Becoming Foreigner



Questioning the responsibility of Herodotus in the Orientalist project is asking the question of alternatives. Saïd himself seems to praise the curiosity and adventurous mind of Herodotus. Herodotus’ very presence in the debate is also liable to his enterprise of not only travelling to foreign places, but also of maintaining records of them. Naturally, therefore, the question of Orientalism is not just a question of one’s attitude towards foreigners, but one that is related to matters of textuality: there is no Orientalism without Orientalist texts, and more fundamentally, there is no Orientalist text without historical texts. We would expect that here is not contested the very project, arising at some point in Ancient Greece, of starting to gather facts, that is, of starting history as recorded history. Remaining, therefore, is to determine how far any history would risk to become Orientalist by principle. But writing history implies having individuals to write history, authors who would inevitably write from a particular standpoint, with a certain background. And thus in essence, writers addressing the question of the other/Other from the viewpoint of the same. What other alternatives was there for Herodotus? What alternative would there be for anyone else…?

In this context, Catherine Gimelli Martin’s “Orientalism and the Ethnographer: Said, Herodotus, and the Discourse of Alterity” (1990) is particularly insightful. Among other remarkable arguments, Martin contends that François Hartog’s (1988) understanding of the role and power of the ethnographer may correspond less to Saïd’s category of the Orientalist and more to the figure of the historian in Herodotus’ fashion. Hartog acknowledges that ideology may be one effect (and one reason) of the ethnographer’s discourse, but he highlights that this discourse is also one that permits a form of dialogue, a correspondence between the familiar and the alien: “The inversion is a fiction which ‘shows how it is’ and makes it possible to understand: it is one of the figures of rhetoric which helps to elaborate a representation of the world” (14). The discourse of the ethnographer-historian is not, as Saïd argues, simply a mirror for Greeks to define themselves in opposition to their Other, but a dialogical process of translation of cultures, values, and worldviews (Martin 1990, 521).

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Saïd saw a Same knowing the Other, from above, while Hartog sees two Others exchanging their own versions of one another. Indeed: Herodotus rediscovers himself as fundamentally the Other of the Other.

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Translation as a process is both destructive and creative: “To translate is at once irremediably destructive as well as affirmative … it enables a self/other dialogue by putting the unknown idea in the form of the known concept” (523). The translation distorts the Other in the same time as it makes one’s very awareness of the Other possible. Saïd saw a Same knowing, from above, the Other, while Hartog sees two Others exchanging their own versions of one another. Indeed: Herodotus rediscovers himself as fundamentally the Other of the Other. Martin naturally comes to mention Derrida, for whom, following Levinas, language is necessarily violence, while being simultaneously an economy, that is, a lesser violence required to permit the relation to the Other (525).

According to Martin, the fundamental mistake of Saïd is to avoid a strict historical setting of Orientalism, therefore making Western knowledge eternally Orientalizing the Orient, thus missing the undeniable dynamics of civilizations throughout history: “Lacking these distinctions, Said’s discourse of the Other must resolve itself into intractable dichotomies which suppress rather than elucidate their own historical and ideological bases” (525). She concludes on an pertinent note, arguing, after Fabian (1983) that “interpretative “facts” must be represented as acts, partial recognitions which are never either fully translatable or fully incomprehensible” (527). Rather than noting Herodotus’ cultural partiality, his defence of the textual and ideological supremacy of the Greeks, we should rediscover his Histories as one of the earliest acts of initiation for a connection between cultures. A forefather of sorts, perhaps, for intercultural considerations. In Attic Greece just like today, such an endeavour implied and implies cultural partiality, imbalanced accounts and value judgements. But through the process, Herodotus returns ‘home’ and finds himself, in spirit and in the letter of his legal status, a foreigner destined for exile. Herodotus: from the one-sided semblance of the Orientalist to the universal condition of the migrant. Herodotus, Becoming Foreigner.


Image courtesy: Olga Archandou