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Orientalism and After

Nivedita Menon

AIJAZ AHMED begins his critique of Edward Said [EPW , July 25] by recognising Said's "beleaguered location in the midst of imperial America'. However, as he goes on

to say, 'Suppression of critieism

is not

... the best way of expressing solidarity' [PE


This response to Ahmed's immensely stimulating essay takes heart from that state- ment, for I am in solidarity with what I believe to be the vision which animates both his critical reading of Said as well as his polemics against the intellectual formation which can loosely be categorised as 'post- modern'. 1 That is, a vision of the revolu- tionary alliance of 'theory' and 'practice' ef- fecting a radical transformation of structures of power—a vision of justice, equality, democracy. At the same time, it is the con- fidence that this vision is shared in some way or the other by Said and Foucault and even by that 'reactionary anti-humanist' Derrida (PE 107] that moves me to take issue. with Ahmed, who closes off entirely the possibilities of reading the discourse of post- modernism as emancipatory critique. It is indeed no coincidence that orientalism as well as the general intellectual trends which put into question the notion of a trans- cendental subject have come into pro- minence at this historical moment. However, while Ahmed links these trends with the 'global offensive of the right', positing them as serving the purposes of international capital [PE 107] it is equally possible to argue that they are attempts precisely to cope with and understand the steady erosion, specially since the 70s, of the revolutionary project as it was once conceived.

There is no more the comforting certainty that the 'progressive' position on any issue can be read off in a straightforward man- ner from a clearly delineated body of theory. The explosive multiplicity of identities makes

every act of

political intervention an exer-

cise fraught with contradiction at various levels. Of necessity each such act must negotiate these levels with the understanding that identities are constituted around nodal points that shift and dissolve constantly. In the Indian context, a few examples will suf- fice to illustrate the impossibility of defin- ing the 'progressive' or 'revolutionary' pro- ject once and For all: feminists protesting the Muslim Women's Bill in 1986 finding them- selves on the same plat form as the BJP and the consequent toning down of feminist demands for a uniform civil code in the face of BJP's support for it; secularists appalled at the ban on Satanic Verses coming to terms

with its significance in the context of minority identity in an increasingly com- munalised political space; radicals am- bivalent about the rank populism and inade- quacy of job reservations in an economy rapidly cutting off employment oppor- tunities, readjusting their understanding in the face of upper caste hysteria over the very reservations they had been ambivalent about. In other words, the 'we' that could once refer unproblematically to 'secularists' 'com- munists', 'feminists' or 'nationalists' is a fragmented, tenuous, shifting 'we' a we that must stake out its ground afresh at every step. Ahmed refers to what he calls Said's strategic deployment of 'we' and 'us' to 'refer in various contexts to Palestinians, third world intellectuals, academics in general, humanists, Arabs, Arab-Americans and the American citizenry at large' [PE 101]. He clearly suggests a slipperiness in using 'we' and 'us' in this shifting fashion. And yet, is Ahmed himself not present in three of these 'we's, aren't most of us (and here I mean 'we who read EPW)? These are not even necessarily mutually contradictory categories that Said posits himself as being part of, unlike the 'we's that constituted themselves in the three instances discussed above.

It is precisely because terms like secularism and nation no longer offer themselves to us in a form we recognise that we find the old certainties not just inadequate but counter- productive Is it only Said and postmoder- nists who express a growing ambivalence about nation and nationalism' [PE 109]—indeed, are they the only ones who should? At this historical juncture, how are Indians who would term themselves part of a 'progressive' and 'democratic' 'we' to im- agine their nation, given, for example, the communal identity overshadowing every at tempt at regional autonomy? The commit- ment to a rejuvenated federal structure is itself poised on the knowledge that on the Babri Masjid issue, the only bulwark against an openly Hindu communal party running a democratically elected state government appears to be the central government; can we disown the ambiguity in this position? How are Africans to imagine their nations, when national boundaries are arbitrarily drawn colonial creations but national libera- tion was won precisely on the basis of those boundaries, leaving a tangled legacy of tribal and ethnic identities which continues to un- fold itself? The most sweeping statements about 'nation' and 'state' as coercive iden- tities, complains Ahmed of Said, 'are fre-

quently delivered alongside resounding af- firmations of national liberation' [PE 109]. It would be more fruitful to see this not so much as a contradiction as a productive ten- sion whose resolution can only be at the cost of fixing identity arbitrarily at one point or the other. Ahmed himself is not free of am- bivalence On the one hand, he argues that Said holds colonialism entirely responsible for all the ills of the third world, absolving indigenous elites of blame entirely [PE 108]. On the other, he is indignant at Said's 'fer- vent' defence of Rushdie against the Islamic world [PE 113]. In other words, when Said does indicate 'our' culpability; Ahmed is un- comfortable, and justifiably, in my opinion, given that Islam is the new bogey of the west. 2 Ambivalence and paradox are not impurities that can be cleansed from our thinking, they are inscribed in human iden- tification and activity. With the proliferation of ethnic, religious, tribal, racial and caste identities, not to mention the dislocation in class positions generated by structural transformations of capitalism, it has become increasingly clear that the revolutionary pro- ject cannot be fixed along are axis without a refraction of its emancipatory potential. We only have to think of Zulu nationalism in South Africa, the break-up of the Soviet Union along 'national' lines, or of Afghanistan today to recognise the enor- mous significance and necessity of maintain- ing the tension between different understan- dings of what constitutes a nation.

Ahmed consistently reads Said's argument in such a way that any complexity is reduc- ed to self-contradiction, To take one pivotal example, Ahmed argues that Said offers three mutually incompatible definitions of orientalism, as (a) 'an' interdisciplinary area of academic knowledge (and in this sense necessarily a modern discipline, Ahmed points out); (b) a mentality traversing grea t many centuries' and (c) taking the late 18th century as a rough starting point, as a western style for having authority over the orient [PE 103]. These three definitions are picked out from two pages of Orientalism and placed in quick succession one after the other, each starkly contradicting the next. Dante and Aeschylus are mentioned as ex- amples in the second definition. Ahmed points out, 'five lines before the 18th cen- tury is identified in the third definition as a roughly defined starting point' [PE 104].

Going back to Said himself, we find his statement at the outset that by orientalism he means 'several things, all of them ... interdependent'. The first, which he says is the most readily accepted definition, is the academic one, and certainly in this sense it is a modern discipline, as Ahmed points out- Related to this is what Said calls a more general meaning—this is the second defini-

Economic and Political Weekly

September 26 1992


tion, in which a much broader field is posited, 'Orientalism as a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemo- logical distinction made between the "Orient" and (most of the time) the "Occi- dent". It is this particular understanding that can accommodate thinkers from Aeschylus to Marx, and Said acknowledges that con- siderable methodological problems arise from such a broad understanding. From the interaction between the first meaning (what Said calls the 'academic') and the second (the 'imaginative'), the third meaning is arrived at, something 'more historically and materially defined' than the other two, which he posits as starting roughly in the late 18th century [1979: 2-3]. Later, as Said recapitulates his argument, it becomes even clearer what the links are between the three definitions which appear entirely contradic-

tory when isolated from their context— 'Orientalism is not only a positive doctrine about the orient that exists at any one time in the West' (the second definition) 'it is also an influential academic tradition' (the first) 'as well as an area of concern defined by travellers, commercial enterprises, govern-




third) [1979: 203]. At other

points Said explicitly refers to the orientalism starting in the 18th century as 'modern orientalism', thus differentiating it from the other understanding that can accommodate both Dante and Marx [1979: 22, 203).

This is not to suggest that Said's argument is beyond criticism, which indeed it has faced

often enough. A familiar and justified at- tack, for example, is the one made on the historicism inherent in Orientalism (which is why it is all the more surprising that Ahmed lumps him with the 'anti-humanisms

. . .

propagated now under the signature of

anti-empiricism, anti-historicism


... 107]. However, this essay is not intended to


interlock with Ahmed's reading of Said in

as detailed a textual analysis as his and I use the above discussion only to illustrate that Ahmed's response to any ambiguity, paradox

or equivocality


to condemn


as in-

coherent and self-contradictory, 'Orientalism

and After' is used here as a point of entry into current debates on the validity of the post-modern project in general. I would point to three significant areas of concern suggested by Ahmed's critique—(a) the question of the relationship between 'discourse' and 'reality', (b) whether representation is always and only 'misrepresentation in the post-modern understanding, (c) the source and location of resistance if 'discourse.' is conceived as monolithically as Ahmed argues it is in Said (and Foucault). (a) When Ahmed is 'surprised' by the

word style'

in Said's third definition of

orientalism ('a western style for dominating the orient) [PE 105] he foregrounds the issue of discourse -as- language, the backbone of Marxist critiques of discourse analysis. In

Said writing, Ahmed holds, imperialist ideology 'appears to be an effect mainly of certain kinds of writing' [P 104]. Again, in the context of an essay in which Said men- tions anti-imperialist intellectuals like Cabral and Fanon, Ahmed notes disapprovingly that what appears to be important is Cabral's 'discursive position, not that he launched and led the armed struggle' [PE


The contention is that there is a material reality which exists outside and prior to discourse to which discourse can only refer. For example, Michele Barrett .distinguishing between .the two, writes, 'Virginia Woolf once said, "a republic might be brought into

being by a poem"

Yet however colossal

... the material effects of this poem, they would have no bearing on the question of whether the poem itself had a material existence' [1980: 89]. Certainly there is a sense in which 'discourse' can be understood as speech or language generally, but the sense in which the social space is understood to be discur- sive is entirely different. Such an understan- ding sees human activity to be in dynamic interaction between linguistic and non- linguistic performances which cannot be separated from each other. The totality of human activity cannot in other words, be labelled as either linguistic or non-linguistic, it includes both elements within itself. For example, persons cooking are performing 'real' activity in the material world, but they read recipes whose directions are followed.

or they remember instructions given to them verbally. These two aspects of the perfor- mance, the linguistic and non-linguistic, can- not be separated from the totality which makes up the material activity of cooking. This totality is what is meant by 'discourse'. Thus it is possible for Foucault, for exam- ple, to write of Marx having revealed 'an entirely new discursive practice on the basis

of political economy' [1972: 188]. Natural objects such as stones would con- tinue to exist if we did not think about them, but their being as 'stones' is derived from a process of narrativisation. It is only within particular classificatory systems which have been historically constructed that the objects

we call 'stones'

are 'stones' as opposed to

trees' or 'mud'. Or indeed, that they are 'ob- jects' at all, as opposed to being 'people'. In all the ways that human beings interact with the world, no object is experienced except in a discursive formation. Discourse and reality cannot therefore be posited against each other. 3 Cabral's 'discursive position', then, is not derived simply from his ideas as expressed in his writing but refers to the complex articulation by which Cabral is constituted as a resisting subject in a colonial situation, as a writer, a poet, a revolutionary. Moreover, these points of identity formation do not exhaust all possible configurations by which Cabral could experience himself as a subject, but in the context of the field covered by Said and Ahmed, these particular

tion, in which a much broader field is posited, 'Orientalism as a style of thought based


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September 26, 1992

configurations are foregrounded. Regarding Ahmed's discomfort with 'questioning the very facticity of facts', what this discussion has attempted to establish is that no fact presents itself to us innocent of narrative structures which give it the mean- ing it has for us. To that extent, it may reflect not nihilism, but a critical self awareness if historians do 'start putting the word "fact" in quotation marks' [PE 107). (b) Ahmed understands Said's position to be based on the assumption that 'represen- tation is always-already a misrepresentation' [PE 108]. This accusation is made at several points, directed both at Said as well as post- modern positions in general—the Nietz- schean position of all representations being misrepresentations' [PE 109] or "Said's equivocation on this key question is delivered in what appears to be a precise formulation, namely, that the line between a representa- tion and a misrepresentation is always very thin' [PE 107]. This is a caricature of the


