Civilization-Barbarian-Savage: Categorization and Othering

Lewis Henry Morgan, a nineteenth century anthropologist, is credited with bringing the idea of the “ladder of cultural evolution” to the public. His theory, accepted as scientific at the time, suggested that there was a natural hierarchy between cultures that supported racial prejudice and subjugation of the perceived lesser peoples. Morgan’s scale had three distinct categories: civilized, barbarian, and savage. “Civilization” consisted of the Western ideals of private property and christian morality. “Barbarism” denoted those cultures in transition towards civilization who still had some “backward” ways to correct. “Savagery” was the lowest, most undesirable state that was equated with a complete absence of law, order, and morality. Aligning his theory with that of Charles Darwin, Morgan proposed that it was possible for a culture to evolve from one category to the next. However, this did little mitigate the resultant bigotry that the theory–at least to some–justified.

After reading Jenna’s post “Caliban, Colonialism, and Me,” I saw some connections between The Tempest, Morgan’s theory, and the “othering” described by Roach in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. Roach says that the result of an ingroup’s creation of an outgroup is “a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear, and desire in the construction of subjectivity: a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level.” In the context of the ladder of cultural evolution, this is seen in the fact that the highest categorization, “civilization,” relies as much on what it is not–the characteristics of “barbarism” and “savagery”–as it does on the values it supposedly espouses (order, morality, etc). “Civilization” can only be recognized by the creation of this other thing which Morgan’s theory calls “savagery” or “barbarism.” Without these other categories that civilization is meant to not be, there would be no stable identity for it to lean on.

The same can be observed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Caliban is categorized as a lesser being that Prospero and Miranda, and his categorization as such allows these other characters to have a stable identity based on that which they are not. As Jenna notes, in Shakespeare on the Green’s production he is given “outsider-status and condemned him to be unsympathetic.” In the Dramatis Personae section of the Dover Thrift edition of The Tempest, Caliban is described as “a savage and deformed Slave.” Prospero tells him he is “earth” is Act I, Scene II, giving a clear image that Caliban is both other from he and Miranda, but also inherently lower or lesser. Prospero and Miranda get to enjoy membership in this same non-Caliban category, even though their similarities end at the fact that they simply are not Caliban.

It is important to keep in mind it is largely agreed upon that Shakespeare had access to literature of his day surrounding colonialism and European encounters with new peoples. While Morgan’s formalized theory was centuries away from being verbalized, its premise that there existed hierarchy of cultures is seen in full effect both in the descriptions provided of Native Americans in documents such as the one we looked at in class and in Shakespeare’s characterization of Caliban as well. Even the same language, namely the insult of “savage,” appears in each source.

Appropriately, this cycles–or perhaps churns–back to my very first blog post of the semester, in which I mentioned political scientist Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities.” The three categorizations Morgan outlines in his theory are indeed imagined communities; they are constructed and subjective divisions that serve to provide cohesiveness for the in-group and a differentiation from the out-group. This makes it easy for one to declare that all members of the community are essentially the same and all members of other groups are totally incompatible. Were all European colonists entirely different from all the cultures they colonized? Are there no similarities between Caliban and Prospero? Of course the answer to both questions is a resounding no, but only by surmounting the divisive tactics of categorization and false hierarchy can one ever hope to arrive at this conclusion.


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