A Critique of Orientalism and Other Considerations

Published: 2021-09-15 21:35:08
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Category: Discrimination

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First and foremost, in stating the power hierarchy between the Orient and the Occident, Said takes the former to be a passive subject, a docile body with no agency or control over the political processes imposed on it by the West. To state this is to reject the various ways in which the Orient has historically negotiated with power-holders or the subtle ways in which they subvert the dominant narrative, for example through the use of satire, humour or even rituals.
The same critique can be applied for the work of Ronald Inden, who, in his analysis of Orientalism in India, takes into account only the agency exercised by the dominant castes, thereby neglecting that of the dependent castes. (Ahmad, 1991) Furthermore, one cannot neglect the fact that Orientalism involves not simply an essentialization of the East, but also of the West, as can be seen in the popular binary between Hindu spiritualism and Western materialism. Similarly, Hinduism has been contrasted with “Muslim Barbarism” and reflects even in our own popular Bollywood culture. Moreover, there are alternate views of Indian society – as being the land of the spiritual, detached from materialistic desires, the source for nirvana and awakening, the original root of the enlightened being and so on, much of what makes the East “sell” in the global neo-liberal capitalist world today. Thus, confining Orientalism to merely a “West to East” politics of representation would be rather narrow. We must instead conceptualize Orientalism as a broader and multidirectional process of power-infused construction of knowledge.CONCLUSION
The writing of this essay involved an in-depth process of tracing the development of Orientalism in history, examining the various perspectives from which it has been understood, and then applying it to the context of India. In approaching this topic, a major limitation faced was the sheer vastness of the prevailing understandings of Orientalism, of deducing from them a common thread of understanding and of navigating the thin line between Orientalism and other closely-related and often overlapping processes of colonialism and imperialism. Nevertheless, the process has been rewarding in terms of the various findings and insights gained during the development of this paper. Having traced its evolution, in many senses it can be said that Orientalism has been one foundation for present day racism, sexism, Darwinism and other such tendencies that we see rising. At the same time, questions of identity and resistance cannot be ignored in this era of identity politics and the issue of location and voice in powerful discourses surrounding it.
Who represents whom? What is the position from which a particular discourse is being constructed and whose voice does it represent? – are all questions we continue to face today. A new debate has been thriving on the issue of cultural relativism. This implies the simple position that when confronted with an “Other”, one must view its beliefs, values and behaviours as being particular to that culture, rather than being judged in opposition, or with reference to another culture. One must seek to understand the difference but not attach any value-judgement to it. For example, in the context of feminism, one can apply cultural relativism to the debate around the hijab and the Orientalist assumption that Muslim women are oppressed and in need of saving. In actuality, the hijab represents much more especially in terms of culturally specific notions of identity, religion, womanhood etc. Orientalism continues to be pervasive in our social milieu in a number of ways even today. What is needed now is a more nuanced awareness of how power comes to be exercised through the production of knowledge and the recognition that representation matters. We must open ourselves to alternate ways of understanding cultures and respecting differences, taking into account issues of social location and voice in narrating the histories and stories of the “Other” against which we often come to measure ourselves.

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