Friday, 20 February 2009


I was reading an essay by Edward Said called ‘Imaginative Geography and its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental’ [in Race Critical Theories: Text and Context (eds Philomena Essed, David Theo Goldberg; Blackwell 2002, 16-17]:
Schwab’s La Renaissance Orientale [argues] … that “Oriental” identifies an amateur or professional enthusiasm for everything Asiatic, which was wonderfully synonymous with the exotic, the mysterious, the profound, the seminal: this is a later transposition eastward of a similar enthuisiasm in Europe for Greek and Latin antiquity during the High Renaissance. In 1829 Victor Hugo put this change in directions as follows: 'Au siècle de Louis XIV on était helléniste, maintenant on est orientaliste.’ A nineteenth-century Orientalist was therefore either a scholar (a Sinologist, an Islamicist, an Indo-Europeanist) or a gifted amateur (Hugo in Les Orientales, Goethe in the Westöstlicher Diwan) or both.
This has given me pause. Said seems to imply a straightforward shift from Greece & Rome to 'the Orient', with an implied equivalence between them. But these two things (and notwithstanding the extent to which 'Greece' was sometimes seen as an oriental culture, or at the least as the mediator between the West and the East) are surely quite different, and have quite different roles to play in the discourses of the west. In one root sense, for instance, classicism was constantly harping on one theme: that Greece and Rome are us (that the classics shaped us, that we are the direct inheritors of the classical tradition); whereas Orientalism is the utterance of a series of markers of difference, of otherness. Nor, despite that lovely Hugo quotation, was the C19th century the site of a shift from Athens and Rome to Arabia and China. Indeed I don't think that has even happened yet. If I were required to refute the assumption underlying Said's statement here and was permitted only three characters in which to do so, with the added constraint that I was not permitted to use any portion of the alphabet in my argument, I would say, simply: 300.

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