Hitchens on Orientalism

This month’s Atlantic includes an interesting piece by Christopher Hitchens on Edward Said’s Orientalism, which is being re-released with an updated introduction.

As Hitchens points out Said’s upbringing was ideal in allowing him to traduce the conceptions of several cultures. Spending time in Cairo, Jerusalem, the then cosmopolitan Beirut (how that has sadly changed) and on to studying at Columbia University, provided a multitude of worlds to experience. Hitchens, however seems a little disappointed that someone who seemed so ideally positioned as a ‘negotiator’ between cultures, someone so capable of exploring the ‘Occident’ and its perception of the ‘Orient,’ both created discourses, can at times fail to appreciate the full complexity of the vast array of forces at work.

Hitchens though is still very much fascinated by Orientalism , which in the 70s allowed for a wealth of new perspectives, opening up a wide range of ground for post-colonial enquiry. However, as Said would be ever so willing to admit the ‘Orient’ can at times be just as guilty for falling into crude stereotypes of ‘the West’; Hitchens providing several such examples.

But there is also a lot to admire in Said’s persistent willingness to criticise the poor governance of Arab nations (lamenting the failed opportunities for modernisation in many Arab nations). The major difference of opinion between the two (Hitchens and Said) is in regards to the interpretation of recent events, in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Said sees these as the forces of a new cultural dominance, Hitchens begs to differ.

While in the 70s there seemed to be hope that the forces of opposition would eventually lead to more modern, open, democratic Arab states. This has in most instances not come to fruition, and while there has been some progress in Iran, Qatar, Jordan; this has been continually frustrated. What is in my opinion even sadder, is that the oppositional movements in some nation-states could now be considered more atavistic in their crude tribalism and their religious dogmatism, to almost prefer the maintenance of the incumbent decrepit plutocratic administrations. This state of affairs may well be to some point attributable to the sheer brutality and the banality of ‘whatever it takes to maintain power’ doctrines, where bigotry is propagated as a means of maintaining power, El-Saddats cynical use of the Islamists to counter the leftist attacks on his corrupt leadership could be one example. The million-dollar question is how we can amputate the vital need for forces of opposition, which are necessary to make such governments accountable, from the forces of extreme Islam, which employ a fervent nihilism that can be seen by some regime opponents as a more effective means of opposition.

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adam
2022 years ago

if you’re lazy, the dominion weblog has a handy summary of hitchen’s main points, even if it is unfortunately marred by some sloppy html.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

It’s actually an interesting article, Said is an interesting critic, and I am impressed by a lot of his work. To do a summary, even my attempted summary does it a bit of an injustice. I don’t know if Hitchens resorted to that many semantic tricks, except maybe below:

I thought this was a valid point, although the post-Foucaltian witticism tends to undermine it, with its sneering quality. The argument is already there.

“Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” (“Produce,” as in “cultural production,” has become one of the key words of the post-Foucault academy.) In this analysis every instance of European curiosity about the East, from Flaubert to Marx, was part of a grand design to exploit and remake what Westerners saw as a passive, rich, but ultimately contemptible “Oriental” sphere.”

The only other cheap shot was the “activists” in inverted commas. From my knowledge I think he is correct about the Gore Vidal claim of the Aghani canal has already been discredited. I guess Hitchens isn’t one for humility.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

I don’t know if the treatment is as fair as you suggest Stephen. The point about war ‘against’ seems ungenerous, as it’s often said that a war against another state (government, regime, whatever) is a war ‘against’ another country (implying the government). And can Edward’s references to the museum not be read as symbolic? Likewise, the point you picked up strikes me as entirely gratuitous, as Marxism (which our Hitch defers to in the article) has long recognised culture as a material form of ‘production’.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Chris, I think you have a point if the “War Against” rhetoric is applied by ideologues in an effort to frame such an effort in terms of cultural differences, but I actually think Bush and co (despite all their dodgy WMB claims) have gone to considerable lengths to point out that their argument is with the regimes of Iraq and Afghanis and not with the people of these nations.

While I’m sure there are some RWDBs (does anyone know the etymology of that term) who might be having wet-dreams about the opportunity this presents to freely slander other cultures, or to exploit for electoral purposes (our saint John of course would never think of such a thing), I think Hitchens main point of contest is that Said seems unwilling to recognise that the removal of these two regimes could provide some benefits for the people in these regions. Said’s implicit assumption that this is another neo-colonialist expedition seems to have overlooked the efforts to develop representative leadership in the two aforementioned countries.

Said: “In the US, the hardening of attitudes, the tightening of the grip of demeaning generalization and triumphalist clich

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Stephen,

That much can be learned from other cultures, whether imposed through the imperial model, or sensed in more humane modes, is undoubted. The poet Claudian sang of how Rome:

Took the conquered in her bosom,
Made mankind a single family,
Mother, not mistress, of the nations,
Turning her subjects to citizens,
Conquering far-off lands a second time
By the bond of affection.

As the Roman Empire collapsed, none of its subject peoples siezed the day to proclaim ‘freedom’ from Rome. By this time, everyone had gone over, and even the – speaking incredibly loosely – ‘lefties’ of the time wanted to perpetuate the protective authority of Rome. Learning occurs under all sorts of conditions. A stern enough test of your point.

The rest is also as you say, although I read the museum thing as reaching for a literary device to symbolize the factual point … but not a factual point in itself. Poor drafting all the same (this is not an excuse, but it prompts me to recall that I believe he is seriously ill).

An alternate reading, however, turns on how one understands the problem. It is a minor thing to note that the propaganda in all modern wars aims to disarm the enemy’s population, by insisting the war is only against the ‘regime’. This was emphasised, as you say, but it always is for pragamatic reasons even if it isn’t true (but it actually always is true, at least in places where the Age of Enlightenment has dawned). Where the major division lies here, I suggest, is in theory. The ‘regime’ theory rests on the assumption that by removing Saddam and his mates, you remove the problem. This fits with liberal-individualist ideology (and it also tends to fit with adventurist Trots). The alternative view is that, even after allowing for all sorts of discretionary evils, the ‘regime’ was not purely an agent, but also presents as evidence of the conditions under which it came into being, i.e. it does have a consonance with the ‘country’. In short, the US and its allies are relying on the ‘Great Man’ theory of history, which Hitch buys (and spends his new life trying to prove), which Edward doesn’t, and which I’m playing wait and see on.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

… for a literary device to symbolize the factual point.

Before anyone else obliges, let me clarify that Professor Edward was making an interpretive point – for which I read the museum thing as a literary device to make a symbolic resonance – not a factual point.