Saturday, August 7, 2010

Orientalism and Islam

Iconoclastic is the status Orientalism has attained since its hallowed inception – a text which spelt death for the traditional genre of ‘Oriental Studies’ and hailed the creation of an academic focus based on differences and contrasts. Some would argue that such an interpretation renders Edward Said’s controversial text (Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient) as an amplified amalgamation of colonial facts encompassing the effect of imperialism on culture within a broad ethnographic analysis heavily based on literary sources. Whilst the aforementioned elements are present in the text, one must constantly avert away from the temptation of performing a historical analysis on Said’s work; and instead focus on the postmodern interpretation of Orientalism. This essay seeks to comparatively review Said’s theoretical basis for Orientalism; henceforth named ‘Said’an Orientalism’ with the manifestations of the same subject matter in the ‘post-Orientalism’ period (extending from the publication of the text until the present).

Written in 1978, Orientalism is a book surmising the broad theoretical reasoning behind the discourse of the modern Middle East. It draws upon classical literature, anthropological as well as sociological sources to validate the history of the Orient as ‘other’. The title of the book itself testifies to an underlying negativity by referring to the knowledge of the Orient as being of ‘conceptual’ value; hence the understandable animosity against the text by former ‘Orientalists’ who could have easily been accused of performing vital roles in the subjection of the Orient at the hands of an Occident, in which they were and continue to be institutionalised within.

Though the text is so readily accepted amongst students and academics ranging across multiple disciplines, one must admit that it is not the most accessible text on the relationship the Orient has with the colonial and modern worlds respectively. Understanding Said’an Orientalism often requires multiple secondary sources in the hopes of not misconstruing Said’s discourse. The reasons for this difficulty will be explored in detail using both the core text and commentaries written about Said’an Orientalism.
Said situates Orientalism for the audience albeit in rather obscure terms by stating that, ‘it (the subject matter of Orientalism) is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts...’

An initial reading of such a composed definition renders the subject matter as being one which permeates many areas of academic thought - aesthetic, scholarly, sociological and so forth; but is not entirely anchored in any one discipline. Such a subject matter is therefore impossible to tackle from a single, commonly held angle as its focus is not a single or common topic. Ning explains this by situating Said’an Orientalism as an image portrayed in the mind of an Occidental; such an image dissipates when the Occidental individual or institution stops observing the ‘Orient’.

In simple terms, Said’an Orientalism exists only in the presence of the Occidental gaze. One can ascertain from this relationship that the Occident requires the Orient as a point of reference, a point of balancing opposition and the perfect ‘other’. Not only is this relationship voyeuristic towards the Orient, but it performs a purpose of double backing – a sort of reflective mirror in which the Occident can view its differences from the Orient whilst still surveying the Orient from a position of power.

Ning’s explanation of the ‘other’ as a theoretic balance to ‘us’ (Orient and Occident respectively) is wholly supported by Said as he regards the two entities as reflections and historical supports for each other. This reflection requires further elaboration when dealing with Orientalism as it is inextricably linked with the lack of representation of the Orient in and around the Occidental presence. Said assists to edge the audience into a categorical viewpoint by emphasising that ‘...[his] real argument is that Orientalism is – and does not simply represent – a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world.’

This leads one to believe that although Said’an Orientalism may present as a physical manifestation in the contemporary world, its theoretical anatomy is heavily based in colonial and the immediate post-colonial eras and therefore hearken back to a period no longer relative in the modern age. Following the common Marxist quote to be found early in Orientalism, Said reminds us of the purpose of Oriental Studies within the colonial timeframe; ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’ The European representation of the Orient through literature, art, photography as well as imaginary depictions formed a Western dominance over the Orient.
The thematic lack of representation is an omnipresent feature of Said’an Orientalism whereby he maintains a Marxist explanation whereby the Orient was and to an extent is unable to represent itself. In other words, Orientalism was and continues to be an institutionalised discipline whose authority arises from the descriptive and analytical practices that projected constructions of the Orient in political, socio-economic, militaristic and imaginative terms.
One’s understanding of the Orient (specifically from the Occident’s viewpoint) is introduced and directed through a single word Said utilises in his reconsideration of Orientalism written seven years after the original text; this word being ‘interlocutor’ ties in heavily with the aforementioned Marxist concept of representation. The lens in which Said’an Orientalism is positioned performs the role of an ‘interlocutor’, a middle-man of sorts who aims to bring about dialogue between two distant entities. Is Said’an Orientalism therefore a case of conversation ‘lost in translation’ between East and West – Orient and Occident respectively?

