Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Me, Eddy, and the Oriental Arts

It has been a little bit more than 30 years since Edward Said published a book called Orientalism and shook up the historical world like a firecracker in a paranoid cat factory. You get it, because cats are notoriously skittish, and if there was a firecracker they'd run and... well I guess they couldn't really shake the walls of a factory very much, but at least the cats themselves would be shaken up. I warn anyone reading this to not look too deeply into this allusion, it is in the end simply a bad joke. Don't take history so seriously, I admit it can be a life or death matter sometimes, but heck, people take life and death too seriously too.

I feel Edward Said took Orientalism a little too seriously. I should not speak too ill of the deceased, and Professor Said died about 4 years ago. Still I doubt he would want that fact to shield him from criticism and besides while I do believe Edward Said took Orientalism a little too seriously, I also think he had reason to. He was a Christian Palestinian who was forced from his home by war, his life was one of wandering, spending much of his adulthood in an America that could look at him as nothing but a foreigner. And a particular type of foreigner in fact, an Oriental.

I say this because Edward Said's book was all about the context in which history, literature, and scholarship is written. And he admits, to fairly assess him one must take an inventory of his context. Said also speaks much of political context and so let me give his political context, he's an advocate for the Palestinian cause, although he admits the legitimacy of the Israeli experience. It would be unfair to judge him as a stereotype political propagandist though, especially since his books about the stereotypes the West brings to the East and its politics. He's a man of great analytical skill, I'll give him that. His writings are still under copyright but there are some articles of his on the web, I point you to an article in Al-Ahram Weekly for starters, although it does not fully encapsulate the man.

So I have hinted, I have suggested, I have been circuitous. Let me now tell you what Orientalism is about. Orientalism is about the context of the East in the mind of the West. More particularly than the West he talks about Europe till WWII and US afterwards, and of the East, Said concentrates on the Middle East, but this is about the East in the mind of the West. The Orient, he explains, is not a matter of geography, it is not just the land past a certain meridian. It is a matter of imaginative construction. The Orient is an amorphous body of assumptions and ideas about the world outside Europe which has colored any thoughts, whether mundane or even abstractly scholarly, about the Middle East, India, China (although I'm not sure how much Said talks about China) and the rest due to its effects. This body of constructs then, often far removed from the reality, is the lens through which the politics of the West are decided, and just as importantly this body of constructs is shaped by politics and has become a justification for the exploitive actions of the West.

Now that's just my basic imagination of what he's saying. This is from his introduction mind you, but he says the rest of the book is just an illustration of his case. His language is thick and confusing though so I might have gotten some of his thoughts wrong. More notably, his language is thick in the manner of the English department, the Poli. Sci. department and the Philosophy Department. What is I think subtly annoying about Said to most historians, and what actually weakens his argument at times, is that he is not a historian but rather as he calls it a "humanities" professor. But then again, his point is that philosophy, politics, literature, and history all interact and in the case of the Eastern world for Europe, they distort the reality.

You can compare my analysis of Said's work with Wikipedia's summary if you so choose.

But since the book is readily available, and summaries of it are a dime a dozen on the web, I'm going to lay off of that. Besides, as I've said, I only read the introduction. But the introduction, in addition to the main point, has a particular few lines that I hope the heirs of Edward Said's estate will not begrudge me to quote.

"My two fears are distortion and inaccuracy, or rather the kind of inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic a generality and too positivistic a localized focus ... I have been discussing, difficulties, that might force one ... into writing a coarse polemic on so unacceptably general a level of description as not to be worth the effort."

I hope you will trust me when I say that I am indeed presenting this quote accurately. Basically he fears he will be too broad and general. He is also afraid of being too specific, and as far as I can tell his solution is to make a broad statement in the introduction and then back it up through specific examples in his book. At least that's my sense of things. But I think in the end, even using specific examples does not stop him from becoming so over-general that he becomes distortive and inaccurate. He is after all condemning an entire discipline and its history, without, as he admits, offering any alternative means for the West to study the East. It is to his credit he tried to resist the urge towards "distortion and inaccuracy" but the ambition to revolutionize the interconnected fields of Western politics, literature, and history in regards to the Eastern world made that impossible.

Edward Said makes some good points. He rightfully points out that the historical and political situation of the individuals writing about the Eastern world inevitably leave their fingerprints. Moreover, he rightfully points out that even those removed from that political and historical situation are informed by the tradition formed from then. Yet Said goes as far to suggest that this makes them fundamentally unreliable, and that the entire tradition of Eastern studies must now be discarded as sullied. There is my disagreement with him. There is our debating ground.

You have to check for biases. You have to look for them even in insidious places like analysis of economies. When Marx in the Communist Manifesto talks about Europeans opening China to commerce as the march of capitalism and industrialization, pause for a moment. Well, it's true in terms of factories and steam power China was behind England and France. But was it behind Germany or Russia? Moreover, in terms of roadwork and administrative sophistication, China was certainly as modern as most of Europe. I mean Britian was certainly more capitalistic than China, but be careful in assuming, as I believe Marx does that Europe as a whole is.

