Exploring the Role of Orientalism

There is defensiveness among some of the Asian literati who wax eloquent on the need for cultural planning and censorship to defend national culture against Western influences. These literati often justify their anxieties by claiming that Western powers have historically exploited the intellectual discipline called Orientalism to undermine not only the dignity and self-identity of Orientals but also the will to resist their colonial masters.

Exploring the Role of Orientalism
Ng Kam Weng

Book Review: J.J. Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment

Hermann Goering, Hitler’s henchman, once quipped that whenever he hears the word “culture” he reaches for his pistol. The remark is most surprising. After all, culture is synonymous with the high achievements of refined societies. Enrichment, rather than violence, should be associated with culture.

There is defensiveness among some of the Asian literati who wax eloquent on the need for cultural planning and censorship to defend national culture against Western influences. These literati often justify their anxieties by claiming that Western powers have historically exploited the intellectual discipline called Orientalism to undermine not only the dignity and self-identity of Orientals but also the will to resist their colonial masters.

Scholars may be tempted to dismiss such anxieties as paranoia except for the forceful argument mounted by Edward Said in his landmark study, Orientalism. Said’s thesis relies on Michel Foucault’s social epistemology which rejects the possibility of pure knowledge. According to this view, knowledge is a tool to legitimatize power and control.

In this regard, Orientalism is viewed as an academic enterprise that has produced not so much a truthful account of the Orient as provided symbols and markers of an “Others” that embodies qualities considered humanly inferior. This “image representation” then justifies the Westerner’s sense of superiority as well as his colonial power over subjects in the Orient.

Understandably, some scholars hesitate to challenge Said given the brilliance with which he prosecuted his case. Furthermore, an Oriental would hesitate to question such a profound critic of the West for fear of being misinterpreted as betraying his own cultural integrity.

However, one must judge Said’s Orientalism as being narrow in scope since he restricted the Orient to mean the Middle East only. Said’s view of Orientalism as nothing more than a tool for power projection also makes his critique too reductionistic. Still, the evidence he marshals constitutes a powerful challenge to the integrity of Orientalism as a scholarly discipline.

Western scholars have so far contested Said’s thesis only at a general level, i.e. in terms of methodological reductionism. Ernest Gellner’s cautiously suggested that Said may have ignored contrary evidence, at least in the case of Algeria. It is only now in the book Oriental Enlightenment that we find an erudite scholar who offers a sober and comprehensive narrative on the encounter between East and West. In particular, J. J. Clarke suggests that Western thinkers were more nuanced and varied in their approach to the Orient than Said suggested. This was specially true in Western approaches to Indian and Chinese thought.

We should not be surprised to find that European studies on Islamic cultures were colored by power struggles arising from the geo-political tensions between Europe and the Middle East. Islam did pose a real threat to Europe, and Islamic armies were on the offensive against Vienna from 1683 until the early years of the 18th century. But it would do Orientalism injustice to focus on merely one stream of the discipline, albeit a major stream.

J.J. Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment highlights that there was already an Orientalism before Europe’s encounter with a dominant Islam and before the days of European colonial empires. The influence of Indian/Iranian thought on gnosticism, and neoplatonism were very evident in the early centuries. Many French philosophers were “Sinomaniacs.”

The illustrious critic Voltaire exploited an idealized China to criticize and subvert the authority of the status quo. Leibniz, the polymath genius, was inspired by the organistic philosophies of China in his quest for mathematical and cosmic harmony. Hegel and Arthur and Schopenhaur who dominated the European philosophical landscape were challenged by the grand metaphysical systems which originated in India.

Clarke points out that many of the foremost Orientalists, including Max Muller and Paul Deussen, came from Germany which had colonial interests. Equally significant was the fact that these scholars pursued their studies without a condescension which considered the Orient as comprising remote societies exotic enough to excite curiosity.

On the contrary, they looked to the Orient as a relevant repository of wisdom with the potential to correct the inadequacies of their own societies. This openness was exemplified in the World Parliament of Religion (1892) held in the United States.

The counter evidence demands that new correctives be made to Said’s one-dimensional perspective on the encounter between East and West. The reality is there could be many modes of cross-cultural encounters. The various modes include conquest, conversion, assimilation or cultural borrowing, liberalism and minimal engagement, and finally conflict and class struggle.

