“Welcome To The 21st Century”

Why Giles Fraser loathes the phrase, and other, similar expressions of “self-satisfied cultural superiority”:

Back in 1983, the German anthropologist Johannes Fabian published a brilliant account of how western anthropologists often used the language of time to distance themselves from the object of their study and to secure the dominance of a western Enlightenment worldview.

In Time and the Other he noted there was something fishy about the way early anthropologists went out and studied other cultures, talking and interacting with people in the same temporal space, yet when such encounters came to be written up, the people being studied/talked with tended to be situated back in time. The anthropologist always lives in the present. The people being studied live in the past. It’s what Fabian calls “a denial of coevalness” – a denial that we share the same temporal space with those who have different values or different political aspirations. This denial of coevalness, argues Fabian (very much in the style of Edward Said), is often a political power-play, a discourse of “otherness” that was commonly used to buttress the colonial exploitation of others.

But it’s not just colonialism-justifying anthropologists who play this linguistic/moral trick with the clock. The same thing happens in contemporary journalism all the time. Isis, for example, are often described as “medieval”. Travel to Damascus or Baghdad, and you travel not just to the Middle East but also to the middle ages. In part, this familiar trope is based on the idea that the extreme violence of contemporary jihadis has more in common with the extreme violence of the middle ages. As a comparison, this is most unfair on the middle ages, which is transformed from a rich and complex period of human history into modernity’s “other” – little more than that against which modernity comes to define itself. Forget about the founding of the great cathedrals and universities, forget about the Islamic development of mathematics, forget about Leonardo da Vinci and all of that: in secular salvation myth we are sold the simple story that we have been saved from the dark ages of barbarism and stupidity by the clear moral vision of science, rationality and Apple computers. This is just as much a salvation myth as any proposed by religion – though in this version of salvation it is religion itself that we need to be saved from.