Nepantla: Views from South 3.2 (2002) 373-390
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Orientalism, Anti-Orientalism, Relativism
The question of Orientalism, as everyone knows, has been the subject of intense debate in the last quarter century. Figuring most prominently in these discussions are the contributions of Edward Said and the reactions they have inspired. But these contributions themselves have a long history.
Said's Orientalism (1980 ) is the first work in a trilogy that also includes The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981).1 On various occasions, Said has reconsidered and refined the positions he took in Orientalism. Almost seventeen years after the first edition of this book, Said wrote the article “East Isn't East: The Impending End of the Age of Orientalism” (1995).2 In fact he had already reassessed the question in “Orientalism Reconsidered” (Said 1985).3
Orientalism has met with unique fortune. The culmination of several decades of critical research, the book has served as the point of departure for new contributions by authors from different parts of the planet—and not only from the territories, nations, and ethnic groups that have endured the centuries-old expansion of Europe and of Europe's extensions. Participants have also come to this project from the ex-colonial metropolises themselves, and more generally, from what we usually call the West or the Occident. Among the most conspicuous of these authors is, of course, Noam Chomsky. Others, from different areas of the globe, are not as well known but, as is the case with Talal Asad, they have contributed greatly to the clarification of these questions.
As the public at large is aware, the term Orientalism is reserved in certain sectors for describing a distorted way to encounter phenomena pertaining to other cultures or civilizations, or to peoples, still subjugated or only recently liberated, located for the most part to the east of Europe. [End Page 373] Perhaps this usage of the term has been excessive. The excess may reside in the fact that, although the term has been traditionally used in European countries and in countries influenced by Europe, it does not always designate activities performed to the detriment of the countries studied. However, one could argue that, at a certain point in time, the majority of people carrying out such studies were in the service of the imperial enterprise or, at least, exhibited a tendency to distort and diminish their subjects. There are even specialists who would not hesitate to call themselves “Orientalists” but whom the “anti-Orientalists” (including Said himself) would not include in their general charge of Orientalist distortion.
Still, it remains debatable whether it is justified to divide the world into Orient and Occident or, worse, to leave out of this imperfect dichotomy vast regions of the planet, thus creating a limbo-esque third zone or third world. The names used, however, are secondary. What is important is ascertaining the degree to which the phenomenon of Orientalism has taken place—what its dimensions have been or continue to be—and, finally, how it came to happen and how it can be overcome.
Of course, in general terms, for half a century critics have denounced bias in the study of other cultures, demonstrating that such biases are not gratuitous (at least potentially not), but, rather, that they work (or can work) toward specific ends of subjugation and exploitation. I am thinking here of critiques of ethnocentrism (and, more specifically, of Eurocentrism) or of racial or cultural prejudice.4 We should not ignore the fact, however, that prejudice and ethnocentrism can be innocent in intention, that is, without ulterior motives—despite the advantages they usually confer on certain groups, and despite the distortions that ethnocentrism and prejudice entail.
On a more local level, I recall a couple of seminars directed by Prodyot Mukherjee about thirty years ago, whose participants included many of us from what is now known as the Colegio de México's Center for Asian and African Studies. In these seminars, intended to introduce participants to Asia and its problems, we examined...