Orientalism and the Myth of the O/other

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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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