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Apr 12, 2012

Orientalism

Edward Said: Said's Orientalism is perhaps one of the most influ­ential texts of the twentieth century (Spivak calls it a "source book" and Bhabha refers to it as "inaugurating the postcolonial field"). His path breaking work in this book and later ones such as Culture and Imperialism, his activist writings on the Palestine cause have made Said the leading intellectual of the postcolonial and marginalized people of the world. Said's argument borrows from Michel Foucault's dual notions of "discourse" and knowledge as inextricably linked to power. To recapitulate Foucault:

(a) Discourse is the conceptual terrain of thought, a system of ideas and opinions that sanctions certain forms of knowing, and expressions of certain know ledges (see note on "dis­course" at the conclusion of chapter one).

(b) All "will to knowledge" is tied up with the will to power. There can be no expression/imposition of power without prior knowledge about the subject of power (for more de­tails see the section on Foucault in the chapter on post structuralism and deconstruction).

Said argues that knowledge about the Orient (Asia, the East and non-European cultures) was not disinterested or knowledge for the sake of knowledge: it preceded actual colonial practices. In fact, colonial practices (political, economic) necessitated the production of such knowledge. Thus knowledge is bound up with power. Here Said adopts Gramsci's notion of the modes of hegemonic oppression--coercion and consent (see section on Gramsci in the chapter on Marxist criticism). The colonial power based on Orientalist knowledge does not rely on physical force as much as the consent of the native. Also, these texts and discourses present the imperialist programme as natural and necessary. The native agrees to be colonised when he accepts the colonial stereotypes of himself. The civil society apparatus of education, religion after adopting the stereotype, justifies and consents to being colonised subjects.

One may now define Orientalism in Said's own terms The term originally referred to the work of Indologists like Sir William Jones and H.H. Wilson, who translated and compiled Indian literary works, laws and codes for use by colonial administrators. Said's use of the te(m sums up the colonial project when he de­fines Orientalism "a manner of regularised (or Orientalised) writing, vision, and study dominated by imperatives, perspec­tives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient. The Orient is taught, researched, administered, and pronounced in certain discrete ways." He adds "Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinc­tion made between 'the Orient' and 'the Occident' ... Orien­talism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient."

The discourse of Orientalism is the production of ideas, knowl­edge and opinions about the Orient. This included certain modes of representation of the Orient through Othering (where the Ori­ent was Europe's dark Other). Analysing this discourse, Said reads a range of texts-literary, philological, philosophical, ad­ministrative, and ethnographic and others. Said demonstrates that these texts were the lens through which the Orient was viewed preliminary to being ruled. The texts were "worldly" in the sense they exhibit the pressures, preoccupations and prejudices of the world around them-therefore no text is free of its con­texts of production. This meant that knowledge or literary imaginations could not be considered innocent, for they were complicit with the political agenda of colonialism. The Orient was interpreted in European fashion, to fulfill certain European ends. In Said's words "the Orient is something one judges (as in a court of law), something one studies (as in a curriculum), something one disciplines (as in a school or prison), or illus­trates (as in a zoological museum)."

Certain kinds of ideological assumptions informed these texts and produced stereotypes of the native: the ignorance of the na­tives, their effeminacy and indolence, their oversexed nature, their essential untrustworthiness, the superiority of the European and his knowledge and others. These stereotypes of the weak and stupid native l1elped justify and even necessitate Western presence as the ml1sculine, strong and rational protector. The Westerner must look after the poor native who could not look after himself. Thus the stereotype helps introduce a Western presence in various guises and roles-of the protector (police, army), educator (teacher), administrator (bureaucracy and po­litical presence), saviour (missionary). The cultural bias helped posit a political vision of otherness. As Said puts it, the Oriental man was first an Oriental and only secondly a man. There were various indices, which Oriental set up ism as a field of study.

(a) 1765-1850 marked the period of discovery. The Orient was exotic, profound, and mysterious. The Orientalist, usually an expert in language (at this stage) travelled through the country, seeing the Orient through European eyes. The vi­sion, which the Orientalist brought to the field of study, was European. They were rarely interested in anything except proving the value of their "truths."

