My view of the West: The West as a Standard of Civilization

By Henna-Riikka Pennanen

In 2014, I was finalizing my PhD in History (which you can read here), when in a brainstorming session Jukka Jouhki suggested that we should turn our gaze to “the West.” My thesis was about conceptions – and the key concept – of civilization in the writings of nineteenth-century U.S. experts on China and Japan. Unavoidably, it was also about Orientalism. But Jukka’s proposition that we should delve more deeply into Occidentalism made sense: in relation to the concept of civilization, I was already focusing inasmuch on U.S. views on “the East” as on U.S. views of “the West.” Since then, we have co-edited together a journal theme issue and a Finnish-language book on the topic. The latest addition is the edited volume with Jukka and Marko Lehti, Contestations of Liberal Order: The West in Crisis?

My research interests include representations, threat perceptions and images; conceptual and intellectual history; history of U.S.–East Asia relations; and contemporary International Relations and U.S. foreign policy. While these interests are wide and varied, there is one running theme: the West as a “standard of civilization.” Although, it should be pointed out at the outset that the notion of a standard of civilization is not the sole intellectual property of those who hail from western Europe or northern America.

In conjunction with the idea of the West, this standard can refer to the material, mental, and moral gauges with which the nineteenth-century intellectuals measured the level of civilization a given nation had attained, and then ordered those nations hierarchically. Overlapping with these hierarchies was an idea called the “family of civilized nations.” This idea – and a bundle of practices associated with it – encapsulated the nineteenth-century European international order, which was built on hegemony and asymmetrical relations. As Andrew Hurrell characterizes, it was a “world of differentiated sovereignties.” Arguably, more recent manifestations of a standard of civilization, regulating and underlying a hierarchical relationship between “the West” and everyone else, have been the (more informal) standards of liberal internationalism and liberal peace.

The West is claimed as something particular on one hand: a unique civilization, if you will. And on the other, it is claimed as something universal, an epitome of a universal, progressing civilization. It is this curious tension between these claims, that continues to pique my interest.


The author is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS). Her TIAS research project “Rising Dragon, Rising Sun: A Century of Threat Perceptions of China and Japan in the United States” analyzes U.S. elite threat perceptions of China and Japan from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The project draws from international relations studies, and contributes to U.S. diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of the West: An Imagined Community Par Excellence

Jukka Jouhki

I got interested in the concept of the West while conducting anthropological fieldwork on the relationship between expatriate Europeans and local Tamil villagers in South India almost two deades ago. First, I was interested in Orientalism in the European views of India, but at some point I noticed how exotic ‘the West’ was to the local Tamil people (read my dissertation here), so I got interested in Occidentalism as well.

After my doctoral dissertation (2006), I have conducted anthropological research in several countries such as China, India, South Korea, Spain, The Gambia, and Finland, and while talking to people I have come across various kinds of conceptualizations of Western society – even if it hadn’t always been the purpose of my research. When I realized that social scientists had rarely concentrated on and problematized the concept of Western culture or Western society, I thought that the rare scholars who had, should organize. Hence, The West Network was founded by me and my colleague Dr. Henna-Riikka Pennanen who had similar interests.


Theoretically, I am nowadays interested in what I call banal Occidentalism (see e.g. this article), a combination – or extension – of Michael Billig’s banal nationalism and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I am particularly interested in how ‘the West,’ ‘Western society,’ ‘Western people’ etc. are utilized to connote a unified Western whole, and the kind of instances where ‘the West’ is evoked as a rhetorical tool. In addition to banal nationalism, I am interested in the Occidentalisms of people who do not identify as Western.

The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology and Docent of Ethnology in University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In addition to the West, his research interests include Finnish expats (in Spain and India), child marriage in The Gambia, and social robots – to name a few ongoing projects. Dr. Jouhki is also the Editor-in-Chief of Human Technology journal.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

Strategic Occidentalism and Mexican Fiction

C. J. Enloe 

Review of Sánchez-Prado, Ignacio M. Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market, and the Question of World Literature. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2018. 248 pp.

In this book’s three chapters, Ignacio Sánchez-Prado explores the works of several post-1968 Mexican fiction authors in order to elaborate a new, more comprehensive understanding of the concept of “world literature” and its relationship to literary production in Mexico. Sánchez-Prado seeks to problematize critical treatments of Mexican literature that are rooted in nationalism and cultural specificity, recasting the oeuvres of important Mexican authors in light of their interactions with literary influences from around the globe and with the neoliberal book market. He argues that
individual authors construct their own personal world literatures as a way of contending with a pair of problematic imperatives: first, to project an authentic vision of national identity through their work, and second, to compete for notoriety and commercial success within the publishing market. The book’s title, Strategic Occidentalism, references Sánchez-Prado’s preferred term to denominate these deliberate acts of authorial self-positioning.

Sánchez-Prado does not subscribe to a Damroschian notion of world literature that would include only literary works that circulate transnationally. Instead, he proposes that world literature is fundamentally defined by “the material networks and practices that construct its archives and repertoire” (15). Thus, even works that have not been translated or that have enjoyed only limited circulation abroad can still be considered part of world literature in the sense that they owe their existence to the unique agglomeration of national and international influences that shaped the author’s stylistic and thematic decisions. In accordance with this material focus, close textual readings are not the critic’s primary approach to analyzing the selection of works his book presents (though they are certainly present). Rather, he dedicates significant space to contextualizing the authors’ production within both the Mexican literary canon and a more global context, underscoring relevant elements of their biographies and emphasizing their shifting relationships with different types of publishers over the course of their careers.

