Anthropological Quarterly 79.3 (2006) 463-482
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The Specter of Orientalism in Europe:
From Exotic Other to Stigmatized Brother
European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder
"Everyone has had one's own Orient, pertaining to space and time, most often of both"
"Orientalism" as a critical category was instituted by Edward Said in 1978. For him orientalism is, first of all, a set of discursive practices through which the West structured the imagined East politically, socially, military, ideologically, scientifically and artistically. Orientalism is also "a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and…'the Occident'" (Said 1978: 2) The Orient as such exists and real people live in the region concerned, but the European representation of these people is a typical cultural creation that enables those powerful to legitimize their domination over those subjugated and conquered. The oriental Other constitutes the alter ego of the West and a perpetuation of this dichotomy proves that a powerful cultural hegemony is still at work. Discursive hardening permits politically stronger groups to define weaker groups.
Orientalism has been received both approvingly and critically. The most important critiques refer to the fact that "Said's work frequently relapses into [End Page 463] the essentializing modes it attacks and is ambivalently enmeshed in the totalizing habits of western humanism" (Clifford 1988: 271). Critique notwithstanding, the book inspired a sequel of works, some of them directly addressing Eastern Europe (Wolff 1994) and the Balkans (Todorova 1997; Bakić-Hayden 1995; Bakić-Hayden and Hayden 1992; Hayden 2000). Wolff wrote about the invention of Eastern Europe in the period of Enlightenment by Western intellectuals, travelers and writers in a style similar to Said's. Todorova is more specific. She focuses on the Balkans and asserts that in Western eyes this region appears, so to speak, as "neither fish, nor fowl," semi-oriental, not fully European, semi-developed, and semi-civilized. "Unlike orientalism, which is a discourse about imputed opposition, balkanism is a discourse about an imputed ambiguity" (Todorova 1997: 17). An ambiguity that raises anxiety. The Balkans emerge as the product of attempted Europeanization (westernization, democratization), a region that permanently has to shed "the last residue of imperial [i.e. Ottoman] legacy" (p. 13) by implementing rationalism, secularism, commercial activities and industry. The work in imagology, the term she borrows from Milan Kundera, despite being narrowed and redefined, also focuses on the way the West has created its "quasi-colony" which has to be dominated and subordinated both politically and intellectually.
While discussing orientalism, Said, Wolff and Todorova touch upon several issues vital for today's anthropology that I will partly, although at times only indirectly, address later. All of these revolve around the issue of alterity and the epistemological validity of the concept of the Other. Thus, one can recognize that they are concerned with (1) the modes by which the Other is created. In anthropology, as well as in the works cited, the Other often assumes the status of (2) a universal cognitive category in the factory of social and individual identity that divides the universe into "us" and "them." However, it also figures as (3) an analytical concept that enables authors to construct narration and at the same time, somehow paradoxically, and in the most subtle approaches, to (4) deconstruct the category itself.
In social life, the process of making the Other assumes various forms. Shifts in collective identities and the meaning of "the Other" have become a part of the transformations in Europe after 1989. There are several factors influencing these alterations, but one among them seems especially salient: a restructuring of the perception of social inequalities by the hegemonic liberal ideology. The degree to which various countries, authorities, social groups and individuals have embraced the free market and democracy—always evaluated by those powerful who set rules of the game—has become a yardstick for classifying different [End Page 464] regions, countries and groups as fitting more or less into the category of "us," i...