March 2012

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

Stranger Orientalism

"We all know what shariah law does to women -- women must wear burqas, women are subject to humiliation and into controlled marriages under Sharia law. We want to prevent it from ever happening in Texas." -- Texas state Rep. Leo Berman 

For an empire to mobilize its people against an enemy, it must provide motivation and define that enemy as an other, possibly less human, group of people. If the enemy, or the colonized peoples, are not drawn in garish caricature, then how does one justify their subjugation? Since al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States in 2001, there has been a consistent effort on the part of the US government and those in public life who have a particular stake in supporting our two conventional wars and the Global War on Terror (GWOT), to paint our enemy, generally construed as Muslim and Arab or South Asian, as animated by "religious extremism," under which category are such nefarious plots as the desire to impose Sharia law in the United States and make our women wear burkas. This religious extremism is shorthand for a whole host of mysterious and mystifying practices that renders Muslims "other" and infinitely unknowable. While our "enemy" (understood to be Muslim) is motivated in his (irrational) hatred of us by religious fervor, we (the citizens of Empire) are motivated by rationality, truth and a love of "freedom." There is no scope within this narrative for resentment of the United States' imperial practices and increasingly bloody foreign policies in the Middle East. Resentment of policies is the province of rational beings, not of religious fanatics.

In writing these words, I am saying nothing new or original. My purpose in re-delineating the contours of this argument is to draw attention to the extraordinary contemporary relevance of Edward Said's thesis on Orientalism in the context of America, and empire, today. There are many reasons to critique Said's work, but the core thesis continues to resonate strongly, namely, that Orientalism, a colonial-era aesthetic in the arts and literature based on a construction of non-Western society as mysterious, other, and irrational, was handily leveraged in the service of empire to justify the subjugation of colonized peoples. The Orientalist writings and art explored by Said in his work by the same name, and also in later iterations of the same project, are by and large of no particular importance to contemporary American life, or even life in the former imperial capitals. Newer work has sprung up and taken its place, with new flourishes and features. Some tropes remain. The veil -- that shroud of mystery worn by Middle Eastern women -- exercises an ongoing fascination combined with loathing. It is a symbol for all that is unknowable and irrational about the religious fanatics that "hate our freedoms." Innumerable books bear titles with words such as "unveiling," "behind the veil," etc. (See this Tumblr for a wealth of examples.)

Said's thesis has unfortunately made little effect in the US outside of the academy. The greatest ostensible change seems to be on the use of the term "oriental" for persons of Asian origin, which is no longer deemed politically correct. Beyond this I have found that when trying to explain his theory, there is a strong desire to reject it on the part of those who enjoy the cultural artifacts of traditional Orientalism, such as the writings of Kipling, or Orientalist paintings. I have never taken from Said the need to denounce or cast off all Orientalist works. There is no need to wrap your well-thumbed copy of The Arabian Nights in brown paper when taking it to read on the train. You can hang onto your Ingres print and display your little bits of chinoiserie about your living room without fear. We are not coming for your Rimsky-Korsakov records. Take heart! If all the world's art and literature were rejected for its association with the project of empire building there would be little left to enjoy.

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Instead of all this, what we must remember is that whether or not an artist believes himself to be actively serving some sort of imperial aim, and many artists probably have not, or if they have, they have often done so in order to pay the rent, once a work of art, a book, a piece of music is done, it is out there and free for the taking by anyone else wishing to create a narrative about empire and otherness. Politicians, propagandists, government agencies, imperialist running dogs of all stripes have freely pilfered the cultural archive throughout history and continue to do so. A most immediate example is the repeated attempts on the part of Republican candidates for office in the United States to associate themselves with various popular songs during their rallies. In this example the story often ends happily with acts of resistance on the part of the musicians themselves, who object to the association and refuse permission to the candidates. But most such stories do not tie up so neatly. As in the French critic Roland Barthes's formulation, once a book is produced, the author is dead, which is to say that once a cultural artifact has been completed and sent out into the world, its author has little control over its subsequent life and how it is used or abused. If I sound like I am letting the artists off the hook, I am, a little, yes. I've seen the meaning of my own work twisted beyond recognition in a matter of moments, with little hope of reclaiming the intended message from the manglers. I do however believe that there are times when a work seems hopelessly collusive, even when the author's stated intentions appear unassailably anti-imperial.

Two such contemporary instances have made their way, largely unbidden, into my life recently. The first is Craig Thompson's graphic novel Habibi (reviewed extensively here), and the second is Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Both authors have a clearly stated aim of writing against the grain of the GWOT narrative of Muslim-as-terrorist-culture-of-violence, and both see the antidote as MOAR ORIENTALISM. Also of note: both are extremely long; does neo-Orientalism demand verbosity? Stranger Magic is a massive exegesis on The Arabian Nights and its life as an Orientalist text. Warner is a mythographer, and Stranger Magic is primarily a work of scholarship, though it is clearly written for a general audience. It could also be considered a love letter of sorts, a love letter to all the Orientalist artifacts that Warner holds dear and that Said and his army of naysayers would have her cast aside. The book is divided into sections that explore themes within The Arabian Nights. Each section includes retellings of various stories and explores the elaborate and multicultural life of the stories and themes within the stories as they spread and were adapted and incorporated into Western European culture and thought.

