Alexander Kiossev

Notes on the Self-colonising Cultures

Notes on the Self-colonising Cultures
title: Notes on the Self-colonising Cultures
year: 1998
publisher: Salon Verlag
ISBN/ISSN: 3-932189-62-0
language: english
author(s): Alexander Kiossev
source: BU L G A R I A AVA N T G A R D E in der Künsthlerwerkstatt Lothringer Straße / Kulturreferat der Landeshauptstadt München vom 29. April - 1. Juni 1998.
copyright: the Author, ICA-Sofia

In 1842 Konstantin Fotinov, the creator of the first Bulgarian magazine Lyuboslovie, published a remarkable appeal which treats ardently and with pain all that lack of civilization by the Bulgarians: “Where are their daily newspapers and magazines, or the weekly and monthly ones? Where are their artistic  magazines, their rhetoric, mathematics, logic, physics, philosophy, etc., etc., which man needs more than bread? Where is their history, written in detail and widely spread among people, such as the other nations have and which would help us to stand side by side with the others and make the others aware of the fact that we are as verbal as the rest of God’s creatures?”

The Bulgarian press during the National Revival abounded in similar appeals, treating the lack of civilization. They all represent patriotic complaints about various shortages - about lack of cultural institutions, literary or scientific achievements, good manners or great Bulgarian poets. But yet, in spite of their variety and heterogeneity one can see that all these complaints expressed much more a morbid awareness of the absence of a whole civilizational model rather than of some concrete civilizational achievement. Fotinov’s patriotic appeal would be quite absurd if he only complained of the lack of Bulgarian physics, for example. It is clear that his enumeration is synecdocal - it includes just a part of all the systematic deficiencies. The real question behind this enumeration is: Where is ... everything in Bulgaria? Where is the total, complete Bulgarian culture, built up according to the European model?
Thus, in the genealogical knot of the Bulgarian national culture there exists the morbid consciousness of an absence - a total, structural, non-empirical absence. The Others -  i.e. the neighbors, Europe, the civilized World, etc. possess all that we lack; they are all that we are not. The identity of this culture is initially marked, and even constituted by, the pain, the shame - and to formulate it more generally - by the trauma of this global absence. The origin of this culture arises as a painful presence of absences and its history could be narrated, in short, as centuries-old efforts to make up for and eliminate the traumatic lacks.

I wonder whether it is not possible to call such cultures self-colonizing? The reason for such a strange name is rather simple - in such cultures the  social and symbolic “Order of Modernity” is not carried out by means of forceful colonization in which the native culture is totally conquered and destroyed by European conquistadors, and the natives are exterminated or enslaved (as in the case of the American Indians or of some primitive cultures in Africa). But this order is scarcely the result of traditionally indicated economic and social reasons either. The economic explanation for the rise of the modern nations has many deficiencies and to criticize all of them in detail would make us go astray. Suffice it to say here that there is no sufficient explanation for why the process that determined the expansion of economic rationality remains isolated within an irrationally1 articulated territory-culture and doesn’t expand (or expands with other rates and specificity) beyond its boundaries2. Being neutral, rational and universal, the economy of money and markets can not achieve boundaries of its own and in itself it is not able to become precisely a national economy. It needs to be doubled by a second one - the economy of symbols and models of identity, regulating the relationship of nations and groups to themselves, as well as, their relationship to the Others3. And in the self-colonizing cultures they, these symbols and models I have already mentioned, are symbols of absence. Though it sounds unusual, in such cultures even the national territory in question could present itself merely as a daydream, a geographic vision, as a longing caused by an absence, and not as a real institutional force4

To put it simpler - the economic explanation can not answer why the new economic, media, industrial, etc. relations acquire precisely this concrete national and territorial form - for this explanation always presupposes what it tries to explain - the already existing national identity embodied in an articulated territory with clear boundaries.
The hypothesis of this text is, therefore, the following:  the birth of these nations is connected with a very specific symbolic economy. It seems that the self-colonizing cultures import alien values and civilizational models by themselves and that they lovingly colonize their own authenticity trough these foreign models.

Yet which are, in fact, the cultures that we call, using a strange metaphor, “self-colonizing” cultures?

