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Revisiting Orientalism:

Text and the reality

Continuing the series, in this week’s column we explore the difference between the Orientalism in text and emerging reality in the Orient. Edward Said explores the important aspect of textual attitude in the chapter entitled ‘Crisis’ in Orientalism.

Speaking on two main factors in favour of textual attitude, Said states, “Two situations favour textual attitude. One is when a human being confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant. In such a case one has recourse not only to what in one’s previous experience the novelty resembles but also to what one has read about it. Travel books and guide books are about as ‘natural’ a kind of text, as logical in their composition and in their use, as any book one can think of, precisely because of this human tendency to fall back on a text when the uncertainties of travel in strange part seem to threaten one’s equanimity.

Many travellers find themselves saying of an experience in a new country that it wasn’t what they expected, meaning that it wasn’t what a book said it would be. And of course many writers of travel books or guidebooks composed them to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colourful, expensive, interesting and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes. A second situation favouring the textual attitude is the appearance of success.”

The plain truth is that a written word carries more weight than spoken word and assumes a kind of authority. Further explaining the textual attitude Said observes, “The authority of academics, institutions and governments can accrue to it, surrounding it with still greater prestige than its practical successes warrant. Most important, such texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe. In time such knowledge and reality produces a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced out of it. This kind of text is composed out of unites of information deposited by Flaubert in the catalogue of idees reques.”

Changing realities

The failure to recognise the changing scenario on the part of modern Orientalist has caused a crisis in the field and is continues now. Said observes, “An unbroken arc of power connects the European or Western statesman and the Western Orientalist; it forms a rim of the stage containing the Orient. By the end of World War I both Africa and Orient formed not so much an intellectual spectacle for the West as a privilege terrain for it. The scope of Orientalism exactly matched the scope of empire, and it was this absolute unanimity between the two that provoked the only crisis in the history of Western thought about and dealings with the Orient. And this crisis continues now.”

Crisis

The crisis in failure or deliberate ignorance to recognise emerging realities has led to reinforcing the stereotype views. This is evidenced in the opening remarks of H.A.R Gibb who states, “ It is this, too, which explains –what is difficult for the Western student to grasp [until it is explained to him by Orientalist]-the aversion of the Muslims from the thought processes of rationalism..The rejection of rationalist modes of thought and of utilitarian ethic which is inseparable from them has its roots, therefore, not in so called ‘obscurantism’ of the Muslim theologians but in the atomism and discreetness of the Arab imagination.”

Said points out that “Popular caricatures of the Orient are exploited by politicians whose sources of ideological supply is not only the half-literate technocrat but the superliterate Orientalist. The legendary Arabist in the State Department warns of Arab plans to take over the world. The perfidious Chinese, half-naked Indians, and passive Muslims are described as ‘vultures’ for ‘our’ largeness and are damned when ‘we lose them’ to communism, or to their unregenerate Oriental instincts: the difference is scarcely significant.

These contemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example, are thought as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expand (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he is, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being. ”

Limitations

Describing the limitations of Orientalism Said states, “In a sense the limitations of the Orientalism, are, as I said earlier, the limitations that follow upon disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region. But Orientalism has taken a further step than that; it views the Orient as something whose existence is not only displayed but has remained fixed in time and space for the West. So impressive have the descriptive and textual successes of Orientalism been those entire periods of the Orient’s cultural, political and social history, are considered mere responses to the West. The West is the actor, the Orient the passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury, of every facet of Oriental behaviour. ”

This textual reality has dramatically changed but Orientalist cannot realise this; “the new [Oriental] leaders, intellectuals or policy-makers, have learned many lessons from the travail of their predecessors. They have also been aided by the structural and institutional transformations accomplished in the intervening period and by the fact that they are to a great extent more at liberty to fashion the future of their countries. They are much more confident and perhaps slightly aggressive. No longer do they have to function hoping to obtain favourable verdict from the invisible jury of the West. Their dialogue is not with the West, it is with their fellow citizens. ”

However, one would wonder whether this is still valid in the present context of international power politics.

 

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