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Lecture: Alexander Kiossev: Begriffsgeschichte in a Self-Colonizing Regime: “Civilization” – Paradoxes and Ambiguities of the Concept’s Reception in 19th Century Ottoman Bulgaria.

When Jun 05, 2018
from 06:00 to 08:00
Where Phil I, Building G, R.333
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Begriffsgeschichte in a Self-Colonizing Regime: “Civilization” – Paradoxes and Ambiguities of the Concept’s Reception in 19th Century Ottoman Bulgaria.


            This lecture is a contribution to the history of Eurocentric concepts in Bulgarian context; it elaborates upon the contradictory reception of the category “civilization” in a peculiar regime of self-colonization. The analysis is based on evidence and sources from the Bulgarian public realm in the period spanning from 1856 to 1978. It performs a close reading of journal articles, public appeals, explanations and popularizations, literary and drama works of Bulgarian intellectuals, such as Ivan Bogorov, Marko Balabanov, Gavril Krustevich, Petko Slaveikov, Dobri Voinikov, Vassil Droumev, Lyuben Karavelov, Hristo Botev and many others.

The introduction starts with a historical and methodological clarification of the very concept of “civilization” and its role in the Western colonial context, where it functions as a key metaphor of the Eurocentric hegemony. The starting point is Norbert Elias's statement that “civilization” is a crucial expression of “The self-consciousness of the West” in its supposed superiority over the „primitive societies”. During the second half of the XIXth century, the concept serves as an intellectual and ideological tool for transformation of the old European mission of Christianization into a new one:  the metropolitan Europe, as bearer of universal Progress, having the duty to modernize, educate and civilize the rest of the globe. This duty was supposed to be the heavy “white man’s burden” in a world, full of backward nations, degenerated races, feudal tyrants, “non-historical people”, brutal barbarians and wild savage tribes.

The expanding Western colonialism contributes to a spread of a global hegemonic imagination which made concepts such as “civilization” part of various local discursive repertoires. They were used differently in different regions of Europe, Asia, America and Africa. That’s why from the very beginning such hegemonic concepts, marked by specific contradictions, various group experiences and local idiosyncrasies, multiply, ramify and obscure their meanings. The process of multiple global receptions challenges the hegemonic function of such concepts as well – to be of unquestionable, self-evident value: for some anti-colonial viewpoints from the periphery they started to look suspicious and threatening.  

The above mentioned is illustrated with several examples. The first one is an “intra-European” discussion exemplified by Elias's juxtaposition between “civilization” and “culture”. Elias demonstrates that both the Anglo-French “civilization” and the German counter-concept “Kultur” are embedded in mutually nontransparent histories, collective experiences and local contexts, understandable solely for insiders. He analyzes how and why the German rival-concept questions the superiority of the imperial “civilization“, trying to degrade it to a second-rate, non-authentic surface-value;  whereas Kultur, on the other hand, stands for the proud German specificity - authenticity, spirituality, deep inner life, diligent work ethos and great national cultural achievements.

However, the blind spot of Elias’ analysis is that his conceptual opposition “civilization – culture” remains inside the so called “Self-Consciousness of the West”. It does not challenge neither its geographical borders (Western Europe), nor its ideological limitations - the colonial hegemony and the supposed Western supremacy. In fact, the German Kultur reproduces the superiority of Europe (seen from a German perspective) as effectively as “civilization” did before for the French or the British Empires. Once again, the rest of the world is forced to accept a symbolic geography, which “peripheries” are marked fatally by backwardness and barbarianism. 

Therefore, in the final part of the introduction, I provide three different postcolonial examples, taken here to change the Eurocentric perspective and radicalize the problem. They are short interpretations of the concepts of civilization (explicit or implicit), developed in the works of Franz Fanon, Gayatry Spivak and Semir Amin. The various meanings of “civilization” in the three different examples are due to different tactics of resistance against the colonial hegemony: total revolutionary negation/destruction in Fanon; deconstructive and “parasitic” dwelling inside the “Discourse of the Master” in Spivak's work and the contested narrative about the “Great Tradition of the West” in Amin’s book “Eurocentrism”.

// Prof. Dr. Alexander Kiossev  (Sofia University, Bulgaria)

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