Orientalism : Influences

HERODOTUS, FIRST ORIENTALIST ?

Part 1.2

Edward Saïd’s reflections on the powers of the colonizing West on the rest of the world did not arrive in a vacuum. It had forefathers both in terms of the object of analysis, and in the methods he chose to follow. Saïd himself recognizes the heritage of 20th century “theoreticians, militants, and insurgent analysts of imperialism like Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, C.L.R. James, Aime Cesaire, Walter Rodney” and of “the great nationalist artists of decolonization and revolutionary nationalism, like Tagore, Senghor, Neruda, Vellejo, Cesaire, Faiz, Darwish… and Yeats” (Eagleton, Jameson and Said 1990, 72-3). In other words, Orientalism is first an attempt to theorize the growing voice of protest from the very colonies. The case of the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) is particularly central, since, according to Ashcroft and Kadhim (2002), “systematic theorizing of colonization and its attendant features such as race, language, resistance and representation” (x) were first found in Fanon’s activist voice. One of the legacies of Fanon on Saïd is his distinction between “independence” and “liberation,” that is, the evolution of a national consciousness into a new sense of social and political action (Dirlik 2001, 16). Through this distinction, Saïd could discuss the effects of the cultural traces of Orientalism even after the (political) liberation of the colonies.

The analysis of Orientalism by Saïd would also be impossible without certain conceptual tools. First to appear is the notion of hegemony, famously coined by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Hegemony does not mean only the uncontested power of a state over others, but the idea of ‘dominance with consent’ (Ashcroft & Ahluwalia 2001, 41-42). It is a very subtle form of power over a group, since it attempts, and succeeds in acquiring the agreement of the controlled population in being controlled.

Domination is thus exerted not by force, nor even necessarily by active persuasion, but by a more subtle and inclusive power over the economy, and over state apparatuses such as education and the media, by which the ruling class interest is presented as the common interest and thus comes to be taken for granted (42)

Even though Gramsci discussed this notion in his own context, that of 20th century European nations on the edge of facing the Communist project, hegemony is particularly relevant as a tool of analysis for Orientalism. The Orientalist powers do not aim only at controlling the populations by the force, but also at diminishing their reliance on physical strength by convincing them of the legitimacy and ultimate good of their ruling.

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One may even argue that Foucault’s stamp on Saïd transcends concepts: the very method of research adopted by Saïd – undertaking a meticulous and detailed study of archival documents from various languages and continents, in order to paint a very large picture, geographically and temporally, of a very ambitious question – is exactly that project exemplified by Foucault in his studies on madness and the history of knowledge.

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However, of the influences of Saïd, one is primordial and unmissable: Michel Foucault (1925-1984). The French post-structuralist philosopher is at the heart of Saïd’s conceptual method, in particular through the notion of discourse. The Foucauldian discourse is more than a speech, a single utterance of language: it is a body of statements made on an external object, and which affects its external object. But the discourse does not come after, and in superimposition upon the external object: its effect is so deep that it constructs a particular view or definition of the external object, which may, in certain case, become an official or hegemonic view. In such a case, the discourse makes its object. This discourse may support certain practices, for instance medical acts and beliefs on insanity as explained by Foucault in Madness and Civilization (1961); and discourse can at times fully engender practices, as discussed by Foucault in The Order of Things (1966) and Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). As we have already observed, discourse as a colonial tool is very helpful and recurrent in Saïd’s analysis: the Orientalist discourse makes the Orient. One may even argue that Foucault’s stamp on Saïd transcends concepts: the very method of research adopted by Saïd – undertaking a meticulous and detailed study of archival documents from various languages and continents, in order to paint a very large picture, geographically and temporally, of a very ambitious question – is exactly that project exemplified by Foucault in his studies on madness and the history of knowledge.

However, Saïd adopted, early on, a very critical attitude towards Foucault. While acknowledging his intellectual insights, Saïd accused Foucault of being “more fascinated with the way power operates than committed to trying to change power relations in society” (Said 1983, 221). In “Edward Said and Michel Foucault: Affinities and Dissonances” (2005), Karlis Racevskis offers a detailed history of the evolution of Saïd’s attitude vis-à-vis Foucault. His famous stance against “ ‘literature’ as a cultural agency [that] has become more and more blind to its actual complicities with power” (Said 1983, 175), as expressed in the 1983 The World, The Text and the Critic, would be balanced, decades later, by Saïd’s rediscovery of Foucault’s subtlety. Saïd could criticize the apparent political passivity of Foucault, but he had missed, in his passionate denunciation, that for Foucault the role of the intellectual was not “to tell others what to do but to make knowledge available to them on the basis of which they could then decide on the best course of action” (Racevskis 2005, 93). The question of the accuracy of Saïd’s understanding of Foucault was one major, but perhaps not the most eventful, of the waves of criticisms that his work would receive, as we will see in the next section.

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References

Image courtesy: Gianlucacostantini

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