From the point of view of the modern globalization of the world, there are cultures which are not central enough, not timely and big enough in comparison to the “Great Nations”. At the same time they are insufficiently alien, insufficiently distant and insufficiently backward, in contrast to the African tribes, for example. That’s why, in their own troubled embryo, somewhere in the periphery of Civilization, they arise in the space of a generative doubt: We are European, although perhaps not to a real extent. This is a precondition for a quite peculiar identity and a quite peculiar modernization. They arise through the constitutive trauma that: We are not Others (seeing in the Others the representatives of the Universal), and this trauma is also connected with the awareness that they have appeared too late and that their life is a reservoir of lacks of civilization.

A rough structural analogy between cultures of entirely different types is possible here. We know from ethnology that the symbolic economy of every human society arises, in a sense, in a similar way - around the trauma of a certain great Absence. The Creator-God (Icelandic Poluga, Australian Bungjil, African Olorun) created the world and after that left it; the Biblical Jehovah created man and after that expelled him from himself and Paradise5. The Sacred One, which Rudolf Otto, the great theoretician and historian of religions, calls Das ganz Andere, is always separated in another absent modality of the Cosmos, entirely different from the profane life which, in each part, exists merely in so far as it feels the painful lack of it, and is homesick for its ultimate reality.

The self-colonizing cultures carry out a great replacement - they put an alien civilization model in the structural place where the figure of Das ganz Andere, the absent Transcendence, the Universal, used to be. They adopt its symbols as universal generative schemata at the point of their genesis. In its own self-consciousness, self-legitimation and propaganda, this Alien (equal to the expanding, rational and entzaubert modern world) is known to represent itself as an embodiment of the main stream in history and of the Universal fate of mankind. In contrast to this narcissistic ideology of the West, the self-colonizing nations suffer a tragic paradox - for them the Alien is the Universal but the opposite is also true - The Universal remains forever alien. It is a fatal coincidence between The Great Other and the Alien which dooms the self-colonizing nations to the feeling that the universal values are never their values but values of Das ganz Andere -  the civilized world. In contrast to pre-modern society the otherness of the aliens and the foreigners stops being associated with the Demonic and becomes normative.

That is to say - by adopting these alien universal models, the self-colonizing cultures traumatize themselves - for they also adopt their own inferiority, their own painful lack of essential Substance and Universality. Thus, in the economy of their secular values the archetypal structural place of the absent God turned out to be replaced by the deified West. The image of the West itself becomes split - it is, on one hand, the empirical West, the “great Nations and Powers” (which could also be hostile, as the ceaseless wars, diplomatic and economic conflicts constantly proved), but at the same time it has lost its empirical features and has coincided with the Essential and the Universal, while receiving a hidden transcendent aura in spite of the secular ideology of Modernity.

And yet, how could we explain the fact that these peculiar cultures lack not only any resistance against colonization through Western symbolic patterns, any resistance to the symbol-invasion of the Alien (resistance so inevitable in every violent colonization - even the fatalistic North American Indians resisted the Spanish conquistadors to a certain extent), but they adopt the alien models with love, ardor and desire? How could we also explain the fact that they display a certain unaccountable naiveté: they not only welcome the expanding universalistic ideology of the foreigners which makes them marginal and undeveloped, but they fall in love with it as well? How could we explain the fact that these cultures “suffer” because the Alien-Universal is not present in its “civilizational totality”, with all its “physics”, “mathematics”, “rhetoric”, “logic”, “daily newspapers”, “artistic magazines”, etc.? How is this unexplainable childish mistake possible - to confuse the West with God?

The reason for this naiveté is in fact rather simple: these cultures simply did not exist before this confusion - they arose through it. The suffering from this absence and the desire to acquire the alien cultural models are constitutive as regards their “own” identity. This suffering and these burning desires are the sti-mulating forces for the building of the real dominant institutions of Modernity in these regions -  the educational and public ones. Schools, different types of educational institutions and later the universities, produced and spread the Western symbols and models - a much more wanted commodity in the European periphery than English cloth, French wines or German machines.

