Orientalism : Resistances

HERODOTUS, FIRST ORIENTALIST ?

Part 1.3

The sudden prominence of Saïd after Orientalism is only equal in intensity with the number of voices that have criticized his work. Some are precise and question certain specific questions, or methodological assumptions of the work. Others are vaster, if not utterly rejecting the whole of Saïd’s intellectual undertaking. This is the case of Bernard Lewis, advocate of the ‘Area Studies’ approach and specialist of Islam. He accused Saïd’s undertaking to be “both an ahistorical and an inconsistent narrative” (Porter 1983, cited in Ashcroft & Ahluwalia 2001, 70). Their opposition was hardly surprising as Saïd precisely took Lewis as the example of a modern Orientalist. He finds Lewis’ work on Islam to be particularly ideological and following exactly the same ambition and arrogance as the first Orientalists (see Saïd’s 1995 afterward to Orientalism for a response to Lewis’ attacks). Their confrontation remains barely insightful, however, as the shadow of the Orientalist indeed struggles to scrap off from Lewis’ figure, if nothing else, in his critique of Orientalism itself. Fortunately, other scholars have provided different critical outlooks of Orientalism, often from a background of general agreement with Saïd.

One recurring problem highlighted by critics of Orientalism is its (maybe unintentional) tendency to establish monolithic entities: a single Occident, necessarily entirely Orientalist, and a single Orient/Asia, even though Saïd discusses only a few specific countries of Asia. This partiality is also found regarding Saïd’s statements, or lack of statements, on the role of women in Orientalism (Miller 1990). Reina Lewis, in Gendering Orientalism (1995) notices that Orientalism lists only one female writer in all of the four centuries Orientalism studied by the author.

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Numbers of post-colonial authorities are Third-World born individuals who have migrated to the West, often to reach positions in highly elite centers of knowledge, such as from the Ivy League. Their original economical background, generally of higher class, often contributed to their disregard, within their post-colonial discourse, of questions like gender and class, in favor of less immediately economically determined domains like race and identity.

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Arif Dirlik (2001), author of larger critique on post-colonialism in general, specificies his distances from Saïd’s work in particular. Dirlik’s main contention may be condensed in the observation that numbers of post-colonial authorities are Third-World born individuals who have migrated to the West, often to reach positions in highly elite centers of knowledge, such as from the Ivy League. Their original economical background, generally of higher class, often contributed to their disregard, within their post-colonial discourse, of questions like gender and class, in favor of less immediately economically determined domains like race and identity (8). His second criticism, an extension of the first, is that while Orientalism evolved hand-in-hand with the economical master project of colonialism, post-colonialism does not criticize the current economical supremacy of globalized capitalism. Worse, Dirlik argues,

postcolonial concerns resonate with questions concerning the status of the nation-state, classes, identities, etc. in a world where globalization real or imagined has also captured the imagination of many; and it is hardly coincidental that the two have gained in intellectual popularity in tandem … What is intended as a critique turns into a legitimation of a new ideology of globalization when it is mobilized in service of the latter (8).

In this view, the post-colonial discourse grew in parallel, if not as an offspring, of the progressive reign of capitalism. And within this discourse, Saïd’s concern, like that of other post-colonial scholars, appears as particularly elitist and petit bourgeois, while allegedly addressing questions concerning millions of individuals who are mostly affected by economical matters. “The very paradoxes in his politics inexorably displace political concerns toward the realm of culture, and utopianized cultural places, such as the university, where politics may be interpellated into cultural politics” (25).

One word may be said, finally, on Saïd’s personal relation with the field of post-colonialism. While presented as the chief-head of this movement, Saïd soon took distance from it. He was particularly wary of the excessive textual preoccupation and prolixity of this field, closely connected to post-modernism – yet, according to him, clearly distinguishable from it. The risk, as expressed earlier regarding Foucault, is to turn the scholar into a passive voice: “luring intellectuals away from any sort of meaningful political engagement” (Williams 2002, 35). Nonetheless, as Williams points out, this cannot suffice to explain for the almost absolute absence of mentions of post-colonialism and post-colonial scholars in the œuvre of Saïd. This also reveals another, central aspect of Saïd’s scholarship (and personality): his refusal to be labeled. This corresponds perfectly with the project of Orientalism, an undertaking for which Saïd has readily accepted the position of amateur. The very concept of amateurism, which he discussed since Culture and Imperialism (1993), is an understanding of the critic as intently refusing reducing categories and opening his interest and realm of analysis across disciplines and beyond conventional objects. It is a move against professional expertise in the intellectual world. Therefore, unsurprisingly, as Ashcroft & Ahluwalia notice, “to historians, he is unhistorical; to social scientists, he conflates theories; to scholars, he is unscholarly; to literary theorists, he is unreflective and indiscriminate; to Foucauldians, he misuses Foucault; to professional Marxists, he is anti-revolutionary; to professional conservatives, he is a terrorist” (Ashcroft & Ahluwalia 2001, 68). As we now know, this does not represent a real problem for Edward Saïd.

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References

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