(b) Soon 3econd-order knowledge was produced. This was the Oriental tale, the mythology of the mysterious Orient. All things in history, like History itself, were created for the Orient: it was set up as mysterious and barbarous long be­fore anything was known about it. Later discoveries were to validate these early "findings." The completely new was seen as versions of a previously known thing. Thus, Islam – radically new way of life – was seen as a fraudulent ver­sion of Christianity. The Orient "vacillates" between the West's contempt for what is familiar and its shivers of de­light or fear of novelty. The Orient is penalised for lying outside "our" world (the West). It is thus "Orientalised."

(c) The Orientalist always chose the conquering West. The Ori­ent existed and was treated not as something present, but for its series of valorised contacts it had had with a distant European past. The Orient itself was treated/perceived in some distant past, as unchanging and static, what Said iden­tifies as a "synchronic essentialism" (the term is Talal Asad's). The Orient was static, an essential vision rather than a vibrant, changing narrative. This vision is under pressure from the narrative, which introduces diachronic into the vision. The stability and unchanging nature of the Orient (vision) is threatened by the instability of narrative. This in­stability suggests that history, with its tendency towards growth; decline or dramatic movement is possible in the Orient. Narrative suggests that the vision is insufficient and does an injustice to the potential of reality for change. Nar­rative is the form taken by history to counter the perma­nence of vision. When the Orientalists were aware of some contemporary movements of/in Oriental thought or culture, these were perceived as silent shadows to be animated by the Orientalists, to be "brought into reality" by them. Modern Orientalism has four elements:

(a) Expansion: of the Orient further east geographically loosened the Biblical framework. The reference points were no longer Christianity but India, China, Japan and Buddhism.

(b) Historical confrontation: Capacity to deal historically with a non-European culture was to understand Europe in its objective relations with others.

(c) Sympathy: Selective identification with regions and cultures not one's own wore down the unyielding categories/ defini­tions of self and identity. The notions of humanity were no longer restricted to the borders of Christian Europe.

(d) Classification: of mankind multiplied.

The Orientalist scholar had three intentions and categories of study:
(a) Providing professional Oriental ism with scientific knowl­edge. Here the Orientalist considers his stay in the Orient as a form of scientific observation.
(b) He was less willing to sacrifice the individual consciousness to impersonal Orientalist definitions.
(c) The writer saw the trip to the Orient as a fulfilment of some personal project.

Said distinguishes between latent and manifest Oriental ism. Latent Orientalism is the unconscious positivity. Here ideas and prejudices of Oriental backwardness, racial inequality and de­generacy exist. Manifest Orientalism is the various stated views about Oriental society, languages and culture, all of which rele­gate the native to a "dreadful secondariness," as Said terms it. All the changes occurring in the knowledge of the Orient takes place in manifest Orientalism.

There were two principal methods by which Orientalism deliv­ered the "Orient" to the West in the early twentieth century:

(a) Through apparatuses of learning – universities, professional societies, explorational and geographical organisations, publishing industry.

(b) The relation between Orientalist and the Orient: the transla­tion/interpretation of the Orient by the Orientalist, who re­mained "outside" the Orient.

The Orientalist then provides his society with representations of the Orient. These representations:

(a) bear his distinctive imprint
(b) illustrate his conception of what the Orient can or ought to be
(c) consciously contort someone else's view of the Orient
(d) provide Orientalist discourse with what, at that moment, it seems most in need of
(e) respond to certain cultural, professional, political and eco­nomic developments of the epoch.

In Culture and Imperialism, Said undertakes a massive and brilliant rereading of canonical texts like Heart of Darkness, Kim and A Passage to India to demonstrate their implication in imperial discourse. His early comments on culture are useful in understanding the overall slant of his work here. Said argues that the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging is very important to culture and imperi­alism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them. Nations themselves are narrations.

Culture soon comes to be associated with the nation or state, it becomes a source of identity. Culture becomes a theatre where various political and ideological causes engage one another. The "great cultural archive... is where the intellectual and aesthetic investments in overseas dominion are made."

