What is the West?


Prodigal Son
I didn't want to derail this very entertaining thread on the interplay between reggaeton and dancehall (ok, yes, mostly one-way traffic I know) and the wider influences on Jamaican popular music, but one of the curious things is that, several times, there was talk of Jamaica and 'the West', as if there is an assumption that the two are wholly separate entities.

I find this interesting because this rationale is also usually extended to all of Latin America as well, that it is somehow separate from 'the West' in an intrinsic way (which is somewhat odd considering that, say, Argentina is proportionally much much whiter than the US!)

Now, of course I am not saying that Jamaica, historically and culturally, is not profoundly influenced by the remnants and ghosts of the various African groups brought to the island as slaves. Yeah, the Black Atlantic and all that. It would be completely crazy to ignore the fact of African cultural continuities. Yet it also seems foolish to deny that Jamaica has not also been profoundly influenced by British (and more generally European) cultural, social, political, and economic forms, in all sorts of ways, from big-ticket items like religion and language down to the minutiae of daily life. After all, although the rastas may be the image that comes most to mind among the average white American when contemplating Jamaica, the reality is that the majority of Jamaicans are Christians, quite often of a conservatism and doctrinal strictness that is little different from that practiced by, say, white Evangelicals in suburban Atlanta. Wayne Marshall, who is a dude of dudes, has repeatedly pointed out the impact on Jamaican popular culture of the onlsaught of American popular culture that comes with being so close (geographically, linguistically, and in some ways, culturally) to the United States.

The same can surely be said for Latin America, with the main European influence being Ibero-Catholic as opposed to Anglo-Protestant; but the important point is, these various nations are as much the children of Europe as they are of either Africa or the indigenous Americas, if not more so.

So, then, for discussion purposes, can the various 'Third World' nations of the Carribean and Latin America be considered legitimately part of the West?

What is the West?

Is it just wealthy and prosperous nations? If it is, then what then of the Ireland of forty years ago?

Is it just a polite way of saying 'countries with a white Christian majority'? Then what then of non-white minorities in nations like the United States or Britain? Are they permanently, in a fundamental way, 'non-Western'? Or, for that matter, countries in the Southern Cone of South America, all of which are Catholic majority and are mostly peopled by the descendents of European immigrants?

Is it just 'Europe plus the formerly British settler societies'? Why are we squishy about the Spanish (and Portuguese) settler societies being part of 'the West'? Is is just the fact that they are poor and often composed of people who are not-wholly-white (which, in our one-drop obsessed minds, we see as not-white-to-any-degree, ie we'll look at the mestizo and see the Aztec, but rarely the conquistador) or is there something else at work?

So, finally, what is this beast, The West?


Beast of Burden
i'd say the entire Western Hemisphere, plus Western Xiandom, increasingly Eastern Xiandom (excepting eastern xian countries that have islamic majorities), plus Australia and New Zealand

and i'd also say that "african" music and style is, to borrow your phrase, a big-ticket item in modern Western culture as a whole

you might even say that "african" music has supplanted xianity, at least in certain respects


Beast of Burden
of course i gave you a geographical definition, when you were probably seeking a cultural or political definition!!!


Beast of Burden
moving on to culture . . . .

you might say that the west is the culture that values individual life -- the integrity of each life -- as represented by figure of jesus christ -- i.e., the divine principle taken flesh, and the god figure who redeems all mankind

and then this culminates in the notion of the freely self-determining individual

except you could point to (1) western hypocrisy concerning value of life = "our" lives are priceless, and "their" lives mean nothing -- plus, i think life is pretty cheap in jamaica, columbia, etc, though i'd still deem these places parts of the west; and (2) many parts of the west have little social mobility, etc, and so don't really give much substance to the concept of the self-determining individual

other possible definitions might involve the law -- form, substance, and culture of the law -- going back to roman law, then bifurcated b/w anglo-american law and napoleonic law -- so the west defined by particular legal practices and forms


Well-known member
I'm not sure if I have any strong opinions on this one - it's use by politicians and the like is often jingoistic. My Greek teacher at school who said the border between East and West were the battles of Marathon and Salamis where the Ancient Greeks repelled the invading Persians: it was a victory of Greek freedom over eastern tyranny and subservience.

