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ajnabi ([personal profile] ajnabi) wrote2010-05-13 11:55 am

cst final paper

Knowledge and Power

In Orientalism, Edward Said cautions that "systems of thought like Orientalism, discourses of power, ideological fictions—mind-forg'd manacles—are all too easily made, applied and guarded" (328). Systems of thought do not just exist as innocent ideas (23). In the case of Orientalism, it has been created through centuries of western techniques of creating and representing the Orient. Of course, this system of domination of the Orient by the Occidental, or the west, comes out of the power the west had and continues to have to dominate the east. Orientalism is a painful reminder of the "seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time" (328) that occurs when any pretense at acquiring and documenting "objective" knowledge is made. A scholar cannot be detachable from "the circumstances of [their] life, from the fact of [their] involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of society" (10). The "absurd [thesis] that [people play] no part in setting up both the material and the processes of knowledge" (300) must be demolished. It must be realized that the writer or the scholar cannot ever act as a nonpolitical, objective truth seeker.

In fact, the assumption that one can know another history or experience or culture, and the desire to know it, so often acts as domination, control and reinvention of that culture (in the knower's eyes). Said emphasizes this dynamic when he defines Orientalism as "a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world" (12). It is thereby "a human [and] intellectual [failure]" (328), because "in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience" (328). Policy-makers in the colonial administration such as Balfour saw eastern civilizations as simply linear progressions that had died out and now needed to be assimilated into the new, western, modern order of things (32). Balfour's ready acceptance and promulgation of this 'knowledge' of civilization reveals the way in which the Orient was constructed as a "fundamentally, even ontologically stable" fact which the west could decide and control, for "to have such knowledge of a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for 'us' to deny autonomy to 'it'—the Oriental country" (32). Said is careful to point out, though, even as he displays the egregious nature of Orientalist cultural and racial stereotypes, "that Balfour and Cromer.. could strip humanity down to such ruthless cultural and racial essences was not at all an indication of their particular viciousness. Rather it was an indication of how streamlined [and effective the doctrine of Orientalism had become]" (36).

The Orientalists denounced what, in Henry Kissinger's words, was an 'essentially pre-Newtonian' idea present in non-Western cultures: that " 'the real world is almost completely internal to the observer' " (47). Kissinger believes that there can be such an objective reality that can be studied and documented and classified, for he subscribes to what he calls the post-Newtonian thesis that " 'the real world is external to the observer' " (46). However, the pre-Newtonian thesis makes much more sense when we realize that we cannot know the Other, and in attempting to know the Other, we can very well colonize and distort it. In this sense, knowledge of reality really is internal to the observer, for our sense of our own reality affects whatever reality we construe for the Other. Hence, it becomes vital "to make the study fit and in some way be shaped by the experience" (328) of our actual lived reality and perception.

To truly open ourselves up to the pursuit of knowledge, we must always be vigilant and ready to "submit [our] method to critical scrutiny" (327). Said hopes that "if we remember that the study of human experience usually has an ethical, to say nothing of a political, consequence... we will not be indifferent to what we do as scholars" (327). Until we are willing to acknowledge our limitations, and banish altogether these notions of finding the "truth" out there, we will forever be caught in the trappings of a discourse such as Orientalism. We must realize the biases and privileges of our internal world, and how that shapes whatever attempts we make to know other internal worlds.

One of the greatest challenges of realizing the biases of our internal world is in recognizing the ways in which we are privileged to have a certain 'knowledge' of the Other that is in keeping with structures of dominance and oppression. For a culture, group or experience of life to become created as Other to us, there must be the automatic assumption that we are somehow separate from (and superior to) the Other. This is evident in the way in which Orientalism "depends on... [a] positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing [them] the relative upper hand" (7). The cultural hegemony of the idea of Europe—"a collective notion identifying 'us' Europeans against all 'those' non-Europeans"—gives Orientalism its durability and strength (7). It is important to remember that the "Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be 'Oriental' ... but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental" (5-6). Said cites here an example of Flaubert's characterization of an Egyptian courtesan in a manner that perpetuated Oriental stereotypes, saying that "she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him [to possess her and speak for her]" (6). The fact of European political, military and economic dominance (40), and colonialism, that later developed into imperialism and was eventually more taken over by the United States, drew upon a vast literature of Orientalism that cemented its dominance, as well as justified it. As Said stresses, "To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact" (39).

It is not enough merely to recognize that people in what was constituted as the "Orient" have their own legitimate histories and realities. It is too easy to "stress the fact that the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of [their] own, a world with its own national, cultural, and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence" and yet in the same breath go on to speak for the Orient, in the tradition of Orientalism, for "what gave the Oriental's world its intelligibility and identity was not the result of his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the West" (40). The very fact that the Westerner could even speak of the Orient was "because [they] could be there" (7). The discourse of Orientalism, and its almost perpetual unquestioned authority, is necessarily predicated on the structures of dominance which it created as well as reinforced. Thus, it is important to realize that "for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of [their] actuality: that [they] come up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second" (11). Their privilege as Occidental people must be realized for it will inevitably shape their work.

The polarizations introduced and perpetuated by Orientalism—East/West, Oriental/Occidental, white/colored, us/them—that have been created through the discourse of Orientalism must be acknowledged for their limitations, but also for their very real existence. As Said says, "We cannot get around them all by pretending they do not exist; on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score" (327). It is easy, in a sense, to do away altogether with these polarizations on the grounds that they are artificial and oppressive. This, however, ignores the history of power relations that have created and continued their existence. In denying their existence, they are often made more potent and vicious (327), for people cannot suddenly pretend they are the same when for centuries they have not been the same or equal, and when they are still not really treated with that kind of consideration. For that matter, the goal of "same" or "equal" value is an insidious one, entrenched in western liberal ideology. The most basic point, though, is that western imperialism exists as a very real fact—it did not end with the British Empire. They are in fact currently being perpetuated through an ironic yet predictable alliance between the intellectual, elite class of postcolonial nations and the new form of hegemonic imperialism (322). Oriental people who have access to higher education are prompted to continue in abroad, most often in the US, and thus the contemporary Oriental scholar becomes trained in the tradition of Orientalist scholarship. It then "makes it inevitable that the Oriental scholar will use [their] American training to feel superior to [their] own people because [they are] able to 'manage' the Orientalist system" (324). Evidently, systems of domination are still in play. Thus, the polarizations and categories created and reinforced by Orientalism, although arbitrary, must be recognized for the weight and power they carry.

Said comments on the destruction wrought by Orientalist discourse, asking, "Can one divide human reality.... into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?" (45). This is a worthy question. Since it is clear, as discussed above, that these categories and polarizations cannot simply be done away with without again reinforcing structures of oppression and dominance, is there any way to understand the Other without recolonizing and resubjugating it? Said's project is not to formulate a new system for understanding history but rather to describe the system that is in place (325). However, he does have hope for work that deconstructs and decolonializes subjugated histories (325). The project of attempting to see the Other without obscuring or distorting it is indeed an important one. To me it seems most possible and most necessary to attempt this project in the domain of personal relationships, for oppressive social realities always emerge in people's personal (political) lives. The force with which oppression and dominance play out in community, family, intrapersonal, academic and professional contexts is important and must be recognized and navigated.


Work Cited:

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.