Cultural theorist Stuart Hall takes dead aim at the construction of western discourse, which he argues utilizes a binary of the “West and the Rest” to emphasize European uniqueness and non-western inferiority. Utilizing Michele Foucault’s idea’s regarding discourse and Said’s work on “Orientalism”, Hall suggests that the persistence of such ideas, continues to infect even the best intentioned contemporary scholars including those who sought to deconstruct the West as it was such as Karl Marx and Max Weber .
Hall begins pointing to the construction of “the West” as a concept itself. Its utility as an abstraction allows European observers to classify societies into different categories, condense a complicated set of images and peoples into a simple idea, provides a “standard model of comparison” and supplies “”criteria of evalution against which other societies may be ranked. Once a concept, the West “became productive in its turn”, creating knowledge about other places and peoples. Difference served as its markers,”the difference of these societies and cultures from the West was the standard against which the West’s achievement was measured. It is in the context of these relationships that the idea of the “West” took on … meaning. … national cultures acquire their strong sense of identity by contrasting themselves with other cultures.” [some of this sounds vaguely Foucaultian i.e. the importance of difference, this kind of emphasis on character both in The Order of Things] Moreover, this concept of the West obscures the wide differences among western peoples presenting them as a homogenous whole. This construction “draws crude and simple distinctions and constructs an oversimplified conception of difference.”
Tracing the construction of this discourse back to Marco Polo and the Crusades, Europe only found itself able to move eastward after it over came the physical and psychological barriers, “For what lay beyond, Europe relied on the other sources of knowledge” classical, biblical, legendary, and mythological. Asia remained largely a world of elephants and other wonders almost as remote as Sub-Saharan Africa.” The Age of Exploration and Conquest accelerated tropes of Western dominance as “difference” served to distinguish Europeans from non-western peoples. The unifying force of Christiandom provided a “co-identity” in which “Europe’s Christian identity – what made its civilization distinct and unique – was in its first instance, essentially religious and Christian.” Only later did Europe develop its geographical, political, and economic identity. Hall points out historians need to consider European motives in its various attempts at exploration. Even though rulers desired wealth, many also expressed a belief in both God and mammon, with the two being compatible, “These fervently religious Catholic rulers fully believed what they were saying. To them, serving, God and pursing “our advantage” were not necessarily at odds. They lived and fully believed their own ideology … it is clear their discourse was molded and influenced by the play of motives and interests across their language.” The importance here is two fold: 1) to illustrate discourse’s pervasiveness and embedded nature and 2) to realize that those who control discourse often have the means to make it a reality often through what Foucault called a “regime of truth”. As Said has argued, these Western discourses of the “other” have powerful effects, through discourse power circulates and “is contested.”Again , as with Said, sexuality emerges as a powerful influence in the construction of discourse as Hall notes the gendered and sexual imagery central to exploration, conquest, and domination tropes common to European observers.
Ironically, the difference that proved so critical to western discourse resulted from myopia rather then analysis. European soldiers, explorers, and others failed to recognize the complex societies of indigenous peoples, mistaking the lack of European like examples as a sign of backwardness. Similarly, the conflation of “modernity” with “Europe” or the west builds upon these alleged “differences”. Even great engineering feats such as the vast system of roads and highways created by the Inca’s drew little praise from Western observers. Moreover, natives frequently illustrate extreme behavior in European discourse such that one moment they are docile and beautiful and the next monstrous and cannibalistic. In classical Saidian form, Hall points out that the idea of the noble and ignoble savage also reflected Europe’s idea of itself. The noble savage stood in opposition to “the Continent’s” ills, “Thus the “noble savage” became the vehicle for a wide ranging critique of the over refinement, religious hypocrisy, and divisions by social rank that existed in the West.” (218) All this led up the Enlightenment which expanded on this discourse, disseminating its beliefs while constructing a template for “rude” and “refined” nations. Social Scientists of the day put forth the idea that “the West was the model, the prototy and the measure of social progress … Without the Rest (or its internal “others”), the West may not have been able to recognize itself as the summit of human history.” (221)