For all these reasons such cultures could be, quite inaccurately and metaphorically, called self-colonizing cultures. And perhaps it is high time to abandon this metaphor which has already exhausted its heuristic potential. We are already in a position to see that the main presupposition of this metaphor is a logical contradiction: that it is by and for themselves (through social agents born and raised in their own bosom and not by foreign invaders or missionaries) that such cultures “conquer” themselves and impose foreign values on themselves. The metaphor “self-colonization” presupposes that in some hypothetical historical times, when there were no traumas and suffering, there already existed a social agent with his own stable identity - a presupposition which contradicts the empirically proven fact that before the symbolical “self-conquering” such “Self”, such an identical social agent, did not exist at all. Furthermore, the metaphor presupposes that later this social agent became in some way crazy - he discovered an inferiority complex in himself, abandoned his own values and began to “conquer” and “colonize” himself by lovingly using alien values. In that manner he, this agent, corrupted his own authenticity by dooming himself to impossible desires for non-existing realities - poetry, mathematics, theater, logic, etc. But the error and the trauma are actually constitutive - they, in fact, have not conquered but engendered these cultures. Without the alien European model of the educated and the emancipated Nation, which such a national ideologist as Fotinov so selflessly imported and propagated, without the model of the educational system in general and the literal translation of Western institutions - school, university, press, public domain, administration, jurisdiction, infrastructure, etc., the local rural patriarchal communities on the Balkans would never have reached “national self-consciousness”. The very “national self-consciousness” is, in its structural totality, an adopted Western model. The idea that certain “We” fell suddenly in love and began to apply the values, the symbolic and institutional order of certain “Them” (thus self-colonizing itself) is, of course, wrong. In fact, on the level of close examination of the empirical historical data, the genealogy of modern nations on the Periphery begins not with its own “We” but from a derogatory, mocking “You” - from the trauma of concrete intellectuals who, in their practical relations to the “more civilized”, have been humiliated many times over (they have been shouted at, “Hey, you, Bulgarian!” more often and with more rage then the rest). It can be easily proven that this has happened to every one of the Bulgarian intellectuals from the period of the so called “Revival“, who experienced similar humiliations in their cultural contacts with some more developed foreign nation - this applies for Paisiy, and for Peter Beron, and for Fotinov, all the way to that great symbolic machine for production of national identity, the poet called Ivan Vazov. In this de profundis of humiliation that they are born inferior and second rate, such intellectuals experienced in a kind of a negative ecstatic vision all their lacks and shortages as shame and pain: “Where is our rhetoric, mathematics, logic, physics, philosophy, etc., etc. that man needs more then bread? Where is our own…”us”?

Such traumatic cultures inevitably engender some misleading sublimative rationalizations in order to suppress the memory of their own birth-trauma. These rationalizations are not accidental but substantial - because they belong to the structural-and-generative necessity of this cultural type.

The first of them consists in the fact that in such cultures the Birth of the Nation manifests itself always as a Re-Birth, as a Revival of the Nation. The new modern type of culture and collective constructs by necessity a historical Narrative of its own - it invents for itself a far going historical Past that allows it to identify itself with phenomena which are absolutely different in structure - medieval Empires and ancient philosophers, rural magic and rituals, kings, dynasties and saints, patriarchal sexual ethics, sometimes even mythological ancestors or transcendental origins of the nation. All this is meant to self-convince such a culture that its own historical time has not started at the traumatic point but has been continuous from some honorable Past towards the glorious Future of the Nation. In this perspective, the humiliating birth-trauma of such cultures seems to be merely a transitory unpleasant incident, which will be overcome and entirely forgotten during the stream of History - the provisional and accidental Absence of civilization will be replaced through its happy Presence.  

The second rationalization consists in the fact that such societies engender necessarily two symmetrical, competing, conflicting and equally mistaken doctrines. The first-one is called Westernization or Europeanization - it  presents the historical temporality in an oversimplified manner - as an “athletic” competition, as a running distance where the “civilizational” drop-back could be compensated for by “enlightened” sprinting. This doctrine has the pseudo-universalism of one “pregressivistic” doctrine that measures the value of life by the quantity of the “civilizational achievements”. The second one is called Nativism - it looks for and often finds (i.e. invents) the lost “authentic substance” of the Nation, before it has been corrupted by aliens, and then idealizes it in a bucolic manner. This doctrine, of course, struggles against any new corrupting influences and gives birth to the most vehement nationalistic ideologies and dangerous sacralizations of the “native”.

