[Marxism] The limits of ethnocentric criticism in history: places, sites, and discoveries

Nestor Gorojovsky nestorgoro at fibertel.com.ar
Sun Jan 15 13:34:13 MST 2006

Respuesta a:"Marxism Digest, Vol 27, Issue 43"
Enviado por:marxism-request at lists.econ.utah.edu
Con fecha:15 Jan 2006, a las 9:35

>   The above is formulated as if no human being did know about the
>   "Cape
> of Good Hope" before either Europeans or Chinese discovered it _for
> them._ Those who lived there, knew about it. 
>    The new thing is that those discoveries helped to bring the world
> together, interconnnecting the more or less separated centres of human
> civilization, even if this was done, especially in the case of the
> Americas, in a distructive way. 
>    By reading the above I was reminded of the two plaques found on the
> wall of the visitor center of the Niagara Falls, Canadian side. One
> explained that the name comes from some Indian language, the other
> praised a French missionary as the first human being to have seen the
> falls...

In general, one can't but agree with Lüko, and certainly the story of 
the two plaques is astoundingly brutal.  But I would like to make a 
couple of points.

There are plenty of capes the world over.  But only a few deserve 
global importance.  

As Lüko himself explains, what the Euro (or Chinese) discoverers did 
was "to bring the world together, interconnnecting the more or less 
separated centres of human civilization."

Of course the local populations knew the Cape of Good Hope, as well 
as the local populations knew that two large seas were barely 
separated by a tropical chain of hills in Panama.   But they did not 
know that they were what they were.  For them, these were just 
another cape, or a geographic oddity.  The same cannot be said of the 
Suez / Levant, or the Khyber pass areas: at least from the Neolithic 
onwards, local populations had great consciousness of their position 
within the trade networks to which they belonged.

Marxism espouses a general historico-philosophical point of view 
according to which there exists a natural development of human 
formations as a whole.  The interconnection of separate areas of 
civilization into a single network, and the densification of travel 
along that network, is one of the causes and consequences of that 
particular evolutive stage known as "capitalist mode of production".

Geographic _places_, usually loaded with local meaning, can gain a 
position within a network which loads them with global meaning.  
Through this process, they become _sites_.  What we call the 
"discoveries" are simply the incorporation of a global meaning by 
particular places, which become _by that incorporation_ specific 

So that, and this does not mean to diminish the local populations, 
what the Chinese-or-European did was not only to "discover" the Great 
Capes (Good Hope, Horn, etc.) but indeed to _create them as Great 
Capes_ in creating the network of sea routes that made those capes 
"Great".  Put this way, this is not ethnocentric, but simply to 
recognize that some feats are made by specific people.

Stephenson, and nobody else, put the basic layers for RR transport.  
It is not ethnocentric to say that this was the creation of an 
Englishman.  The theoretical knowledge that would have taken 
humankind to railroads was somehow in the hands of the ancient Greek 
or Romans, but they used the force of steam just to create toys.  
There were plenty of slaves at hand's disposal, so who cares about 
steam-fueled machinery.

Creating the sea routes was at least as important as creating the 
locomotoive, methinks, so that in the end when we speak of 
"discoveries" we are not taking the merit from anyone.  We must 
however understand the idea of "discovery" as what it is:  the 
discovery that a particular place, up to that moment a place just 
like any other for those who lived nearby, was a _site_, a place of 
importance for the humankind as a whole.

Este correo lo ha enviado
Néstor Miguel Gorojovsky
nestorgoro at fibertel.com.ar
[No necesariamente es su autor]
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"La patria tiene que ser la dignidad arriba y el regocijo abajo".
Aparicio Saravia
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