Orientalism and the Myth of the O/other

Image source:

https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/1907150_gjimenez-y-martin-orientalist-painting

The Orient: exotic and fascinating, at once a place of mystical religiosity and barbarity, but most of all strange. One could generate an entire list of adjectives used to described the Orient that can be boiled down to one word: alterity/difference. Or, as Rudyard Kipling would say: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” (Singh).

This week, the idea of constructs operating as natural givens are again revisited in the conception of the Orient. Orientalist discourse, as delineated in Edward Said’s seminal piece, Orientalism, highlights the pervasiveness of power in shaping it as a “system of statements within which the world can be known” (Ashcroft 51).

Said takes great care to emphasize Orientalist discourse not just as some “airy European fantasy” about the Orient, but an institutionalized discipline, created to systematically “manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (73). In short, Orientalism is a structural misrepresentation of the East, a “style of thought” founded upon the “ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and … ‘the Occident’” (72).

The power of dominant groups in constituting the terrain of truth or reality (Ashcroft 51) is illustrated in the idea of universalism, in which the culture of the dominant group is imposed as natural and desirable on the rest of the world (Ashcroft 268). The Ashcroft text offers English Literature as one of the prime examples of this phenomenon in its claims of depicting the ‘universal human condition.’ In fact, this assumption of a universal subject and reader in English literature is based on Eurocentric ideals (Ashcroft 269). In this sense, colonialist discourse operates as Roland Barthes’s myth in its naturalization of the Western as universal, thus allowing the exploitative goals of the colonial enterprise to masquerade as benevolent claims of advancement and civilization.

As a postcolonial subject myself, what is disconcerting is the covertness in which this mode of discourse operates, so much so that the authority of the West in dictating the representation of the colonized subject has largely gone unquestioned, penetrating deep into the latter’s subconscious and weaving itself into the constitutional fabric of his/her identity. My experience attests to the conundrum this phenomenon creates in the postcolonial subject. All my life, I had consumed Western cultural productions of movies, music, and books unquestioningly because they offered me the complexity and depth that I did not find in local or other Eastern productions. Productions from Hong Kong, South Korea, and local Malay artists that were so popular among my peers failed to impress me as I thought they were poorly produced and scripted, with stock characters that adhered staunchly to gender stereotypes and pedaling clichéd variations of the girl-meets-boy narrative.

In light of this knowledge, is my gravitation towards these materials a manifestation of this Eurocentric mentality that denigrates the O/other as inferior? Are all Western representations of the rest of the world as such automatically consigned to perpetuating the reality of this illusive Orient by virtue of their genesis in Western institutions that have invested in the material embodiment of this conception?

Said would seem to say yes when he asserts that any European or American studying the Orient “comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second” (79). This awareness of being European or American means being cognizant (however faintly) of belonging “to a power with definite interests in the Orient” (79).

Nonetheless, the difficulties of discerning this mentality in operation only speaks to its success in infiltrating the subconscious of the colonized subject. What is unequivocal in the discussion on cultural value is the centrality of power in governing the modes of production. Held firmly in the hands of the West, the reins of power continually allow the hegemon to utilize mass culture to disseminate values of what is desirable and “natural”. Other countries thus operate at a structural disadvantage, in addition to being curtailed by domestic political censorship. There is a dearth of political films, for example, from Chinese film makers because Beijing exercises an iron fist in regulating their content to expunge even the slightest trace of political dissent; only the political that exults the Chinese state is allowed.

Furthermore, the authority of Orientalist discourse in driving Western (especially U.S.) foreign policy and conceptualizing the world view of the East today underscores Said’s contention that the political and the academic are necessarily and ineluctably intertwined, despite attempts to draw clear lines of demarcation between the two. The subjugated O/other has no say in the matter of its representation in the production of knowledge; the process of Othering, for example, of designating Islam as the enemy in the War on Terror, only serves to confirm the reality of the colonizing Other (Ashcroft 189) and perpetuates its interests.

The Orient, inasmuch as it disorients the West in its exoticism and “strangeness,” serves as an indispensable orienting element for the metropolis. Therefore, Said’s compelling argument, while revealing the myth of the Orient as a Western construct, also highlights the fact that the colonizing Other depends just as much on its colonized others for its continued existence, being established at the same time the latter are produced as subjects (Ashcroft 188). Consequently, it is also this revelation that poses complications in dispelling the myth of Orientalism in addition to its “naturalization.” For even if the subaltern were allowed to speak for themselves, theorist Gayatri Spivak would contend that doing so disregards the fact that the subaltern voice was, and still is “ constrained by the discourses within which they were constructed as subaltern” (Ashcroft 97).

Ultimately, Orientalism, like much of postcolonial discourse, illustrates the difficulties of extricating traces of the colonialist from the colonized, as it is impossible to do so without unravelling the whole.

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Hybridity: Recovering the Space in Between

hybrid

Image taken from https://digitalobby.spu.edu/eng2248/2016/01/21/maiguru-and-hybridity/.

“It’s the Englishness,” she said. “It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful…The problem is the Englishness, so you just be careful!” (207).

Mainini, Tambu’s mother, issues this warning with Tambu’s increasing immersion in the world of “Englishness” at the mission. In the second half of Nervous Conditions, the tension created by the ambivalence of mimicry crescendos and finally explodes as its accompanying anxieties wreak havoc on the psyche of the characters.

