Transition from Orient to the Third World: Sketch of a Phenomenological Study of a Historical Fall
The «Third World» as a term became prevalent in the early 1950s, designating, primarily, the neutral political situation of the countries not belonging to the two hostile blocs of power, Eastern and Western, emerging out of the victorious powers of the Second World War. The period of the ideological and political strife between the two blocs, in its earlier phases, coincided with the process of getting political independence by previous European colonies in Asia and Africa, of which the largest part later was politically categorized as Third World countries.
These old colonial, or semi-colonial, countries gradually attained their independence through political, and, in some places, military struggles under the leadership of their modern type intelligentsia which were the main transmitters of the modern revolutionary political and social ideas into their native lands. The anti-colonial movements of the Third World strove to shape their formally independent states in accordance with the modern model and concept of the nation-state, originating from nineteenth century Europe. But this aspiration encountered great obstacles emanating from their economic and cultural backgrounds. The next related term emerging in this period, or somewhat later, was “underdeveloped” countries, which served as complementary to the concept of the Third World, to describe the economic situation of those countries. The “underdeveloped countries”, as a technical term with quantitative economic and social measures comparing the developed with the underdeveloped countries, replaced the older and ambiguous term of the “backward countries”. In the atmosphere of the Cold War era which witnessed the unbounded competition of the two main blocks of power for “development”, this label for the greatest number of human population living in emerging nation-states explained globally the hopelessness of this part of humanity in the absence of the industrial, political, social, and cultural infrastructures necessary for shaping a modern nation-state. For decades the concept of the Third World, containing the “underdevelopment” as its componential notion, echoed the existence of the poor, non-industrial countries, desperately entangled in unsolvable political, social, and, worst of all, economic problems on the way to modernization, while modernization appeared as indispensable condition for configuration and survival of the modern nation-state.
But, the twentieth century, in its closing decades, witnessed radical changes in the international scene. The downfall of the Soviet empire, by putting an end to the bipolar system of rival political and military powers of the Cold War era, made the concept of the Third World devoid of its international political connotation as a third party in this relationship. On the other hand, vast industrialization of a considerable number of the previously underdeveloped countries in East Asia and later on other parts of the world, to the point of the emergence of the great world economic powers among them, rendered obsolete the term “Third World” connoting a totality of “underdeveloped countries”.
In spite of all this process, the “Third World” still, as a term, seems utilizable in a new context, not by far alien to its old usage. That is its capability to express the social psychological and cultural situation of the nations still entangled, embarrassingly, between their historical past, on the one hand, and involvement in the process of modernization, on the other hand. This status, culturally, could be formulated as transition from the Orient to the Third World, in my terms. In this discussion, my focal point of view, obviously, is my native country, Iran, as my immediate source of knowledge and personal experience of a, psychologically and culturally, third-world status, as such. Iran, alongside other Middle Eastern countries, could be considered as a the most expressive representation of such a critical contemporary case.
During the high time of Orientalism, as an earlier title for Oriental studies, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the European scholarship categorized old Asiatic empires and cultural domains as “Oriental”, vis-à-vis their own Occidental region. The bipolar concept of Occident-Orient in the nineteenth century obviously put into contrast two geographically and culturally opposing worlds. On the one side the prosperous, self-confident, Western European modern nation-states enjoying the tremendous boom of the scientific and industrial revolutions, encroaching as dominant world powers to all oceans and continents. On the other side, the rest of the world still living in their enclosed local cultures, encountering the shocking presence of another sort of mankind around themselves, coming from mysteriously unknown or extremely remote lands with unimaginable means of power and dominance.
Modernity, by its revolutionary philosophical and scientific achievements, produced a totally new meaning and prospect for being human, later reflected in the domineering term of the “humanism” in modern thought. Complementary to this, the Industrial Revolution primarily revolutionized the economic and social life in the Western world, and later, by its contagious nature, gradually revolutionized all human societies that came into permanent contact with Western Europe. The great transforming power of the Modernity manifests itself in modernization, and hereafter, even in the so far most remote and inaccessible corners of the world there remains no never-heard-of tribe that is not “discovered” by European explorers and no human society is left without , somehow, being touched by modernization.
This historical story is normally formulated under the sociological terms as transition from traditional to modern society. But sociological approach doesn’t take into account a fundamental aspect of this phenomenon which might be called the “ontological transition”. The encounter of the modern rationalist world equipped with achievements of natural sciences and then cultural and historical sciences, alongside amazing inventions and productions of the Industrial Revolution, has had a fateful role in displacing all remaining human worlds from their focal geographical and historical location, based on their mythological ontology which described, through tradition, their place on the Earth and in the Universe. It is well known that all pre-modern cultures and civilizations, geographically, felt themselves being at the center of the world. But, the modern European geographical knowledge, based on empirical science and exact calculations, by deposing mythological imaginations about the Earth and the place of everything on it, noticeably had a shocking effect on the peoples who had no part in the adventures of these discoveries, still living in their legendary place at the center of the world. The demythologization of the geography was the first step for putting all traditional human cultures out of their imaginary centrality and relocating them in the periphery of a scientifically Eurocentric world.
