Hegemony & Orientalism [February 2009]

Hegemony and Orientalism:

“Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten werden.”
{Those who cannot represent themselves must themselves be represented}
-Karl Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”

My interest in intellectual history is peripheral to a study of the rhetoric that justifies and offers legitimacy to governmental foreign policies. Edward Said’s argument that Orientalism is “fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient, because the Orient was weaker than the West,” proves an uncomfortable fit with my understandings of rhetoric and hegemony. However, it is problematic to say that “the Orient was weaker than the West” (204) There are two points of contention here. First, to adopt the term ‘Orient’ is to tacitly accept the authority that coined the term and accept its terms. Yes, the ‘Orient’ is an imposed label that marks those ‘Asiatic’ nations East of the West as the “other,” with the assumption of homogeneity in practice and thought. Whereby stripping ‘Orientals’ of their individuality, Orientalism disqualifies them from representing themselves. Second, ‘the Orient was weaker’ is a statement that begs for an explanation beyond imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism. This value judgment has as much credence as racism, imperialism and ethnocentrism do- they are all subjective.

Some historians view history as a succession of empires. The ‘self’ discovers the ‘other,’ and the subsequent actions of ‘self’ define history, as the recorded history is one written by the victors. The societies held to the highest esteem are those with a strong literary tradition and preserved records. In this context, it makes sense to say that those (‘others’) conquered societies have been subject to a destruction of their cultural and literary traditions- such as the Aztecs in Meso- America at the hands of the Spaniards, and the Vietnamese at the hands of the Chinese (most particularly the Han Dynasty, 111 BCE). And what follows is that the dominant society has both hegemonic and societal advantages, while those ‘others’ subjected to the hegemonic forces are forced to maneuver to survive- which fits colonial accounts of colonial subjects’ wily, and ambiguous ways. And this construction of history is the context within which Said’s Orientalism exists- the succession of empire necessitates discourse regarding power, expressed and imposed. When Cromer characterized ‘Orientals’ as preferring lies and ambiguity, he speaks as one of those in power- not as one subjected (38). This is clear in Marx’s letters about India, and in Professor Trevor Hugh- Roper’s assertion that Africa had no history before European imperialists endeavored to colonize the continent- all of these authors speak as a member of the West.

When one steps away from the “otherization” of the Orient and goes beyond the racist, imperialist and ethnocentric interpretations of Orientalism, one will find that it falls short. Subjective racial superiority does not explain economic comparative advantages, nor does it fully encompass the complexity of modes of economic behavior (civil society) and political society. Orientalism is a rigid mold of expectations placed upon a geo- political region. This area ‘east’ of Europe is fraught with cultural and religious heterogeneity- thus the assumption of homogeneity in thought and practice cannot stand before the facts. To go back to the quote I began with:

““Sie können sich nicht vertreten, sie müssen vertreten werden.”

Those who cannot represent themselves- rather, those who have been deemed incapable of representing themselves- must be represented. And they cannot be given to the imbecilic passions of the Oriental, nor can they be given to the despotic passions of those ‘Asiatic’ princes who give no thought to the goodwill of their subjects. Basically, the “other” must become more like the ‘self.’

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