Athens was the only real democracy to have ever existed, if you were lucky enough to have been born a citizen and a man. But my subsequent readings of ancient history (cursory as they were) showed the Athenian Empire become just as corrupt and arrogant as any other... Piracy is an international pastime. But if you lived in Athens then as a citizen or not, I guess, life was relatively richer culturally and freer than other places... They undoubtedly left a strong legacy.

So perhaps the West is defined by its culture starting from the invention of writing and its use in recording and creating literature from Homer onwards. But even then this, along with the development of Greek philosophy etc, could not have come about without commerce with Easterners and Africans.

As for the value of life, my Greek teacher said that life was cheap, the cheapest - as cheap as not buying a condom. He was not a happy man...

These days I think the West, or at least in regard to it's character or mode, is an extension of the Roman Empire's by other means. The early history of Christianity is tied up with that - esp. when the Empire appropriated that for its own purposes. Rome's delusions of imperial grandeur as as still alive today as ever. But again this isn't something exclusive to "western" regimes...


Honky Tonk Woman
I think one of the definitive features of the west is a belief in progress and eternal growth and an imperative to pursue it by any means.


Honky Tonk Woman
henrymiller said:
during the cold war that definition wouldn't have made any sense.
Yeah...different things can be meant by "West". The Soviet Union was a Western civilization but its enemies were also called the West.


bug powder
In some ways, it doesn't really make too much sense to try and define the west geographically or historically because ultimately it is something constructed through a series of phantasies of the other, which of course are always changing. the west is basically anything which is NOT the orient - ie not strange, exotic, eroticised, threatening, uncanny. Increasingly, perhaps, the figure of the feared 'oriental' other is something not outside our borders (as in the alien invasion sci-fi films of the fifties) but within them (see K-Punk on the zombie myth and immigration). Of course, for the soviets during the cold war (or indeed al-qaida now) it's the other way round, and the west itself is the phantasised other of decadence, sin and depravity...the point is, i guess, that the west doesn't really exist anywhere (nor does the east) and never really has, but has had to have been carefully constructed in the popular imagination (see edward said's orientalism and benedict anderson's imagined communities). So, even if the west/east dichotomy doesn't exist 'in reality', it nonetheless plays a part in the symbolic economy and thus has 'real' determinate effects. To return to the original question, I would imagine that many Jamaicans (if not the overwhelming majority) would consider themselves a part of 'the west', but it is all too easy for a european commentator to see Jamaica as 'outside' and 'other' thanks to its place in the popular imagination of white europeans (which is i guess basically summed up by the logo of those ridiculously baggy 'spliffy' and 'dready' jeans that seemed to be everywhere when i was at school).


been thinking on this for a while...

...thanks alot to monsterbob for citing Said & Anderson - took the words out of me mouth & saved me composing a coherent post! so here's a wee a rant inspired by the following, which is (IMHO) clearly orientalist nonsense:
the culture that values individual life -- the integrity of each life
West is defined by its culture starting from the invention of writing and its use in recording and creating literature
belief in progress and eternal growth
not impressed at all :mad:

especially looking at the context, where we're deriving this whole concept of west as Xandom = an 'eastern' religion adopted and obsessively followed by the 'west'
'west' is a western construct, very much tied up with a need to big up the culture by contrast with this completely fictional nemesis 'east', a self-definition based on rather hateful stereotypes and confusions between 'modernity' & 'westernism'
last eve i was discussing whether this same 'western' obsession with the 'holy land' has distorted PNAC priorities - surely China is far more relevant to the US empire's future than the mid-east

rasta, now that's an interesting question in this context - a revivalist movement based on and adopting many of the fictitious stereotypes that the 'west' have cooked up about 'africa' etc....??? locks as maumau rebel 'do or highest western fashion, west have eaten rasta???

