products into commodities and destroys the true value of work.


Revolutionary Praxis      

Marx argues that in a capitalist world, the worker is stripped of self-value and alienated from his work as well as other human beings.  The alienation of labor results in the laborer being divided from the final product in a way that takes all meaning from the work being done.  At the same time, the worker is alienated from the capitalist, other workers, and the surrounding world by the wages with which he is paid and the resulting commodity of fetishes.  Marx suggests that to reunite man as a species-being, the self-worth of individuals must be restored.  Capitalist systems like that of private property force man to objectify the world, and consequently, objectify himself.  The elimination of private property could return man to dignity and allow him to develop an identity as an individual as well as a member of the species-being.  Additionally, more meaningful labor could help the worker to reconnect with the positive aspects of laboring and add meaning to what is currently only a means for survival.



The Id, Ego, and Super Ego

From the moment of birth, a child’s mind has only one part: the id.  The id is made up of the child’s instincts and desires, and it seeks only to serve itself by satisfying these desires by any means necessary.  Later on, through experiences and interactions with the world around it, the child can begin to separate itself from the outside world.  This process of differentiating the self from the other leads to the development of the ego, which encompasses everything that is the self.  The child cannot continue to obey every desire of the id, however.  Eventually, it comes into conflict with an outside force, usually that of a punishing father.  As a result, the child must redirect his or her desires in a way that suppresses them, thereby avoiding punishment from the father.  Over time, these redirected desires create a new force of punishment, one that resides entirely within oneself.   The superego, which is often referred to as the conscience, takes the place of the father as a suppressor of the id’s desires.  Once fully developed, the superego can punish the ego for giving in to the id by way of action or even the mere thought of taking action.  The id and the superego, both powerful forces within the mind, are engaged in a constant struggle for control over one’s thoughts and actions.

Civilization as the Super Ego 

Just like our internal super ego serves as a method to restrain and enforce our ego, civilization serves as an external super ego to humanity. Civilization imposes strict constraints and limitations upon the human instincts such as eros and the death instinct. Like the super ego, civilization instills a sense of guilt into humans, causing them to fear and shy away from breaking the social norms and laws of civilization. Civilization neglects individual happiness and mental power to create a larger, cooperative society. This constant restriction can cause anxiety and stress upon the ego, as it cannot fulfill its instinctual desires. Just like the super ego, civilization turns the death instinct inwards and causes guilt and remorse to occur when civilization limits an individual’s desires.  Only the combined forces of the individual super ego and the restraints of civilization can restrain the death instinct of humans. Humans adhere to civilization in order to reap the benefits and prosperity that come about from civilization.

“Necessary Evil”

Rooting from the original instincts of all creatures, evil, or as we know it to be that which is morally wrong and therefore results in a feeling of disappointment in self and discontent with one’s choices. It is a common goal of mankind to overcome this evil, also related to the driving desires of the Id, and reach the point of the Superego, as pressed to do by the norms of society and expectations of others. However, the misery that is present when acting on this evil may be a sort of needed thing for all men in that it keeps people in check by allowing them to see reality and act as a counterbalance and suppression to the growing craving for the goodness of life. Freud is very much against all forms of possession that lead to unawareness of surroundings and the giving in to the Id that fuels unhealthy and selfish impulse. In that sense, although Id is a form of evil, evil action is necessary to have that feeling of distress that prevents the overcoming of the Ego and the wish to rise higher than all else in a psychological and self-surrounding means.

Death vs. Love

As his argument progresses throughout the book, Freud begins to struggle with understanding the human aggressiveness. It cannot solely be defined as a manifestation of eros, the constructive desire for love. Faced with the undeniable ferocity of the human condition, Freud identifies an independent drive that consumes human behavior, the death instinct. Freud posits that there exists simultaneously influencing drives for destruction and construction, what he refers to as Thanatos and Eros respectively. One does not need to look farther than a toddler’s desire to break things to see the roots of the same instinct driving the ruthlessness of history’s genocides. Despite all the supposed feats of human ingenuity and the beautiful expressions of human love, there exists multiple examples of humanity’s “darkside,” a plethora manifestations of an ominous desire for destruction, Thanatos.

While the theoretical legitimacy of this model seems intuitive, it is not complete. To better understand the source of human aggressiveness, rather than viewing the two drives, Eros and Thanatos, as independently acting, viewing these as two manifestations of a core desire for self-actualization provides a better perspective into how they relate to each other and how they can be manipulated. In essence, humans have a desire to see themselves reflected in the world around them, to make the world their own. It is a question of best gaining control, not death versus life. For example, in regards to eros, when someone decides to marry another they are pursuing a bond that gains unconditional love from another as the spouse serves in many ways like a consistent mirror, actualizing the self through the love of a specific individual. The establishment of a family also exemplifies this idea. Children act literally as physical continuations of the self throughout generations, the children reflecting the values and culture of the parent.

The same self-actualization is also present in the death instinct. Why does one destroy? Is it that one likes seeing something destroyed, or is it that one likes seeing that they can destroy something. Destruction is the ultimate instance of control, demonstrating that the agent has full power over something if they have the capability of destroying it. When a marginalized population violently lashes out at an oppressor, it isn’t because they like killing. Rather, they feel as if the only way to assume agency over their situations is to violently destroy the obstacle to that agency, the oppressor.

Thus, death and love are not independently acting desires, but two manifestations of a single drive, that of self-actualization. The importance of this realization lies in its application to controlling violence. Rather than viewing the death instinct as escapable, one needs only to learn how to create the space for eros to triumph as an expression of self-actualization, so much so that thanatos seems irrelevant. If someone enjoys a fulfilling family life with an abundance of reciprocal love, they have no purpose in pursuing the deaths of others because their self reality is already being presented in the world around them.

The Rise of “Civilization”: Comparing Mazlish and Freud

Opening Remarks

Both Mazlish and Freud strive to find a proper definition of “civilization,” looking at history and human behavior to observe the trends of cultural organization and interaction. Mazlish talks often about the Eurocentrism of the term “civilization” and how it is an unfair categorization of people with differences. Freud, similarly, sees the counter-intuition of the idea of separating people from one another based on seemingly arbitrary and unsensible comparisons. Freud, as he is popular for, was a psychologist who worked a lot on the human conscience and desirous tendencies, so in discussing “civilization,” he mentions the variations and opposite depiction of human desire under the context of some being better than others. Despite these two great minds fighting to find the correct, or at least more accurate and less discriminatory, definition of “civilization,” the precise acceptability of the term cannot seem to be completely agreed upon and is still up for debate.

Overarching Similarities

Freud explains that civilization is an attempt to regain certainty and safety in the world. It is a process of trying to revert to that oceanic feeling in which an individual is in unison with his surroundings. Freud argues that the correct process would be developing a distinct ego and creating a barrier between oneself and the world; furthermore, he states that character formation, sublimation of instinct, and renunciation of instinct are vital to the process of civilization. In order to utilize civilization, individuals must give up freedom and instinct to gain overall strength and security. This process forms individual identities in that it creates restrained beings who struggle with the bindings of civilization.  Similarly, Mazlish contends that civilization is a way of seeking identity and assimilating with those of similar race and background. Doing so creates an “us vs. them” approach to the world. By using their own standards of civilization, certain humans judge the rest of the world using those standards and attempt to make sense of the universe. They develop certain characteristics based on what the civilization designates as “right” or “wrong” using a self-created system of ethics. In unison with Freud, these members of civilization have internal systems to restrain themselves from harmful instinct to keep the civilization functioning.

Psychoanalysis vs. Histoty

While the connection between Mazlish’s discussion of the “civilizing force” seems to parallel Freud’s conception of ego formation, Mazlish’s work does not confront the innate psychological root of “civilization,” using instead the framework of historical construct to explain where the ideology comes from. Throughout his work, Mazlish emphasizes the importance of viewing the rise of civilization discourse as a historical phenomenon, something that found its cultivation in Enlightenment scholarship that was forced to explain the difference found in colonial encounter. However, such a characterization fails, from a Freudian perspective, to recognize the inevitability of such a “historical” phenomenon. In essence, such eurocentric discourse was not something unique to the period, but instead, another manifestation of a profoundly psychological phenomenon grounded in the biology of humans. Such an aggressive civilizing force is grounded, not in historical causes, but psychoanalysis. To illustrate this, we will focus on two components of the rise of “civilization”: its manipulative, exploitive power and its role in identity formation.

