In the aftermath of September 11, Edward Said, one of the country's more elegant intellects, listened carefully to the anguish and anger pouring through the American media, and five days after the murders published a commentary about what he had heard. Writing in Britain's The Observer, the distinguished critic of literature and politics discerned "the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what 'we' are up against."
Obviously, Prof. Said missed the fact that broadcast and cable news anchors actually curtailed early speculation that the attacks had their origin in the Middle East or in Islam. Why? Because, as ABC's Peter Jennings told his viewers, "We don't want to create a 'mindset' here." Said apparently missed the numerous interviews with ordinary Arab-Americans expressing their own appalled grief at the attacks, appearances that enabled them to represent themselves through the media rather than be misrepresented by them. He seems to have missed the lightning-fast circulation by e-mail of the now-famous letter by Afghan-American Tamin Ansary, which rapidly created sympathy among its millions of recipients for common Afghans.
Said must have missed even the enormous pains taken by elite news outlets and public figures, especially President George W. Bush, to distinguish between the "true" Islam of peace, as they often characterized it, and any variant that could justify and celebrate acts of mass murder. In his address to Congress, Bush actually assumed the role of Islamic theologian, pronouncing any such violent variant to be "blasphemy." Even Ibrahim Hooper, head of the controversial Council on American-Islamic Relations and a tireless critic of the American media's portrayal of Arabs and the Middle East, pronounced himself "surprised," and pleasantly so, at the coverage.
But not Said. Passages of his Observer essay were certainly eloquent and insightful. Not only was he horrified by the carnage, but he was revolted by the perpetrators and by any ideas, religious or political, that might be used to justify such acts. Yet when it came to the American side of his story--what he saw as the vaguely anti-Islamic reaction to the attacks--he slipped back into the familiar litany of the Orientalist critique. That is, he suggested that the media had failed to critique American policy, instead reacting monolithically to "the Middle East and Islam." He implied that the media had portrayed them stereotypically and contentiously. That's not surprising, perhaps, since Said himself established that critique almost 25 years ago. His famous book Orientalism (1978) was a harsh interpretation of the West's attitude toward just these matters, and the critique he established has since dominated the intellectual appraisal of the West's political and cultural relationship to the Muslim world and other peoples of the East.
Yet the critique doesn't fit the aftermath of the attacks at all. Xenophobia remains a significant issue, but if anything, the irenic reaction to the attacks suggests that among American political and media elites, Orientalism has become a dead letter. Indeed, the attack and its aftermath suggest much more. They illustrate that, while the Orientalist critique deserves credit for its earned successes, it deserves to be judged anew for some no less significant sins. Above all, the attack itself reveals the florescence of a cultural phenomenon that has received almost no attention from anyone.
That phenomenon is dangerous, is widespread, and has long been developing beneath the radar and the contempt of the intellectual establishment. It portrays the West falsely and contentiously. It is, as one scholar has termed it, the other side of the Orientalist coin: Occidentalism.
What was Orientalism? Said identified it in his foundational work as the political, cultural, and intellectual system by which the West has for centuries "managed" its relationship with the Islamic world. The central stratagem of this process has been reductionist misrepresentation. In brief, according to Said and the army of intellectual critics and journalists who have come in his wake, Orientalism transforms the East and its people into an alien "Other." That Other--usually a Dark Other--was in every way the inferior of the West: unenlightened, barbarous, cruel, craven, enslaved to its senses, given to despotism, and, in general, contemptible. Having established an Eastern Other in these degrading terms, the West emerged at the center of its self-serving discourse as, by obvious contrast, enlightened and progressive.
The Orientalist critique found supporting evidence for its severe charges in texts from the Crusades to contemporary foreign-policy debates. Shakespeare, in King Lear, expresses Orientalism. Sir Richard Burton's famous translation of the Arabian Nights into a pseudo-archaic language that nobody ever spoke was 16 volumes of Orientalism. British imperial anthropology texts were Orientalist. What else? Old studio paintings of nude odalisques, slave markets, and eunuchs; desert travel literature; novels by Diderot, Montesquieu, Kipling, and H. Rider Haggard; a mass of specialized historiography; Maria Montez movies; the whole world of academic, "authoritative" Orientalist studies; anything having to do with Sinbad the Sailor; and even Henry Kissinger's ideas for resolving the Israeli-Arab impasse.
