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  • On Russian Orientalism:A Response to Adeeb Khalid
  • Nathaniel Knight (bio)

Adeeb Khalid and I agree on many things. Although he does not find the argument in my recent article on Russian Orientalism compelling, our positions on some key issues are quite close.1 Khalid is dissatisfied with my interrogation of Edward Said's concept of Orientalism as it applies to the Russian empire.2 But my critique of Said was not nearly as unequivocal as Khalid suggests: to say that we should regard Said's model with caution is not a "blanket dismissal." Nor do I advocate ignoring the rich and stimulating literature on European imperialism that has flourished in the time since Said's work first appeared. In fact, my criticisms of Said have much in common with the arguments of a number of authors who, while sympathetic to many of Said's objectives, find fault with his theoretical inconsistencies, ahistorical formulations, essentializing tendencies and deterministic view of the individual.3 Khalid is well aware of these criticisms. He alludes to the "conceptual dilemmas" arising out of Said's use of Foucault, as well as to his "tendency to essentialize Orientalist discou rse (and 'the West'), and to over-determine the relationship between Orientalism and colonialism." Subsequent scholars, Khalid notes, have worked hard to refine Said's ideas, thereby imparting "greater flexibility and sensitivity to historical change." I believe I can safely conclude that Khalid and I agree on at least one essential point: Said's [End Page 701] Orientalism, while stimulating, provocative, and vastly influential, has significant methodological and conceptual flaws. It should not be adopted as a "universal model," but rather should be read in the context of subsequent critiques.

While we may agree on some of the essentials, however, differences remain over the particulars. In this essay, I will address some of the specific points Khalid raises in his critique of my article and conclude with some suggestions as to how the notion of Orientalism might be rendered more useful both in general and in terms of its applicability in the Russian context.

Why Exceptions Matter: Grigor'ev Revisited

In my recent article, I dwell at length on the case of Vasilii Vasil'evich Grigor'ev, a scholar and imperial administrator whose ideas and experience, I contend, raise questions as to the applicability of Said's Orientalism as a paradigm for understanding the relationship in Russia between academic scholarship and imperial domination. Khalid responds to Grigor'ev by introducing Nikolai Petrovich Ostroumov, another Orientalist who for 40 years loyally served the cause of imperialism in Central Asia. Obviously, Khalid seems to suggest, Ostroumov cancels out Grigor'ev, balance is restored, and the Orientalism paradigm stands.

Khalid's argument reveals a misunderstanding. It was never my purpose to present Grigor'ev as an archetype embodying the field of Oriental studies as a whole. My aim was to challenge what I see as an overly deterministic, universalizing tendency in Said's Orientalism, not to replace one set of generalizations with another. I do not deny that scholars of Asian languages and cultures could and did make substantive contributions to imperial rule. In this regard, Ostroumov is irrelevant. What Grigor'ev shows is that we cannot assume this collaboration to always be the case – knowledge and power do not inevitably go hand in hand. Nonetheless, the question remains: why should the experiences of a single Orientalist suffice to cast doubt on such an influential body of thought as Said's Orientalism? This is certainly a legitimate issue, and to address it, we need to consider once again the nature of Said's conception.

Khalid has summarized well the different ways in which Said defines Orientalism. What he neglects to bring out are the tensions, even contradictions, between these definitions. Orientalism, for Said, can mean at least three different things. It is, at once, a "style of thought" based on the dichotomy between East and West, a "system of knowledge" through which the West envisions the East, and, finally, a "corporate institution for dealing with the Orient."4

Each of these areas might prove a fruitful field of study in its own right, but Said insists that they are...


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