The debate concerning orientalism began nearly half a century ago, with the period of decolonizations. It is time for a historical evaluation of the validity of the accusation that the various forms of orientalism (literary, artistic, linguistic, architectural, cultural), as fields of scholarly inquiry and styles of creative expression, were fundamentally subservient to an enterprise of Western domination, whose ultimate incarnation was colonialism.
Although the field of orientalism extends significantly beyond this relatively brief period, and the territory of this imperial regime, we do not intend to take inventory of the criticisms that were levelled at this thesis, which is not entirely false. Our goal here is to broaden the perspective. Attention has in fact, until now, been focused on establishments located in the metropolis, and the agents of knowledge and power that were involved in this enterprise of knowledge, representation, evocation or domination. This clearly constitutes a unilateral approach, which is thus extremely limited and should be corrected.
In the framework of the Dictionnaire des orientalistes de langue française (IISMM & Karthala, 2008), we undertook a fairly vast study of those who, in one way or another, were associated with orientalism : their social and political affiliations, their itineraries, their motivations, as well as the ways they intervened. This endeavour demonstrated the extraordinary diversity of situations and levels of involvement, as well as the inherent contradictions that divide this field which is devoid of consensus, notably in ideological terms, which is how it is more often portrayed. This inventory was developed solely from the French example, or more precisely the French-speaking world. Far greater discrepancies would appear were we to extend the comparison to what took place in other regions, starting with the Anglo-Saxon world, which is nonetheless close to France, but to an even greater extent with the other powers whose colonial history was significantly different: first of all Germany, but also Italy, Spain or Russia, and even Belgium, Holland or Denmark. Moreover, each example follows its own specific chronology.
Much thus remains to be done to illustrate, not just one but many histories, according to the languages used (orientalism in German, Italian, English, Russian, etc.), fields of activity (in relation to more « classic » disciplines – the study of languages and civilizations, artistic productions, religious sciences, travel literature – greater attention should be paid to music or the decorative arts), cultural regions (beyond an Arabic, Turkish, Persian Islam, which has already largely been explored, more consideration should be given to India, China, Japan and other outlying regions). In order to be conclusive, these « regional » endeavours should adopt a rigorous comparative approach.
It is, however, another, more innovative perspective that we would like to propose here: studying these issues not starting from the center but from the peripheries.
One of the sharpest criticisms aimed at Edward Saïd’s thesis emphasized that it reduced orientalism to a unilateral action on behalf of the West, leading to the idea that the Orient, or rather actual Orients in the plural, did not have recourse to any agency or intervention in the global movement for the production of not only knowledge but also power. They would have been attributed the status, which suited them in certain ways, of victims. Remaining limited to this point of view is to ignore the acculturation processes and group strategies, and not take into account the dynamic that notably led to the emergence of various fundamentalisms, which is the basis of the overly renowned « shock of civilizations ».
It is precisely this part of the story that we would like to examine, by addressing the question of orientalism from the point of view of those places called Oriental. Our aim is to analyze the inductive effect, but also the return-effect on local societies, of what was both an important intellectual and institutional movement, and which it would be naïve to think did not change their world, and their representation of the world.
We would like to develop this perspective along different levels and according to different angles of approach. We envisage five possibilities for the moment:
1. Recent historiographic research has sought to determine exactly what orientalism, as a process of gathering and accumulating knowledge, owes to the active collaboration of a series of local agents, interpreters, guides, and merchants, in short, the entirety of this population of intermediaries that is epitomized by the figure of the dragoman. All of these mediators contributed, through their assistance, their commentaries, and relayed information, to travels and studies. They often constituted a specialized personnel and, beginning with embassies or centers of trade, became the necessary intermediaries for travellers or scientific envoys sent from Western metropoles, in order to satisfy their curiosity, their thirst for adventure, or in gathering information or collecting objects (antiquities, manuscripts, collections of arms and precious objects, costumes, rugs and ceramics, various furnishings). For the most part they remained in subaltern positions, as anonymous informants that are barely mentioned in the prefaces of works to which they made such significant contributions. Some, however, occasionally benefited from remarkable promotions, becoming representatives, with various titles, notably that of consul, for western powers, or becoming consecrated as scholars or writers. Rather than belonging to former aristocracies, that were or were not perturbed by colonization, they were often part of local marginalized groups, such as the Jews or Christians in lands of Islam, that thereby found a way to re-balance power, or at least ensure individual progress or intervention, through knowledge and influence, concerning the formulation of society. The Dictionnaire sought to grant significant space to this unclearly defined population that unfortunately remains unknown.
