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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Still Waiting for the Barbarians


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.