Thursday, January 27, 2011

More like "Borientalism" amiright?

The seminar I'm attending is called "The Study of Western Civilization," and that is what it is about--that is, it is about the study, not about Western Civilization. We've been mostly reading texts that draw their argument out of the Western canon (especially by connecting the Greeks to the Romans to etc.) to address the problems of modernity. This fortnight, however, we read Said's Orientalism, a widely read and influential critique of Europe's treatment of the notEurope.

I've been around the block enough times to know that this is a book that evokes strong passions in many readers. One camp is stirred by Said's portrayal of British and French imperialism, which for them feels like a moment of justice after centuries of continued oppression. On the other end of the spectrum, angry readers see in Said a vociferous (and largely unfounded) dismissal of all European political and academic practice, leaving them indignant, presumably with no avenues of action left available. I fall into neither of these camps, though I can see why this (boring) book can lead to both sentiments with equal ease.

In thinking about how to summarize Said's book I am already faced with what I had thought I would save for my conclusion: this book is cripplingly undertheorized, so much so that it is probably impossible to put forward a central thesis on behalf of the book that another close reading couldn't with good cause dismiss. I will propose, in the face of this, that the central thesis of Orientalism is that, when faced with an imbalance of power, those on the privileged side do well to keep track of the effects of their learned prejudice, keeping in mind that, all provisions taken, they will fail to be perfectly neutral, no matter how scholarly and rigorous their work. (The pro-Said camp says "because of this you are guilty of repressing us/them" while the anti-Said camp says "don't call me a racist, I'm not doing anything wrong, and besides you haven't even read my work yet.")

The problem is that Said is woefully uninterested in his own work. Many of the readings he performs of 18th and 19th century Orientalists and novelists seem, to my ignorant mind, perfectly reasonable--and indeed it is, nowadays at least, perfectly commonplace that many, most, 19th century Europeans were terribly racist. The problem is that his criticism of them is that they generalize "the Orient," adopting observations on some few encounters as the rule for the totality of the (expansive) region. (It is worth noting that "the Orient" for most of Said's book is limited to the Middle East and Egypt, though in some examples it extends to India.) The reality of course is that the danger of this sort of generalization harries nearly every discipline in the humanities; Orientalism is peculiar because the geographic and political distance of the object of study from its studying subject, combined with the shear heterogeneity of that same object, has had such disastrous political and humanitarian consequences that it is difficult to imagine that Orientalism as a 19th century practice was at no moment deliberately malicious in its use of generalization.

And though Said himself seems to my recollection to be fairly non-committal on this point (his interest, by my middle-road reading, is in the effects, not the malice), I don't think it is too problematic to argue that many Orientalists deployed their racist tropes in the service of Empire (Napoleon in Egypt is least disputable example). Surely there is no harm in pointing to these authors and discussing the extent and repercussions of their racism; what I have trouble with is the ease with which Said moves on to other authors in search of similar problems, and manages from there to suppose that the racism of disciplined, state-funded orientalists is unavoidable for any European writing on the world outside its immediate geography.

The clearest example of this problematic approach to critique--the generalizing approach that critiques generalization--is Said's treatment of Marx. Marx is certainly not immune to the 19th century compulsion to conceptualize the multiplicity of the orient as a unified totality, but Said's specific example does nothing to understand how this functions in Marx. Said draws his example from an essay by Marx on England's role in India. Marx is repulsed by the violence and destruction wrought by the British abroad, showing a perhaps unprecedented regard for Indians as human beings on equal footing with Europeans in terms of their rights to freedom and safety. Marx also regrets the pre-colonial despotic regime under which Indians were oppressed before the English usurped authority for themselves, and he sees in this historical moment--here Said thinks he has him--the possibility for revolutionary change: English colonialism, for Marx, is the crucible in which India's post-capitalist society is forged. To Said this is too close to the popular orientalist belief--popularized by Kipling as "White Man's Burden"--that Europe was in the orient for the benefit of the oriental himself. But Said completely ignores that Marx's reading of European industrialism is completely parallel, and that for Marx violence is the historical prerequisite for a new, post-capitalist society, whether at home or abroad. In short--and examples of this abound in Said's text--the major shortcoming of Orientalism is its refusal to explore the implications of its own analysis on the rest of European thought, or indeed on itself.

My counter thesis to the thesis I attributed above to Said--what I would have written Orientalism about--is the replication of domestic modes of oppression in orientalist literature. Said on some few occasions points out similarities between misogyny and orientalism, but consistently declines to elaborate. To my mind, this is the actual story: the growth of capitalism in the 17th and 18th century was facilitated by the tacit, naturalized oppression of a tremendous portion of the European population; orientalism is the rhetorical/political justification of the application of this matrix of oppression to the entire rest of the world. Orientalism secures the seat of authority for those who have already inherited it. I would propose that critiquing orientalist texts in the 19th century from this perspective would lend Said the ability to move beyond mere observation--which ultimately is all Orientalism is. We could see, in this light, what these texts do rather than merely what they say. Further, such a perspective would allow a more dynamic reading of authors like Flaubert, whose work is much more literary than literal.

But I suspect that had Said conceived of his project from this point of view we scarcely would be reading it today. The unreasonable popularity of such a lazy, repetitive book is imaginable only under the conditions in which it was written: the conditions of a complete disinterest in theory. Said's book is easy to read, both in terms of the simplicity of the text itself and--this is the important point--in terms of its malleability. It is this last problem which prohibits me from unequivocably endorsing a single statement of the books thesis. Even when Said explicitly states that all Europeans writing on the Orient are "racist" (204) the claim is so loosely formulated that he could as easily be condemning all of Europe as dismissing "racism" as a meaningless word. ( I think, particularly given the rest of his work, that he is doing neither.) The book is fraught with ideological, theoretical, and epistemological inconsistencies, but instead of thwarting the extraction of any meaning or implication from the text, this litany of problems has enabled any given reader, without much effort, to derive support for whatever reading is most convenient to her or his momentary agenda.

That said, I can only conclude that I am glad this book was written (even if I'm not glad I had to read it). Thirty-three years after the fact, the procession of diligent scholars working on themes of racism and colonialism, capitalism and empire have constructed wonderful and useful scholarly edifices through critique and appropriation of Said's work, and it is difficult to imagine them having been successful without Said's help. One can--and I think must--regret the reactionary, uncritical anti-canonism that Said also helped spawn, but in the historical scope of things, one must suppose these reactions to be but a swing of the pendulum, and a swing that would seem to have reversed direction. So while it is a poor, boring, and nowadays uninteresting book, it is one of those problems that almost has to happen for there to be growth; Said's book is almost like Britain in India (in Marx's mind): borish, stupid, destructive, but necessary for growth.

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