Sánchez-Prado presents his seven case studies to the reader in roughly chronological order, underscoring the relationship between different authors in terms of both genealogical legacies and intergenerational shifts. The first chapter is the book’s most in-depth study of an individual author, focusing exclusively on “Mexican literature’s leading cosmopolitan” Sergio Pitol, whose extensive travels and encounters with other cultures and literatures shaped his literary trajectory (25). The critic argues that Pitol’s contributions to translation, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction during the
1970s and 80s established a new, heterodox form of cosmopolitanism and worldly engagement that laid the groundwork for a shift in the understanding of Mexican literature within Mexico and internationally. He shows particular interest in Pitol’s translation of works from literary traditions such as the Eastern European avant-garde and Anglophone modernism, much of which he did while living abroad.

His selection of works to translate—including those of Witold Gombrowicz, Ivy ComptonBurnett, and many others—evidence the construction of an alternative world literature canon consisting of authors who resisted the imperative to write serious, national literature, instead employing unorthodox modernist aesthetics such as estrangement and the carnivalesque. SánchezPrado demonstrates how Pitol’s own fiction draws from the narrative techniques he admired in other national literatures, using these alternative, worldly genealogies as a tool to expand the realm of Mexican fiction beyond the 20th -century tradition of the totalizing political narrative. In both his 1979 short story “Nocturno de Bujara” and his 1984 novel El desfile del amor, Pitol deploys the disorienting intertwining of unreliable narrative threads as a strategy to reveal “the impossibility of using literature to construct memory or meaning” (64).

In the second chapter, Sánchez-Prado turns his attention to the Crack group, a loosely-organized collective of Mexican writers whose fiction, published starting in the mid-1990s, sought to challenge both the existing stereotypes surrounding Latin American literary production and the false dichotomy between high art and commercial literature. As is well known, faced with the challenge of gaining visibility for their work without conforming to the magical realist imperative, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, and Jorge Volpi published the “Crack Manifesto” in 1996, proclaiming their goal to combat what they perceived as the trivialization of literature as a result of market forces. However, the critic argues that, rather than shunning the commercial market, each of the chapter’s featured authors used his own individual set of strategies to insert comparatively dense literary works into this system of circulation.

In his 1999 novel En busca de Klingsor, Jorge Volpi combines a diverse series of elements, including detective fiction, mathematical notions of uncertainty, and a portrayal of Nazism as part of world (not just European) history to create a commercially successful work that is thematically and stylistically complex, and that firmly rejects the national-cosmopolitan dichotomy. Ignacio Padilla’s Amphitryon (2000) also takes up the theme of Nazism in a bid to question literature’s capacity to serve as historical allegory, while his later work La Gruta del Toscano (2006) performs a symbolic Orientalization of Europe, deflecting the exoticism to which Latin American authors and literature have so often been exposed. Finally, Pedro Ángel Palou’s Paraíso clausurado (2000) deploys melancholy and loss as tools to articulate the impossibility of creating a totalizing novel, demonstrating that new narrative possibilities open up when authors are freed from this unattainable imperative.

In the third and final chapter, Sánchez-Prado takes up the examples of three authors who employ distinct tactics to question and redefine what it means to be a “Mexican woman writer” in relation to the conditions of the neoliberal editorial market. He foregrounds his analysis by noting the implicitly gendered nature of the Crack group’s ideological self-positioning: their manifesto responded critically to a process of editorial neoliberalization that coincided with the so-called Boom femenino and enabled the commercial success of oft-maligned romance novelists such as Laura Esquivel. In this
context, the Mexican women writers that Sánchez-Prado presents use strategic  positioning to productively confront the compounded assumptions imposed on them based on their nationality and their gender. He highlights Carmen Boullosa’s history of “deftly navigat[ing] editorial landscapes” by publishing alternately with commercial publishers and more prestigious ones to show how Bourdieusian notions regarding the autonomy of symbolic capital breaks down in the case of women authors for whom commercial success can serve as an antidote to marginality (155).

For her part, Ana García Bergua’s decision to eschew autobiographical tendencies and locate her adventure novel El umbral (1993) outside of traditionally feminized spaces expands the range of narrative possibilities available to women authors, while her mobilization of her identity as the daughter of Spanish exiles disrupts essentializing stereotypes about the cultural specificity of Mexican literature. The final author studied in this chapter, Cristina Rivera Garza, engages with questions of materiality and circulation in various ways, using novels such as Nadie me verá llorar (1999) and La cresta de Ilión (2002) to reveal the gendered silences and omissions that exist within historical and literary archives, while also helping to redefine 21st-century literature’s relationship with new media through her long-running blog, No hay tal lugar.

This book ultimately succeeds in its self-proclaimed attempt to “reclaim the idea of ‘world literature,’” fundamentally reframing Mexico’s participation in global networks by analyzing the plethora of strategies that Mexican authors have implemented in order to challenge and negotiate the imperatives of the neoliberal market and construct their own world literatures in the process (191). While Sánchez-Prado’s work will of course be of interest to his fellow Latin Americanists, and to Mexicanists in particular, the theoretical perspectives he outlines make this book an essential reference for any literary scholars looking to contextualize the works they study within a framework that does not view literature through either a purely national lens or a totalizing global one, but rather embraces the potentiality and plurality of world literatures.

The author is a student of Romance Studies at Duke University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Published originally in TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of
the Luso-Hispanic World 9 (1): 105-108. Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5245c67k. Licence CC BY 4.0. Modifications: title added, original cover page omitted, author name relocated before book title, author affiliation expanded relocated in the end of the text, extra paragraph breaks added.