Saturday, August 06, 2005

Rehabilitating the term Orientalist

Over the next couple of days I am going to try and catch up on those blog posts I promised, but have not yet written. This is one of them. There is also the one on why it is Russian-German and not German-Russian. After that I will post some new stuff on Arizona and life here in Arivaca.

The term Orientalist today has a negative connotation and is often used as a term of abuse as a result of the influence of Edward Said and his academic followers. Said wrote Orientalism in 1977, a book which seeks to tar most European and later US scholarship on the Arab world as being essential parts of colonial and imperial projects. The book has a lot of flaws. Not the least is its reduction of European scholarship down to the UK and France. For some reason the large body of scholarship existing in Germany, Hungary and Russia merited almost no attention in the book. Probably because none of these states ever had Arab colonies, protectorates, mandates or even military bases. Hence since there were no overt German or Hungarian colonial projects in the Arab world there must not have been any attempt to study the region. In the Saidian universe the only reason westerners would study the Orient would be so they could exert direct domination over it. This is rubbish.

Orientalist should be a neutral term to describe somebody who studies the peoples and lands of the Orient. There are other better terms for people who acquire knowledge of the Orient for the purposes decried by Said. Imperialists, colonialists and hegemonists are some that spring to mind. Of course the most bigoted and racist commentators on the peoples of the Orient do not call themselves Orientalists, they call themselves Zionists.

Contrary to politically correct dimwits in the US, Oriental does refer to people as well as rugs. It should be noted that the proposed replacement term for Oriental, Asian is totally inadequate. The Orient is not the same as Asia either geographically or in terms of racial catagories developed in Europe. The most famous source of Oriental rugs is Iran. There is no doubt that Iran, both in terms of location and people is Oriental. Neither its location or people are generally considered Asian. Usually Iran is considered part of the Middle East which is part of the Orient, but not part of Asia. Persians as well as Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Turkomen, Baluchis, Arabs and other ethnicities in Iran are all Oriental in terms of European discourses on culture. None of them are Asian in terms of race. Even the US federal government specifically states that for purposes of Affirmative Action that Iranians are white. So lets not have any more deculturated third generation Americans of Korean descent tell me that Oriental refers to rugs not people. No, it refers to both and much more.

The Orient is much larger geographically than Asia. North Africa, the Balkans, Crimea, and the North Caucasus are all historically part of the Orient. They are not parts of Asia. Indeed the stupidity of the term Asia is quite apparent when it is noted that part of Istanbul (the new modern and less Oriental part) is in Asia and part in Europe. Are Turks from Thrace such as Mustafa Kemal, Europeans and Greeks from Izmir (Smyrna) Asians? What is one to make of the fact that most of Russia is geographically in Asia? Such divisions make no sense. Historically, the Ottoman Empire which spread across three continents was considered Oriental by European scholars. Likewise those areas and people of the Russian Empire that had cultures based upon Islam were Oriental. If one goes by geographical or racial catagories instead of cultural ones then you get a bizzare system of classifications. One that does not reflect the actual divisions between peoples and cultures that have historically existed in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

So I am an Orientalist because I study the people and lands of the Orient. I can do so without thinking that the Oriental is inferior or that he is other than fully human. Contrary to Said, I can be both an Orientalist and a humanist.


Camicao said...

I must respectfully disagree with some of what you say.

I think you're too harsh on Said. He's not obligated to account for all orientalisms, and if what he writes about England and France has historical merit, then there is something of value in his book for those of us interested in the subject. I don't propose that we blindly impose his models on Germany, Russia or other areas, but why not expand and/or question his work based on other orientalisms? Said is just one link in an academic conversation; he does not have the final word. But like all links in the scholarly conversation he deserves to be taken seriously.(I know several people who work in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and they are not Edward Said Stalinists; several well-known critiques of Said are a part of the conversation now, but his contribution is still recognized).

I completely agree with your reservations about orientalisms in areas without fully developed colonial projects. To a certain degree, Said accounts for these orientalisms in his discussion of France, and provides us with an interesting way to pose questions about the nature and style of historical orientalisms coming out of nation-states with less developed or non-existent colonial projects. For example, the literary popularity of the French orientalist novelist Pierre Loti outside of France did spawn imitators outside of Europe, who reproduced certain sexualized and metaphysical colonial discourses in his work. In short, I am willing to concede that his work is NOT exhaustive or complete. But I am not going to throw the baby out with the bath water either.

