Understanding Oriental Cultures

Arran E. Gare
1995 Philosophy East & West  
Edward Said's Orientalism has been almost universally acclaimed by Western intellectuals as a brilliant critique of discourse on the "Orient." However, there appears to be a lack of appreciation, by those who acclaim this work and the work of the subaltern historians influenced by Said, of all its implications. Said is not merely revealing the underlying power relations and distortions associated with discourse on major regions of the world; he is attacking the whole notion of understanding the
more » ... f understanding the cultures of these regions. And less explicitly, he and the subaltern historians are not merely questioning the adequacy of the narratives that attempted to put the history of the world in perspective; they are attacking the quest for such "grand narratives." The significance of these arguments becomes manifest when considered in relation to Joseph Needham's monumental Science and Civilisation in China. Although Said was primarily interested in discourse on the Islamic world, and subaltern historians are primarily interested in the history of people in India, their arguments against Orientalism apply to Needham's work.1 My contention is that if the views defended by Said and the subaltern historians imply that Needham's work is invalid, there must be something wrong with them. Here I will defend Needham's work and argue that what the present world situation now requires is an effort to create a new, more complex post-Eurocentric grand narrative based on, and facilitating, a new appreciation of the diverse cultures that have developed throughout the world; and I will argue that Needham's work provides a model and a starting point for the appreciation of other cultures and for developing such a grand narrative. But I will not defend Needham simply as a Marxist, as he is normally understood, and counterpose the value of Marxism to the poststructuralism of Said and the subaltern historians. I will defend Needham's work through reference to recent work on hermeneutics and through the ideas of Alasdair Maclntyre on understanding rival traditions, at the same time showing how Needham's open, undogmatic form of Marxism contributes to the hermeneutic tradition.2 Said argues that the analysis of the politics of Western ethnocentrism must begin with discourse analysis as developed by Michel Foucault in Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish.3 Foucault, opposing both hermeneutic and Marxist approaches to understanding systems of thought, contended that knowledge is constructed through discursive formations that determine the range of objects of knowledge, concepts, methodological resources, and the theoretical formulations available.4 Any writer has to conform to the prevailing dis-Lecturer in the by University of Hawai'i Press 309 Arran E. Gare cursive formation and to accept the rules for the construction of objects in order to communicate, to be understood, to remain "in the true," and thus to be accepted. Furthermore, he argued that discursive formations emerge as part of the process of controlling people, of disciplining bodies, so that claims to knowledge and the exercise of power are indissociable.5 Said attempts to apply these insights to European or Western constructions of other cultures. He argues that a complex set of representations was fabricated by the discursive field of Orientalist studies that for the West effectively became "the Orient" and determined the West's understanding of it, providing as well the basis for the West's subsequent imperialist rule. The Orient appeared as "a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire."6 The central characteristic of this framework of knowledge is its essentialism. Analyzing Orientalism, Anouar Abdel-Malek wrote: According to the traditional orientalists, an essence should exist-sometimes even clearly described in metaphysical terms-which constitutes the inalienable and common basis of all the beings considered; this essence is both "historical," since it goes back to the dawn of history, and fundamentally a-historical, since it transfixed the being, "the object" of study, within its inalienable and non-evolutive specificity.... Thus one ends with a typologybased on a real specificity, but detached from history, and, consequently, conceived as being intangible, essential-which makes of the studied "object" another being with regard to whom the studying subject is transcendent; we will have a homo Sinicus, a homo Arabicus (and why not a homo Aegypticus, etc.), a homo Africanus, the man-the "normal man," it is understood-being the European man of the historical period, that is, since Greek antiquity.7
doi:10.2307/1399392 fatcat:5vgutznz6zhurncrsneqfhf4ae