All of it, and a great deal more about literature, politics, food, and fashion, was studied as part of the immense edifice of Orientalist misrepresentation and degradation.
Was the critique valid? Even in its simplest form, it often was. Western treatments of the East regularly portrayed it as merely exotic, primitive, and inferior. The West's encounter with the East was not only imperial or mercantile; it was teleological, imputing to itself the purpose of enlightening and civilizing the East. Of course, citing self-serving imperialist stupidities is not a particularly great achievement nor necessarily relevant, but the Orientalist critique often paid itself off with close readings of contemporary political and cultural texts, arguing that imperialist stupidities had transmuted into postcolonial subtleties no less damaging. Whether these critiques were always correct is not relevant here; the point is that the project began as a constructive and often useful challenge to a family of ingrained cultural tropes. To the degree that Orientalism was banished from American coverage of the September 11 murders, Said and his many followers can claim a certain degree of credit.
On the other hand, the practitioners of the Orientalist critique, having enjoyed an early triumph, have spent the past quarter-century obscuring its original power by marrying it to such fields as Lacanian psychoanalysis (in which, for example, racism becomes fetishism) or else reformulating its original argument on ever more trivial grounds. While Said and many of his early followers approached their subject as public intellectuals seeking to persuade a general audience, later practitioners have pursued the matter as academics, writing in thick postmodern jargon and producing works that sit unread on research library shelves.
Significantly, Said attempted to add more nuance to the thesis in his 1993 work Culture & Imperialism, arguing that a simple, binary East vs. West approach to such complex issues is after all a reworking of the "us vs. them" imperial worldview. Nobody paid much attention to him. The result is a project that appears increasingly ossified, if not something worse.
For example, the curator for a recent traveling exhibit of American Orientalist antiques ("Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures") has closely examined the ways in which early ads for Camel cigarettes, the brief hoochy-coochy fad, and a single souvenir of the 1923 Shriners convention in Washington all express a "cavalier appropriation" of culture (in part because Shriners wear fezzes) and even signal a transfer of world power to the United States. Her argument assigns tendentious meanings to complex activities and signs, then locks them together as if cultural artifacts were so many jigsaw pieces. Another prominent critic claims that she is "othered" by the way Americans categorize what they eat. That is, dishes associated with India are exoticized as "Indian food," whereas American dishes claim the gustatory mainstream by being just "food." Her argument is a pointless misreading of conversational convenience, and ignores the fact that the American diet is the world's most inclusive. Other critics, at the project's extreme, deny that anyone from the West (the "so-called West") has any right at all to address any subject having to do with the ("so-called") East. This Kafkaesque view condemns whole hemispheres of people to guilt, and is no better than the views of Europe's imperial Orientalists at their worst.
There is another problem, however--one more ominous for the project in the long run than triviality. These are the doubts that have surfaced--within the critique--about the ways in which the counter-Orientalist project may have approached much of its evidence. In one collection of portentous essays about Hollywood Orientalism, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, it occurs to the editors that while such films may well carry racist, fetishist, patriarchal, and imperial baggage for some audiences, these movies may have "other meanings and appeals for other audiences."
Well, yes. In this case, the anthology's editors cite the legitimacy of gay camp readings of 1940s harem movies. In fact, there are as many ways to receive "Orientalist" movies as there are people to watch them. It would doubtless come as a complete surprise to the admirers of Ray Harryhausen's special-effects epics, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), or of such classics as the 1940 version of The Thief of Baghdad, that the pleasure they took from such films is a cultural crime. Rather, such films provided them an exit to wonder, and it is doubtful that watching Kevin Matthews battle sword-wielding skeletons in some way exoticized the Arab-Israeli conflict in the minds of any viewers.