February 7, 2011

How the Revolts in the "East" are being Represented(Part One)

I begin with what seems to be cliche in academic post- colonialism. In 1978 Edward W. Said published his epochal work Orientalism. Said describes Orientalism as a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) The "Occident". He goes further to explain that Orientalism is the way in which the "Occident" interacts with the "Orient". This sounds very simple but these interactions come to form an expansive nexus of ideas, texts, discourses, policies, subjects, etcetera. It is all of these ways in which the Occident relates itself to the Orient and seeks to have the Orient for itself(and production).

After this brief introduction I want to pose the question this post attempts to shed light on. How are the recent revolutionary events of multiple "Oriental" nations such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, and even Albania being represented by modern Orientalism? To begin, if we accept that Orientalism is centralized on the notion of:

"feel[ing] oneself as a European in command, almost at will, of Oriental history, time, and geography"

who's objective, and obligations is:

"to institute new areas of specialization; to establish new disciplines; to divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index, and record everything in sight(and out of sight); to make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law about Oriental nature, temperament, mentality, custom, or type;"

then what is modern Orientalism's response to the spontaneous, and exilic energies produced in these nations? The very unpredictable and chaotic nature of such protests frustrates and strikes at the very structures that Orientalism as founded its influence upon. Orientalism is based off the West's ability to produce a predictable, and manageable Orient subject for itself. This ability to produce came with Western dominance over the Orient crudely beginning around the 17th century. With this new political, and military power, the West was able to exert its will- to - power over the Orient, and produced knowledge about the Orient, and sought to give it a static identifiable structure for others who will need such information to continue domination over the Orient subject. The protests go against this belief, by giving the Orient the opportunity to represent itself. To establish and define it's own identity by the actions it takes, untampered by menacing traditions of knowledge that seeks to dis-mantle this humanistic(existentialist*) spirit.

The construction of this relationship and way of "dealing" with the Orient has been a long, and strenuous project throughout history that involved so many people, things, and ideas it can seem almost infinite, and unfortunately I do not have the ability to give you this history sufficiently in such as post as this one. This means that we will have to turn to more recent events for evidence. First, we turn to an explicit observation of this mode of thought and how it manifests in our everyday conversations, and atmosphere. Coincidentally it comes from a very recent headline in US News titled "Palin Not 'Enthused' by Obama's Handling of the Crisis in Egypt". This title has a couple of implications for the purpose of our discussion here. First is the entirely exceptionalist idea of America's "handling of the crisis". What is the "crisis", and why would a completely irrelevant actor need to be handling it. Is a revolt of youth who hope to save their country from economic degradation and rescue it from the sinking ship of a thirty year dictator a crisis? This is a striking example of how knowledge is produced about the Orient in terms of the Occident and in this process is distorted, and manipulated to relate itself to the Occident(US). Because the revolt does not benefit us, and even threatens our political, and strategic balance in the region, the experience is produced for the general public as a "crisis". Although almost obviously so, this is only a crisis for America(and the rational, civilized, Western nations). Surely the Egyptians do not see this as a "crisis" but freedom, and a moment of great pride. The West does not seek this distinction because it unravels the very mythical nature of its power and instead it labels and defines this phenomenon with a cliche, reified phrase "Crisis in Egypt". Said identifies this in the updated preface to Orientalism:

" It is common to hear high officials in Washington and elsewhere speak of changing the map of the Middle east, as if ancient societies and myriads of people can be shake up like so many peanuts in a jar"

this whimsical description is exemplified by the headline of the article in which the US is placed at the center of an Egyptian experience and thereby condemns to the abyss the Egyptian opportunity to represent itself to the West. The construction of an Orient crisis is what is used to justify the handling of such crisis by a more formidable, and superior Western power. The second intriguing portion of this headline is Palin not being enthused about Obama's ability to handle the crisis. This reveals the Orientalist ability to deposit his/her subject in exchange for the Orients. Thus, it is no longer an issue of the phenomenon that is taking place but rather how it affixes itself towards the disposition of the West. It indicates that there is debate being had, and decision being made over the Orient for the Orient but seemingly without the Orient present(because ironically it is in "crisis). Without giving the Orient the opportunity to represent itself, it allows the West to execute through a much more stealthy manner the inherently(traditionally) prejudiced, and violent knowledge producing problematic that disfigures the Orient experience and forces us to evade the possibility of these relationships being able to re-shape the way we understand ourselves and the Orient as its own subject(ivity). Although this headline only outlines Egypt there are a multitude of other articles discussing the many protests taking place that follow this same tradition of thought.To be able to avoid this we must be able to reposition the points from which we examine and understand the Orient and with this repositioning be able to better understand the implications of the events taking place in the Orient in our day and age.

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