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Maria Boletsi

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This essay revisits the historical narrative of the Roman Empire and its ‘barbarians’ and its evocations in Western public rhetoric since 1989. It sketches the political climate since the early 1990s that gave shape to what has been called the culturalization of politics—a redrawing of global political divides in terms of culture—and probes the rekindled rhetoric of civilization and barbarian invasions in relation to this discursive shift. In this context, the essay centers on two issues. First, it enters recent debates on terrorism in Western media and politics, comparing uses of barbarism with uses of the savage and the monster in responses to terror—a comparison that reveals the conflicting frames guiding the perception of ‘Islamic’ and ‘white’ terrorism. Second, it traces the ambivalent workings of the barbarian-figure in the terrain of ‘post-truth politics,’ where the barbarian is mobilized both for designating threatening external others and as a potentially affirmative figure for (self-)representation. The focus here lies on the role of the barbarian in the profiling of the political persona that has come to exemplify this politics: Donald J. Trump.

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Barbarism Revisited

New Perspectives on an Old Concept

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Edited by Maria Boletsi and Christian Moser

The figure of the barbarian has captivated the Western imagination from Greek antiquity to the present. Since the 1990s, the rhetoric of civilization versus barbarism has taken center stage in Western political rhetoric and the media. But how can the longevity and popularity of this opposition be accounted for? Why has it become such a deeply ingrained habit of thought that is still being so effectively mobilized in Western discourses?
The twenty essays in this volume revisit well-known and obscure chapters in barbarism's genealogy from new perspectives and through contemporary theoretical idioms. With studies spanning from Greek antiquity to the present, they show how barbarism has functioned as the negative outside separating a civilized interior from a barbarian exterior; as the middle term in-between savagery and civilization in evolutionary models; as a repressed aspect of the civilized psyche; as concomitant with civilization; as a term that confuses fixed notions of space and time; or as an affirmative notion in philosophy and art, signifying radical change and regeneration.
Proposing an original interdisciplinary approach to barbarism, this volume includes both overviews of the concept's travels as well as specific case studies of its workings in art, literature, philosophy, film, ethnography, design, and popular culture in various periods, geopolitical contexts, and intellectual traditions. Through this kaleidoscopic view of the concept, it recasts the history of ideas not only as a task for historians, but also literary scholars, art historians, and cultural analysts.