The third sublimative rationalization of the birth trauma, probably the most important and determinative of the other ones, is enfolding on a deeper semantic level. It is an attempt to reverse the hierarchies of the Symbolic Order adopted from Europe (= the West, the civilized world, the true humanity) - it attempts to reverse the relationship between the unmarked and the marked members of the binary oppositions, which constitute this Order and which articulate the non-symmetrical relationship between the “Ours“ and “The Alien“. It is well known that in each non-traumatic collective the “Ours“, in its ideal essence, manifests itself for the members of the collective ecstatically and always in terms of Presence, Good, Beauty, Truth, Purity, Harmony - whereas the Alien is connected with Absence, Chaos, Impurity, Lie, Ugliness, Formlessness. At the point of their origin (where they interiorize and transform as their own norm the gaze of the other), the traumatic collectives experience this binarism from its dark side - they experience their Self-ness as impure, non-true, absent,  etc. - it is a simple lack of essence, a virtuallity which still lacks a civilizational form and could be experienced only in the mode of shame. In the further development of such cultures, however, as its sublimative and rationalizing national ideology expands itself in its full scope, there occurs the already mentioned attempt to reverse the oppositions - the marked members are represented as unmarked. Thus, the impure becomes pure, the lack of essence is transformed into a faith in an essential organic kernel of the “nativeness”. But the same mechanism of sublimation works with non-national collectives as well. Thus, “the last will be the first” turns out to be the Biblical cure-all for all “repressed and humiliated”; thus, suffering raises the spirit of the humiliated and the offended; thus, the famous slogan of the Afro-American movement “black is beautiful” could loose its presumed originality by being contextualized in some general typology of the traumatic collectives and their ideologies.
The birth of Bulgarian culture abounds with such examples as well. Here the shame must become pride, the “don’t have” - “have”, the absence - presence, etc. This paradoxical operation of the subliminal reversal functions already in the legendary entry exclamation of Paisiy, the monk from Mount Athos, which opens his “Slavic-Bulgarian History”, the almost mythical text written in 1762 and considered to be the very first text of the Bulgarian Revival: “Oh thou unreasonable, oh you silly fool! Why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian? Is it not true that Bulgarians have had a kingdom and a state of their own? Among all the Slavic peoples it was precisely the Bulgarians who were the most glorious nation - they were the first to crown their kings, they were the first to have an Orthodox patriarch, they were the first to be baptized and they have conquered the greatest territories.”

For a long time we have been used to thinking that the rhetorical strategy of this phrase, as well as, of the entire “History…” is quite clear - it attempts to carry out the already mentioned reversal of the binary oppositions and to transform the negative into positive, the ignorance into glorious history, the lack of achievements into presence of honorable figures and great events in the historical memory - the shame and the formlessness into pride and identity. What is rarely mentioned is the fact that under the layer of its conscious rhetoric this text expresses something quite different as well - it reproduces the trauma it is trying to overcome and sublimate. I don’t only mean that the relation with the others - “wise Greeks, mighty Romans, Slavic people”, is constitutive and quite obvious in a certain sense. I mean that the appeal to pride all which is Bulgarian is doubled-up with a curse. The dream to be part of a glorious collective is doubled-up with an ethical and emotional gesture of distancing oneself, even repulsion from the very same collective which is simultaneously “brothers - ignorant Bulgarians” and a crowd of “unreasonable and silly fools”. By calling his compatriots silly fools Paisiy not only transgresses but also repeats the humiliation and the offense that he himself had been subjected to on Mount Athos. The internal alienation from the “native” is not only in the unavoidable awareness for the “wise” and the “mighty” who have turned out to be Other by necessity - it is much deeper. Traumatic cultures can not accept any absence with calm - it awakens pathetic arguments or straight forward unfounded paradoxical reversals which aim to show that the absence is somehow a presence. But the reverse is also valid - each presence is under the threat of actually turning-out to be an absence, each sublimation is unstable and risks being a hidden re-enactment of the trauma, together with everything else.

Aren’t we then forced to describe the historical rhythm of such traumatic, self-colonizing cultures as a constant repetition and return? Maybe the constitutive traumas can not be overcome and they will occur over and over again in the form of various historical symptoms - as a Wiederkehr des Verdrängten - a recurrence of the suppressed?
Or maybe this is just a reminder that the history of Modernity could not be written as a composite history consisting of the histories of many separate nations (that means as histories of the Native and the Alien), but should be written (described, analyzed, criticized, etc.) globally, as a history of the entire process of asymmetrical modernization, transgressing the boundaries of the established historiographical narratives about states, cultures and ideologies?6


