Flyleaf: Rémi Brague's Eccentric Culture, Part 1

Flyleaf: Rémi Brague's Eccentric Culture, Part 1

In Flyleaf, contributors are invited to explore a work related to the themes of the Genealogies of Modernity project in an open-ended inquiry like the notes one may write on the flyleaf of a book. In this two-part post, Prof. Ryan McDermott, co-founder of the Genealogies of Modernity Project, reflects upon the work of medieval historian of religion Rémi Brague.

This summer the GenMod project held a faculty working group at Pitt and a graduate seminar at Penn/Collegium Institute on Global Genealogies of Early Modernity. We learned about global and world history methodologies from specialists working on histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, the Islamicate cultures of the Middle East, the Sephardic diaspora, New World contact zones. Despite the emphasis on the global, Europe loomed large in nearly all our conversations, whether as the origin of colonialism or Christian missions, inter alia, or the modern and modernizing other against which non-European cultures reacted or defined their alternative modernities. Whether it exerted a centripetal or centrifugal force on global genealogies of modernity, Europe often seemed to be at the center. 

We found ourselves consistently problematizing forms of Eurocentrism in the narratives of modernity we encountered. While it seemed necessary to problematize, it was not always clear what the problem with Europe was, what to do about it, or how the problematic related to other insights produced in conversation. 

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So I recently read with particular interest Rémi Brague’s extended essay on the meaning and identity of Europe, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. For Brague, European culture is constitutively problematic. His essay is an inquiry into the nature of the problem, namely Europe’s eccentricity and the temptation to think of Europe as central. Brague thinks not so much in terms of the centrality of Europe as of its persistent dependence on cultures outside of itself for its source. In what follows, I offer some reading notes to draw Brague into the larger conversation, focusing on the genealogical analogies he uses to advance his thinking.

* * * *

For Brague, European culture begins with the Roman Empire, which considered itself a secondary transmitter of Greek and Hebrew culture. 

This is precisely the content of the Roman contribution: the structure of the transmission of a content not properly its own. The Romans have done little more than transmit, but that is far from nothing. They have brought nothing new in relation to those two creator peoples, the Greeks and the Hebrews. But they were the bearers of that innovation. They brought innovation itself. What was ancient for them, they brought as something new (32, emphasis mine).

According to this definition, European culture is constitutively modern. Europe is ever inferior and secondary to the sources it valorizes. Over and again, Europe reaches outside and beyond itself to inaugurate the new. If renaissance is one mode of modernity, then Europe’s serial claims to renaissance constitute it as modern:

[T]he history of European civilization, from the birth of Europe, [is] a nearly uninterrupted series of renaissances. . . .[T]he source one proposes to draw on is found beyond a solution of continuity, or even has never been in continuity with us. It is then a matter of appropriating an origin in relation to which one feels foreign, and even alienated—and in particular, the ancient sources (122, emphasis original).

European culture, taken as a whole, is an effort to go back to a past that was never its own, but in relation to which there was something like an irreparable fall, a painfully perceived “estrangement” (128).

With these definitions as background, Brague then invokes a genealogical analogy of “inverse adoption” to characterize this form of cultural memory. The “consciousness that Europe had of having its sources outside of itself” leads to a paradox of identity, “such that it has no other identity than an eccentric identity” (133).

Usually, it is the parents who adopt the child . . . . In Europe, the process has functioned in the other direction. Those who came later chose their ancestors for themselves. The European heritage is the object of a vast usurpation of a legacy. The Europeans are the heirs of antiquity in nothing (131).

For Brague, then, modernity is defined as a series of attempted recoveries from cultural fall or alienation by reverse adoption, by claiming a legacy that is not one’s own in order to overcome a cultural impasse or alienation by inaugurating a new beginning. Critical genealogy, which works to expose the contingency, impropriety, and multiplicity of origins, is in this understanding an ideal hermeneutic of the modern. Yet Brague reverses the valuation of critical genealogy: the perennial “secondarity” of European culture reveals not bad faith but creative genius. 

Nevertheless, Brague shares the Nietzschean intuition of critical genealogy that reverse adoption is not a function of legitimate inheritance but an exercise of the will to power. European modernity, then, is also characterized by unilateral appropriation, by “cannibalism” (139). Europe’s 

relations with the rest of the world, since the Renaissance, have been relations of conquest and occupation. One must then ask how one knows what to do with its past. It’s not contemporary Germany alone but all of Europe that has a problem to “come to terms with its past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung).

Europe’s past is problematic, Brague suggests, and it is a central task of the humanistic disciplines to problematize the past, that is, to identify the will to power and to meditate on the impropriety of Europe’s many contingent origins. So Brague offers one explanation for the problematic of Europe that haunted the summer seminar. 

Yet problematization is not the end of inquiry, as it is in many humanities seminar rooms, but the beginning. When the object of inquiry is European culture, and that object is, by Brague’s definition, constitutively problematic, then problematization becomes prolegomenon to inquiry. The end of historical inquiry into the eccentricity of culture, Brague avers, is not critique but “repentance” (139). Thus Enlightenment critics of colonialism, such as Montaigne in his essay “On Cannibals,” were able to reimagine the conquest of the Americas as a cultural defeat for Europe and evidence of Europe’s inferiority:

The external defeat of the “others” was turned around, in the eyes of these thinkers, into a victory: Europe tried to see itself through the eyes of the stranger, and therefore not as self-evident, nor that it constituted necessarily the only possible, and even less the best possible of solutions to the human problem. One may wonder why Europe, and it alone, engaged in this reflexive adventure which overtook the colonial epic: it was because Europe already had within itself, in its constitutive relation to other classical sources, everything that was necessary to feel inferior (140).

This attitude of contrition, Brague suggests, could eventually (severely belatedly) lead to repentance, such as the decolonial scholarship of Walter Mignolo, or penance, such as the campaign for reparations to Native Americans. 

Rémi Brague, French historian of medieval Judaism, Islam, and Christianity

Rémi Brague, French historian of medieval Judaism, Islam, and Christianity

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