neo-Orientalism (i)

Robert Zydenbos zydenbos at GMX.LI
Mon Oct 30 17:56:05 UTC 2000

Sreenivas Paruchuri asked a few of us, incl. me, to write our opinion about
Lakshmi Srinivas' post d. 4 Oct. about 'neo-Orientalism'. Since I felt that
any reaction from me was bound to escalate matters further, I did not write
at the time - I also had no copy of that post any more, so I had to
retrieve it from the Indology archives for this response. I suppose that LS will
not mind that I mention here that in private he has expressed to me that he
has second thoughts about it. (Let us say that he was not feeling well that
day.) I did not understand all of it, but I think I should write something
about some parts. Since the others in SP's request (except GT) remained silent,
and since some of the following has a bearing on other threads too, I will
hopefully be excused for the length.

I am disappointed that LS referred to Mr Said and his _Orientalism_. My
view of that book is quite the same as what has been expressed by the late
Wilhelm Halbfass: in his _Tradition and Reflection_ (Albany: SUNY, 1991) he
discusses Said briefly on pp. 9-11, and more elegantly than I would have done.
In short, he argues that Said does exactly what he accuses his
'Orientalists' of doing: making sweeping generalisations, confounding "highly selective
historical observations with broad philosophical generalizations. [...] At
the end, "Orientalism" emerges as a historical and conceptual hybridization
that is no less a construct and projection than the so-called Orient itself."
He then turns to how Said's ideas were picked up by another author in the
context of Indian studies and writes: "To what extent are "Orientalism,"
"Indology," and the other targets of criticism themselves constructs and imposed
essences?" - In other words: Said (and people like him) is (are) guilty of
doing exactly that which they condemn (as we see happen *all the time* on
this list: sweeping accusations, based more on fantasies than on familiarity,
against 'Indology' and 'Indologists').

I dislike being too personal here, but I have stated more than once that
after a full course of academic study (involving half a dozen Indian
languages) I spent most of my adult life in India, where I learnt to speak at least
one language with near-native fluency and where all my in-laws are rural
brahmins from interior Karnataka. (So I should fulfil everyone's requirements
here concerning qualifications.) Then I read here on the Disinformation
Highway that I 'contemn Hindus', 'hate India', and what not - for no other
reason, so I must conclude, than that I have seen too much and know, through
first-hand experience as well as study, and I also say and write, that India and
Hinduism are not the crass simplifications that certain persons claim them
to be. I am actually doing the _opposite_ of what the Saidian accusation
contains. Instead of making sweeping generalisations about Hinduism or India, I
oppose them.

Are only natives qualified to talk about their native background? The late
sociologist K. Ishwaran (a.k.a. Hiremallur Ishwaran; born Dharwad, died
Toronto) did his doctoral research on changes in family life in the
Netherlands, which was widely appreciated. More than one Dutch social scientist has
said to me that only somebody like Ishwaran could do such work, _because_ he
was not a Dutchman. A native insider is sometimes so stuck in details that he
fails to see the whole. The same happens in India.

LS' accusation about my 'discourse', along the lines of what we may call
vulgar Saidianism (like vulgar Marxism or vulgar Freudianism) is crude and
lame (see two paragraphs up) - and typical. A good deal of his 4 Oct. post is
about one W. Collins. Who? It turns out that he was some Brit pop writer in
the 19th century. Is he relevant? No. I am not British; I do not live in the
19th century; I have never read the fellow and, after seeing what LS tells
us about him, probably never will. For such a character to be relevant,
there should be some way of demonstrating that he is so. Simply saying that once
upon a time somebody in the wide Western world wrote something, does not
prove that he is relevant in the context of some very other person (e.g., me;
or was it Vivekananda about whom LS was writing? anyhow, I fail to see the
relevance) and his ideas somewhere very else in that wide Western world at a
very different time. It is an unjustifiable overgeneralisation and
essentialisation of what 'the West' is, and also of what today's Indology is.
(Perhaps we can coin another word: 'Occidentalism'.)

My favourite quote from older English literature is from something by
Kipling that I _have_ read. Everybody quotes "For east is east, and west is
west, and never the twain shall meet..."; but then follows (now quoting from

     "But there is neither east nor west, nor border, nor breed, nor
     When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the
ends of the earth."

I wonder why hardly anyone quotes this...

'Neo-Orientalism' must be some new construct along the lines of
'Orientalism', but I fail to see how it could be an improvement over the Saidian


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