Even in literature this imaginative construct of Orientalism forms a lens over reality. Kipling lived in India. He knew what it was like. Yet in Kim he presents a wandering Tibetan monk who has no knowledge of worldly things. Let's think for a moment. A monk who traveled to India would likely spend some time in Indian spiritual circles, which in the 19th century were filled with ultra-sophisticated intellectuals who were intimately connected with the worlds of science, finance, and European-Indian relations. Sure, it is a story, and a highly unlikely one by that, but just remember that this too is one of those unlikely details.

Fine, fine to all that. I agree with Said that there is this imaginative construct of Orientalism that taints Western accounts. But IT DOES NOT DISCREDIT THE TRADITION. When English translators translated Arabic works they interpreted through their impressions of the Muslim world, but those translations still often convey the core of the meaning of those works especially when one takes them with a grain of salt. The travelers accounts contain their own views but they often contain very valuable historical material. Marco Polo's accounts of Kublai Khan were influenced by the eternal European search for a counterweight to the Muslim world, but the details of his travel are immensely valuable, sometimes recording things that might never have been noted even by the people who lived in those lands.

And then we have the full complexity of Orientalism. It wasn't just the tradition that justified imperialism. It was also the tradition that often protested most vigorously against imperialism. Take late 18th c. England. While the British East Indian company justified their conquests in India by India's primitive non-capitalism, shown by their ancient though opulent unchanging traditions. Yet the myth of eternal perfect luxury of India also convinced many that India was a great beacon of civilization. Adam Smith for example, when hearing of the East India Company's actions was horrified.

And then we have modern Orientalism. Said is correct that modern Eastern studies inherit a tainted legacy from old Orientalism. But that doesn't discredit the work of modern Eastern studies. Many have tackled highly effectively the biases of their past and been able to remove some. And some they have not been able to remove. And they have added some new biases.

In the end, the reason why Said can't suggest a way to look at people without some imaginative construct blocking them. Our biases are inevitable, and everything we write is infected in it, but we can still strive to get better. And despite the highly developed nature of a construct like Orientalism it is still better to chip away at it through refining the tradition than labeling all the old Eastern studies more about Orientalism the construct than those lands East and South of Europe themselves.

Especially since starting with a blank slate is impossible. Beyond the fact the materials of the past do not lend themselves to remaking from a fresh thought, seeking so hard to erase Orientalism from the Western mind instead creates an Anti-Orientalism which I feel many of Edward Said's disciples, and perhaps the man himself, practice. This sees the Orient as something unknowable by the West and the West as aggressive fools. This sees revolution as the natural course of things to cleanse the burdens of colonialism, but demands an impossible purity to whatever is begotten from the revolution. Well, I could complain more about this. But let me put aside my complaints, because they are more or less just my political opinions.

But the Anti-Orientalist perspective is something very real I think. It tends to taint the vision of the counterculture in its review of the East. It is hard to describe its exact dimensions without going on a political tangent, especially since as a body is amorphous. But it is a knee-jerk revolt against the orthodoxy, it is an idealization of radical anti-colonial intellectuals without a critical perspective. And it is a demonization of any attempt by Western intellectuals outside the Anti-Orientalist circle to claim knowledge to allow them to sympathize with a foreign cause. It is mixed with other anti-traditionalist creeds such as neo-Marxism, primitivism, anarchism. And while I could simply mock it, my political differences withe perspective are not the point. It is a distorting view, often just as much so as Orientalism.

I'd like to draw a parallel. In Said's book, he claims that Orientalism prevents any American intellectual from sympathizing with an Arab cause without being accused of a sinister interest. He points out the State Department Arabists who were then accused of being dishonest due to vague oil connections. Yet what about now? Any intellectual or politician who believes in democracy in the Middle East is usually tarred, at least by certain intellectual circles who subscribe to Anti-Orientalism, as a stooge of big corporations, or secret ultra-nationalist, or just as a buffoon.

So do I say that Said's book is useless? No, it was an important watershed in historical thought. It forced Eastern studies to confront its historic biases. Yet it also had an unfortunate bi-product in the form of Anti-Orientalism which was due to how broad a stroke with which he condemned Western thought on the land once known as the Orient.

But still, I tip my hat off to you, Professor Said, wherever you are. You showed without a doubt the importance of context on human thoughts. And so since these are thoughts, I think in Said's honor, I might, as he did, compile an inventory of significant facts that undoubtedly influences my analysis. I am a young man, only of 21 years. I study at Rutgers University and grew up in the shadow of Princeton. It should be noted that I revolted against the dominant culture of my youth, which was culture of Princeton, which in many ways matched the counter-culture of the rest of the country. I have old bitternesses towards the counter-culture which I have attempted to cleanse, but old bitternesses die hard. I am a devout Catholic and I believe in the importance of tradition. I am a die-hard capitalist and a believer in the essentialness of human rights.

And I, too, bear skin that should mark me as an Oriental. It is a nice shade of Dravidian brown, but it is rather different than most in America. Yet unlike Professor Said, my experiences have not been too harsh in that regard. Instead, my life has given me a great love of the United States, and that is why I call myself an American without question, although I am proud of my Indian heritage. I am not sure what Said would say about that. He wrote an autobiography Out of Place, and I think he meant most especially in America. Yet that has not been my experience, and perhaps that is in some small part due to Professor Said's book Orientalism. There is still shades of Orientalism in America mind you, and there are still biases in its academia, but perhaps the United States has become a little kinder in the 30 years since Said's book. If so, I do thank Professor Said, and hope where he is now, he is finally in a place he feels is home.

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