Recently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.
Beginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.
It was this fraught relationship between the symbolic and personal identity that Kafka so effectively investigated in both The Castle and The Trial. In both of those texts Joseph K’s identity– an identity marked only by an initial or an abbreviation –is entirely mysterious and his place within the social system or the symbolic order is entirely inscrutable. Joseph K’s plight is not extraordinary, but is characteristic of all social and cultural life. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a professor or a salesman or an engineer or an American or straight or gay or bisexual or a Christian or Muslim, etc., etc., etc. No matter where we look, we find these fraught and precarious identities where the essence of these identities remains in question and where our own performance of these identities perpetually remains fraught. Descartes gets a lot wrong in his substanlization of the subject, but when he writes that,
…still there are many other matters concerning which one simply cannot doubt, even though they are derived from the very same senses: for example, that I am sitting here next to the fire, wearing my winter dressing gown, that I am holding this sheet of paper in my hands, and the like. But on what grounds could one deny that these hands and this entire body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to the insane, whose brains are impaired by such an unrelenting vapor of black bile that they steadfastly insist that they are kings, when they are utter paupers, or that they are arrayed in purple robes when they are naked, or that they have heads made of clay, or that they are gourds, or that they are made of glass. But such people are mad, and I would appear no less mad, were I to take their behavior as an example for myself.
This would all be well and good, were I not a man who is accustomed to sleeping at night, and to experiencing in my dreams the very same things, or now and then even less plausible ones, as these insane people do when awake. (Meditations, 18 – 19)
he hits upon something real and fundamental about the difference between the subject and the self. With the latter we have our sense of personal identity or those social roles and that personal identity that answer the question of who we are. Yet with the subject we have that which is in excess of any self, that which never quite fits with these roles we strive to fit ourselves into, such that the self is always in question and we never quite feel as if we are insiders within our own collective relations. As Sartre would so nicely put it a few hundred years later, “I am what I am not and am not what I am.” If the problem of inter-cultural communication is a false problem, then this is because it always presupposes self-contained cultural universes in which the subject is reduced to the self. Yet we are all translators and interpreters of our own culture such that no one ever quite knows what they are. It is for precisely this reason, it is for precisely the reason that identity is impossible, that communication is possible.
This brings me to the second component feature behind the charge of Orientalism: that it is an essentializing and prejudiced view of Eastern culture. This is certainly a serious problem, but ultimately I think it conflates, to employ a Levinasian distinction, the difference between the saying and the said. We can think of the said, especially in our own electronic culture, as being akin to the slime left behind by a snail after it’s made its way across the walk. The said is the trace of an encounter between two others… Two others that are other to each other and that are other to themselves. Since the path is already traversed it becomes possible to turn it into more of an object than it is, plotting fixed points along that trace in much the same way that Zeno treats space as infinitely divided after the arrow has traversed that space, declaring that motion is therefore impossible.
What is missed here is that speech is not propositional but dialogical. The saying, the act of saying, is not a fixed body of propositions, but is an ever dancing entanglement of two others encountering one an-other becoming other as a result of that endless encounter. The phenomenon of a prejudiced and essentializing relation to the other is not unique to relations between members of different groups, but is characteristic of all social interactions at both the intra- and inter-group level. In every encounter with an other we “punctualize” that other, ascribing them features and an identity, characteristics and a fixed essence. Yet in the encounter, these fixed identities are perpetually challenged and modified through the startling surprise of the other and our own relationship to ourselves. None of this is to discount the damaging or very real status of stereotypes, yet these stereotypes emerge in that place where there are no encounters with the other. Yet while these are very real phenomena, the error to be avoided is the belief that there is some saint-like view from nowhere where we would take ourselves to be immune from this or free of these aporia, and the error of believing that we exist in a state of cultural and social closure maintaining an immediate relationship with the signs and signifiers of our own cultural space. The imperative is to keep the encounter open and ongoing. Yet in doing so one is committing to an escape from fixed and sedentary identities where the one and the other produce something new in and through their encounter.