This fear of “Englishness” intensifies because clear lines have been drawn in the cultural milieu of colonial Zimbabwe, demarcating the boundaries between the cultures of the colonizer and the colonized. Threats and warnings are issued by the local community on the perils of crossing that line because there is no “in-between” in binary systems such as colonial Zimbabwe, no “ambiguous or interstitial spaces between the opposed categories, so that any overlapping region…becomes impossible according to binary logic, and a region of taboo in social experience” (Ashcroft 25 ).  There is no return once a person crosses the line into an opposing category. Consequently, the state between binarisms, such as the colonizer/colonized binary, “will evidence the signs of extreme ambivalence manifested in mimicry, or will put energy into confirming one or the other side of the binarism, for example, Anglocentrism or nationalism” (Ashcroft 25).

The problems detailed above are illustrated in the second half of the novel, most clearly through Nyasha. Categorized as a “been-to”, Nyasha finds herself ostracized because she has crossed over to the culture of the colonizer on the other side of the binary. However, as I mentioned last week, she does not fully belong to the culture of her colonizer either, for to be Anglicized “is emphatically not to be English” (Bhabha 267). There is no space between these rigid binaries to accommodate her hybrid identity. Subsequently, this displacement weighs heavily on Nyasha and causes her acute distress. Nyasha confides these difficulties in a letter she writes to Tambu after the latter leaves to study at Sacred Heart: “I find it more and more difficult to speak with the girls at school. I try, Tambu, but there is not much to speak of between us…They think that I am a snob…because I do not feel that I am inferior to men” (Dangarembga 200).

Derek Walcott addresses the issue of mimicry in “The Caribbean: Culture of Mimicry”. Against accusations (specifically that of V.S. Naipaul) of merely being a mimic man, Walcott replies that if Caribbean culture is mere mimicry, then all prior cultural endeavors can be said to be no more than mimicry too, for “there is no memory or history of the moment when man stopped imitating the ape, his ancestor, and became human. Therefore, everything is mere repetition” (260). Defiantly, he proclaims that “Nothing will always be created in the West Indies…because what will come out of there is like nothing one has ever seen before” (261). He points to the Carnival, the calypso, and steelband music as evidence of this hybrid creative production. Produced from nothing, they “are original and temporarily as inimitable as what they first attempted to copy” (261). Despite its appearance of mere imitation, Caribbean culture has appropriated American culture and created something entirely unique and original – “the river, stilled, may reflect, mirror, mimic other images, but that is not its depth.” (259)

Walcott’s response echoes Bhabha’s assertion in the sense that mimicry never results in a carbon copy of colonialist culture. Instead, the result of colonial contact is hybridization, where “new transcultural forms” (Ashcroft 135) are produced due to the mutual construction of colonizer and colonized subjectivities. According to Bhabha, cultural identity always emerges in this contradictory and ambivalent “Third Space of enunciation” (Ashcroft 136). Hybridity is therefore presented as a solution to disrupt the fixities of binary oppositions. However, while Bhabha’s projection of hybridity is hopeful in theory, his concept translates rather messily to the realities of the characters in the novel.

Nyasha most clearly illustrates the perils of embodying this hybrid identity as she finds herself constantly challenging the boundaries of her native culture. The second half of the novel was particularly difficult to read as I watched Nyasha gradually consumed by this perpetual state of nervous displacement, as manifested in her battle with bulimia and anorexia. “Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away” (204)… They’ve trapped us. They’ve trapped us” (205)”, Nyasha rages at the end of the novel -“I’m not one of them but I’m not one of you” (205).

Bhabha’s proposed “Third Space” has the potential to be liberatory in theory, but the truth is that, more often than not, the hybrid subject acutely feels the walls of these rigid binaries closing in on both sides. In Nyasha’s case, this distress weighs on her psyche in the form of eating disorders. Inhabiting a liminal state of flux that is “a constant process of engagement, contestation and appropriation” (Ashcroft 145) is exhausting and comes at a cost, as evidenced by Nyasha. Therefore, to inhabit the liminal space is to live in perpetual discomfort, anxiety, and tension in a world constructed around rigid binaries.

Although Tambu is not as adversely affected by her state of liminality as Nyasha, she develops her own demons to battle even as she progresses in her education at Sacred Heart. She is increasingly tormented by the conflicting demands of navigating both cultures, especially in regards to the roles prescribed for women. Tambu experiences profound psychological distress when the Christian ideas of sin that she has been taught at the mission are applied to her parents, and indirectly to her. She struggles to reconcile the mounting discrepancies engendered by her hybridization, trying to maintain the roots of her native culture even while she pursues a Western education to increase her social mobility.

In many ways, Tambu’s journey reminds me of my own. Like Tambu, I had fought to pursue a Western education, eager to escape the confines of my society; like Tambu, I had looked to attaining a U.S. education “as a sunrise on my horizon” (208). I remember setting foot in Kutztown for the first time four years ago, nervous but hopeful, thinking that maybe this was where I would finally belong. But after spending four years here, I’m not so sure anymore. Like Tambu, I’ve tried banishing the doubts and the suspicion, but with graduation quickly approaching, I’m beginning to realize that I don’t really fit here as much as I didn’t fit at home. Still, Tambu’s fate is hopeful, if open-ended at the end of the novel, an alternative to the outcome of the liminal subject as embodied in Nyasha. I don’t know what inhabiting this “in-between” space entails yet for me, but Tambu’s experience shows that navigating this space, while difficult and painful, is not impossible.