Seyed Javad Miri, ed. Orientalism: A Eurocentric Vision of the ‘Other’

(London: International Peace Studies Press, 2013)

2013 marked 35 years since the initial publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. For anyone who might be tempted to think that three-and-a-half decades of debate, critique, interrogation, and efforts at transformation have sufficed to lay to rest Orientalist discursive formations and cultural attitudes, the essays in Orientalism: A Eurocentric Vision of the ‘Other’ issue a sympathetic but firm reminder to the contrary. The volume, edited by Tehran-based Irano-Swedish social theorist Seyed Javad Miri, is rooted ultimately in the conviction that Orientalism has not altogether faded as a cultural or disciplinary paradigm, with Miri’s participation in a 2012 gathering of Russian Orientalists in Kazan—the capital of Russian Tatarstan—providing the specific catalyzing force for organizing the collection. As Miri recounts in his introduction, he was taken aback to find that his peers in a predominantly Muslim region of Russia seemed perfectly able to “sit in Kazan and talk about Oriental societies ‘over there,’” while many of them were in turn surprised to learn that he regarded Orientalism as an “ideological construction” reproducing a Eurocentric attitude that “has overshadowed various domains of social sciences and humanities” (1-2).

The eight essays gathered in Orientalism come from scholars in the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, literature, theology, religious studies, and philosophy. According to Miri, their general purpose is “to deconstruct Orientalism as a Eurocentric vision of the other” (2). From histories and close readings to critiques and elucidations of alternative (i.e., non-Orientalist) cross-cultural interpretive frameworks, the papers attest to the claim that Orientalism is still not behind us—whether not nearly or just not quite is a point on which there is productive tension among individual essays.

Perhaps the most novel and illuminating discussion of the enduring ill effects of Orientalism comes from sociologist Syed Farid Alatas in the collection’s first piece, “Orientalism in the Social Sciences Today.” Alatas contends that the marginalization of non-European theories and concepts in the social sciences and humanities shows that Orientalism is still dominant, even if “civilized/barbaric,” “enlightened/ignorant,” or “rational/irrational” tropes are no longer part of the discourse. Alatas briefly but compellingly makes the case that social science in the Third World developed and still exists in an Orientalist-Eurocentric structural context, where forcible dependence on Western ideas has inhibited the search for and spread of alternative discourses. What Alatas terms “academic dependency” has a number of facets, including a dependence on recognition, which is key because it “manifests itself in terms of the effort to enter our universities and journals into international ranking protocols” (11) that were themselves constituted and legitimized by European and/or American bodies. Yet Alatas believes that alternative discourses are nevertheless finally beginning to gain some traction as awareness of the legacy of Orientalism increases. He briefly discusses the approaches and work of 19th-century Filipino social critic José Rizal and Iranian Islamic theorists Ali Shari’ati and Morteza Motahhari as resources for robust theoretical and conceptual apparatuses that might resist and supplant those of European origin that continue to predominate. Alatas’s optimism regarding the rise of alternative discourse in the social sciences is echoed in Miri’s concluding essay, “Orientalism: A Eurocentric Vision of the ‘Other,’” which suggests that “new vistas are appearing before intellectuals and academics in terms of engaging with the ‘other’…where diverse subjectivities are not categorized along [a] hierarchical ladder where the ‘Western self’ occupies the highest locus while the ‘Restern self’ ranks at the lowest level” (175).

The majority of the essays in Orientalism engage with particular texts or figures to illustrate ways in which Orientalist frameworks have been or still are employed in Western approaches to the “Other.” Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the contributions of Feras Alkabani, Dustin J. Byrd, and Sophia Rose Shafi. In “Nietzsche’s Transvaluation of Islam: Philosophical Orientalism and its Consequences,” Byrd provides a philosophically and theologically detailed analysis of both Nietzsche’s dubious embrace of a stylized, highly selective Islam emphasizing manliness and domination, and Hitler’s fateful political appropriation of an Islam distorted through Nietzsche’s Orientalist prism. It is worth noting, though, that Byrd does not clearly document any specific texts in the sensationalizing “Orientalist literature of the time” that “fascinated Nietzsche” (137) and from which he derived his idiosyncratic and still Orientalist (albeit “transvaluated”) version of Islam. Alkabani’s essay “Paradigms and Empowerment” shows how the Arab Orient functioned, dream-like yet all too real, as a platform for T.E. Lawrence to act out fantasies shaped by the medieval chivalric tales that captivated him during his youth. Alkabani successfully problematizes the narrative of empowerment that often still attends discussions of Lawrence’s role, as an agent of British imperialism, in fomenting an Arab nationalist revolt against an Ottoman empire that had joined the Germans against British and French Allied forces.