In regards to the first, Mazlish discusses the connection between “civilizing” and “conquering.” In his analysis, Mazlish’s explanation does not explicitly address the psychological core of this aggressive force, rather looking at the particular cases of colonialists like Cook, identifying how the relationship between being a civilization and civilizing barbarians was inseparable. Mazlish’s work serves mainly just to highlight the connection, fitting it into his historical account. What Freud does is to offer the psychological basis for this phenomenon. A significant instance of this is Freud’s discussion of the European reaction to “savage life.” Upon seeing the promiscuous lifestyle of the other, Europeans, constrained by the regulatory power of civilized life, envy the natives because, according to Freud, civilization breeds misery through the constraint of desire. Faced with this realization, the Europeans, frustrated by the unfavorable reality, must regain control of their position. Therein lies the source of the aggressive treatment. If their violence has been constrained in one area (their home society), violence towards the seemingly “happy” natives serves as a sublimated release of aggression in an attempt to regain control of their reality. If they can make the natives subject to their brute force, then they can have direct agency over the perceived “happiness” of these others.      

The second component regards the role of civilization rhetoric as identity cultivation. Mazlish emphasizes civilization’s historical placement as not only a method for describing the taxonomy of society, but also as a method of affirming what it is that made Europeans European. However, Mazlish does not go so far as to confront the psychoanalytic underpinnings of that phenomenon. According to Freud, this phenomenon closely relates to the method in which the ego is cultivated. As an individual comes into contact with its surroundings, there is a constant struggle against external limitations: body, nature, and society. What the ego does is define what it is that composes the individual as a distinct subject, separate from the external, something that figuratively parallels European otherization of native peoples. In essence, the only way to define what is European is to also define what is not European. Through the process of defining what was “civilized,” the Europeans sought to define the newly encountered peoples as the savage other, the uncivilized. While Mazlish touches on the phenomenon, his analysis fails to recognize the reality of this phenomenon as deeply grounded in human psychology. According to Freud, the rise of civilization discourse was not a historical construct, but rather, it was an inevitable manifestation of human behavior.

Human “nature”? 

Freud asserts that humans have a natural and deep seated desire to seek pleasure despite the consequences upon other men.  In fact, he states that it is instinctual for a man to seek whatever satisfies him most, even if it means turning to violence simply for the enjoyment of destruction.  According to Mazlish, the idea of civilization was created in order to justify one culture’s violence towards another.  In the name of “civilizing,” a group of people could forcibly take control of another group of people who were seen as outsiders or savages.  However, Mazlish might not have agreed with Freud that the pattern of violence and domination shown in history was due to an inherent quality among all humans. Instead, the conflict between civilization and the “uncivilized” may have resulted from the desires of the “civilized” to justify their ways and enforce them upon others, thereby solidifying their place as the dominant culture.

Progress and Civilization

Based on the readings: 

The True and Only Heaven by Christopher Lasch

Civilization and Its Contents by Bruce Mazlish

Introductory Remarks

Both Lasch and Mazlish make the point that, as we have discussed extensively in class, the commonly accepted definitions of civilization from the history of the “West” and in modern times are false, senseless, and Eurocentric. Lasch focuses a lot on the concept of progress and how it is overvalued and, in fact, also a misapprehension that should be removed from the context of civilization. Progress contributes to the Eurocentric view of civilization in saying that those who have technological advances are “more civilized” only to show that they are fueling a more primitive impulse to satisfy all desire. These arguments support Mazlish’s by pointing out the flaws in the idea of civilization and the supremacy of the “West.” Also, Mazlish’s views on historical consideration and its inability to aid in the search for a better definition of civilization is given merit by Lasch when he discusses the issues of nostalgia, memory, and their effect on historical studies.

