The most remarkable thing I found in Orientalism, the reputed revolutionary text by Edward Said — more famously dubbed as the ‘Professor of Terror’ since 1999 by the rightwing American magazine Commentary – is the point where he talks of the power-relationship of the knowledge of the Orient with the socio-political and ‘culturally hegemonic imperial projects’ of the West. Said at first in his book distinguishes between two types of knowledge – ‘true’ and ‘political’. He points out the consensus working in academia the idea that ‘true’ knowledge is non-political. Rather he argues that the supposedly apolitical scholarly works we involved in ‘interest’ and geo-political power relation, and hence the texts are un-detachable from power relation of political, cultural, intellectual, and moral domains.
And this he relates to all the interpretations done by the Oriental scholars and discoverers, and forms a kind of conclusion that “Orientalism” is born out of the imperial projects of the West, where when the next phase of Orientalists or scholars try to form any ontological statement about the Orient, they only contribute to the process of what he terms as ‘orientalisation of the Orient’. He then raises the methodological question on the procedures of interpretations which were used by the Orientalists like Renan, Sacy etc. and were based on ontological interpretations of the East. He sees these methodologies as a threat to the process of de-colonization movement of the present day where the attempt is made to bring ‘minor’ or ‘subaltern’ voice to a position of equality with the ‘major’. He sees it as a threat because he finds these methodologies as some kind of machineries that turn the supposed discoverers of the Orients in to the inventors.
And with this he comes to explain his own position as the most recent articulator of the Orient and talks of how he has used a new methodology in his text Orientalism. After this short introduction to Said’s Orientalism now I feel it is time that I articulated the aim of this paper. My aim in this paper is to examine, whether Said is successful in applying his new methodology in his text? Whether the belief of Said that his procedure to articulate about Orient is totally free from the faults which Said has charged against the other methodologies and scholarly interpretations of the East or the Orient, used by the Orientalists before him? And last , but not the least , that is he really contributing to the part of the world wide movement of de-colonization to mend the gap between the ‘Occident’ and the ‘Orient’?
Said from the very beginning emphasizes that Orient is not just a fixed geographical fact, but it is necessarily an idea that has some social, geographical and cultural dimensions attached to it and is centered round the geographical locations of Middle- East centered Asio-African region with varying circumference for different western eyes. Said’s conformation of ‘Orient’ as an imaginative product of Western mind and as a set of myths and lies, helps him to proceed in his aim of unraveling the imperial projects that were engaged in creating these myths. And here he shows how power relationship between knowledge and the imperial designs for a cultural hegemony of the non-Western ‘other’ works. The first phase of consciousness of the Orient ( at this point I mean European West) came through the consciousness of Christianity about another religious power in the ‘East’. ‘After Mohammad’s death in 632 A.D. , the military and later cultural and religious hegemony of Islam grew enormously […] Christian authors witnessing the Islamic conquests had scant interests in the learning , high culture and frequent magnificence of the Muslims, who were as Gibbon said, “ coeval with the darkest and most slothful period of European annals” […] For Europe Islam was a lasting trauma […] a constant danger’ (Said, 1995,p.59) . This consciousness of the West about the ‘Orient’, then became the part of a process where one culture sees the growth of other culture as a threat to its own existence and interprets it in terms of religious hegemony. This mode of power-relation of knowledge of the Orient was supported with militaristic hegemony of the ‘Other’ even centuries after French and British imperial designs like that of Napoleon in Egypt and East India Company in India and its neighboring ‘Orient’ areas. Whereas Napoleon planned a cultural invasion of the Egypt 9 along with the regular physical attempt to dominate it) and for which he engaged scholars in Egypt to use modern rhetoric as an weapon to conquer the Muslim minds, in India, East India Company carried out such plans under William Jones who convened the inaugural meeting of Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, and through which the West attempted ‘to rule and learn’ and then ‘to compare Orient with Occident’ (Said, 1995,p.78), so that a claim by the British can be made that an English man knows ‘ the Orient more and better than anyone else’ (Said, 1995,p.78). Such a project continued through modern times through Renan and Sacy. And these methodologies by the Western scholars , (along with some other personal impressions of the Orient by some well known individuals and authors like Flaubert in the terms of the erotic and exotic richness of the Orient ) as thus seen by said as an ontological approach to the Orient, that suffers more or less with some fault due to some kind of preoccupation of mind – either shaped by imperial political designs or personal preoccupations with some ancient myths and individual opinion formed on the basis of some kind of sensations of mind received in terms of physical or imaginative aspects of the Orient. So, Said sees danger in such kind of approach to the Orient, as it contributes in ‘orientalising the Orient’. And to solve this he adopts historical generalization methodology in his book Orientalism, where he slips from the ontological aspect to the epistemological aspect – he begins to stress on ‘how’ the concepts of Orientalism, Orient, Oriental came to be a part of consciousness than ‘what’ exactly they are. He believed that his articulation is the way out of the problem of contributing to the Orientalising process.