Warner's knowledge of her subject is, as the glowing review in The London Review of Books puts it, "compendious." For any student of the history of the Orientalist aesthetic and its myriad tropes, this book will be undeniably essential. It is full of interesting nuggets of wisdom, such as the fact that the two most popular stories from The Arabian Nights in the West, "Alladin's Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," were most likely written by the French translator Antoine Galland and never existed in Arabic. This factoid itself is telling, in that part of Warner's thesis rests on the notion that The Arabian Nights specifically, and Orientalism generally, should be construed as multicultural, multi-valent "texts" that belong to a wide array of cultures and traditions. This part of her thesis seems reasonable. It's the next bit where overreach begins. Warner goes on to state that the rise of the value of rationality during the Enlightenment consequently devalued magic and enchantment in Western thought, and that Orientalism became a vital channel through which the supernatural could be expressed. As she explains in her introduction:

In Stranger Magic, I want to ask if it is possible to set the Arabian Nights in relation to the concerns of modern society and modern consciousness, as they were developing in the age of reason. How do such flights of fancy speak to reason? Shahrazad speaks truth to power, incarnate in the Sultan who wants to cut off her head -- can it be said the work of imagination in the Nights does something similar? I want to look without squeamishness at the contemporary use of enchantment, at the continuing vitality of magic in literature as well as its structural presence in the everyday culture, and the reasons for its persistent survival -- which is a source of perplexity, anxiety and even annoyance to some in a scientific, secular society.  

In other words, when the West rejected magic, and by extension, irrationality, Orientalism took its place. Magic, mystical thinking, and irrationality are important aspects of the human psyche, and therefore, Orientalism is a good thing.

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Warner writes of Edward Said in her acknowledgments "...it is a matter of great regret that this generous man is no longer here to argue vehemently with us all about my interpretations here." Indeed it is, but more so for her readers. For the author, Said is mercifully gone and the mourning period is apparently over. Warner is not a strident critic of Said's work on Orientalism; indeed, she appears to wish to present her book as a continuation of the conversation surrounding Said's thesis. As with Habibi, there is a desire to acknowledge the idea that Orientalism might be a problematic mode of representation, and then move beyond that point to re-embrace the entire aesthetic fulsomely. And Warner embraces it most fulsomely indeed, with purple prose that seems designed both as a performance of her passion for The Arabian Nights, and also a reproduction of the flourishes and "arabesques" of the Orientalist aesthetic. Take for example, this representative passage discussing the writer William Beckford (1760-1844):

...his writing is strenuous, aiming at dazzling effect, and tinged with desperation. Yet the enchantments in the Arabian Nights, the stories' mix of excitement and languor, offered this edgy and complicated man a way of freeing his erotic fantasy, and in Vathek and other stories he singles out the sulphurous drama of fire worship to create his sorcerers and blasphemers and reprobates.... Beckford knows how to twist responses into lingering, horrible incongruities: a kind of experimental chef, an avatar of Heston Blumenthal in the realm of Enlightenment literature, he creates prose that reads like snail ice cream or seaweed custard.  

Both Warner and Craig Thompson have made a point of presenting their work as a conscious effort to right the wrongs of post-9/11 anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric. As Warner writes in her conclusion:

The research for this book began during the first Gulf War, and continued during the many, appalling and unresolved conflicts of the regions where the Nights originated. I wanted to represent another side of the culture as the enemy and an alternative history to vengeance and war.... In full hope against hope, the work of interconnectedness, of intercultural and intergenerational exchanges is of paramount importance, in order to give us knowledge and exchanges of one another... to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection--to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was -- and is -- Shahrazad's way.

If she had stopped short of this theoretical framing, both the argument contra Said that Orientalism represents a positive force in the history of Western thought, and that the study and reflection of the phenomenon can be seen as a healing balm in the face of American imperial conquest in the Middle East, then Warner would have produced a very impressive study indeed. But the framing mars the central text and shows us the author's seeming incomprehension of how Orientalist cultural artifacts have been marshaled in the service of empire to subjugate the other, regardless of the intentions of their creators and their intrinsic aesthetic and mythological merit. Further, to drag this argument into the fraught present moment, when the United States, with the United Kingdom's full backing, is engaged in further Middle East conquest, invading a country here, propping up a despot there, and all the while infringing on the civil liberties of their own citizens, with particular reference to those of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin, is to show a stubborn blindness to the way that propaganda works.