Illusive Objectivism

“It is civilization that embodies the universal, rising above the quotidian details of the particular and other. All can aspire to it, and it can be the guiding light for all.” – Bruce Mazlish

“At least we’re better off than we were before.” This rather illusory phrase never ceases to find itself in the common discourse surrounding the history of human development. Millions of people may live in corporate induced poverty, our climate may be in the worst state it’s ever been in planetary history, and the geopolitical landscape may be heading towards the next global conflict, but at least we have iPhones now… In his book, The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch exposes the destructive implications stemming from the worship of progress. This all-consuming drive feeds on the power of consumption and, in a rather insidiously way, promises a “better” existence for those, who choose to worship it. There’s always perceived to be a way to bring humanity closer to the “ideal,” and it is the duty of the progressive agent to pursue that. However, a crucial point highlighted by Lasch is the idea of the “elasticity of demand,” the idea that there might be another (“better”) setting that satisfies a specific need (food, healthcare, etc.), but the progressive spirit is never satisfied. Rather, the demand, as Lasch points out, is elastic, always striving for more and more satisfaction with “no foreseeable end.” Therein lies a significant instance of progress’ illusiveness, the inability to truly what the “ideal” is. Instead, it is bound to the specifics of the present, defined as nothing else but “better than now.” In many ways, defining the idea is in no ways a universal process, but instead, is significantly grounded in the identity of the individual or group doing the defining. In fact, one significant instance of this manipulative rhetoric involves the appropriation of “civilization.” This word, not even used in the English language till the Enlightenment era, possess no concrete basis other than that of the “universal” Eurocentric ideal.

As featured above, Bruce Mazlish’s work, Civilization and its Contents, explores the historical situation of “civilization,” analyzing its evolution into a powerful force for change, striving to shape the world into what was perceived to be the universal ideal, European society. However, what is most significant about “civilization” is that its historical creation was just as much grounded in a process of identification as it was a process of external classification. In essence, European society needed civilization not only as a description of the ideal, but as a tool to come up with what it was that made them “European” in the first place. Despite the ostensibly objective nature of civilization rhetoric, modernity’s thinkers constructed the criteria of civilization in terms of European concepts and categories like science, religion, governmental institutions, and writing. However, unlike the baggage associated with “progress,” it is not just that the ideal civilization is unachievable, it simply does not exist. Despite modernity’s emphasis that the principles of modern existence can apply to all cultures, the reality of human complexity proves quite the opposite, but history remains quite ignorant of that idea as centuries of imperialism proves. Thus, it is essential that intellectuals break from both the addictive worship of progress as well as the manipulative logic of “civilization” for both serve only to perpetuate the destructive forces of modernity.  

“Other Civilizations”

The European concept of civilization contributes greatly to the the idea of progress. In modern society, we strive for constant advancement and seek improvement in countless areas. Europe defined civilization especially in regards to progress. Bruce Mazlish explains the process of changing from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. Advancements in art, weaponry, and population accompany this shift. Mazlish also mentions religion as a progressive and civilizing force, but progress also civilizes religion itself. Lasch proclaims man has a “childish need for religion.” Man sees religion as a stabilizing and moralizing force; it betters society and helps catalyze progress. Religion also gives man hope. Lasch differentiates between hope and optimism, explaining that hope is a blind trust that the past will repeat itself while optimism is the acknowledgement of human limits. Religion creates blind hope and gives man a field to place trust and attempt to defy fate. In religion no explanation is necessary for placing trust; rather, divine authority promises that every believer will achieve a favorable ending. Besides hope and optimism, man has a way of using nostalgia to make the past, and in turn, the present, seem better. We idealize the past, making it seem that life is always becoming better. These concepts of progress and civilization relate to what Mazlish refers to as “other civilizations.” Europe can classify ancient “civilizations,” such as Egypt, to be extremely similar to the more modern European civilizations. Just like Europeans, Egyptians placed blind hope into the belief that the afterlife will be better than the current life. They saw a need to improve their conditions using temples, trade, religion, and warfare. Just like Europe, they did not accept the inevitability of fate and limit on human progress. The Egyptian civilization saw progress as a never-ending pathway to a better state. These similarities allow European scholars to classify Egypt as a civilization. As Mazlish points out, archeologists quite literally dig this ancient civilization out of the ground, and we are quick to proclaim its similarities and “advanced” quality of life. For a society who made so many advancements, it seems ironic that the only remains are buried stone, compared to societies who did not “progress,” such as nomads. Will it be our civilization being dug from the ground in a few centuries?

