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BARBEUR Résumé de rapport

Project ID: 40036
Financé au titre de: FP6-MOBILITY
Pays: Italy

Final Activity Report Summary - BARBEUR (History and future of Europe seen through the lens of the figure of the barbarian)

The project amounted to the preparation of two shorter texts, 'Europe and the spectre of the barbarian' and 'Europe as an imaginary object,' and a longer text that is an unfinished draft of a book entitled 'Becoming human/becoming barbarian'.

To provide a summarising introductory note: The motivation to undertake this project was the observation that the barbarian seems to be a constant figure in the history of European thought. The dominant occidental value changes from period to period - neither reason, nor culture, nor progress, can be seen to continuously constitute Europe. The text 'Europe as an imaginary object' briefly follows transformations of the concept of freedom within European history.

Yet the figure of the barbarian emerges in the constitution of all of the above-mentioned occidental concepts. He remains a constant companion throughout the development of European identity - authors as diverse as Fichte and Benjamin refer to the figure of the barbarian in their writings. This continuity of the barbarian should not be misunderstood as a confirmation of the thesis that there is a real and persisting distinction between the Occident and the Orient, the European and the barbarian. The continuity of the barbarian does not refer to any empirical difference with respect to the non-barbarian, he rather fulfils a function in the construction of the non-barbarian.

The myth of the origin of the barbarian gives a very simple and seemingly plausible explanation of the invention of the word. People were called barbarians for onomatopoetic reasons: the barbarians were those whose language sounded like 'blah, blah, blah' to the Greeks. The term barbarian is thus a sign of not being understood by the Greeks. The text 'Europe and the spectre of the barbarian' examines how this meaning remains constitutive for the barbarian and how it generates new forms of 'not understanding' in successive conceptions of the barbarian. Furthermore, it analyses the effects and impact of the concept and how 'not understanding' constitutes and secures domination.

The story of the barbarian is a story of domination. In the beginning its signification only shows where the centre is and where the margins are, while intrinsically negative values get added as connotations to the barbarian later on, reinforcing the domination and building a seemingly moral hierarchy between the signifier and the signified.

The continuous political struggles for domination amplify both the characteristics of the barbarian and its layers of meaning, centre and margin change places and new connotations are added that are contingent to the barbarian's initial meaning. The alteration of victory and defeat mean that many of these meanings are unsteady and keep undergoing on-going semiotic changes: whether the barbarian is one who does not speak Greek, or who does not possess an original language (like German), or who does not belong to a nation, or who is simply backwards, or who is cruel, these are all examples of continuous transformations, but at the core of the distinction remains the matter of not understanding. It is thus possible to isolate recurrent patterns.

So the barbarian tells a history of domination, the history of those who invented the barbarian in question and with it the limits of Europe as a political field. Because as soon as the barbarian emerges, the exchange with the other is interrupted. This point is further developed in 'Europe and the spectre of the barbarian'. Looking at the included, at the non-barbarians, tells another history.

During my research process it turned out that throughout all these transformations one key point remained, a point which lies in the function of the concept of the barbarian. The constitution of the barbarian always culminates in one and the same question: who is human and who is not? Through all its own changes in meaning, the function of the barbarian is to construct the human being. Sometimes he is simply a negative foil, but mostly his relation to the human being is more complicated: He is a human being, but not yet a real human being, or he is a human being without humanity and so on. I call it the effects of an anthropological machine.

Thus European identity is not only a sample of values such as the - often mentioned - concepts of rationality, freedom and democracy we could add civilisation, culture, progress etc. Rather, the construction of Europe is intrinsically interwoven with the question of constituting the human being. It is the construction of a 'real' human being, a human being who is more human than others, but claims prevalence. In fact it is constituted with the help of the barbarian.

The genealogy of the barbarian is therefore in fact a genealogy of the human being. It reveals the inglorious, mundane, often valueless and complex construction of the human being as it shows how much the construction of the human being depends on its status in a society. A human being can only speak when there is someone who wants to listen to him. He can only be social when he is accepted in a community.

The origin of the barbarian lies in domination, in the domination by the Greeks, but its real function is to hide the precariousness of the human being. Another interesting field is opened up by the question where to locate the barbarian within the trifecta of human beings, animals and gods? The text 'Becoming human/becoming barbarian' tries to answer this question whenever it becomes relevant in the work of one author, for example Aristotle and Herder, or within the context of globalisation.

In discussing Aristotle it is crucial to ask why another figure is necessary. Does the barbarian help to distinguish the human being from animals and gods? The barbarian is a figure who is again and again brought into the proximity of animals, as a kind of animal standing between humans and animals. Thus the emergence of the barbarian makes it possible to imagine not just animals and god, but animal-like and godlike entities. So what happens through the invention of the barbarian is that the rigidity of the hierarchy between gods, human beings, and animals is softened - a human being can for example achieve a godlike status -, whereas the hierarchy among human beings is made more complex - some are godlike, some are like animals. The introduction of this new hierarchy reveals not only the domination of the animal, but a domination of God by human beings, and it holds the secret of the domination of human beings by human beings. In stronger terms, my hypothesis is that the domination of the human being is fundamental to the constitution of the human being. In recent philosophy this question has included the dimension of biopolitics as discussed in the chapter on globalisation in 'Becoming human/becoming barbarian'. Though this discussion is still a work in progress, we could suggest that the origin of politics lies in the domination of human beings by human beings.

Since the 20th century we can observe a split between the barbarian on the one hand and barbarism on the other. Authors such as Adorno and Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin accuse the dominant culture (the culture industry) of barbarism, but these critical approaches do not recognise that the dominant culture constitutes a barbarian who is opposed to the dominant culture, a new outsider.

European identity seen through the lens of the barbarian reveals the limits of Europe as a political field, in that the project unravels selection principles that are beyond political negotiability. Different patterns of silencing and socially isolating are at the root of what is interrupting political exchange in contemporary Europe.

In 'Becoming human/becoming barbarian' I try to tackle the problem of selection by referring to the concept of an anthropological machine. This perspective furthermore shows how tightly European identity is bound up in the constitution of the human being on the basis of its domination of other human beings. Whether it is reason, civilisation, nation, culture/cultivation or progress which characterises the European, or whether the philosopher writes from an affirmative or from a critical perspective - these categories are all politically motivated and thus inscribed in a struggle for domination, one which is carried out on the construction of the human being as human being.


Simona FORTI
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