Friday, July 25, 2008

Thoughts from the Orient

Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book that no one interested in the Middle East can avoid. It’s been subject to so much debate, with conflicting praise and criticism raising it up to legendary status in the academic world. Picking it up off the library shelf earlier this summer, I felt like I was holding something akin to the Holy Grail.

I’m currently two-thirds into the book. While I’m in no position to make any sort of “professional” critique of it (I don’t know anywhere near enough about the Middle East and literary criticism to do that), the book did spur some ideas, and opinions, in my head.

Said’s main argument is that Orientalism is the West’s vision of the East, or the “Orient” – a vision that is a flawed shadow of the East’s reality. In studying the Orient, Said asserts, Westerners mistook their understanding of the region for the region itself. How the West saw the Orient became the only way to see it. And since (again, according to Said) the West has long politically and culturally dominated the Orient, any Western idea or action regarding the Orient was tinged with Western superiority, imperialism and ethnocentrism.

I picked up Said’s book thinking it was going to be about somewhat tangible historical events. I realize now that it is all about representations, or how we see things.

According to Said, we all see the world through ourselves. We are all ethnocentric – perhaps a better term would be self-centric. That makes sense to me to a certain extent. Each of us, after all, could not experience the world if we had no self to experience it through. The self is our medium for experiencing the world. And obviously, one’s self is largely molded by the culture that surrounds it.

But while Said’s breakdown of the West’s views of the Orient is eye-opening, I think he puts too much emphasis on a particular culture’s domination of the individual. (By culture here I mean the “shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior ,” in both general societies and particular institutions like academic disciplines.) The culture a person is born into, as depicted by Said, becomes an inescapable cage. Any attempt at experiencing life from a different perspective can only go so far, because in the end that person cannot truly move past the parameters of her own culture.

If we take this foundation for Said’s thesis to heart, then no Western study relating to anything non-Western can be considered truly reliable or authentic. This includes Said’s own Orientalism. Because Said was, in the end, a Western educated Arab-American. He left the Middle East as a child, and most of his intellectual growth was based in the Western tradition. His Westernized upbringing, Western education and position in a Western university all made him an heir to what he believed was the West’s inescapable ethnocentrism.

I like to believe that people can move past their cultural boundaries. Maybe that’s naïve, a characteristic of my youthful idealism. But as an Arab American living in the Middle East, especially one who is studying the Middle East through the American university system, I need to believe it’s possible. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Till the next post!


sherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sherine said... tempted to pick up the book myself, but i got my own bundle of books to finish before next semester!

i love what you said about how we see the world through ourselves.very true. we all perceive things differently, the more differently, the more distant we are from one another.
i guess that's where the saying, "if you can't change the world, change your world" comes from.
who we are defines our world.beautiful.

nice insight Nour! thanks for sharing!

let us know about the ending!

nkaravatos said...

Rather than "centric" let's say "our subjectivity" as you rightly point to "the self."

Have you come across any of the commentaries that discuss the book *Orientalism* as an act of "orientalism"?

I think one of our profs in the Arabic Studies Dept has written about the "occidentalism" of the Middle East.

J. said...

In discussions surrounding prejudice, I think it's vital to have an actual example. I worry that authors like Said over-generalize from specific examples. In so doing, they may leave out crucial counter-examples that prove their generalizations to be excessive and unjustified.

So what do you think is his best example of an Orientalist attitude? Also, what on Earth is the "West"? Or "Western" culture?

Sidra said...

Thanks for the post Nour. To add to what you said, I think an individual's own subjectivity changes due to social interaction. To take this idea to the scale of cultures (borrowing from Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony) the dominant mold, to some extent at least, the identity of the subordinate, but, I think, it goes the other way as well. The identity of cultures is constantly shaped by the surrounding world. These ideas make sense to me. (Although, something also tells me, it cannot possibly be that simple.)

Now, to your criticism: as you put it "Any attempt at experiencing life from a different perspective can only go so far, because in the end that person cannot truly move past the parameters of her own culture." That does sound like a dead-end. I might be mistaken, but it also sounds like Said is saying the truth, in this instance, is relative -- each culture has its own truth, and no one culture can entirely grasp the truth of another culture. But I think that is correct, insofar as we are speaking of experiences -- every culture has its own unique experiences. But I don't think that implies *all* "Western" study of the "Orient" is tinged with bias or that all attempts to get to that truth, to come close to it, are false. It's what we took in "Women in History" -- that we can't pass value judgments on cultures that do not operate on our value system; any study that does that is committing an error, I think.

What do you think?

matureinsanity said...

I belive that no matter how much people try to distance themselves from the cultures they were born into, it's always gonna suck them right back in but with a different strength and in a different way every time. It's sch a tough battle getting my culture out of my head- for it often is that little voice in there. And if at some point I miraculously succeed in doing that, i feel guilty and somewhat ungrateful.

Humans are creatures of habit and they often feel the need to have some guiding rules in their lives; which is why some hold on to their cultural values so strongly and are too stubborn to let go.

J. said...

Some of you aren't gonna like this, I think. But what's a discussion without reasoned disagreement, right?

I think we absolutely should be critical of cultures with which we disagree when the disagreement is over matters on one's conscience. *How* one criticizes is a different question, but I think its a cop-out and conceptually confused to support moral relativism.

It's a cop-out, because something is really bothering you in your conscience and yet you insist on treating your fellow humans as if they aren't part of the same human family as you.

It's conceptually confused, because the claim "what is right is relative" is not a relative claim! There is no conceptually coherent form of moral relativism. Or I challenge someone to produce it.

Now, as to *how* to criticize, that's the big question, but not whether.

Nour Merza said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone! Your feedback was really thought-provoking. I finished the book, and I'll be responding to it and your comments in an upcoming post. Till then!

Nour Merza said...

Dr. J - Typcial example cited in Said are excerpts from T.E. Lawrence and Renan.