Shafi’s “Turning Turk: Anxieties Surrounding Bodily Difference in Orientalist Discourse,” a particularly lucid literary and cultural analysis, is quite a gem in the collection. Her essay examines both early-modern and contemporary popular representations of Muslim men as oversexed, aggressive, violent, and perverse, in order to show how white Christian fears of racialized Islam are personified in the figure of the “dark Turk.” As Shafi puts it, “What [the notion of “turning Turk”] reveals about the ways in which white, Christian bodies continue to be privileged while Muslim bodies maintain their alterity suggests that a powerful discourse is at play here, a discourse that seems to hold Muslim bodies captive as permanent foreigners, enemies, and the embodiment of evil” (108). She reads Othello and Dracula, for example, as texts in which Moorish “monsters” reveal white European anxieties about sexual and gender ambiguity, racial contamination, and outright “bodily conversion, an altering of one’s essential humanity” (114). Her analysis of Homeland draws attention to the sexual and racial dimensions of contemporary Islamophobia on display in the characterization of Brody, “a red-headed American hero who has turned Turk following his lengthy capture, imprisonment, and torture by an Al Qaeda cell in Afghanistan” (123). For Shafi, from Shakespeare to Stoker, Shelley, and even Showtime, “Orientalism functions as the most powerful voice in the West’s meta-narrative about Islam” (106).

Countering aspects of his co-contributors’ views, Daniel Martin Varisco, in “East vs. West, Orient vs. Occident: The Binary that Haunts Orientalism and the Clash of Civilizations,” argues that insofar as debate about an Orientalist East-West binary originates with Said, it is irresolvable since Said’s own East-West distinction functions as an ontological and essentializing assumption, despite his pretensions to an anti-essentialist critical stance. So, for Varisco, rather than delivering liberation from an East-West trap Said’s work perpetuates the problem. The fact that “the hegemony Said sees in all Orientalist discourse has been challenged all along” (102) is of decisive significance for the present moment. “I am not so naïve as to assume that the damage of an opportunistic East vs. West clash can simply be wished away,” Varisco notes, “but neither do I doubt the ability to whittle away at bias and misinformation by using the methodologies of critical scholarship from established disciplines” (80).

The essays in Orientalism are apt to provoke and challenge the reader, but the basis for their selection is not explained. It isn’t clear that these eight entries are best suited to one another and to the collection, especially since those by Felici, Varisco, and Trainer are at best only secondarily concerned with the stated project of “deconstruct[ing] Orientalism as a Eurocentric vision of the other.” Most disconcertingly, Trainer’s “Frederick Copleston’s Epiphany in Hawaii” seems to be unintentionally at cross-purposes with the entire rest of the collection. Trainer’s thesis is as follows: Copleston, a prominent 20th-century English Jesuit historian of philosophy who initially believed there was no such thing as “Eastern” philosophy but experienced a “conversion” or “epiphany” while a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1970s (a change derisively described by Trainer as something Copleston “contracted while imbibing Hawaiian coffee or consuming macadamian nuts [sic]”), should not have allowed his “revelation” about non-Western thought to “erode or obfuscate” his decades’ worth of valuable effort to explicate philosophy’s (Greco-Western) essence. Not only Trainer’s choice of language but his analysis itself reflects a strikingly Eurocentric (mis)understanding of the histories, texts, and inherent worth of non-Greco-Western ways of thinking. Trainer’s essay in fact reads like the very sort of Orientalism that the rest of the book is at pains to critique and transcend.

If certain of Orientalism’s essays are discordant or problematic, however, the value of its overall aim is not in question. Nor is the value of the collection itself as it stands. The originality, nuance, and scholarship on display in the majority of the essays make this book worthwhile not only for specialists in cultural studies and area studies but also for anyone interested in cross-cultural approaches to politics, religion, literature, or film. Miri writes that “the epistemological foundations of studying the ‘other’ should be reconceptualized in accordance [with] non-binary opposition models” (175), and in the various articles making up the collection this sort of reconceptualization is clearly at work. Orientalism has been and remains at work in Western scholarship, thought, and culture, but, as these essays show, it is both necessary and possible today to pursue alternative discourses. As Varisco observes, “If we cannot lay to rest the ghost of Orientalism past, at least we can stop being frightened out of our critical scholarship by such a troublesome specter” (81).

Reviewed by Gino Signoracci
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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