Still Waiting for the Barbarians

By McNaughton, Howard | Cultural Studies Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Still Waiting for the Barbarians


McNaughton, Howard, Cultural Studies Review


Still Waiting for the Barbarians Tzvetan Todorov The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilisations Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010 ISBN 9780745647104 RRP £15.99 (pb)

More than a century separates Tzvetan Todorov's new book from Constantine Cavafy's classic poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians',1 a work which uncannily anticipates it in several important respects, and which has recently been seen as prophetic of the War on Terror. In that intervening century, our lexicon has swollen to accommodate concepts like 'ethnic cleansing', 'Ubermensch' and 'Holocaust', while cultural hybridity, a concept scarcely known in Cavafy's time, has claimed a new urgency among many cultural and political commentators.

Todorov has left little doubt about his own proclivities since his early work on Bakhtin, but there has been a noticeable immediacy of focus in his work since his masterful On Human Diversity (1993). Like his good friend and mentor Edward Said, Todorov is exercised by the success of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996) and the populist obsession with 'Muslim Rage' and 'Islamic contagion'. Before reaching that specific focus, however, Todorov is careful to establish a number of preliminaries, in a chapter on 'collective identities', which is primarily concerned with 'the plurality of cultures': 'if cultural identity never changed, France would never have become Christian, to begin with, and then secular subsequently ... Before it influenced other cultures in the world, European culture had already absorbed Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, Islamic and Chinese influences.' (56) If there is little in this section that was not established in On Human Diversity, the scope here goes well beyond the Francophone focus of the earlier book, although even this has its obvious limits: he is severe in his condemnation of Huntington's elision of 'culture' and 'civilisation', but his own usage could be more precise.

Todorov's critique of Huntington's 'shapeless' book is sharp and strategic. As early as Huntington's 1993 article (the prototype of the book), he was describing the contact points between civilisations as 'fault lines', suggesting a quasi-seismic natural barrier, and it is this kind of mental entrenchment that Todorov is primarily concerned to demolish, especially as Huntington compartmentalises 'challenger civilisations', 'swing civilisations', 'torn countries' and a curious category which he terms 'cleft countries' (with an implication of hybridity). For Todorov, however, this is more than just what Said termed a 'clash of ignorance'; he expresses surprise at the paradoxical proliferation of walls in the age of globalisation, where goods and capital are increasingly in free circulation, along with information and destruction. 'The cloud from Chernobyl did not stop at the Rhine.' (185) The circulation of people, however, is another matter.

It is not difficult to guess where the People's Republic of China fits in Huntington's scheme. Even in Hume's time, Todorov reminds us, China was categorised by its absence of 'inner plurality': 'China is one vast empire, speaking one language, governed by one law, and sympathising in the same manners'. (176) Even Khubilai Khan had doubts about whether a political unit on this scale was sustainable, but one has only to compare perceptions of China by Todorov's Parisian contemporaries such as Godard, Debord and Kristeva to see the astonishing survival of such stereotypes. When Kristeva went to Beijing in 1974, two years before the Tangshan earthquake, the walls of China seemed as impenetrable as ever; the earthquake killed at least two hundred and fifty thousand people, but Mao, who was himself terminally hospitalised at the time, refused external aid such as the International Red Cross. Yet less than two years later the introduction of the 'four modernisations', including the 'Opening Up of China', the rejigging of Chinese socialism, and the one child policy, presented a spectacular reversal of the situation Hume had sketched. …

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