I have in mind an equally enlightening work by Fred Dallmayr, Beyond Orientalism, a book inspired by Tzvetan Todorov’s penetrating study of the Spanish conquest of North America. It would be irresponsible for scholars to focus on the points of conflicts to such an extent that they neglect to identify the conditions that make for a positive encounter between cultures.

Clarke noted that European Orientalism displayed a peculiar interest in cross-cultural encounters. He posed the question why the interest shown by the Europeans was not reciprocated by the Orientals.

An instructive historical example is seen in the indifference displayed by the Chinese Middle Kingdom towards outsiders. In contrast, there seems to be Faustian restlessness driving Orientalists in pushing human endeavours to the limits in their quest for knowledge.

Other motivations should not be precluded just because some European explorers pursued knowledge primarily for the purpose of conquest and domination. Clarke, however, argues convincingly that the most significant factor propelling European initiatives in cross-cultural encounters was the internal crisis generated by the discovery of new worlds.

It was not superior intellectual arguments so much as new social conditions that undermined the authority of traditions in Europe. The increasing choices in which modern society offered and the trauma of industrialization led to a culture of self-doubt and relativism (an insight lucidly expounded by Peter Berger in his book, The Heretical Imperative). Europe, in a moment of self-doubt, turned to the Orient or new wisdom to fill up the spiritual vacuum.

Carl Jung’s observation is most salutary: “While we are turning upside down the material world of the East with our technical proficiency, the East with its psychic proficiency is throwing our spiritual world into confusion… [and] while we are overpowering the Orient from without, it may be fastening its hold upon us from within.” Oriental societies offering ways of life different from that offered by Europe proved tempting to disenchanted intellectuals. Claude Levi-Strauss’ warning remains pertinent.

“Western culture will be in danger of a decline into a sterilizing provincialism if it despises or neglects the dialogue with other cultures. Hermeneutics is Western man’s response – the only intelligent response possible – to the solicitations of contemporary history, to the fact that the West is forced… to this encounter and confrontation with the cultural values of ‘the other’.”

Was the disenchantment premature and was the Christianity then dominant in Europe so bankrupt that it was incapable of renewing culture? Clarke was too careful a scholar to venture a hasty judgment. But he has certainly identified the primary and positive concern of some Orientalists seeking to utilize the Orient as a source of renewal for Europe. Cross-cultural encounters are not only unavoidable. To resist them would be to deprive oneself of a powerful impetus for cultural renewal.

It is undeniable that historic faiths have served traditional societies. But the emergence of a global world demands continual cultural adaptation to cope with the complexities of contemporary life. This calls for faiths and cultures to be self-critical renewal through dialogue. In passing, one should note that cultural encounters, especially those exemplified by new migrants, should not be seen as threats but as new opportunities for enhancement and renewal of cultures.

Clarke would certainly acknowledge that abuses did occur in past cultural encounters between East and West. But regardless of past abuses, dialogue is imperative. In the global world we can no longer ignore one another. Recognizing diversity of cultures does not necessarily force us into having to choose between false dilemmas. As such, we reject cultural relativism that ultimately negates its own truth claim.

We also reject any aggressive absolutism exemplified by religious authorities which suggest that access to eternally revealed truth necessitates an unchanging social ethos. What credibility, after all, is there left for a religious faith that is calcified in a past culture and has no capacity for adaptation?

Indeed, the presumption in the modern world must be that the validity of any faith lies in its ability to affirm the diversity of cultures. Dialogue should not be seen as a denial of one’s own cultural integrity. This is evident in the rich history of cultural encounters admirably narrated in Oriental Enlightenment.

Clarke echoes the sinologist, A.C. Graham,

“We, like the Chinese, fully engage with the thought [of the other] only when we relate it to our own problems… there is a mutuality in the hermeneutical process, which though necessarily beginning with one’s cultural categories, may very likely lead to their transformation in the course of the encounter: interpretation begins with fore-conceptions that are replaced by more suitable ones.”

It should be obvious that Clarke assumes that each participant in dialogue brings with him a unique experience that enriches the culture of the other. That is to say, dialogue respects differences.

I also most heartily agree with Clarke’s insistence that “what is required is not just the affirmation of differences but the readiness to submit this difference to the scrutiny of friendly and informed dialogue, the marking out of a democratic space in which not only is diversity celebrated but where there is also an inducement towards the critical and agonistic quest for common ground.”

Anxiety ridden literati ought to read J.J. Clarke’s Oriental Enlightenment to regain optimism that will engender courage to call for cultural dialogue that affirms personal identity and respects differences.