2. It is true that orientalist discourses, from the most scholarly to those destined for the general public, have perturbed so-called oriental intellectuals who have asserted their intimate as well as discursive knowledge of their society. Confronted with remarks that are often deemed to be hasty, approximate, oversimplifying, and pejorative, with objectivism as a pretext, these « natives » demanded to be spoken of in a different manner that was more understanding, participatory, empathetic, etc. Without always affirming that they were the only ones to be qualified in the subject, they contested the legitimacy of those that had not fully learned the languages and codes of behaviour, prerequisites for speaking about the subject, which often means speaking favourably. We also wish to document the history of the case made against orientalism, where Edward Saïd’s treatise represents a stage in the process, which is doubtlessly important but neither as an initiator nor as the final word. The exceptional success of the work remains to be explained, as an unexpected success which is still largely incomprehensible for specialists who are the most familiar with these theses or for the keenest observers of the world which has replaced the former « Orient ».
3. Even if one does not carry one’s country in one’s suitcase, the demon of origins continues to haunt numerous intellectuals that thrive in the West, as well as audiences that have elected residence, and cultural activities, for writers, essayists or university professors. As part of recent or occasionally older migrations, they continue, however, to assert their origins with a legitimacy that varies – Saïd’s example is in this respect emblematic. These « intellectuals in the diaspora » occupy as we know significant terrain in university centers in the United States and Europe. We will attempt to trace the intellectual and institutional history of this displaced population which remains solidly in touch, however, with its origins, producing reflections on boundaries, migrations, exile or on cosmopolitan identity, which it represents. A certain ethnicization of university departments that are part of « cultural » or « postcolonial studies », scholarly journals or academic spaces that represent this political direction should also be the object of historic analyses in terms of ebb and flow.
4. Symmetrically, independences followed by the departure of colonial elites led to « native » university professors taking up administrative positions. It was up to them to take responsibility for the scientific heritages, occasionally in local languages rather than those of the ex-colonizer, and notably, to administer the departments that were part of the « orientalist » disciplines that were traditionally attributed to specialists from the metropolis. How did this transfer, and this intellectual heritage operate: in critical continuity and the creation of fruitful new careers ? Or, on the contrary, through academic repetition ? The exceptional authority conferred upon writing and publications in the West meant that the discourses were perpetuated beyond situations of sovereignty. Diametrically opposed to hypercritical positions, a self-serving orientalism was occasionally maintained through heritage management, supported by edited or re-edited works, museographic conservation and, lastly, ideological repetition. The vitality of local heritages is certainly one of the contemporary faces of an obsolete orientalism that was rather hurriedly proclaimed to have disappeared.
5. The activity of collecting - pillaging ? – cultural property by more or less scrupulous collectors or museographers, in connection with all sorts of merchants, led to the funnelling of local patrimony towards commercial markets in Europe, America or Asia. With the institution of post-colonial States, the concern to retrieve heritage, and grant it a museographic dignity in its place of origin, led to a commercial-return of objects and collections whose mission is no longer to illustrate the grandeur of an empire but the productions of the people and nations that reappropriate them. Today, this movement largely contributes to the prosperity of a market as demonstrated by the success of sales of « exotic » objects, objects which moreover do not always return to their place of origin but go, instead, to the new museums in the oil monarchies. The increased value of orientalist painting is part of this movement for the reappropriation of representations produced during travels to faraway places in previous centuries, and occasionally by native painters that were part of this trend. More generally, the replications of images that are available as copies, post-cards, or nostalgic photo albums demonstrate a veritable process of « reorientalization » that is no longer uniquely directed toward the tourist market, but is appropriated within the framework of complex identity processes. The place that « ethnic » minorities occupy attests a renewed diversity that had been somewhat dimmed by the federating demonstrations of newly independent nations. It is thus the ensemble of the orientalist production, in its literary, traditional, ethnographic, museographic and other manifestations that is drawn upon for re-editions, and that reluctantly finds itself contributing scientific support to current, hotly debated, internal politics.
It is these processes as a whole, through their coherence and their articulation, that we will attempt to examine, in order to study the question of orientalism from the other side, which should then allow it to appear in a different light.
François Pouillon & Jean-Claude Vatin