Some Contrasting Points 

In Mazlish’s attempt to find an ideal definition of civilization, he explores the idea that civilization is present when a group of people is able to bring their instinctual and most primal desires under control.  Such a definition implies that civilized people have achieved mastery over the undesirable characteristics of human behavior.  Therefore, to become civilized, a group must put aside their instincts in favor of order, control, and finesse.  However, Lasch argues that progressives seek to satisfy every human desire.  Through an unending cycle of “progress,” in which human desires constantly expand to surpass ever growing technology, progressives believe that society becomes more civilized and life is improved for all.  In reality, this exponential expansion of desire can never truly be gratified.  The only effect of this “progress” is the continuous degradation of both the environment and human morality.  Thus the progressive mindset leads to the destruction of civilization in the name of its advancement.


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.

Identity and Difference: The Meaning of “Civilization”


Civilization – a word that never ceases to appear in our societal discourse, channeling our collective desires towards an ideal end. Politicians, scholars, agents of the media, and even fifth grade world history teachers demonstrate an unfortunate propensity to throw this term around as if it is something we innately know, a core image that transcends all knowledge. “Civilization,” as a concept though, is not as simple as we would like it to be. Its meaning cannot be fixed to one specific cultural epistemology. However, history and even today prove that such fixation to a certain identity is the common view. In fact, such fixation on one’s own perception of civilization is arguably ingrained into the human psyche, a natural projection of an individual’s conception of self onto the external world of social relations. The narrative of European exploration and colonization of the New World is filled with examples of this refusal to accept the fluidity of “civilization” and insistence on perpetuating the ideal European identity to the inferior “different” cultures, continuing today in the form of “development” projects and global capital expeditions. Unless this view of civilization is sufficiently interrogated this illusory mindset will continue to harm the global community.

The Merriam-Webster definition of civilization is “the condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organizing a society and care about art, science, etc.”  It’s not so much that this definition is incorrect, but rather misinterpreted.  But, can it really be said that there is such a thing as civilization?  Societies, countries, and cultures are just a title for the larger form of organization, yet any group of people can administer themselves under a common valuing of certain understandings of morals, tendencies, and learnings.  When “Westerners” talk about being more civilized than others, it is definitely not true.  Just because their forms of organizing a society are different doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  All societies are organized in some way and have methods of appreciating art and science.  The common conception of “civilization” is that those who have writing, as Clastres calls them, sees themselves as being more sophisticated about their knowledge of said art and science just because those “archaic” societies might not have records of theirs.  Here, otherness is once again being developed through separation of the self.  Most people only see what they are used to and know; they fail to understand and be accepting towards people from other origins and cultures due to their inability to see beyond themselves.

When Columbus landed on the Americas, he began a spiral of colonization and conquer. Spain attempts to conquer American natives, not only by taking land, but also by imposing European and Christian beliefs. As in Cabeza de Vaca, Spaniards do not even attempt to understand natives; they instantly assume that Spanish culture is superior to native culture. Explorers like Columbus studied the natives like specimens, not recognizing them as fellow humans. All throughout the age of colonization, European nations conquered other nations and pushed their beliefs on the basis that Europe contained more advanced civilization. Today, the United States tries imposes democracy upon other states (that may or may not want it) on the same claim.  Civilization also depends on power; a strict (coercive) power structure creates civilization. European and western government consists of strict hierarchal structure, whereas nomadic power structure is more loose and fluid. These two ideologies clash and lead to the strict structure creating order from the perceived “chaos” of the “savages.”

Thus, this tendency for people to reduce the other to overly simplified generalized groups has been a recurring theme throughout the centuries.  From the time of the great explorers to the present day, narrow minded views of other cultures have led to misunderstanding and wrong treatment among societies.  Several reasons exist for this injustice, including ignorance, selfishness, and the desire to conquer or impose one’s lifestyle on another.  In the case of explorers like Columbus, spreading his beliefs took precedence over learning the subtleties of the natives’ cultures.  However, his intentions were not malicious.  Columbus, like many others, fell victim to the mindset that imposing his own beliefs and religious practices was a righteous course of action, one that would prove beneficial to both parties.  A notion of moral justification lends great power to one who seeks to conquer or oppress.  Today, on the other hand, people are more likely to remain ignorant of other cultures due to a lack of proper education. The result is a feeling of cultural superiority that often leads to conflict and even hatred of other cultures.

