I am reading the book, and I am seeing signs of it everywhere. Said provides a revelatory symptomology of Western intellectualism, arguing that Western intellectual efforts to understand the East ultimately create a kind of imaginary Orient whose purpose is to give the intellectuals power over the actual Orient and at the same time cement the role of the intellectuals as revealers of the true Orient.

Said’s narrow focus on the Western intellectual approach to the Orient causes him to overlook two important factors that undermine the charged anger he brings to his book. The first is the degree to which all of the Western scientific effort has been a struggle for mastery over the subjects under investigation, whether they are viruses, Muslims, Native Americans, steam engines, the working classes, the French, etc. The second is the degree to which all intellectual endeavor, Western and non-Western alike, has the effect of reducing raw actuality to categories and types.
Nevertheless, his insights into the particular journey of European scholarship are profound.

Said sees modern Orientalism beginning in about the eighteenth century, or the transition from the seventeenth. He does not explain particularly well why this should be the starting point, but an article on the witchcraft trials of baroque Germany reminded me that the latter half of the seventeenth century was marked by the resolution of the longstanding warfare between Protestants and Catholics (the Thirty Years War ended in 1648), and also by renewed Ottoman warfare in Europe. The long period of intra-Christian conflict sustained a divide between us and them that would need to be supplanted by some renewed sense of Christian unity. A shift of focus onto the more distant menace of militant Islam could certainly have served that purpose, just as it had in earlier centuries, during the Crusades.

I’ll post more ideas as they come up, as they certainly will. A couple quickies: Last night, in a nature show about Yellowstone in winter, a wilderness photographer spoke precisely the language of Orientalism, positioning himself as the one who is able to reveal this landscape to the wider public so that they can set about preserving it in its timelessness, or even restoring it to an imagined ideal, and also prepare it for the future. It is a language of essentialism, paternalism and romanticism, and it occurs to me that environmentalist adventurism remains one of the few traditional endeavors of romantic imperialism that remains respectable within the liberal establishment. (The others are the delivery of aid, and to a lesser extent, the grand tour.)

Or this: Said’s fervor often feels overblown, but then I run across passages that remind me of the intellectual universe in which he was operating when he wrote the book in 1977. For example, at one point Said declares that the study of imperialism is essentially a taboo in the academe, hardly discussed, particularly by American Marxist scholars. Marxist scholars? Right! I forget that just a few decades ago, serious intellectuals of the left were expected to be able at least to navigate the minefields of Marxist thought, even if they ultimately rejected Marxism. Meanwhile, by the time I reached college, the subject of colonialism was everywhere — most certainly a result, at least in part, of Said’s groundbreaking work. This intellectual earthquake, and the entrenched worldview that prevailed beforehand, explain many of the more baffling ritual insistences of our professors in college. Jenny had an East Asian literature professor who devoted considerable class time to debunking the theory that Chinese people are sluggish because they live in a hot climate. To students raised on post-Civil Rights-movement curricula, in a world of Japanese high-tech goodies, the whole idea of racial essentialism and sluggish Asians seemed as absurdly archaic as Lamarckian evolution or epicycles, but these ideas were rendered ridiculous only as recently as our early childhoods.

One Reply to “[orientalism]”

  1. I remember what you describe of Jenny’s experience in my own Asian studies classes as well – many of the professors spent lots of time debunking the erroneous assumptions of previous scholars rather than thinking about what assumptions their students might be walking in the door with – despite the fact that these sets of assumptions had little to no overlap. The history of scholarship is certainly important in its own right, but the evolution of scholarship and the evolution of individuals’ understanding of a subject are not the same thing.

    –Phaedra Lari

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