As it is a ‘re-reading of the canonical cultural works , […] to re-investigate some of these assumptions, going beyond the stifling hold on them of some version of the master slave relationship’ (Said, 1995,p.353). But in my opinion we can see Said’s text as another addition to the chain of contribution to the process of cultural hegemony. What I am talking here can be more clear if we refer to Trinh T. Minh-ha’s remark.
Trinh T. Minh-ha in her quasi poetic book Woman, Native, Other, refers to the raise of the new form of assigning marginality, especially in case of the ‘Third-World woman’. T Minh-ha’s point is somewhat related to the fact that the process of ‘advertisement’ is itself a kind of contribution to the sense of ‘marginality’. Though Minh-ha’s references are to the ‘Special Third World Women’s reading, workshops, meetings and seminars’ that goes on advertise the gap between the Third world and western world woman – where the ‘difference’ is expressed in the remarks ‘It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo’ (Trinh, 1989, p.82) . Now ours is a case which can be viewed in the light of these observations. In fact nearly all post colonial and subaltern studies involve this problem. Here we see that Said’s attempt was to make us conscious about the crisis by choosing a path of indirectness, where he can safely make us aware of it, without contributing to the crisis. But what we see that the process of making us conscious is a part of the process that brings again the very same problem , because after publication of Orientalism in 1978, it became a ‘source-book’ ( as Spivak terms it) for modern subaltern studies and there by contributing to the process of learning the Orient.
One may argue that by sleeping unto the epistemology from ontology, Said has started a process of ‘unlearning’ the Orient, but then my answer is – knowledge is always a part of binary opposition of its presence and absence. If once a reference is made that a process of ‘unlearning’ is to be made for the Orient, then there also underlies a consciousness about the fact of ‘learning’. It is very similar to Hegel’s master-slave relationship, where after freedom the slave in his attempt to be equal , does everything that his master used to did , and thus there underlies the fact that even after freedom the slave needs the identification of the ‘ex-master’ to define his own. He is in need to explain what his ‘master’ was like, so that he can prove that he is no longer like his ‘master’ and is therefore equal. So, we see the process of modern de-colonization is in fact a process of re-inscribing the colonization or the concept of the ‘major’ at the centre.
This fact is important in our discussion, because many of the postcolonial theorists consider Said’s Orientalism a representative of one phase of their discipline. For instance Leela Gandhi, in her book Postcolonial Theory refers to this aspect of Said’s Orientalism and gives example of Spivak, who ‘has recently celebrated Said’s book as the founding text or source-book through which marginality itself has acquired the status of a discipline […]’ (Gandhi, 1999, p.65).Again we can view Said’s work as the voice of a subaltern,( and therefore his work is historical too ) . His attempt to make the world conscious of the true crisis , in which Orientalism now exists , is seen as his act of ‘survival’ on the behalf of his Palestinian race(and that’s why his work has been considered as a ‘source-book’ ).
Thus we see that though Said’s attempt is to bridge that gap between the ‘major’ and the ‘minor’; the ‘Occidental cannon of consciousness’ and the ‘Oriental cannon of consciousness’, he has not succeeded in reaching this goal as he in fact contributed to the process of learning the Orient more, and thus raised some more questions –
After ‘unlearning’ the dominant mode called Orientalism, what should we learn? Or is the concept of learning to be discarded, because knowledge necessarily entails power relationship? And the most important question that arises is that when Orientals themselves are involved in inventing or more precisely speaking ‘orientalising the Orient’ is there any solution?
In the conclusion of my paper I want to add that it is not that, Said was not aware of this very problem – to make it more clear, he was rather sure of it and this is why he never saw his Orientalism as a part of ‘response to Western dominance which cultivated in the great movement of de-colonization all across the Third World’ (Said, 1993, p.xii)
But whether he sees Orientalism as what others see it or not, doesn’t matter as it has already contributed to the process of ‘orientalising the Orient’ against his wish. And this fact can not be denied, that anymore attempt to solve the tangle of complexities that involves with the Orientalism, will simply strengthen the crisis. In the same manner, perhaps my paper is also an addition, to that very process of ‘learning’ the Orient and hence contributes to the crisis. But the cause I can use to explain my position behind this whole affair that includes the writing of this paper, is some what near to what Said has thought himself – that ‘the writer is obliged to accept that he (or she) is part of the crowed, part of the ocean, part of the storm, so that objectively becomes a greater dream like perfection, and unattainable goal for which one must struggle in spite of the impossibility of success’ (Said, 1993, p.27).
Gandhi, Leela Postcolonial Theory, Oxford University Press, New Delhi,1998
Said, Edward Orientalism, Penguin publishers, Harmondsworth, 1995 (First published 1978)
Said, Edward Culture and Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, London, 1993
Trinh T. Minh-ha Woman, Native, Other, Indian University Press, Cambridge