‘To me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipultion—whose invented interplay—allows me to “entertain” the idea of an unheard of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own” (Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs p.3)


Roland Barthes, in his book about Japan published eight years before Said’s Orientalism, artfully, if also brashly, excuses himself from any accusations of proto-Orientalism with the above declaration. In offering up this book of semiotic musings after a visit to Japan, he decides, “If I imagine a fictive nation, I can give it an invented name, treat it declaratively as a novelistic object…which I shall call: Japan” (3).   Barthes, in this one fell swoop, “Makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, [and] renders its mysteries plain for and to the West” (Said 20-1). 


And to think that Barthes doesn’t so much as stop to qualify, to examine, or even to explain, his co-opting of Japan’s voice, his semiotic incisions, and his flouting of self-reflexivity. What do we think? Shall we allow him to slip through the backdoor with this kind of intentional ‘Orientalizing?’ Even though he delights in precisely this kind of exteriority through his text, can we read his initial disclaimer as ironic, and his general flippancy as a deeper more complex understanding of how one might write about ‘other’ groups in post-colonial contexts?  It seems almost as if Barthes accounts for, and embraces Said’s assertion that, “At most, the “real” Orient provoked a writer to his vision: it very rarely guided it” (Said 22).


For Said, Orientalism is a tightly interwoven system of cultural domination imposed by the West on the East as a ‘streamlined and effective’ discourse through which ‘the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks” (40). The Foucauldian influence is evident in all reaches of this work, and with Foucault, when the latter writes, “Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting” (in “Nietzsche, Geneology, Hisotory” in Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow 88), Said shows how scholars and poets of the West have historically used knowledge of the East to divide, minimize, analyze, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, to record everything in sight (and out of sight)… (86).


Methodologically, Said positions himself within the scholarly geography, plunges his analytic deeply into a broad history of literature, and draws up a number of core samples aimed to be representative of “a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires…in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced” (15).  


This integrated, internally coherent system of Orientalism is obtained through a domestication of the East predominantly through textual representation. For Said it was not politicians who created Orientalism as a kind of strategy, but rather, it was a much more pernicious poetic and academic ‘will to knowledge’ which, through its various representations, itself came to serve as the justification for colonialism (39). Said goes to great lengths to show the geneology of ‘Orientalism’ in his analysis of speeches and scholarly works and shows the contingent, limiting, confining way in which these discourses, “acquire coherence and integrity in time because scholars devote themselves in different ways to what seems to be a commonly agreed-upon subject matter” (50).


In light of this emphasis on textuality, it comes as no surprise that Description “became the master type of all further efforts to bring the Orient closer to Europe, thereafter to absorb it entirely and—centrally important—to cancel, or at least subdue and reduce, its strangeness and, in the case of Islam, its hostility” (87). This subduing was done on various levels; Politically with White Man’s Burden, (“Denying him gin but giving him justice” (37)), poetically as ‘synonomous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal” (51).  In either case, the ‘Oriental’ outside the grounds of textual greatness, evidences a baffling cultural logic, abhorrent of accuracy, embodying danger and vengeance.


I wonder if we can ask if in any way Said’s treatment of Orientalism moves within what we might dare to call an ‘oppressive hypothesis’ to place against Foucault’s analysis of the ‘repressive hypothesis,’ (in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1) namely; that while the ‘repressive hypothesis states that sex has been made a subject which people try to not only prevent, but to make it unthinkable, and unspeakable, it in fact strengthens through those kinds of examination that legitimize it. I am, like I’d to think Foucault might do, not asking for silence but simply asking a question in order to see what spills out from the wounds.


There is a repetitiveness in the characterizations provided by Said, sometimes articulating in a readerly foreknowledge where our expectations precede Said’s explications and analyses.  Is it because we know Foucault? Is it because these are our views of the ‘Orient’? Said himself writes, once we accept the basic assumption of the Western projection, “we will encounter few surprises” (95).  To what extent is this due not to our historical experiences with the East, but simply that any child in the schoolyard knows that the trick to ‘othering’ is simply to reverse those terms that normally count as ‘noble?’  And we all know stock retaliation for this kind of foul play: naturally it is to declare,  “I know you are but what am I?”  Lila Abu-Lughod, in “Writing Against Culture” provides an intellectual rendering of just this kind of rhetoric when she warns us against what she calls ‘reverse Orientalism’ “Where attempts to reverse the power relationship proceed by seeking to valorize for the self what in the former system had been devalued as other” (144). Once Orientalism is ‘objectified,’ even in its reverse form, “it leaves in place the divide that structured the experiences of selfhood and oppression on which it builds” (145).  “Perhaps the most important task of all,” Writes Said, “would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective” (24). Is this necessarily then also to say, in such a way that does not pass through the filter of ‘representation?’ The same question that Fabian’s Time and the Other suffers under haunts us here and hereafter: If not representation, then what?

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture