The World Turned Upside Down

The Dictionary of Global Culture

edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Knopf, 771 pp., $35.00

The publishers of this large double-columned book, throwing modesty to the winds, as publishers perhaps must in these hard times, claim that it “provides what every American needs to know as we enter the next century.” The editors, “two of our most esteemed scholars,” offer “the global citizen’s guide to world culture, emphasizing the achievement of the non-Western world.” By way of justifying this emphasis the publisher points out that “in the year 2000, half the world’s people will be Asian, and one eighth will be African…. Of the world’s twenty largest cities, none will be in Europe or the U.S.” These figures make it not unreasonable to argue that we are on the threshold of a new age; half a millennium of “domination by Europe and people of European descent” is coming to an end.

So this looked like a suitable moment to provide a new cultural map, registering worldwide cultural achievement, and, while recording “more frankly the evils that were done in the course of Europe’s expansion,” remaining ready “to celebrate the very real achievements of those Western cultures” and their useful technological advances. To this end the editors, both Harvard professors, have enlisted a large number of expert contributors to draft a couple of thousand dictionary entries, meant to inform Americans about the large remainder of world culture, while doing justice to such parts of the very real Western achievement that in their view still deserve a place in the new order.

They admit that they cannot hope to be exhaustive and may even seem haphazard. They foresee that like such comparable enterprises as the Encyclopédie and Johnson’s Dictionary their book is likely to go out of date quite quickly. And what they offer cannot be a grammar of the new global culture, only a lexicon. But they are sure the work was worth doing, and by way of endorsing this opinion the publisher announced a first printing of 50,000 copies.

Few will dispute the demographic arguments outlined above. Without much doubt there are going to be major changes in the cultural map, and Professors Appiah and Gates want to introduce and celebrate them—authoritatively, but with as little overt aggression as possible. They silently avoid appearances of extremism; moderate Afrocentrists, they do not claim the African origin of all Western culture, or assert that the philhellenist Western cultural tradition was invented to support European imperialism. It is not claimed here that Greek culture was essentially African. Indeed there is no mention of Afrocentrism, nor is there an entry for Professor Leonard Jeffries. The entry on Socrates is milk-and-water stuff, with no allusion to his probable color. On the other hand, opportunities to celebrate the Arabic origins of algebra, the Indian and Arabic invention of zero, and other very real non-European achievements that Europeans have found useful are naturally, and quite reasonably, not neglected.

It is easy to forget that “Western” conceptions of culture have long allowed for a continuing interest in the non-European world; the debt…

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