Orientalism and the 19th century, Orientalism and the exotic taste, Orientalism, England and France, Orientalism and Edward Said… that’s something that everyone interested in Islamic study has read and studied.
It is something that some professors (at least, my professors) have always depicted as wrong, misleading, something to overcome: when dealing with Islamic studies you should avoid orientalist attitude, as it strongly impairs a scientific and academic approach. Also, when giving news, information, when writing, speaking, thinking, you should avoid using parameters that are linked to Orientalism and its framework of thought…
So, this is much the way I grew up, I studied, and I carried on my researches. Of course, also when posting things on Twitter or this blog, this attitude of non-Orientalism follows me, or at least I try to keep it firmly in my mind.
But on Twitter Orientalism seems to gain followers…
In Edward Said’s definition:
Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”.
It seems to be a quite simple definition, which actually needs to be further developed: in fact, in a wider sense, Orientalism is an attitude that makes strong distinctions between the self and the other, seen as epistemological and ontological groups.
The power of description
Now…I could spend hours and hours talking about Orientalism, its meaning, its developments, and its side effects… but it would be too long! I will try here to reduce as much as I can the description of Orientalism, to speak more profusely on Twitter…
This distinction implies a series of considerations on the two groups, that start from the assumption that the two parts are not only different but opposed. Usually, those included in the first group (which normally is “us”) describe themselves using those attributes that are considered positive within the group itself. As a mirror, the second group reflects those attributes in a distorted and opposed way. We are beautiful – they are ugly. That’s the simple and childish one. But it goes further, of course: we are peaceful – they are violent; we are virtuous – they are perverted; we are enlightened – they are ignorant.
In addition, the traits of the others are also exaggerated, in both senses.
A second group is an object, the others are deprived of the ability to auto-define themselves, only those in the first can define themselves and even change. The second group changes only when the first one does, and always in opposition. Thus, the subjects in the first groups can also depict themselves as ignorant, violent and perverted, looking at the others as enlightened, peaceful, and virtuous. Yet, the first group, even if self-critical, has always the power to define itself, and to define the other.
The description, moreover, is flattened, everything is always the same, there’s no change. On a deeper point of view the description of the other, is always the same, in a sense. The members of the other-group, are not individuals, they are part of the crowd. They are blocked, in space and time, living in the exotic.
Wikipedia simply defines the idiom go native “to adopt the lifestyle or outlook of local inhabitants”. Actually, going native, is strongly related to the taste of exotic and with a comparison between us and them. What I deem important to underline here, is that going native doesn’t only mean that one of a group dresses up like one of the other: it also implies a downward movement. One of us-group decides to adopt the lifestyle and the outlook of the other-group. This can be done as on an evolutionist scale, the group us is more “evolved” and sophisticated than the other. Going native also means to discover the primitive state of human being, escaping from now and here, going there, with the other, in the exotic…
The other way round is not possible: the other can dress up, can try to look like us, but the result would be ironic and forced.
The taste for the exotic…a Romantic view
“Somewhere exotic” usually means “there, in the East”, but actually the exotic is not merely the Orient. Exotic is every place far away both in space and time, a place that is totally different from this place, where the rules applied here are unknown, where we can taste a different life, usually also considered more authentic, close to nature, close to a primitive state of being. Middle Ages is just as exotic as China (or Europe, a Chinese can say…).
We can decide to go there for holidays, for fun, or because we want to bring some of our world to the inhabitants of that world, raising them from their primitive state. Kipling used to call it “the white man’s burden”. In fact, raising them from their primitive state is something strange: they will never reach our level, we are the masters, they need to learn from us, they can be good students, but we are still their teachers. It is always the we-group that can define and describe them: they can act like us, they can acquire our knowledge…but they will never be really part of our group.
It’s a frozen dichotomy, in which each one group has a well-established role.
Orientalism and Twitter: the taste for the exotic in 140 characters
Being on Twitter, I had some chance to notice how the taste for the exotic is overwhelming. The Orientalist attitude my professors tried to uproot from my mind is still working and is gaining followers.
From what I have written so far, I think it’s pretty clear how an Orientalist attitude implies a lot of behaviours, but, essentially it can be resumed in the strict opposition between two ontological groups, in which one acts as subject (being capable to perform actions) and the other is seen as an object (thus, incapable to perform actions on its own). “Dichotomy” is the word.
In a number of tweets, this dichotomy is strengthened, underlined, even welcomed. It is even more clear considering an infographic like this one:
What happens here is providing no in-depth analysis, comparing two monolithic groups, without taking into consideration variables: one group is advanced, the other is behind. All this, providing few and scattered sources.
The comparisons will go further but is always on the same level: also in an infographic on the right to education, the facts are given with no insights, no background, and without any veil of criticism. About this particular subject, I strongly suggest having a look at the article written by Ian D. Morris on his blog (28th Feb 2014).
It seems, on a wider point of view, that Twitter pages such as @LostIslamicHist (Lost Islamic History) and @HistoryNeedsYou (Matthew Ward) [the latter, actually posts also extremely interesting stuff!], when it comes to Arabic and Islamic culture, just start opposing the Occident and the Orient, as two big monolithic entities, avoiding to question any of their traits.
This attitude is even more apparent when dealing with science such as maths, anatomy, geography…
In all these fields, Islamic culture (the Orient) arrived first, Europe (and North America) arrived centuries later:
What I want to point out here is that the facts presented can be true, in some sense, but there’s a lack of a deeper analysis of the historical context, and of criticism. The author only provides notions not supported by proper contextualization of facts, thus flattening the discourse, and, again, providing a division of the world in two monolithic entities, opposed and incompatible…
This view is not at all new: it still has been perpetuated for centuries and it is the same attitude that forms the basis for the Clash of Civilization, on which Huntington has written. [you can read for example this article, by the author].
As I am pretty much interested in art and epigraphy, it is also worthy to point out how this attitude is visible also when approaching Islamic art: it is sometimes seen as monolithic, tweets do not provide any kind of sources, and sometimes also convey wrong or partial assumptions. The art of the mosque, the art of calligraphy, the art of architecture are not contextualized: a mosque in India can be compared to a mosque in Spain and ancient and new are confused. Links between centuries and artifacts are arbitrarily made and with no scientific support, sometimes.
A Victorian Hall à l’arabe, is hashtagged #islamicart, even if it was more properly a “hall of wonders”, an 1800 hall perfectly depicting the spread of the taste for the exotic in Victorian England.
Frederic Leighton, owner of this wonderful (yet Victorian) hall constructed it with pieces found in different areas and belonging to different periods. It was a hall of wonders, a collection of beautiful pieces which are displayed only because they look beautiful… no in-depth study was required.
What happens in Twitter today, in some regards, is actually the same, but in a virtual way.
I love Islamic art, I study Islamic art, and I also want to spread the knowledge of it. What I don’t want to do, is providing easy comparisons and easy definitions. Islam and its culture are not monolithic entities. We should go on and avoid to perpetuate in the 21st century the same Orientalistic attitude that characterized the 19th century: we should avoid building a virtual hall of wonder…
If interested in Edward Said book: E. Said, Orientalism, Penguin, London 2003. [full text]