The demystification of nature by development of the natural sciences and demythologization of history through human sciences, were integrated processes reinforcing rationalism and humanism in their European homeland. The European modern mind not only re-read its native history through scientific approach to all available documents, but also, through universalistic motivation of the modern science, undertook the project of compiling the world history as a general science of the human race on the Earth, which integrated all local histories into its universal scheme. Until the development of the universal human history by European scholarship, all pre-modern human cultures and civilizations had their own oral or written local histories rooted in mythological times and traditional legends. By transformation from premodern countries or empires into the modern nation-states, as a prerequisite for national identification, they were obliged to reread their traditional local histories as national histories and, thus, search desperately for their place and share in the universal human history.
The forced openness of the Orient to the modern Occidental world through the actions of the European colonialism, as a sub-product created a fledgling intelligentsia of the Oriental type. The early generations of the Oriental intelligentsia, who, usually, were reared at the service of their colonial masters, by losing their confidence on their native world views and style of life, showed great fascination for the European way of life and thought. Then, they tried to learn the languages of their masters, getting modern European education, symbolically changing their native clothing with European style attire, and imitating every detail of European social conduct. These bahaviours represented in-depth the resentfulness of them from their own historical past, and aspirations for changing their peoples and countries by a European model. Thus, the early generations of the Oriental intelligentsia, in China, Japan, India, Iran, Egypt, or elsewhere, by absorbing something of the spirit and knowledge of the European intellectualism and following the enlightening role of the modern intellectuals in Europe, engaged themselves in the historical mission of changing their native worlds, first of all, by awakening their slumbering societies from Medieval-kind of dreams. This mission, highest of all, comprised of giving to the people a modern historical consciousness to encourage them to abandon their backward way of life, drowned in ignorance and superstitions, mental and material poverty, and stepping into the way of Europeanization as the real way of life deserved the human beings.
In this way, the resentfulness from historical destiny was transmitted by leading intelligentsia to other layers of the “Oriental” societies. In later historical developments, the transmutation of the Oriental man, originally being submissive toward his own eternal destiny, to the revolted man in search of another meaning and means of life, is one of the essential causes for disintegration of the Oriental world and its ultimate dissolution into the chaotic Third Worldly conditions. All contributions to the “underdeveloped” world, in the form of reorganization of the governmental system through introduction of the modern institutions of governance, modern educational institutions, and etc, in general, never succeeded to Europeanize the Oriental worlds, but aggravated the situation by creating imbalances in the mentality of the native peoples and the their whole traditional social, economic, and political structures, and, in this way, pushing them evermore toward their doomed Third Worldly destiny.
The post-Second World War era, with the rise of the anti-colonial feelings among people who aspired for political freedom from Western dominance, turned the previous fascination for everything European into a sense of anger and resentment toward it. Presence of the extreme leftist movements, inclining to the Soviet block and communist ideology, intensified these feelings, because, by their so-called “scientific” theorizations, they demonized the Western world as a monstrous voracious capitalist entity with an unbound thirst for plundering natural resources of other parts of the world and exploiting their peoples. The communist propaganda represented the Western world as ultimate responsible element for all miseries and poverty of the people in other parts of the world.
By keeping in mind this general depiction of the historical situation in the Third World, in this very short opportunity, I want to review briefly the reactions in Iran versus the West and modernity, as a concrete example. Iran, in spite of its long history full of foreign invasions, permanent destructions and reconstructions, in its very long history, had kept until recent times the Oriental spirit of its culture, based on strong religious and mystical inclinations in its way of life and thought. The mystical spirit of the Iranian culture has reflected itself best of all in the immense literary productions of its large number of poets, that some of them, like Rumi and Hafiz, stand at the top of the glowing names in the Iranian world. The dominance of the irrationalist, illuminationist philosophy in this country, from remote ages to modern times, expresses clearly the original “Oriental” nature of Iranian culture. Now, disregarding all interfering political, military, and economic factors, I may say that the encounter with the Occidental world and its rationalist spirit, imposed by the influence of European colonialism, had been a demolishing experience for a culture which had preserved its unique Oriental spirituality proudly for a very large span of historical time.
The destructive effects of the influence of the modern ideas and ways of life into this country is a painful story which has happened in the same way in the sphere of all Asiatic cultures and civilizations almost at the same time. Although Iran never was officially colonized by European powers, but as a buffer zone between two great European colonial powers, Russia and Great Britain, experienced a semi-colonial situation through which politically, economically, and culturally, followed the same way of transition from Orient to the Third World. The first generations of its emerging intelligentsia followed the project of the Europeanization of the country by remoulding the old political structure of the Asiatic despotism into the modern nation-state, and building modern institutions of education, industrialization of the country, etc. But all these benevolent deeds, in a culturally and politically unfavourable condition could never be fully realized.
The period of the revolt against the West among the Third World countries, in Iran witnessed a strong intellectual movement for search after a national identity based on original Oriental spiritualism against the Western so-called materialism. This intellectual movement later played a complementary role for a politically active religious movement which brought about the 1957’s revolution. In the Oriental part of the Third World, specifically Iran, the ideational elements imported from Occident, under the pressure of the political forces, in combination with native Oriental cultural elements, produced explosive matters which was spectacularly detonated in a political revolution which carries the emblem of “Islamic”. In this way Iran fulfilled its Third Worldly destiny.
This paper was presented to the HamletZar: Dissection, A Theater Research Conference, managed by Goossun Art-illery Group, at The Pit, Barbican Centre, London, 8-9 February 2010