Habib harshly denounces and even challenges Said’an Orientalism and its relative discourse to the point of the latter’s credibility. A pre-Said Orientalist discourse would have entailed the ‘Orientalist’ as being of western origin and education ; such an individual was not likely to have been well travelled or have lived in the Orient they were so zealously writing about.
Said himself being an American of Palestinian heritage undoubtedly suffers from a cultural distance he cannot bridge no matter how much he learns the Arabic language,‘...(his) concept of ‘orientalism’ is both far too general and far too restricted...the limits of his definitions so set...his conclusions are thereby simply pre-determined.’
Habib continues to deconstruct Said’an Orientalism by stating that the ‘lack of representation’ seen to be the main reason behind Said’s effect of colonialism in the oriental sphere is in fact based on Marx’s commentary regarding the French peasantry throughout the mid nineteenth century. Whether the re-appropriation of this Marxist view is relevant or even acceptable when referring to an eastern discourse is a questionable practise Said knowingly or unknowingly limited himself to.

Such ‘pre-determined’ outcomes of which Said is writes of on Oriental discourse (according to Habib) directly situate Said’an Orientalism as guilty of the Western gaze it so vehemently accuses of being responsible for the plight of the Orient.
Said’an Orientalism and the discourse it bears are so far immersed in the intricate details between national and historical conflict rather than the sociological or ethnographic analysis required to properly communicate the subject matter. Is the identity of Said’an Orientalism obscured by its own vindication to identify the western conception of the orient?
Consolidating the definition of the socially constructed identity is an aspect Hughes–Warrington (2007) explores as the, ‘...moral, religious, public political, professional, family and gender discourses... (all) may foster competing notions of self identity’.

In writing Orientalism, Said further moulded and directed the identity of Orientalism towards main stream knowledge. Such an unprecedented attempt at identifying the main factors whose presence created the ‘Orient’ had a profound effect on the history and understanding of the colonies and protectorates formerly under French and British control.
These aspects in due course transcended time and have still tainted the identity of the modern ‘oriental’ individual. Prime examples of ‘Orientals’ who were seen to be central to the formulation of the colonial sovereignty were the Egyptians who were considered as the midpoint between historical memory and modern actuality. Their future was no longer theirs, but rather they belonged to the aspiring European powers.
Said emphasises further that Egypt’s status as the birthplace of the arts, sciences and government inevitably caused it to become the prime target as the ‘plot of land’ for European advancement.
This in itself could be regarded as the nexus point for the East’s dissolution as a modern power – one would not however agree with Said that this is solely the Occident’s fault; but rather it seems that victimising the East has only furthered their demise. By repetitively calling an entity weak, you demoralise and lower the propensity for this entity to advance on its own accord.
Halliday’s valuable advice is immensely welcome when tackling Said’an discourse; he speaks of ‘an element of distance (being), all the more advisable’. This distance is problematic nonetheless as it bears a dual-edged feature; on one hand the distance allows for a greater breadth of knowledge and collection of contextual evidence however it lacks the ethnographic ‘grassroots’ approach vital to properly understanding, presenting and representing the Orient.

Though he does not attack Said’an Orientalism and its evident discourse like Habib or Ning, Halliday willingly rebukes Said for the lack of ethnological basis upon which the latter’s ground-breaking text is not built around.
Halliday writes in 1993 and is therefore privy to the experience of the newly emerged ‘Islamic’ other (immediately during the aftermath of the first Gulf War). For one to understand the Orient in its modern context, the experience must comprise of both first-hand confrontation augmented by proper induction into the Oriental sphere.
Mere knowledge of the Arabic language and its tenets (being a prime root of Islamic culture) within the scope of Orientalism is simply not enough to draw conclusions in regards to such a complex and multi-layered entity spanning North Africa, Asia Minor and to an extent South Asia and the Far East.
It is however the language of the Orient which Said hails from that one must master before hoping to properly comprehend the persona of the subject matter in its totality. Firstly, those of Arabic extraction will know that their native language has many words for the same ‘thing’; it is the context which alters meaning and not the word.