(more later....run out of apostrophes :) )


Beast of Burden
sufi said:
not impressed at all :mad:
so you think there's nothing to be said for the widespread notion that the west values the "individual" more than the so-called east, which supposedly values discipline, obedience, social cohesion

and, yes, i realize that the difference b/w east and west on this count was not so long ago the divide b/w germany on one side, and france and england on the other . . . .

and to avoid another misunderstanding: what people value is not necessarily what they in fact are

but nonetheless and even so, how much credit do you give the popular belief that the west values the "individual"? -- and that this value is somehow constitutive of western identity, going back to ancient greek sculpture or some such


Beast of Burden
sufi said:
we're deriving this whole concept of west as Xandom = an 'eastern' religion adopted and obsessively followed by the 'west'
i think it's more accurate to say that xianity is a mediterranean religion

man-god figures were common throughout the religions and sects of the region before the flowering of xianity

political structure of xianity is roman -- though the respect for individual life was decidedly un-roman

xian theology is greek

and so forth

sufi said:
'west' is a western construct, very much tied up with a need to big up the culture by contrast with this completely fictional nemesis 'east'
the idea of the "west" probably originates with the collapse of the Roman world into western and eastern halves -- and certainly by the time of the Crusades there's the notion of the Byzantine Empire as East and nothern Italy, France, etc, as the West -- and, indeed, the distinction in this early period (500 to 1000 AD) was likely perpetuated by Constantinople, who saw themselves as culturally superior to the barbaric West

sufi said:
a self-definition based on . . . confusions between 'modernity' & 'westernism'
care to distinguish and untangle to the two concepts?

i think the beginning of a solution would have to lie in visiting (or studying) modern-day China or India or Japan -- i.e., to what extent can there be cultural and technological modernity without the attendent culture of the "integrity of the individual" and "self determination" and "individual rights"?

also -- how to distinguish Anglo-American political liberalism from such supposedly Western values as the "integrity of the individual"?

sufi said:
surely China is far more relevant to the US empire's future than the mid-east
perhaps China and the USA are both competing for oil in the middle east???

see this articles on recent Chinese acquisition of a Canadian oil company -- i.e., revaluing of the yuan as means to acquire foreign oil companies more cheaply

of course if the oil crisis isn't going to set in big time until circa 2020, I don't understand why the u.s. invaded the middle east so soon -- unless u.s. policy makers did in fact reckon it'd take a good fifteen years to "pacify" the iraqi resistance (i.e., contrary to the appearance of over confidence and arrogance before the onset of "quagmire") -- or maybe u.s. policy makers just wanted to get a substantial military presence there, regardless of how the war against the iraqi people goes, so as to ward off the chinese???

but isn't it likely the u.s. will exhaust itself militarily in iraq, leaving the ground open for the chinese?

in any case, it's clear that u.s. best card now is raw military power, not financial or political or economic power


thanks dominic

so you think there's nothing to be said for the widespread notion that the west values the "individual" more than the so-called east, which supposedly values discipline, obedience, social cohesion
yup, something to be said is that it's chauvanistic bollocks

i surmise (having studied the history & lived in the region) that a lot of the history of the mid-east is highly conjectural and also distorted, having been filtered thru the orientalist gaze, so what you call greece is a retrospective construct which has been 'ethnically cleansed' of the aspects that could equally be characterised as 'asia minor' or even 'turkey' - both geographically and culturally; what you see as mediterranean cults of man god i would say are equally likely to be derived from buddhism or even hinduism (...easy to trace progression of egyptian religion to monotheism...)
Xian theology may be greek, but greek theology is not western

modernity vs. westernism?
um yeah e.g. would you say that the islamic bomb is 'western'?... er no - decidedly modern though...
so.... i relate the cult of individualism to modernity rather than westernism but that's another thread

re: politix of chinese need for middleeastern oil, yeah i agree



Beast of Burden
sufi said:
i surmise (having studied the history & lived in the region) that a lot of the history of the mid-east is highly conjectural and also distorted, having been filtered thru the orientalist gaze
most histories are "highly conjectural and also distorted"

and as for "filtered thru the orientalist gaze," it might be helpful if you restated said's argument or whomever's argument, rather than resort to shorthand -- though at the same time, i don't expect you to have a working knowledge of the literature (which isn't to say you don't -- merely that i don't)

sufi said:
so what you call greece is a retrospective construct which has been 'ethnically cleansed' of the aspects that could equally be characterised as 'asia minor' or even 'turkey' - both geographically and culturally
first, try not to attribute positions to me that i haven't taken -- i.e., please don't say "you" -- as i think i've phrased most of my remarks on this thread in tentative language

second, there have been various east/west divisions, such that greece was west and persia east circa 500 BC -- however, insofar as the distinction east/west goes back to the divide b/w eastern and western xiandom, eastern and western roman empire, then, yes, the "greek" sphere was what was then known as the "east" = greece, asia minor, syria, the levant, egypt

