Books · Colonisation · Whiteness & racism

A Classic Re-read

OrientalismOrientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Obviously this is a must read, which has been much drawn on and critiqued by later post/anti-colonial writers. I have just read the copious notes I made when I read it in 2007 (sort of ironic that I read a westerner’s gloss rather than re-reading the original!?) and noted some points of particular interest…

John of Segovia proposed a conference with Islam designed to produce mass conversion ‘even if it were to last ten years it would be less expensive and damaging than war’

To me this is a perfect example of the assumption that in an ‘objective’ ‘rational’ comparison Islam/the Orient will be found inferior to Christianity/the West. It sounds absurd, yet the same attitude is reproduced constantly, including by mainstream feminists. I think non-Muslim/Arab/’Oriental’ folk should put the question to ourselves whenever considering or discussing Islam or the Middle East: ‘am I being John of Segovia?’

European Orientalism produced a very rich sophisticated body of knowledge (Said stresses at the outset that his text is not about comparing this construct to reality) that produced ideas – it is the corporate institution for dealing with the Middle East/Arab/Muslim world (henceforth, problematically, ‘the Orient’) – politically useful to European imperialist powers (henceforth, problematically, and including the USA, ‘the West’). Insofar as it studied Oriental texts, it interpreted them according to sweeping generalisations, never the human particular. The words of an ancient poet would be used as the foundation for foreign policy.

Visitors to the actual geographical Middle East were disappointed not to find the world described in classic orientalist texts, and interpreted this as the (further, because orientalist dogma starts from an assumption of faded glory) degeneration of the Orient! Confrontation with reality has not disrupted the othering construction of orientalism; everything is digested and processed by it.

For example, by 1955 the Orient described by 17th 18th century texts could not be recognised anywhere. Yet since one of the dogmas of orientalism is that the Orient cannot change, this new and strange place is out of order, full of pathological ‘dis-orientals’ and, I might cheekily offer, ‘rogue states’ which ‘we have lost’. National liberation movements shattered the image of passive, fatalistic subject populations, but they were replaced with the image of ‘extremists’ who were not true to their real passive fatalistic natures. Anticolonial movements are interpreted as insults to Western democracy.

H.A.R Gibb argued that Islam is fundamentally flawed, yet cannot change. Any attempt to change it is a betrayal.

Orientalism ignores class interests, political circumstances and economic factors. There is only the unchanging oriental character to consider.

To conquer the Orient is to liberate it, because ‘Arabs, especially Muslims know nothing about liberty & Islam is structurally favourable to fundamentalism’ (this is the argument made by new-atheist critics like Dawkins and Grayling)

Latent orientalism: the distillation of ideas about the Orient & orientals eg sensuality, femininity (Said points out that orientalism is a masculinist perspective), despotism, passivity, indifference, inaccuracy, backwardness, is distinguished from manifest orientalism: stated views about oriental history, society, literature, land and identifications with other philosophies. Any change in knowledge of orientalism takes place in the latter category, never deconstructing the former.

American orientalism is even more reductive, with non of the imaginative investment of European orientalism, but with the same cultural hostility and imperial projects. Arabic is studied for policy objectives.

The liberal veneer: ‘we’ study ‘others’ to get to know them, understand their cultures, so we allow them to represent themselves (within the confining space of orientalism)

Principle dogmas of orientalism:
1. The West is rational, developed, humane, superior while the Orient is underdeveloped, aberrant, inferior
2. Abstracts are always preferable to direct evidence since Orientals cannot be trusted
3. The Orient is uniform and unchanging, incapable of self definition, and the generalised and systematic vocabulary of orientalism used to describe it is entirely objective.
4. The Orient is to be feared, pacified by research and development, preferably occupied.

The central myth is the ‘arrested development of the semites’; Western power enables the reproduction of this myth.

Methodological failures of orientalism cannot be accounted for by saying the real Orient is different from orientalist portrayals or that orientalists, being Westerners, can have no inner sense of what the Orient is all about: Orientals are now educated in native lands in colonial founded underfunded universities with no good libraries and too many students. The USA is seen as the source of all learning, so students go there & learn orientalist dogma.

Said asks: How does one represent another culture? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture race/religion/civilization useful or doers it always get involved in self-congratulation or hostility & aggression? Construction of identity (never natural & stable) is bound up with power and powerlessness in each society. For example, in Shalimar the Clown Rushdie presents a complex and shifting picture of religious identity in Kashmir; Islam is complicated by context and is not at all the same everywhere. Cultures are so inter-related interdependent that unitary/simply delineated descriptions of their individuality are junk.

Scholars deny, suppress or distort the context of power that produces their systems of thought to maintain the fiction of scholarly disinterest (now we acknowledge and apologise for them, but proceed with our imperialism)

Western civilization is an ideological fiction, implying detached superiority of a handful of values & ideas meaningless outside the history of conquest immigration travel & mingling of peoples that gave western nations their present mixed identities. The USA for example is a palimpsest of different races & cultures sharing problematic histories of conquest, exterminations and major cultural & political achievements.

Said’s aim is not to (paraphrased:) dissipate difference – the constitutive role of national & cultural differences in relations between people can’t be denied – but to challenge the notion that difference implies hostility and the frozen, reified set of opposed essences & adversarial knowledge built out of these things. We need new way of conceiving the separations & conflicts that stimulated generations of hostility war & imperial control.

‘Animosities & inequalities represent not an eternal order, but a historical experience whose end may be at hand.’

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