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16 February 2010

Orientalism

Reading this book has become a bit of a slog, to be honest. It's incredibly erudite, and there's a host of names I've never heard of, but it seems to be piling on the learning to bomb-proof an idea that Said presumably knew would be subject to attack. As when I read the extract in MCT, a lot of that idea now seems uncontroversial: ultimately it's not helpful to define half the world simply in terms of difference. In many ways that message is even more important now. In the book, Said talks a lot about the way Islam sometimes stood for the Orient, sometimes not. We could argue whether that itself suggests the Orientalist view is more nuanced that it sometimes seems to be portrayed as, but I think a lot of people still see Islam as a single, unvaried, really existing thing, whose defining characteristics are the things that make it different.

One bomb that Said does not seem to have anticipated is feminism. Of course there's the usual business of male pronouns, which I'm beginning to get used to, but it's clear that (i) the orientalism Said describes did not examine the relative roles of men and women and (ii) Said doesn't comment on this omission or (iii) examine whether it is a serious omission in its effects on the research. There's no trace of the fact that men and women may have different interests. I'm pretty sure that point will have been made long before I got here.

(But I think it does prove the point about inclusive language. If you always refer to typical people ("the reader", "the writer", "the Arab") as "he", it's easy to not notice that you're ignoring half the world.)

Another big question is why does this affect literary theory? How does it affect our reading of literature outside this particular arena? I suppose the point is that it's a methodological lesson: received ideas are not to be trusted (Said refers a lot to Bouvard et Pecuchet. OK, I've got that.

The last passage I've flagged in the book, before I flagged, is about narrative and vision. Vision "presumes that the whole Orient can be seen panoptically". Against that, narrative "is the specific form taken by written history to counter the permanence of vision." Vision is the orientalist view; narrative disrupts it, and so orientalism tries to deny history to the orient. At this premature conclusion of the book, I still can't say if the conclusions about orientalism are true, but as an example of a sceptical approach, it's (ambiguous praise) interesting.

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