Said states that his purpose is to read individual texts as great products of the creative imagination and then as part of the re­lationship between culture and empire. Said suggests that there are two perspectives possible: to see America, for instance, as an immigrant settler society superimposed on the considerable native one. To see American identity is to decide between a unitary identity and a complex but not reductively unified one. The former perspective is linear and subsuming, the latter is contrapuntal and nomadic. Said argues that the contrapuntal reading is sensitive to historical experience.
Imperialism and colonialism are supported by (a) notions that certain territories require and beseech domination, (b) forms of knowledge affiliated with domination. These include notions of inferior subject races, dependency, expansion, and authority. Said argues that in all nationally defined cultures, there is an aspiration to sovereignty, and to dominance.

When their hold on overseas territories began to fray, the European powers projected their power backward in time. This gave a history and legitimacy which only longevity could im­part. Natives do similar constructions of what they supposed themselves to have been prior to colonialism (i.e. return to a precolonial "pure" golden age).

People who protested against colonialism were heard only par­tially in the West and by the ruling authorities in their own so­cieties (Ngugi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz). “Rhetoric of blame" is common to the Western and colonised people in postcolonial public discourse.

Today's Western discourse is nostalgic and refers to the unap­preciated magnanimity of the West by the natives. This as­sumes the primacy and centrality of the West.

Said suggests that we need a contrapuntal perspective-think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant, each with its own agenda, pace of development, internal for­mation and coherence, system of external relationships all co­existing and interacting with one another. Said is thus sug­gesting that we abandon a unified approach that goes by the master narrative, and adopt a technique where marginal and apparently contradictory narratives battle. This is contrapuntal reading informed and influenced by a "hermeneutics of suspi­cion": "a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which the dominating discourse acts." What Said is suggesting, in short, is a disputation reading process, where the author's "given" must be seen in the light of texts/experiences which are effaced. (A parallel method may be seen in New Historicist readings, see chapter on the same above).

Resistance has two phases: actual fighting against outside inva­sion and ideological resistance to save or restore the sense and fact of the community against the colonial system. Said argues that no matter how complete the dominance of imperialist ide­ology, there are parts of social experience that it does not cover. Said identifies three topics that manifest in decolonising cultural resistance:

(a) The insistence on the right to see the community's history whole, coherently and integrally. Thus national culture and memory is revived and emphasised. Local narratives, spiri­tual autobiographies, prison memoirs form a counterpoint to Western official discourses, histories or panoptic view­points.

(b) Resistance as an alternative way of conceiving human his­tory. This seeks to disrupt European narratives, and replac­ing them with a more playful narrative style (Said uses Midnight's Children as example here). This may be the re­turn of the once "subjugated knowledges" (Said adopts the term from Foucault). Thus the works of Marquez, Rushdie, Achebe and Soyinka interrogates the assumptions of impe­rialist discourse. The nomadic novel transgresses the limits imposed by imperial categories and also nativist/provincial nationalism.

(c) Pull away from separatist nationalism towards a more inte­grative view of human community and liberation. Said sug­gests that cultures are interdependent, and nationalism is an intellectual trend that favours more generous human reali­ties of community among cultures. This community is the ,real human liberation heralded by the resistance to imperi­alism.

Nativism reinforces the distinction (us/them) while revaluating the weaker partner. To accept nativism is "to accept the conse­quences of imperialism, the racial, religious and political divi­sions imposed by imperialism itself." Further, Said warns that abandonment of the historical world for the "metaphysics of essences like negritude, Irishness, Islam or Catholicism is to abandon history for essential isms that have the power to turn human beings against each other." Postcolonial narratives pro­gress from dependence and inferiority to nationalist revival, independent state formation and cultural autonomy in an "anxious partnership" with the West.

Ideological and cultural wars against imperialism occur in the form of resistance in colonies. This later becomes the dissent in metropolises of Europe. The first phase produces nationalist independence struggles, the second leads to liberation strug­gles.

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