The ‘Western/Non-Western’ problem

I’m trying to edit my literature review and four lines in, I get stuck. The line begins:

Debate centers on readings of re-contextualised canonical texts and plays written by non-Western playwrights […]

I don’t like non-Western.

Western and non-Western are terms I’ve contended with since 2009, when I struggled to use them in an essay for a module called, precisely, Non-Western Theatre in my undergraduate course. I’ve used them in my writing since, generally with an added footnote, explaining that I’d rather avoid this terminology, but I still don’t have anything better to take its place. But maybe the time to figure out an answer to that problem is now, during my PhD. No more apologetic footnotes.

One of my issues with these terms is, quite plainly, that there’s a ring of flat earth theory to it. Dividing a round planet into eastern and western hemispheres sounds a bit daft to me. Ok, if you take the direction of the movement, the Earth rotates east, determining where the sun rises and sets. But if you keep travelling along this horizontal axis, east and west can be incredibly subjective points of reference. Say, if we take our usual Eurocentric world map printed on a flat sheet of paper, it’s kinda odd to me that Europe represents the Western world, because it’s east of where I’m from. And it’s well known that Columbus, Cabral and the rest set their sails west in an attempt to find a new route around to get to India, that non-Western place. You can travel west to get to China and you can travel east to get to Portugal. Geographically and cartographically speaking, it’s kinda bizarre. It’s believing in the idea that the horizon can be reached.

Ideologically speaking, it gets even worse. It’s interesting that you only see the words Eastern or Oriental used to refer to Asia, but not really interchangeably with non-Western. The latter is meant to sound more global, funnily enough. Encompass everything that isn’t Western Europe or North America. It asserts the economic and cultural dominance of these places – Western is the norm, whatever is not that, is defined against it, not in its own terms (good old Derrida and his différance).

What terminology can I use instead? Do I *need* this terminology?

I’ve used global South and global North on occasion. It sits a little better with me because those two cardinal points seem a bit more fixed than east and west, taking the rotation of the Earth into account. Granted, the magnetic pole shifts sometimes, but it feels less stressful to me in that respect. Economically speaking, most of what is considered the developed world is located in the northern hemisphere, but then you have rich countries like Australia and New Zealand that belong in the south, and is it fair to lump them with the underdogs? Both those countries have a dominant culture that would be considered Western but they also have Maori and Aboriginal cultures that yield theatre practices traditionally classified as non-Western, or world theatre.

I’ve come across Euramerican as a suggested term for the dominant Western. I don’t know what the opposite would be. Non-Euramerican? What about the rest of the Americas? My Latin/South American self also takes massive issues with the USA constantly being referred to (in English) as America. The only America. I’m not sure it matters as much to Canadians and the Caribbean islands (if you’re from these parts of the world and reading this, please share your thoughts), but it’s a big political statement south of the wall. To be fair, it doesn’t seem to matter as much for most Brazilians, but the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America usually prefer to be acknowledged as an equal part of the continente americano and use the word estadunidense for the nationals of the USA. After all, we are all americanos, from Cape Columbia to Tierra del Fuego (well, maybe Greenland would like to come too… actually, perhaps Greenland is the quintessential Euramerican representative).

My latest thought was to stop travelling along place and turn to time instead. I am now torn between shifting from a geo-economic perspective to a historico-political one, and replacing non-Western with postcolonial in that line, or omitting the descriptor altogether. Does the omission help? By ignoring the adjective, am I erasing the complexity of the matter or equalising the score? Does a playwright HAVE TO be described as postcolonial to be deemed relevant to my research? Does the terminology only advance/assert cultural dominance and reinforce the centre vs. periphery discourse?

I’ve just got sidetracked from the task at hand reading a lot of other things to write this blog post instead of getting on with my literature review. I haven’t made up my mind yet and am open to debate. Hopefully by September 2019, I will have found a solution.



2 thoughts on “The ‘Western/Non-Western’ problem

  1. Pingback: Atlas | syncretic theatre research blog

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