The important point to recognize about current understandings of civilization is that they are all grounded in a certain mindset. Fortunately, mindsets do not have to be rigid, but can be shaped. If the current societal conscious that surrounds this illusory term, “civilization,” is ever to be conquered, one must first interrogate why it is that we choose to assume it in the first place. Without this, the global community is doomed to the same patronizing forms of cultural superiority that have plagued the world for centuries.


Metageography and Reality


(Wayan, Chris. “Welcome to Turnovia,” (2003)       

       “Having never been exposed to a critique of the simple geography taught in elementary school, we continue to seek correspondingly simple maps for much more problematic phenomena, expecting to see their spatial patterns conveniently arrayed in large, contiguous, colorful blocks.” (Lewis and Wigen, pg. 11)

Lewis and Wigen, in their work The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, expose the dangers of an outdated and overly flawed view of the world that plagues our understanding of world geopolitics and the population as a whole, grounded in our propensity to accept the simplicity of categorizing, grouping, and subdividing an undividable world. Metageography represents the basic building blocks of geographic understanding, providing people with the core tools and heuristics to study and understand the complexity of our planet’s geographic makeup. In fact, Lewis and Wigen refer to this as “the highest level of our geographical taxonomy” (pg. 1). While the idea of having this core set of methods to understand geography appears useful, if this conception becomes fallacious, the consequences in terms of our understanding of the world can become disastrous. Today, particular fallacies dealing with the shaping of our idea of the world map as well as the specious puzzle that is our idea of nation-states and continents both can and have posed a significant threat to our conception of the “real” world, resulting in subjugation grounded in a misleading sense of geographic superiority.

Size and Placement

One of the most fundamental instances of today’s problematic metageography is the map itself. In particular, the shaping and placing of both continents and countries feeds a false sense of geographic superiority. With something as simple as size, humans innately associate size with power. Thus, the depiction of some land masses like Europe as significantly larger than its real size or Africa as no larger than Greenland, which in actuality (as represented in the map below) should be miniscule in comparison, provides Western culture with a specious sense of security. Lewis and Wigen highlight this phenomenon: “Europe and the United States appear in swollen importance, while the rest of the world is shrunk into a distorting miniature” (pg. 10). Unfortunately this has led to further perpetuation of faulty epistemology associated with the African continent, as will be explained in the coming section. In regards to placement, at a meta-level, there really is not a “north” or a “south” part of the Earth. Such directional terms are abstract concepts, created by humans for the purpose of navigation. That Europe and the rest of the global North are featured on the top of every major world map has no basis in the reality of planet orbits or any geographic principle. However, while such placement may seem insignificant, at a subconscious level, much like the concept of heaven and hell, that which is viewed as higher than something else is naturally considered to be superior, again allowing for the further perpetuation of eurocentrism as an intuitive explanation for such geographic superiority.


(Common Understanding)                   (Reality)


Nation-States and Continents

    Despite what we are so drawn to believe, country borders are not visible from space. The interlocking machine that is the modern geopolitical understanding is entirely human made, but sadly, no longer holds any natural sense. At the fundamental level of this hierarchy, nation-states, we see a nicely fitting, what Lewis and Wigen call “a handful of fundamental units” that “[do] injustice to the complexities of global geography and [lead] to faulty comparisons” (pg. 1). Specifically, they point to Switzerland, Nigeria, and India as specific examples of countries that we refer to politically as single units, completely oblivious to immense cultural diversity that fills these countries (pg. 8). In fact, these assumptions prove disastrous to our understanding of the “real” world in the specific context of Sudan. Lewis and Wigen point to the fact that despite northern Sudan’s closer resemblance to Egypt than to southern Sudan, which has a closer resemblance to Uganda, the fact that Sudan is appropriated as a single national unit distorts our ability as a global community to recognize that their problems are not merely internal strife, but grounded in the very foundations of our metageography. Beyond nation-states, as these smaller units are combined into the larger continental understanding, our comparisons are further distorted. In the case of Africa and Asia, Lewis and Wigen refer to our propensity to see China and India’s relationship to Asia as synonymous to Germany and France’s relationship to Europe, when in reality, India and China could represent the entire continent of Europe with its immense amount of geographic diversity, a major distortion of our perceptions of reality.