Edward Said and Me

In our Approaches to History class, a sometimes dry, sometimes exciting, often frustrating, journey through late 20th century historiography, we recently had a lively, heated discussion about Said's Orientalism. As a group we were highly divided, some of us loved the book, others hated it, some loved Said in general but hated the book, some realized his contributions to the field but found the actual scholarship itself vitriolic and unprofessional. But aren't these just the conversations that lead to the best kinds of reflection?

One of the most frustrating things about Said is his ambiguity about a way forward. He very clearly defines the problems of the study of the Orient (in his book he refers exclusively to European essentialization of the Near East and Islamic world), demonstrating not only the problems of very obvious Orientalist practices (such as "scholars" who write books called "the Origins of Muslim Rage," or histories of British India meant to show the backwardness of the people and their inability to rule themselves), but also how vestiges of this practice have seeped into almost all of the scholarship produced about non-European cultures and societies. His way forward, he claims, is humanism. But he spends very little time talking about what this means in practical terms, in other words, how do we escape these vestiges of internal hierarchies that place ourselves above the other? One person (ok, me) pointed out that perhaps the best way to do this is to approach the study of a group that may be considered the "other" by looking at them not for their differences, but for their similarities. The conversation then moved into the feasibility of such an exercise: if we ignore all differences, then we as scholars are not having a dialogue with our subject of study, it becomes simply a monologue.

Perhaps I should have qualified this statement. Perhaps the problem is instead our definition of what constitutes the "other." The "other" can be an exotic East, or it can be our next door neighbors, our siblings or families. We can become other to ourselves. So where is the boundary, how do we solve this issue?

From my discussions with other East Asianists, and my own experience, I have certain preliminary thoughts on how we go from essentializing the other to having a dialogue with an other. I've talked briefly in other blog posts about what initially drew me to China. It wasn't its exoticism, its religion or culture that was so drastically different from ours. It was China's struggles with nationalism, something that I myself struggle with every day (if anyone reading this actually has an interest in these struggles, I expounded upon this more in my previous blog post). It was a reflection of something I see in myself that drew me to China, something that manifested in a much more extreme way in China than it does in my own experience (I do get emotional when I hear the national anthem, but I don't see myself getting swept up into a Cultural Revolution type fervor...then again, the frightening prospect is, perhaps if I were Chinese and in China during that time, I would have. But these are just thought exercises, and there is no way to know). At the same time, Hong Kong continues to be a source of complete fascination with me because of their lack of emotional attachment to anything called a nation. It doesn't make sense to me that, as described in the introduction to John Carrol's book Edge of Empires, Chinese people in Hong Kong would feel happier about British colonialism than being a part of the motherland, mainland China. Aren't the colonized supposed to feel one way about the colonizers? Especially after all of the anti-colonial movements across the world led to the rise of decolonization and nationalism?

So while China's experience with nationalism and identity that mirror in one way or another my own experiences, I was actually repelled by the exoticism of China. I never had the fascination with eastern religions, eastern cultures, eastern thought in the same way as a lot of people who study the same things I do. In fact, that sort of exotic fascination irritated me, and I went out of my way to not care about the things that have recently become popular in the American imagination about East Asia (such as kungfu, Daoism, Buddhism, yin/yang, Japanese anime, etc.) These sorts of things continue to hold little interest for me. I am incredibly attracted to Buddhism, but my attraction stems from a fascination with the way that history influences culture on a global scale, not from a fascination with a completely unknown and exotic frame of mind. It was a difficult journey for me to begin to enjoy Buddhist philosophy and cosmology, simply because I was repelled and frustrated by the way it was talked about, exoticized, and orientalized in the West.

I don't want to say necessarily that my approach to studying Chinese history as an American with no connection to China is the best way, but I do think that it reflects upon Said's argument. When we write about the other, its not enough to simply shed the hierarchical framework. A more nuanced view of the problem of "romantic orientalism" which I somewhat allude to above is seen in Robert Inden's work, but in essence he argues that romantic orientalism is still orientalism, even if the exoticized difference of the orient is lauded rather than scorned. Of course it is not always easy to discard things that interest us, nor is a scholar whose initial interest in East Asia stemmed from an orientalized fascination with Eastern culture doomed to be an orientalist. But I do not think that focusing on similarities among culture results in a monologue. If I were to study Italian American culture in the midwest, a group to which I very much belong, I would still find issues with the group identity that challenge my individual identity. If I were to study American history, of course I would stumble upon ideas, politics, cultural practices, or other things I don't particularly like or ascribe to. This is what makes it a dialogue. But at the same time, I should not immediately approach them as my opposite, as the other. I think this is the best way to approach any area of study, by viewing them as humans first, and then dealing and balancing the differences afterwards, rather than going into our scholarship with the opinion that the subject is our opposite, in a negative way (hierarchical dominance of European culture) or positive (romantic orientalism).

This is easy to say, it is not as easy to practice. While my initial interest in China began with these humanistic leanings, that is not a static or unchanging sentiment. We all struggle with what we study, regardless of how culturally similar they are to us. Also, there is a hegemonic discourse that we as scholars of the non-West are trying to overcome, and unfortunately, in some ways this is impossible because of who we are and where we are coming from. There are real problems with being an outsider trying to understand another culture, especially when the political implications of such a relationship are so heavily politicized. But this is a topic for another post.