“I think one can say this almost without qualification,” writes Edward Said in Orientalism, as he reiterates some basic facts and moves toward a provisional conclusion (p. 204). Said had just explained that Orientalism is “a positive doctrine.” It is “an influential academic tradition,” as well as “an area of concern” (p. 203). As he implies here, and shows throughout his work, Orientalism is a great number of other things, too. It is the deployment of concepts regarded as always already universal such as race, religion, and fanaticism. It involves travelers and “commercial enterprises,” governments, popular literature, and more. Orientalism is also the media outlets that disseminate its doctrine and commonplaces, the walls of the institutions that house and support the academic tradition, as well as the bureaucratic practices that regulate the movements of different passport holders by way of travel warnings and security advisories or by means of checkpoints and security fences. Note that, always stylistically acute, Said writes in the present tense.
So what is it about all this that can be said “almost without qualification”? It is first of all the unequivocal fact that “for any European during the nineteenth century,” Orientalism was “a system of truths, truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word” (p. 204; Said just quoted Nietzsche’s famous description of truth as “an army of metaphors”). So far, so good. Indeed, it is hard to see how there could be any qualification to such a statement. It is therefore, and more likely, with regards to what he will go on to say next that Said nonetheless introduces the very idea of qualification, announcing it with due preciseness by way of the word “almost” (“almost without qualification”), and this in order to soften the accompanying “sting,” as he will call it. And so, without any qualification (for now), Said delivers the provisional, and robustly pointed, punch line: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
This is certainly unpleasant enough. It may sting — or even stink — to acknowledge such racism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism; perhaps particularly so if one feels interpellated as a 19th century European or an inheritor thereof (and there may be more of these around than one might suspect). But seriously, who would wish, still, to qualify this particular, historically inflected statement? Who would want to say that the regimes of truth and power constituting and enabling, in the 19th century, the final stages in the conquest of the Eastern hemisphere and the “scramble for Africa” were not supported by the capillary spread of racism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism? Who could fail, finally, to understand that, far from an individual, personalized indictment, Said is here delivering a rigorous, and rigorously Foucauldian, diagnostic, accounting for the massive force of Orientalism across vast discursive and institutional fields? Statements, or what Michel Foucault referred to as énoncés, relate to each other by way of repetition, transformation, and reactivation. They are soldiers or, if you will, squads in a Nietzschean army of metaphors. They are dependent on the logistics of rear maneuvers, on what used to be called “the home front,” as they advance on the field of operations. Statements — what any European could say about the Orient — are contingent on an unequal distribution of knowledge or quasi-knowledge (“distribution” being one of Said’s powerful but rather neglected concepts). They find the source of their authority — the ground of their possibility — in positive doctrines, influential academic traditions, and accepted areas of concern. One speaks about the Orient, in other words, in a manner and tone rarely assumed when speaking about, say, Australia, the role of federal legislation in the exponential growth of “financial products,” or the function of the arms trade in the global pursuit of peace and happiness. One pronounces with confidence on the Orient (on Islam, on Pakistanis). One does so with an ease and an assurance otherwise rarely shown, that is, without having watched at least a few National Geographic specials, or having spent a couple of weeks in your average, touristy “green zone” abroad.
What possible qualification, then, could Said have alluded to? And offered by whom? Europe in the 19th century was racist, imperialist, and ethnocentric. So be it. At that time, the critique of Orientalism (one might think of Abraham Geiger; Franz Fanon was still far on the horizon) was not about to undo the tide of its conquests, epistemological and otherwise. And the critique of race science (such as Ernest Renan himself was offering) was meant to foster more and better science, not quite the emancipation of the darker races. So far, so good, right? But true to his word, Said nevertheless goes on to deliver the qualification he had announced. Said acknowledges the sting I have alluded to and immediately takes it — almost takes it — all back. He qualifies it. “Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with ‘other’ cultures” (p. 204). Welcome to the other side. No need for a place to hide.
What concerns me here, what I am trying to do, is to read Said; to do no more than continue and take him at his word, strictly at his word. That is how I find myself provoked to ask — this, for example: Is it really the case that one could find, elsewhere than in Euro-America, another positive doctrine, another influential academic tradition, and another area of concern, supported and shadowed by a massive institutional, political and economic, legal and technological set of apparatuses, such that one could assert about each individual member of that society — again, elsewhere than in Euro-America — that whatever they say about the object of that doctrine, would be racist, imperialist, and ethnocentric? Is it really the case that “human societies, at least the most advanced cultures,” have offered their individual members the full institutional range and depth of scientific achievements from race doctrine to eugenics, from the industrial revolution to the liberal policies of the World Bank, from chemical to nuclear warfare, to the reshaping of sexual and other habits, all of which providing the ground upon which one could then adjudicate on the lifestyle — or death style — of these other savages and fanatics the world over? The combined structure of power and knowledge, of law and literature, of philology, industry and technology, of advanced capitalism and global imperialism that Said calls “Orientalism” would have been a restricted instance of a universal phenomenon. It would have had not one twin brother (say, “Occidentalism,” as some like to call it), but many such twins. There would have been a vast number of human societies that provided individuals with armies of metaphors as well as with the weapons of mass construction responsible for carrying and transforming them and others, for moving them onward, toward the civilizing of others. There would be, finally, a universal brotherhood of imperialist, racist, and ethnocentric man.
Now, if only there was a book, where I could read about this equal opportunity devastation; where I could read about the “metaphysics of white-hating” that Native Americans were inventing; about the way they were planning to put white people in reservations (I don’t know, in the South of France, for example) after having carefully determined their natural right to swift extermination. I imagine this book as engaging with Ecclesia Africana Militans as it programmed and justified the deportation and enslavement of the Portuguese nation; as being about the massive propaganda machinery activated by the Chinese against the “white peril” and the ensuing development of ever more destructive gunpowder machines toward the enslavement of pale people in the extraction of natural fertilizers in the Chinese colonies. If only I could read, in that very same book, the details of the Persian experiments in cranial measurement and selective breeding as a preview to taking over the non-Aryan globe in the name of espace vital (or, to be scrupulously philological, Lebensraum), toward the domination of world economy and the Société des nations. If only there was such a book, a book about reverse racism, reverse colonialism, and reverse imperialism! Still, with moderate exertion, and a massive amount of good will — call it my humanitarianism — I can imagine that book. I can see its title. Yes, I can see it now. Just one word: Symmetrism.