Well, I guess I'm a politically correct dimwit as you put it (is this kind of rhetorical flourish necessary?) because I do have a problem with the word oriental. In the U.S., the term 'oriental' carries a tremendous amount of cultural baggage, all of it atrociously colonial and dehumanizing. The discourse of the 'oriental' in U.S. culture hearkens back to D.W. Griffith's racist classic "Broken Blossoms" and World War II Geisha movies, such as "Teahouse of the August Moon" and others. If we look at the term "oriental" out of this context, then it may seem historically or geographically accurate, as you propose, but I don't think we are able to extract it from that context.

For over a century, that word has been used in a particular way in U.S. culture to represent asian and middle eastern people as sexual objects and exotic "others." Based on this history of use, I reject the term to describe people, in the same way that I reject the N-word, Kraut to refer to Germans. Spic for Hispanic etc. etc.

So your hostile reference to a "deculturated Korean" is uncalled for. Asian Americans have a right to have opinions about how people refer to them; in the same way that American Indians and African Americans do. I don't want people calling me a Polack because I'm Polish. A Polack is an idiot foreigner. A Pole is something else. We may disagree on academic or intellectual grounds, but to attack a Korean American's or an Asian American's level of Asian culture as a part of a historically immigrant population (that has faced racism in the U.S. for over a century), is at best insensitive, at worst something alot worse.

I'm not a historian in your field so I do not know the academic conventions of what people who focus on orientalism in any sense of the word call themselves. For that reason, I do not presume to tell you whether it is correct within the U.S. academic establishment for you to call yourself an orientalist or not as a historian, or to judge you for being comfortable with the term on the grounds you argue. Based on what you've written, when I see you call yourself an orientalist, I take the meaning in the 'neutral,' scholarly sense that you intend. I accept it and don't have a problem with it, regardless of my liking of Said or my refusal to use the term Oriental to refer to people.

If others don't feel the same way and attack you for it in ways that are disrespectful, I don't think you have to respond in kind. Alot of the time, there is something of value in other people's views, especially a scholar such as Said. It's not all rubbish or all the absolute word of God.

That's my opinion.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Thank you for your comments. I welcome disagreement as long as it is polite. Prehaps these comments will clarify some of what I meant. This is a blog not a well edited and revised piece of scholarship. So it is necessarily in a rough form. Part of my hope with this blog is to get feedback from very raw ideas, many of which are meant to be provocative. This post certainly is in the raw and provocative mode. Below I try to refine some of the ideas in response to your critique.

You are right I am harsh on Said. Prehaps it is because I once had dinner with the man in 1988 and found him extremely rude and arrogant. This has colored my view of the man and his cult like followers in post-colonial studies. From an historical point of view I can't find much of value in his book Orientalism. That said, I think alot of his other work is good. I think his best work was the Question of Palestine which is a good introduction for American readers. But, then again I am not a theory person.

I got my Ph.D. and MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Hence I find the American rejection of the term Oriental bizzare. In the UK, Russia, Hungary and other countries outside the US Oriental is a scholary term. It is Latin for East with reference to Europe. What is East of Europe in a cultural sense is not necessarily Asian.

The Americacentric point of view of the world is not the only one. I think it is one of the great problems of Americans including Academics is that they can not see the world from any other vantage point. I had a recent experience of trying to explain to an immigration lawyer on how the Soviet concept of race worked. It is very different from the US conceptualization.

I was not intentionally attacking anybody's culture or heritage. I was noting that the objection to the term Oriental does not come from people in the region. It comes from Americans like Said and the particular American I referenced as being of Korean descent. The problem was not his heritage, but his attempt to represent a purely American idea as something else. He himself was not an Oriental he was as American as I am. Prehaps I should have phrased it better, but this is a blog not a reviewed academic piece. Sometimes things get written in more haste and less editing than they should. It was meant to be an attack on Americacentrism not people of Korean descent.

Thanks again for the feedback.

Camicao said...


Your response to my response is very reasonable. You are clearly coming from a different "location", not only in a geographical sense of the word, but an intellectual one. I think it would be an error to impose a North American standard on all scholarship; it would be arrogant and intellectually bankrupt. This is what we do, or try to do: dialogue across our intellectual, academic and/or cultural differences.

So I find that the argument you make in your reply to my comment about orientalism in European parlance vs. U.S. parlance to be very useful, not only for me, but for any other North American academic who is unfamiliar with that fact. I find it less alienating than your original post. And I think other U.S. trained academics will feel the same way if they read both your original post and your elaboration.

It's unfortunate, in light of your training and intellectual independence, that you are in an environment where Said is so influential. I recommend you be circumspect if he comes up in a job interview!

I appreciate what you say about blogging being more spontaneous than other types of academic writing. I too write reactively in my blog sometimes, and don't censor myself. And it is precisely this spontaneity that can make a discussion like ours right here very open and honest and ultimately rewarding for all parties involved.

Have a great weekend,