1. My point here is that these processes seem to be irrational from the point of view of the economic rationality. By the articulation of national state territory and the determination of its border-lines there are two such form-creating “irrationalities” at work. The first realizes itself in the identity of the so called “political nation”, based on the common political will of certain citizens to live together, to form an unified national society. The second is expressed in the identification of the so called “cultural nation“ (Kulturnation), based on the “unity“ of certain common language, cultural tradition,  religion etc. The Nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. - writes Ernest Renan in 1882 -  Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul and spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is a possession of a rich legacy of memories, the other is a present day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage... To have common glory in the past and to have common will in the present; to have performed great things together, to wish to perform still  more - these are the essential conditions of being a people  (Renan, Ernest.  What is a Nation? in: Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha, Routledge, London and New York, 1990, p. 19. The experience of the cultures of absences seems to contradict Renan’s assertion that the two things are in truth but one. The common past - especially if it is a past of shameful absences, traumas and defeats, doesn’t lead necessarily to a common wish to live together in the present. There is no necessary connection between the principle of political will and the principle of cultural tradition.  
2. The unity of a state territory and the political emancipation are late features of the nation; their origin could scarcely be derived from any economic determinations. Sociologists and historians as Eric Hobsbawm assert that “the national state” and the “national economy” were not transformed to basic economic mechanisms until the 19th century. Earlier - during the period of 16 - 18 century, the development of capitalism was based on state territories, which, however, had one unified mercantile strategy. Hobsbawm points to the fact that economists from this period (Adam Smith, for example) interpreted the state principle in the economy as a rather mistaken one because it contradicted to Smith’s image of the free market, based of the free initiative of the individual, the free function of capital and commodities, etc. Such economic model tends to have as border-lines the whole world - not a single national state and the national market. (Hobsbawm, Eric Nationen and Nationalismen, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt u. New York, s. 38.).
3. In Bulgaria, for example, the rise of Modernity is not connected with an important Western invasion toward the Ottoman markets. Neither is the traditional Marxist explanation of the Bulgarian Revival period sufficient - that the real driving was the internal  bourgeois economic processes in certain regions of the country. The latter explanatory model could not explain why the new types of production and the new capital in certain Bulgarian cities (Koprivshtitza, Panagyurishte, Kalofer, etc. - cities with trade connections to Vienna, Istanbul, Leipzig, Budapest etc.) didn’t expand freely beyond any kind of national borders but formed limited national economy. The functioning of money and commodities is in itself expansionary and universal; there is no immanent economic cause, which could stop it. There are other non economic factors which put limits on it. Together with the economic rise of the already mentioned Bulgarian regions there was a consolidation of different ethnic groups at work. They were using in a totally new manner old symbols and emblems or created new ones for their identification and confrontation against the Others (the Greeks, the Turks, etc.) Through the expansion of these new narrations, self-images and images of the Others, through the establishement of the new educational institutions and the following codification of the language a new symbolic economy was created.
4. In the so called “normal case” the territory is the most powerful institution because the conquered and controlled territory represents the principle of co-ordination and unification of all other national institution. In Bulgaria during the revival this was not the case - there was an Empire (already received as foreign) in which vast Oriental space the imaginary territory of the Bulgarians was always threatened to loose its determination and to disintegrate into unclearness. That’s why there was a permanent need for a symbol for this non-existing territory - an imaginary mechanism, which should hold the integral national “body” together - the Bulgarian lyrics of the Revival are full of such geographical and political “visions” articulating the hypothetical borders and  ecstatically baptizing them through the names of the great Bulgarian rivers, mountains, planes, etc. The typical titles of such lyrical “maps” were symptomatic - Where is Bulgaria, Where was I born, etc.
5. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harvest Book, New York, 1959, p. 122 - 125.

6. I would like to make some acknowledgments. My paper develops some ideas of Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gelner and Eric Hobsbawm which I tried to translate in a kind of a neo-Lacanian key; in respect to this translation I was influenced by the book of the Slovenian psychoanalyst and philosopher Slavoj Zizek (Zizek, Slavoj The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, London - New York, 1989). It corresponds also to some motives in the Bulgarian debate in the articles: Георги Стойчев, В гонитба на вестта. Емигрантът като Платонов философ, в. Култура, бр. 46, 15.11.1991; Валери Стефанов, Метафизичната година на Димо Кьорчев, Литературен форум - Литературна христоматия, януари 1992 г.; Разговорът на Владимир Трендафилов, Калин Янакиев, Владимир Левчев, Изток - Запад, Литературен вестник, 31.1. - 7. 2. 1992; Мая Спасова, Българската общност, в. Култура, 24.04.1992; Георги Каприев, Култура на отсъствието, Литературен вестник, бр. 17- 23, 1993 etc.

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