Phrases such as ‘umma’ originate from ‘um’ which means ‘mother’. The Western academic would be easily forgiven for assuming that ‘umma’ could be suitably aligned with the English cognate: ‘motherland’. The word ‘umma’ however is rarely used to denote a secular concept of nation for the Arabic speaker, rather it is most commonly used to introduce an Islamic element; hence ‘el umma al-islamia’ which is to say the Islamic mother-nation. Unlike a Tsarist concept of ‘motherland’, the Islamic concept of nation is borderless due to its reliance on common religion rather than secular agreement of nation-states. Sounds awfully similar to the Holy Roman Empire and its reliance on Catholicism as a binding force to control multiple states – why then is the Islamic ‘Umma’ so misunderstood even when comparisons to the Medieval Roman Empire are so clear?
Re-appropriation is common in Arabic as can be witnessed by the word ‘dawla’ – originating from the Turkish ‘davli’. Ottoman occupation of Egypt and the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) allowed for word borrowing; the words themselves however were utilised in very different contexts. The English cognate for the Arabic word could be likened to ‘nation-state’ whereas the English equivalent to the Turkish is similar to ‘governing body’. The use of either word in their social contexts would certainly be different. From this we note that Western scholars may unknowingly translate original texts without first consulting the contextual evidence for the use of that particular word.

Halliday outlines an interesting point in that an Iranian-Islamic like Khomeini is as much an Orientalist as the French and British imperialists . Khomeini envisioned an Islamic state, an entity unto itself void of outside influence – a concept familiar to Orientalism as was thought of Egypt by any of Bonaparte’s entourage in the Egyptian campaigns preceding the Iranian revolution by almost exactly two hundred years.
Said’s book is rarely read from beginning to conclusion; rather both students and scholars are attracted to particular sections of the text and as Varisco states, ‘Most of the early reviews focused on those parts of the book the reviewer knew something about. Only a few of these reviewers took the time to actually read the sources cited, and at times misquoted by Said.’
As was aforementioned, the breadth Said’s text encompasses is mammoth enough to inadvertently suffer from a sort of dilution of ideas. His attempt to cover all the aspects relevant to the Oriental discourse forces the reader to focus on what they can both relate to and understand. Experiencing this whilst reading Said’s text, one like many others studying Orientalism felt constantly torn between agreeing and disagreeing with Said’an Orientalism; particularly in how it sought to identify its subject matter.

Complicating this flaw in identity, Said’s speaking for such a broad field of ethnicities unfortunately let down each of those he mentioned in the text. Simply put, there was not and will never be a way to lump together the Far Eastern identities such as the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans with the South Asians of whom Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians are representative; these can neither be reconciled with the Middle Eastern personas of Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Saudi Arabians and citizens of the United Arab Emirates.
Adding to an already complex set of amalgamated identities, the role of Persians (Iranians), Indians, Egyptians and the Turks is varied and subject to the era in which one studies each society – none of which however, can be ‘fitted’ in the Far East, Middle East or Asia Minor Orient.

The limitation of Said’an Orientalism lays in what Thomas refers to as ‘the novelty of its project’, one where ‘homogenisation of the object of study was almost inevitable.’ One can only conclude that revisiting the Orient and separating the behemoth geographic expanse is required to properly re-asses the unique cultural identities with an ethnological and ethnographic purpose; to lump these societies together under the banner of ‘Orientals’ whereby the study of the subject is deemed ‘Orientalism’ renders no practical or positive outcome in a contemporary world. It is the dissolution of boundaries as explained by Prakash which has caused the extra-ordinary effect Orientalism has on the study of the Orient as separate human entity. It is these very boundaries which are necessary in the effort to sustain the cultural comparisons and contrasts of each ‘Oriental’ nation’s identity; perhaps removing the boundaries has caused less globalisation within the Oriental sphere and more discord and confusion.

Reference List
1. Burke E. and Prochaska D., Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics. (2008) University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln.
2. Habib I., In Defence of Orientalism: Critical Notes on Edward Said. Social Scientist, Vol. 33, No.1 (2005), pp. 40 – 46
3. Halliday F., 'Orientalism' and Its Critics. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1993), pp. 145-163
4. Hughes-Warrington M., History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (2007) Routledge: New York.
5. Ning W., Orientalism versus Occidentalism? New Literary History, Vol. 28, No. 1, Cultural Studies: China and the West (1997), pp. 57 – 67
6. Prakash G., Orientalism Now. History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1995), pp. 199 – 212
7. Roberts M. And Beaulieu J., Orientalism’s Interlocutors: Painting, Architecture, Photography. (2002) Duke University Press: Durham.
8. Said E. W., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. (1995) Clays Ltd: London.
9. Said E. W., Orientalism Reconsidered. Cultural Critique, No. 1 (1985), pp. 89 – 107
10. Sturken M. and Cartwright L., Practices of Looking: An introduction to Visual Culture (2001). Oxford University Press: New York.
11. Thomas N., Anthropology and Orientalism. Anthropology Today, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1991)pp.4 – 7
12. Varisco D. M., Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid. (2007) University of Washington Press: Seattle.

As written for ANTH365 - Semester Two 2009 - Macquarie University, Sydney

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