Monday, August 23, 2010

The Orientalism Paradox: Or do everything I write, I write to prove the British as bastards?

How about we settle for mutual critcism
Andrew is writing a book about British travel accounts of Egypt in the nineteenth century. I am reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is all about how prejudiced, supercilious and ill-advised such seemingly-innocuous nineteenth century British accounts of the East were. Together, that should have made for a rather volatile session over coffee last week.

But we are civilized people so we didn’t explode. We just grimaced.

Now, here’s why I love and hate Syed at the same time.

Said's argument is not simply that the West criticises the East based on prejudice, poor information, and with the intention to dominate. His argument is that all criticism of the East by the West will always be based on prejudice, poor information and the intention to dominate because it already arises from the position of the dominant. If you are already the stronger one, you will want to maintain that position – and hence, everything you say will be to that end, and hence suspect.

Conclusion: Until the West is a dominant force around the world, it has no business criticising the East. Thus, the Middle East, India and China are free to behave the way they want. Voila!

For a wonderful account of how this frees us Indians of any responsibility, read Girish Shahane’s latest column on Yahoo.

Unfortunately, as much as I love Syed, he has created a peculiar problem for me.

If I believe Syed’s argument that everything lies in positioning, then don’t I come to Britain from a position of victimhood, that of poor little Ms once-colonised-Indian-me. And can a victim ever be objective about the oppressor? And if not, wouldn’t all my criticisms of Britain always be based on prejudice, poor information, and the intention to prove the British as absolute bastards? And thus, automatically invalid?

Only, I’d like to keep my right to criticise Britain – its horrible food, labyrinthine bureaucracy, piss-all weather and an obsession with peculiar creatures like Katie Price – and be taken seriously.

So Syed will have to retire to the back end of my book shelf. I'll reserve my right to criticise anything and everything about Britain. And Andrew can write all the travelogues he wants about Egypt.

From the horse's mouth himself:


Yet Another Anonymous said...

I can recall how most, maybe all of the movies concerned with other parts of the world I watched as a child showed Americans and Brits as superior beings dealing lovingly and patiently, or if needed firmly, with the peculiar and quaint customs of everybody else. I was pretty young when I began to be uncomfortable with these portrayals- where did all that art and architecture in the countries that were home to the most ancient civlizations come from if not from high intelligence and ability?

The west does have an intention to dominate the east. The election of GW Bush and the subsequent election of B Obama were steps in this direction of maintaining western hegemony. This is spelled out clearly in a document called "Rebuilding America's Defenses" which was written by a group called The Project for a New American Century (written by the people who populated the second Bush administration), and in Brzezinski's (mentor to B Obama) "The Grand Chessboard" from the same time.

Brzezinski sums it up succinctly "It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America. The formulation of a comprehensive and integrated Eurasian geostrategy is therefore the purpose of this book.”

Its important to note that both sides of the western left/right political paradigm give voice to this goal and as you may have seen over the last 10 years progress has been made toward the stated goal of disallowing the rise of an Asian power.

Free trade agreements that aren't free, missile deployments in eastern Europe, fleet deployments in the Pacific with NATO complicity, where will it all end? And for what?

globalbabble said...

Hi "Yet Another Anonymous",

Have you read Orientalism?

The book is not merely critical of the way West presents East. Unfortunately, it goes on to present the argument that the way West presents East - especially in literature - can never be true because it comes a particular position, a position of dominance.

I have three objections to it.

a) There are many works that present colonialism for the evil it is. Let's take an example, EM Forster's A Passage to India. It is one of the best novels presenting how colonialism was eventually degrading on everyone, English and the Indians. And until such a power relation existed, no true friendship could exist between an Indian and an English.

How is it - that being from England, from the supposed position of dominance - he could see things clearly for what they were?

People can see things from different perspectives, and not just there own.

b) Everyone comes from some or the other position. If the position of dominance makes it impossible for people to represent others, what makes you think that the position of victimhood lends greater clarity. Of course, Indians and people in the Middle East create equally cartoonish portrayals of people in the West. I think, if you saw a few bollywood films on the subject, you would be embarrassed. Said is completely quiet on this point.

c) Arguments such as these squash valid criticisms as well. And there are many many things to criticise about both India and the Middle East - and I write this as a bonafide Indian.

