Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics

Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics

Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics

Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics

Synopsis

Orientalism, as explored by Edward Said in 1978, was a far more complex phenomenon than many suspected, being homogenous along the lines of neither culture nor time. Instead, it is deeply embedded in the collective reimaginings that were-and are-nationalism. The dozen essays in Genealogies of Orientalism argue that the critique of orientalism, far from being exhausted, must develop further. To do so, however, a historical turn must be made, and the ways in which modernity itself is theorized and historicized must be rethought. According to Joan W. Scott, author of The Politics of the Veil, the essays in this collection "develop a remarkable perspective on Edward Said's Orientalism, placing it in a long historical context of critiques of colonial representations, and deepening our understanding of the very meaning of modernity." Looking beyond the usual geography of colonial theory, this work broadens the focus from the Middle East and India to other Asian societies. By exploring orientalism in literary and artistic representations of colonial subjects, the authors illuminate the multifaceted ways in which modern cultures have drawn on orientalist images and indigenous self-representations. It is in this complex, cross-cultural collision that the overlapping of orientalism and nationalism can be found.

Excerpt

Orientalism is over. Or so some stoutly maintain. Unfortunately, the rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. In the post-9/11 United States, the debate over orientalism is far from over. Indeed, in many ways it has just begun. Although orientalism, the philologically driven discipline of the study of Asian languages, no longer exists as such, orientalism as discursive practice linking culture and power is more important than ever. Today the United States peers at the Middle East through orientalist spectacles. Their special properties miraculously filter out historical context and complexity, the better to spotlight the supposedly essential cultural features of Middle Eastern culture that make “them” hate “us.” Seen through an orientalist lens, causality is reversed, and morality is readily assigned to the Good Guys.

If we trace the genealogy of the critique of orientalism, we can now see that the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) marked a paradigm shift in thinking about the relationship between the West and the non-West. Said sought to untangle the ways in which Western political, literary, and scholarly representations of the Middle East were fatally inflected by political power. In demonstrating that Michel Foucault's ideas could be brought to bear upon the representation of Middle Eastern cultures and societies in European thought, Said coupled his critique of European discourse on the Middle East to issues of representation generally, demonstrating that Western discourse on the Middle East was linked to power, trafficked in racist stereotypes, and continually reproduced itself. In naming this discourse “orientalism,” Said performed a major political as well as intellectual service and made it available to all who had been seeking an effective means of intellectually opposing the canon in its various disciplinary manifestations. Subsequent . . .

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