understanding of represen-

tation, perpetrated by, among others, no less

a philosopher than Habermas who, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity,

criticises 'Derrida's purposely paradoxical statement that any interpretation is in-

evitably a false interpretation and any '

understanding a misunderstanding




Derrida points out in response; he has never

made such a statement. What he has said about representation/misrepresentation is far from being a nihilistic denial of meaning—'The relation of "mis" (mis- understanding, mis-interpreting, for exam-

ple) to that which is not "mis" is

.that of

.. a general possibility inscribed in the struc- ture of positivity, of normality, of the "stan- dard". All that I recall is that this structural possibility must be taken into account when

describing so-called ideal normality



interpretation, and that this possibility can be neither excluded nor opposed' [1988: 157].

If representation is understood to refer to a reality which it tries to approximate as closely as possible, then indeed a mis- representation is clearly recognisable by its deviation from the real. But what if the very distinction between representation and reality is understood to be discursively con- stituted? The argument therefore, is not that the line between representation and mis- representation is very thin but that both are implicated within a discursively constituted context outside which the distinction itself between the two breaks down. Having said this, it clearly follows that within a context, it is possible to speak of something being misunderstood or misinterpreted. However, this claim cannot be made on the authority of some reality but only with reference to the context itself.

Let me illustrate by taking up an instance where I would claim that Ahmed has mis- represented Said's argument. Discussing Said's essay, 'Figures, Configurations,

Transfigurations' [1990] Ahmed quotes a 'damning' judgment on non-European literatures. He is astonished that 'the author of Orientalism, no less', should in this essay, claim that it is (in Said's words) 'a mistake to try to show that the "other" literatures of Africa and Asia' can be studied as 'respectably' as European literatures which he characterises as 'high', 'autonomous' and 'aesthetically independent' [1990: 13-14; quoted by Ahmed PE 114]. One would have thought, Ahmed goes on, that 'the whole point of orientalism was that these literatures are not autonomous, that they were too com- plicit in colonialism to be spoken of primari- ly in terms of high aesthetics' [PE 114]. Indeed one would have expected precisely such a line of argument from Said and yet, on reading 'Figures', the passage referred to is discovered, exactly as Ahmed has quoted it. Where then, is the alleged mis- representation? This instance is illustrative precisely of the question of context determining meaning. On following the entire line of thinking behind the quoted passage, Said's argument appears to be that in studying non-European literatures, two points must be kept in mind. First, that any such study must be intimately linked with slavery, colonialism and racism. These literatures can only be discussed in the context of their 'embattled circumstances' in post-colonial societies or as subjects taught in metropolitan centres where they are relegated to 'secondary spots' on the cur- ricular agenda Second, and this is what Ahmed calls the 'damning' passage, Said argues that it would be tantamount to put- ting white masks on the black faces of non- European literatures if, in an attempt to combat their marginalisation, their value was asserted in terms of their being as autonomous and aesthetically satisfying as European literatures. The implication is that such an approach would not only beg the question of the 'autonomy' of European literatures (which the concept of orientalism has decisively problematised) but would depoliticise non-European literatures, render invisible their 'more obviously wordly affilia- tions to power and polities'.

Here we have a group of words which in their immediate materiality as sign, present no ambiguity. There is no suggestion that cither reading has distorted the order of words or made omissions, and yet each reading can claim that the other is a misinterpretation. Given the discursive universe of Said's writing and political ac- tivity, and more specifically of the broad argument in 'Figures', I would argue that Ahmed has misread Said. 'This comprehen-

sion of the sign in and of itself, in its im-

mediate materiality as a sign


the in

dispensable condition of all hermeneutics

and of any claim to transition from the sign

to the signified. When one attempts,



general way, to pass from an obvious



latent language, one must first be rigorous-

ly sure of the obvious meaning. The analyst for example, must first speak the same language as the patient Thus, none other than Derrida, accused of various crimes against clarity and understanding [1990(a):


What I am arguing is that Ahmed has misunderstood the obvious meaning itself of the passage from Said because he is reading it in the context, not of Said's manifest line of argument, but of his own understanding of the post-modern project he sees as latent in Said's work. Since this project, for Ahmed, is reactionary, elitist and spawned by the needs of advanced capitalism, even the surface meaning of the passage for him is entirely different.