third, i'm not sure what you're driving at with your term "ethnically cleansed" -- both asia minor and greece were populated by the greeks -- however, asia minor was overrun and settled by turks, and much of greece was overrun and settled by slavs (and many slavs then later driven back out) -- just as western europe was overrun and settled by germans -- i.e., the greeks were the "sediment" of geographical greece and asia minor, the pre-existing civilization, over which hitherto nomadic tribes, the slavs and turks, "settled" to form another layer of "sediment" -- although modern day greece was part of the ottoman empire, it was so for only about 350 years or so, such that is fairly safe to say that the ethnic make-up of modern-day greece is different than the make-up of turkey -- the former are greco-slavs, the latter greco-turks

fourth, greece is not a "retrospective construct" -- in fact, greek national identity and consciousness probably dates back to roughly 1000 AD, if not earlier -- and this consciousness intensified as Constantinople neared its final fall, and was carried in the minds of many Greek exiles to Italy in the fifteenth century -- there's books and articles on this subject, i just don't recall the titles or authors

fifth, greece and turkey have very different cultures to the extent that religion informs culture -- and yet the two peoples have the same "mediterranean" way of life, diet, notions of honor, etc -- i.e., they share "structures" of living that run far deeper than their religious and linguistic divisions

sufi said:
what you see as mediterranean cults of man god i would say are equally likely to be derived from buddhism or even hinduism
there's certainly a similarity -- but it's a matter of conjecture as to which way the influence ran, from east to west, or vice versa (if not in both directions) -- i.e., certainly there was significant cultural exchange among india, the near east, and the mediterranean world, whereas china, northern europe, and sub-saharan africa were relatively isolated

sufi said:
easy to trace progression of egyptian religion to monotheism
i agree to the extent that i'm knowledgeable

sufi said:
Xian theology may be greek, but greek theology is not western
i meant that xian theology is neo-platonic -- and, yes, there were centers of neo-platonic thought throughout the hellenistic world, especially egypt, such that it would seem likely that egyptian ideas informed it

as for greek theology, yes, the greeks borrowed many of their gods from the egyptians

however, don't forget that egypt was also overrun and settled by successive waves of invaders -- such that they too are much different than what they once were -- i.e., the egyptians became arab, and they became muslim (especially over the course of the 20th century)

sufi said:
i relate the cult of individualism to modernity rather than westernism
except that hegel and others have traced the self-determining individual back to the figure of jesus christ, in the first instance, and to protestantism in the second

i suppose the answer depends on whether you see modernity as the "completion" of processes integral to the west -- or whether you see modernity as a "decisive break" with xianity (and then after the decisive break, successive "waves" of modernity that radicalized the emphasis put on the "individual" -- i.e., hobbes to rousseau to nietzsche)
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ouch, big post, dominic!

wikipedia said:
Orientalism is the study of Near and Far Eastern societies and cultures by Westerners. It can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. In the former meaning the term is becoming obsolete, increasingly being used only to refer to the study of the East during the historical period of European imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because of this, the term "Orientalism" has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters, implying old-fashioned and prejudiced interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. This viewpoint was most famously articulated by Edward Said in his book Orientalism (1978).
quite a balanced definition from wikipedia...
said's orientalism more than words can express; (turgid book but...) a great deconstructivist trump card for any historiscist argument!

(...at work...more later... :) )


Beast of Burden
sufi -- can you briefly state said's central arguments, as best you can . . . .

again, i don't think anyone here is a professional historian

i.e., we're all "educated" laymen -- to one degree or another, in one area or another

let's say that the conventional position goes something like this --

(1) there was a relatively "unified" roman world that lasted until about 400 AD -- as that world collapsed, the west and the east developed in separate directions -- although the east had hitherto been the center of culture, learning, technology, the west gradually began to overtake and surpass the east, first in terms of devices used to farm land and wage war, later in terms of accounting and financing techniques, then maritime expertise, and by 1600 in terms of science, and by 1800 the west had opened up vast advantages in all areas of endeavor

(2) the division b/w east and west corresponds in the first instance b/w eastern and western roman empire, eastern and western xiandom -- and today the divide is b/w post-xian, post-cold war europe and the islamic periphery of europe