So what does that mean? If we believe that we can't represent anyone but ourselves in literature, it will only lead to paralysis. No one will write of anything.

It is better to create as many perspectives. It is important for Indians and the people in the Middle East to have their own media, their own publishing houses, their own literary awards, film awards etc. Because those accounts will create a parallel to what the Western media presents. Not that West becomes very circumspect on what they say or don't say about other regions.

Yet Another Anonymous said...

Hi Chetna,

No, I haven't read "Orientalism" and I doubt I have the energy to especially knowing now that Said was at Columbia University for so many years and having immediately recognized his point of view as having arisen from critical theory. I bet it is very wordy and at the end not much substance even if it has been the subject of much debate. Academics like to write that kind of thing so they can sit around and debate and compliment each other (but mostly themselves) on their superior intellects and vocabularies.

Next Media Animation, a Chinese company, proves your assertion that easterners can have cartoonish ideas about the west. Next Media makes computer animated cartoons about western news stories. I don't find them so embarassing as amusing- though in American culture we have much to be embarassed by as well as to laugh at.

The idea that the dominant is now and forever evil is well known in the US, along with its corollary that the weak cannot possibly commit the evil of the strong because they don't have the power. This is nonsense becasue any individual can hold any prejudice and any group of any individuals can hold and act on any prejudice if they identify with each other primarily through their prejudices- that is what identity politics is all about.

Identity politics is the religion taught at Columbia University no matter what particular other discipline it is framed within.

I get your point, I was a little off-mark in my response before because I am uncomfortable with what America has become, which is something far different than what I was taught as a child it is. We are supposedly the "land of the free" but we have become a country where "defense" means "pre-emtpive strikes" to protect "American interests" abroad.

globalbabble said...

Hey there,

Yes, I used to look at America as a really egalitarian country - something truly good.But Bush years were utterly baffling to me, and I continue to be baffled by the Right - the Palin-Beck-Tea Party brigades.

But still, America has always had the ability to immensely surprise me too - it is after all, the first Western country to elect a Black president. It could only happen in America - never, never in Europe.

Maybe, it is better that things are played out as vocally as they are in the US - at least, at the end you always know whom to blame.

Yet Another Anonymous said...

I am baffled too Chetna, not just about the Right but about the Left as well. What baffles me is how far we've come from the simple understanding of rights our ancestors had, and how this ignorance is so rampant among the supporters of both parties.

What better to suppose than that all people are born with inherent rights given by Nature or Nature's God? And that government should protect those rights and not do much else beyond that?

We got off track right after the birth of the nation when the idea was put forth that the nation should have a public debt held by a monied aristocracy who would then use their political and economic power to tax the people to fund imperial enterprises- and this is exactly what has happened. It didn't begin during the Bush years, it began during the Washington years, though in those days there were more numerous and louder voices against foreign entanglments and public debts.

Both our political parties no longer believe in individual, inherent rights, both parties believe in collective, state given rights. The Tea Party you speak of actually began as something quite different than it is now, it was a populist movement composed of people of all political stripes who understand that our monetary system serves the holders of US Treasury Securities, that our armed forces are being used to protect the wealth of those bondholders and to force other nations to use our currency. The Right co-opted this movement and the Left rails against it, and both parties protect the monied aristocracy like nobody's business.

Our political parties serve as no more than a way to put a face to current public opinion with the same general agendas being pushed forward. That's why Obama is in office. He represents change; and why, if the people want change, then they shall have it and everybody will feel better until the next election when there will be a new face to match the new opinion.

Yet Another Anonymous said...

Hi Chetna,

Should you ever want to expand your cultural understanding of America, and be surprised at the same time (I won't say delighted) please visit

globalbabble said...

Oh god!!!!

I am generally not a fan on sites that catch people at their worst - but some of those videos are scary. Do people really behave like that? I guess a trip to Walmart is a must, if I visit America...

You know what, I am ok with documentaries about Indians shitting out in the open from now on...


Yet Another Anonymous said...

Yes, Chetna, you actually do see that sort of behavior. Unfortunately what is seen at WalMart is not people at their worst, it's just how they are.

Of course America is diverse, so we have exclusive gate communities on the other end of the spectrum and who knows how those people behave?

America is a strange country. As one comedian says the poor people are fat and the rich people are too thin.