At this point a further move is necessary, that of recognising the new reading offered to be further open to reinterpretation. Each new interpretation is poised in its turn on

a moment of undecidability, it is an inter- pretation with a 'mis' inscribed in its struc- ture There can be no point at which this play of meaning is decisively halted. Nor does it follow from this that each interpretation is as valid as every other—one takes a position clearly by offering an interpretation at all, and by affirming that within the discursive universe in which one functions, this inter- pretation is the most 'correct' or even the only one possible. Further, one does attempt to demonstrate that this particular context or discursive universe is one which renders visible the widest range of meaning. It is precisely this process of legitimating and

authorising discourses

that gets foreground'

ed once we suspend the notion of some ultimate truth or reality against which representations can be measured. Relativism

is thus a false problem. As Richard Rorty points out, 'The philosophers who get called relativists are those who say that the grounds

for choosing between

opinions are less

... algorithmic than had been supposed' [1982:

166-67 ]. 5

Ahmed argues that 'worthwhile distinc- tions between a representation and a mis- representation' are made with reference to 'historical and social circumstances' [PE 105]. Surely 'historical and social cir- cumstances' do not exist in the 'real' world to be merely discovered by historians? Whether people killing one another is under- stood as 'communal riot' or 'property dispute' or an instance of 'class war' is not inscribed in the killings themselves. Where a news report sees 'Hindus' and 'Muslims', a Marxist analyst sees, say, displaced handloom workers in conflict with the ris- ing trading class. Is either understanding 'false'? To align all meaning through a pre- established grid imposes order only at the expense of rendering invisible the poly- valence inherent in human interaction. At

the same time, it bears repeating that in this instance both the journalist and the Marx-

ist analyst share a context

in which they

would agree on the fact that killings had oc-

curred, and would contest say, government efforts to deny it. The boundaries of discur-

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September 26 1992


sive universes are not clear and impermeable

as Ahmed argues but are fuzzy and realign themselves constantly. Ahmed charges Said with not addressing the question, 'as any Foucaultian would, whether or not state- ments and their authors, can actually cir- culate so very freely between discursive









Foucault questions precisely this kind of reification of discourses. The divisions bet-

ween discourses, he argues, 'are always



categories. . .


course, they also have complex relations with each other, but are not intrinsic, auto- chthonous and universally recognisable characteristics' [1972; 22], Symbols and meanings do constantly get displaced from one discourse to another in social and political interaction. Hence, for example, the entirely different significance of the demand for a uniform civil code within feminist discourse and within Hindu communal discourse

(c) Ahmed quotes Said's disowning of

Foucault in The World, the Text and the Critic, pointing to its uncanny similarity with his own critique of Said. This passage charges Foucault with not making 'even a nominal allowance for emergent movements, and none for revolutions, counter-hegemony or historical blocs' (quoted PE 109]. This is a familiar criticism, and one that is linked to the charge of anti-humanism, for where there is no continuous revolutionary subject, it is argued, there can be no resistance. Ahmed uses the adjective 'reactionary' with 'anti-humanism' more than once in his essay, and anti-humanism is presented as anti- human, almost. And yet, it is humanism as an a historical essence that is being rejected by these strands of thinking, not the notion of human beings as actors. As Laclau points out, the attempt is to demonstrate that the validity of humanist values is constructed by 'particular discursive and argumentative practices' that have a recent history. 'This

history of the production of "Man"



been one of the great achievements of our

culture; to outline this history would be to reconstruct the various discursive surfaces where it has taken place—the juridical, educational, economic and other institu-

tions .....

