Monday, March 20, 2006

Edward Said and Orientalism: French and Anglo-American approaches

Why do we so desperately need to quickly grow Arabic scholars and linguists to help us understand a part of the world that seems the most threatening because it is least willing to play by "our" rules? What happened to oriental studies?

Mr. Said killed them. Prospect magazine recently had an interesting summary of our current predicament, and how Said helped build a fortress against the forces of ignorance and prejudice, but turned the guns in the wrong direction. Some of the points made:
  • Modern perceptions of Arabs and Muslims are not formed in any meaningful way by academics, who were Said's main targets. He helped destroy an academic discipline that, in fact, was a moderating influence on popular culture's portrayals of the east as the villain.
  • We cannot turn to Muslims in an attempt to understand their culture. Historically, Christians have presented a broad, unified front to outside religions like Islam, but a front that masked serious divisions within that have profound real-world consequences. The Muslims do the same to us.
  • Said's accusation that academic study of the Arab world justified imperialism does not match timelines very well. Orientalism's first peak was in the 17th century, when who would colonize who was very much in doubt. (The Battle of Vienna, which stopped the Ottoman push to conquer all of Austria, was 1683.) The second phase of Oriental studies was in Britain between 1940 and 1970, and coincided with the end of British imperial ambitions.
To study something is not the same as to demonize it. Romanticizing something--while not a true form of understanding--is a start. If all knowledge is relational and perspectival, as po-mo's claim, then some form of romanticism may be our only alternative. G.K. Chesterton once mentioned that it is perfectly fine to laugh at a foreign culture--the one thing you cannot do is pretend that you understand it.

It is also interesting to speculate about the different ways the French and English have managed their empires and relations with Arab and Muslim lands. Neither colonial policy was benign, of course. But British rule was generally more indirect. The French intermittently made their dependents full citizens, and always viewed colonies as full provinces of metropolitan France; this ironically meant more direct rule by French authorities. The British farce of "virtual representation," whereby each member of Parliament theoretically represented the entire empire, meant in practice that the chain of administration was broken, and colonial rulers had more leeway to govern according to local needs. This led to British intermediaries who understood their subjects and would often become academics after leaving diplomatic posts, while French administrators were basically just functionaries operating within a universal civil law system as if they were just an outpost of France.

Plus, the French used the Sphinx for target practice. (Actually, that's probably a myth. Hmm.)

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