(3) the east's resentment of the west dates back to early xian times, when rome and constantinople held sway over such centers as damascus and alexandria -- indeed, when the arabs swept out of the desert in the 600s, much of their military success had to do with the simple fact that syria and egypt resented the "greek romans" (aka the byzantines) and so more or less threw open the gates to the arab conquerors -- further, many of the early doctrinal disputes in xian history can be interpreted as political rivalries among syrians, egyptians, greeks, italians -- similarly, there was a struggle b/w rome (the west) and constantinople (the east), which lead to the final schism of 1066

(4) the notion that western culture promotes "individualism" dates back at least to aristotle, who believed that the greek city-state had political conditions conducive to the development of individual excellence, as against the conditions that prevailed in "asian" tyranny and monarchy, which fostered servitude, conformity, fearfulness -- the romans later picked up on the notion of "republican" virtue, until they became, as it were, decadent -- indeed, thanks to the colonizing efforts of the greeks, who colonized not only asia minor but also much of the western mediterranean, the notion of "civic virtue" was diffused throughout the entire region -- but these notions of civic virtue and individual excellence were then "forgotten" during xian times, which were markedly anti-political

(5) however, if the greeks and the romans valued individual excellence, they placed little value on a person's life as such -- and so this is the contribution of xianity = that the value of every person's life has been "redeemed," and therefore every person has a fundamental integrity that must be respected

(6) the renaissance then sees the west make a CLAIM to greek culture as its own legacy -- i.e., the fall of constantinople coincides with the renewal of interest in greek learning in the north of italy, a development in part spurred by emigre scholars from constantinople and elsewhere in greece

(7) whereas the greeks and romans had emphasized the development of the individual in accordance with his natural ends, modern western political thought becomes oriented not toward man as he "ought" to be, but toward man as he "is" -- hobbes would rest the modern state on the most reliable foundations, i.e., man's most craven and urgent instincts -- rousseau first gives expression to disgust at the new kind of bourgeois man then emerging in europe, vain, caught up in money, selfish, materialistic, etc, and so introduces the notion of the noble savage, the uncorrupted child of nature, not to use this figure as a standard, but to show that man's nature is malleable -- hegel tries to reconcile rousseau's discovery of man's historical nature with aristotle's teleological account -- and then nietzsche radicalizes all these insights, such that there are no standards, no laws, no nature, only strong and weak individuals, the few who devise their own modes of living, the rest creatures of the herd

(8) western culture today might best be described as a mixed soil containing all the aforementioned sediments and lines of thought

(9) in the meantime, post-1453, the formerly byzantine sphere, then ottoman empire, now post-colonial middle east became increasingly backward in terms of science, technology, military might, politics, literature, art, etc -- and so the culture became increasingly resentful of the west, increasingly pathological

this to my mind is a very rough version of the *conventional account* -- which does not mean it's my account, merely my understanding of how the conventional account goes

so which part of this account would edward said challenge???

-- i'd expect, obviously, he'd take issue w/ paragraph 9 -- i.e., if the east is pathological, that pathology is tied up with the west's pathological fantasies of empire

-- but how does edward said challenge the more fundamental dichotomy b/w east and west???

-- and of course, there's obviously a huge problem in setting up a dichotomy b/w the west's culture of "the sovereign individual" and the east's culture of tyranny/servitude/spiritual discipline, for the simple reason that the east is not simply the near east -- but also persia, india (hardly a seamless entity itself), china, japan -- such that the dichotomy leads directly to notions of western exceptionalism

-- and yet, there may be some justification for notions of western exceptionalism, for the period 1800 to 2000 was an era of cultural and political dominance never before seen on this earth


as follows:
wikipedia's definition is as i said, 'balanced' i prefer my orientalism a little more militant tbh. :D

Anderson & Said are particularly faves of mine as their theses are like rilly rilly self explanatory; as i mentioned orientalism is a tough read, but that's cos it provides blow by blow evidence to illustrate how the west has systematically misrepresented the east,
anderson provides the motive: that nation states need cohesive polities and nationalism is a powerful method for doing that.

the account of history you above is all very well - the accepted version, aye, mostly cobbled together during the colonial era by posh white gents using whatever evidence supported their peculiar world view.

& why on earth do you think something like individualism can be culturally determined ffs??

'3 the east's resentment of the west ' - i have absolutely no clue wot your on about here...maybe clarify that dominic or just give it a rest cos i think that sounds like an offensive generalisation :(