Leiden International Studies Blog

Using your knowledge: reflections on the key concepts of the course Introduction to International Studies

Using your knowledge: reflections on the key concepts of the course Introduction to International Studies

Dr. Baarssen shares his ideas on how to apply key concepts of the course (Othering and Orientalism) to his own field of interest, US history and politics. This puts the course as well as its key concepts in a broader context and shows the range of topics that International Studies is able to cover.

Orientalism and Othering
In the tutorials for Introduction to International Studies, we start with what I think is one of the most difficult texts of the first year, Edward Said’s Orientalism. Quite quickly, students find out that Said’s premise, although powerfully apparent in the limited confines and environs he discusses, is more widely observable around the world. What Said’s book does, despite its difficulty, is offer us a tool to study “Othering.” My research has always been concerned with the “Other,” but one that happens to be Transatlantic in nature, namely how people in the United States and Europe have used (idealized) versions of each other as means of self-definition. I would like to relate the following story, which perhaps tells us something more about how “Others” are constructed.

The 18th century
The story starts with an eminent 18th century French naturalist with an equally impressive name, George Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon. Outlined in the fifth volume of his weighty enterprise, the Histoire Naturelle, his ‘American degeneration-theory’ proposed that Amerindians and animals, aside perhaps from reptiles and insects, had languished and degenerated, living as they so unmistakably did outside their allegedly archetypical habitat: the “Old World.” Two other renowned natural scientists of the time, Guillaume-Thomas François Raynal and Cornelius de Pauw, built on Buffon’s insights and added the Euro-American to the list of victims of a vicious “New World.” Without any of them ever having been to the Americas, perhaps their theories were a way of quenching uneasiness over, and averting, immigration to the Americas.

Still trying to come to terms with the disruptive idea that people lived outside their own domain, European philosophes contemplated the differences and came to the complacent conclusion that the “New World” was under the influence of a savage and juvenile nature, leading to stunted development. Nature itself in the Americas, they claimed, was simply far younger than that found in Europe. Besides, because it appeared hardly cultivated they deemed it detrimental to animals and humans alike. Hence, people would degenerate in America: devolve into children. America was professed a ‘natural child.’

The sentiment neatly followed the metaphorical suppositions alive in the day, that Great Britain, and later Europe more broadly, was America’s ‘mother.’ This assumption reaffirmed the belief that by the late eighteenth century¾we move now to the US¾the United States, so the culturati of Europe were wont to say (and some bromidically still today), had produced not a single thing of cultural or intellectual value. Whereas Buffon and Raynal withdrew or altered some of their most grating theories in their later lives over American rebuttals, the damage had already been done. Whenever someone today refers to America’s supposed lack of culture or its ‘coldness,’ all too often it is but an echoing of eighteenth-century wri­tings about America’s assumed degene­racy.

Developing “Americanness” in the 19th century
Of course, that was not the end of what would turn into a great Transatlantic conversation. Thomas Jefferson and others quickly asserted their “American­ness” by standing up for the United States and recriminate things European. Partly a vindication of things American, their texts endeavoured to collapse Buffon’s arguments two-fold. First, in the case of a spirited Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), evidence was submitted that animals in America were not just thriving; they were, in fact, monstrous compared to the apparently shrimp-sized European ones. Overestimating both the size of some American animals and playing down some of Europe’s, Jefferson came to downright opposite conclusions than had Buffon.

Even the argument about America’s “youthful” nature would eventually be upended. As late as 1867, the last word about this had not been spoken. In a survey, official United States geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden claimed: “[I]n the progress of geological develop­ment, America was almost or quite one epoch ahead of Europe […] [so that] geologically speaking, America should be called the Old World and Europe the New.” Somewhat fantastically, America had been rehabilitated¾cue Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman: “Yeah, science!”

Second, broadening the juxtaposition between Europe and America, from poetry to novels, and from drama to political texts and personal letters, the literature of the early American republic avowed eagerly that not America, but Europe was the true site of degeneration. Despite earlier prefigurations, toward the end of the eighteenth century, the idea of what we could then style ‘European degeneration’ gained greater urgency, and concomitantly became some­thing larger than it had been before. In addition to it fitting well hip republican concepts of history’s course and of society’s development, the notion of ‘European degeneration’ was evidently useful in the preliminary attempt to define an¾if not the¾American culture and identity.

Representations today
Today we read the accounts of eighteenth-century (natural) history with vicarious shame, yet its images endure on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, in current chiefly conservative American discourse about Europe, the parent-child metaphor has been infused with new life, this time with Europe as the child. At once, this suggests a demarcation anew of centre and periphery in the Transatlantic. However, the infantilisation of Europe is not merely a description of Europe’s actions and ideas in the conservative mind: again, it prescribes those as well. Once ‘we’ know that Europeans are infantile, there is no longer any need to listen to them either. Alternatively, because ‘we’ do not agree with ‘you,’ ‘you’ become disagreeable, the “cantankerous teenager.” Europeans as dependent; weak; impulsive; irrational, soft and cowardly: where have we seen these descriptors before?

All these images, representations if you will, invoke questions of authority and authorship. With a nod to Said: who gets to ‘author’ the idea that Europe or America is a ‘child’ or ‘parent’ in the first place? How does this knowledge make Europe exist as conservative Americans ‘know’ it? And to be able to contrast ‘American dreams’ with ‘European nightmares,’ what kind of knowledge do we need, and what does that tell us about ‘us’ and ‘them’?