Spiritual Wealth and Neo-Orientalism

By Bartholomeusz, Tessa | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Wealth and Neo-Orientalism


Bartholomeusz, Tessa, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


Introduction: Neo-Orientalism

Edward Said's notion of the complicity between colonialism and Orientalism is well known. In this study, I explore an avatar of Orientalism, namely, neo-Orientalism, which has emerged with sharp definition in the post-World War II era. Like Orientalism, neo-Orientalism continues to shape actual knowledge of the "Orient" into a collection of fragments about the "East" in order to tame it; once tamed, it is the "West's" to excavate for its "gems." In the present, we continue to mine the religions of the East for their spiritual wealth. As I will show in a study of academics, music, and ideas about sexuality and therapy in the 1990's, this is usually done within the Orientalist imagining of a resemblance between East and West, and of the East as the West's salvation, without concern for the religious significance of what is being mined.(1)

Here, the focus of my study is not conversion. Instead, I am interested in the ways in which we appropriate aspects of other cultures and remove them from their religious contexts, all without converting. Moreover, in this study, my focus is not the intentions of those who participate in shaping neo-Orientalism; rather, I explore the processes and the history that lead to neo-Orientalism. What I hope to demonstrate is that there is a connection between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western projects in Asia for political, economic, and strategic gains, for the acquisition of academic knowledge, and for the contemporary American fascination with the "East" for personal edification. While former economic, political, and strategic programs were carried out in the colonial period, present projects of self-interest explored here are conducted in the "neocolonial" world. In short, and though the projects overlap, colonizers in the past appropriated the economic and political wealth of other people; now, people with private interests appropriate the Orient's spiritual fortunes and claim that it is a right. Further, I will argue that this type of appropriation is itself a strategy of domination.

Orientalism: The Trope of Identity and the Trope of Hostility

The point of origin for Said's argument is the eighteenth-century Western discourse of hostility toward the Arab-Islamic world. His study of Orientalism traces the development of an academic discipline that is a Western form of thought and an agency of power for wielding control over Arabs and Islam. While Said focused upon the Arabic world, others have broadened his critique to include scholarly enterprises associated with non-Arabic regions, including, for instance, India.(2) In other words, many scholars argue that the scope of Orientalism is not limited to the Middle East. The critique driving these studies, like Said's, focuses on an Orientalism that produced an essentializing difference between East and West, which, by its very nature, constructed a hostile "other" in need of taming. Jenny Sharp has pointed out that Said dilated on the rhetoric of difference or hostility in early Orientalist writings because his purpose was "to historicize stereotypes that preclude a Western identification with Arabs."(3)

Said nevertheless has recognized that early Orientalists, such as Sir William Jones - who is credited as the father of modern philology - planted the seeds for establishing a resemblance between East and West in his study of Indian languages.(4) Yet, Jones's sympathy with the culture whose texts he sought to translate, namely India, produced an alterity within identity. Like many Orientalists of his day, Jones assumed India to be an ancient civilization in decay; thus, he warned that "it was found highly dangerous to employ natives as interpreters, upon whose fidelity they [other philologists] could not depend."(5) Still, for Jones, India ultimately was like his "West": in positing a common origin between Sanskrit and Europe's Greek and Latin, the Englishman identified with India. …

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