Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

World Literature after Orientalism: The Enduring Lure of the Occident

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

World Literature after Orientalism: The Enduring Lure of the Occident

Article excerpt

This article examines the category Weltliteratur in the context of various models that attempt to provide a systematic account of its development, by Moretti, Casanova, and Damrosch, and elucidates the various debates these engendered. It demonstrates how the epistemological critique of power and domination initiated by Said's Orientalism is effective in deconstructing the latent Orientalism implicit in them. It takes account of the enduring lure of the Occident and its traces on the genesis of the Arabic novel, suggesting that Said's "secular criticism" helps to overcome the problems inherent in the various theories of "world literature."


In a conference on World Literature located in Istanbul in 2008, one of the panels to which I contributed was entitled "Literature after Orientalism." (1) The title begs the question of what the organizers meant by "after." Most certainly, the title does not mean that literature before Orientalism was different from literature after Orientalism. As the conference was debating world literature both as a concept and as a complex construct, the perception of literature was not the main issue in the panel. Literature, thus, is a constant, and Orientalism is the changing factor in the title. But which Orientalism? Is it that of the famous book published by Edward Said in 1978 or the practice and the institution that he analyzed and deconstructed? Had it been the former, then the book would have been the turning point, and my input to the panel would have been a survey of literature in three decades following the publication of Orientalism. If it is the latter, then there are two different possibilities: (1) the book, a landmark no doubt, has dealt a devastating blow to Orientalism--the practice and the institution--and hence the question concerns literature in a world without Orientalism. (2) The other possibility is more nuanced; it acknowledges the role of Said's seminal book in problematizing the field of study known as Orientalism, that encompasses literature, but where it has not been dismantled altogether and our world is not free of Orientalist worldviews. This article addresses the traces of embedded Orientalism-in its manifest and latent forms--in world literature.

Let us start by a working definition of Orientalism: Orientalism, or the dynamics of the "orientalisation of the orient" (Said, Orientalism 67), its representation, definition, and use, can be defined in Said's words:

A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporate identity, one that is particularly strong given its association with traditional learning (the classics, the Bible, philology), public institutions (government, trading companies, geographical societies, universities), and generically determined writing (travel books, books of exploration, fantasy, exotic description). The result of Orientalism has been a sort of consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the orientalist correct. He has built his work and research upon them, and they in turn have pressed hard upon new writers and scholars. Orientalism can thus be regarded as a manner of regularised (or orientalised) writing, vision, and study dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the orient. The orient is taught, researched, administered, and pronounced upon in certain discrete ways. The orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later Western Empire. If this definition of Orientalism seems more political than not, that is simply because I think Orientalism was itself a product of certain political forces and activities. (Orientalism 202-03)

Although Said showed us that the ways in which Orientalism manifests itself are not always discrete, they are always political and capable of penetrating into the four corners of the world for which it is produced: the West. …

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