The "human being", without

qualification, is the overdetermined effect of this process of multiple construction' [1990:

125]. In other words, as recently as three cen- turies ago, the idea of human beings as bearers of rights in their own capacities did not exist. And when we direct attention to the process by which human beings in this sense were created, we come up also against the ways in which 'humanism' is constantly under threat, along the lines of gender, race, class, caste and so on. What is called anti- humanism therefore, is a double movement. On the one hand, it points to the historical and contingent nature of the identity of 'human beings' as 'equal' with the 'right' to fulfil their potential equally, while affirm- ing the ideal of this vision. "Nothing seems

to me less outdated' writes Derrida, 'than the classic emancipatory ideal' (1990(b):

971]. On the other hand, rejecting the no- tion of some a historical essence which could be called 'humanism' means foregrounding the perpetual threat to the vision of the

'classic emancipatory ideal'. Thus there is a very strong sense in which anti-humanism can be understood as a theory of resistance, but its fulcrum is not a unified subject, nor is the emancipatory ideal to be realised once and for all. Emancipation itself must be recognised as disaggregated, split along dif- ferent axes, just as identity is not just a positive conglomerate of different subject positions but an ever temporary and con- tingent construction, forming anew at the intersections of shifting subject positions. As Joan Scott puts it, 'subjects are produced through multiple identifications, some of which become politically salient for a time




....... history is not to reify identity but to unders-




tand its production as an ongoing process

of differentiation

subject to redefinition,

... resistance and change' [1992: 19]. Does it follow that 'resistance can always, only be personal, micro and shared only by small, determinate numbers of individuals who happen, perchance, to come together, outside the so-called "grand narratives" of class, gender, nation? [PE 109] Ahmed's formulation suggests that the only concep- tion of resistance that emerges from this understanding is that of futile scrabblings of finite groups at the base of a vast and om- nipotent discourse of power But when power itself is conceived of as discontinuous and shifting, 'revolution' becomes multiple. The 'so-called grand narratives' do not roll on, majestic and unimpeded, 'outside' the chaotic and flurried activity of disintegrated post-modern individuals. On the contrary, rejecting grand narratives renders visible the plurality of subjects and legitimises the multiplicity of sites of resistance. To accept that the democratic project is open to perpetual redefinition at innumerable and unpredictable points is in fact to radicalise the understanding of democracy itself.

It still remains to respond more fully to Ahmed's reading of Said but I will not at- tempt that task here; however, it may be that a critical engagement with 'Orientalism and

After' has rearticulated some elements of current debates in ways which make visible further spaces of contestation.


[Sarah Joseph's comments on this essay helped me clarify the argument. Special thanks to Farida Khan for generous assistance with word processing facilities.]

1 Without going into the debates about struc- turalism, post-structuralism and post- modernism and the extent to which these have features which overlap or differ, I am using the term 'post-modernism' for the pur- poses of this essay, to refer to the strands of thinking that problematise a unified and essential notion of identity and historicise humanism.

  • 2 Said himself does display a sensitivity to this aspect particularly in 'Figures, Configura- tions Transfiguration', an essay Ahmed discusses later.

  • 3 The discussion in this section is inspired by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's response to Norman Geras, 'Post-Marxism without Apologies' in Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time [100-103].

  • 4 Quoted by Derrida in Ltd Inc [157].

  • 5 Quoted by Ernesto Laclau, New Reflections [104].


Barrett, Michele [1980], Women's


Today, Verso, London. Derrida, Jaques [1988], Ltd Inc, Northwestern University Press, Evanston. —[1990(a)], 'Cogito and the History of Madness', Writing and Difference, (translated by Alan Bass), Rout ledge, London. — [1990) j, 'Force of Law: The Mystical Foun- dation of Authority', Cardozo Law Review, Vol II, Nos 5-6. Foucault, Michel [1972], The Archaeology of Knowledge, (translated by A M Sheridan Smith). Pantheon Books, New York. Laclau, Ernesto [1990], New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, Verso, London. Said, Edward [1979], Orientalism, Vintage

Books, London. -[I990], 'Figures, Configurations, Transfigura- tion', Race and Class, Volume 32, No 1. Scott, Joan [1992], 'Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity', October 1961.

sive universes are not clear and impermeable as Ahmed argues but are fuzzy and realign themselves


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September 26, 1992