neo-Orientalism (ii)

Robert Zydenbos zydenbos at GMX.LI
Mon Oct 30 17:59:06 UTC 2000


Another disturbing aspect of what we may call the 'politically correct'
vulgar Saidianism on this list is that it tends to advocate a kind of
intellectual apartheid: Westerners should not study / think about / make
pronouncements about India, because they are, well, Westerners. Instead, we are
presumed to sit at the feet of self-proclaimed gurus from India and listen to their
words of wisdom (and perhaps give them Rolls-Royces, like to that other
guru; while those gurus make their own sweeping generalisations, somewhat like
Vivekananda did a hundred years ago). Firstly, I do not think it is
basically wrong to be a liberal humanist (it is unclear from LS' post what he thinks
about this) and believe that vasudhaiva kutumbakam. Secondly, this
vulgarised Saidianism could easily imply that the rest of world should be quiet
when, for instance, chairman Mao carries out his 'cultural revolution' or Hitler
'solves the Jewish problem' (because non-Chinese and non-Germans supposedly
cannot grasp China's and Germany's necessities, and their criticism is
surely part of a conspiracy of imperialists / capitalists, or of

Nobody denies, e.g., to Indians the right to develop European studies and
formulate their own ideas and opinions, to have departments of European
studies at their universities, and to do all the things that Westerners do out
of an interest for India. (That would actually be a great improvement over
the present situation, in which Indians tend to believe that continental
Europe is populated by a kind of degenerate Englishmen who talk funnily.) We
could then have more people like Ishwaran. But any responsible, modern branch of
scholarship is self-critical and grows, i.e., changes. Indology is no
exception (and an Indian 'Europology' should be similar). Anyone who today still
whines about Indological studies because of something that somebody with,
let us say, over-enthusiastic ideas about something said more than a hundred
years ago, is laughable.

I do not share S. Paruchuri's view that Lakshmi Srinivas' post was
"brilliant". On the contrary: I think it was very bad and that those ideas about
'neo-Orientalism' are potentially extremely harmful. All such conspiracy
theories (LS writes about globalisation? how do I fit in there? do I benefit? do
I want it? or is somebody using me? how?) are basically attempts at cutting
off dialogue by questioning the other's earnestness. The fact is (as Dr.
Vassilkov once wrote here) that in today's world, India has no better friends
in the West than Indologists. Nothing is more painful for an Indologist than
to see presumably educated Indians try their best to totally reject their
cultural heritage and become imperfect American clones - as is happening right
now, without any Indologist whom I know of having anything to do with it.
(Trivial side remark: when I am in India, I prefer to dress the way A.B.
Vajpayee does, dhautra and all, simply because it is a fine way to dress there.
I would like to know how many of my strident cyber-critics at all know how
to tie a dhautra - let alone wear one - and wear trousers instead...)

What will happen to a new catchword like 'neo-Orientalism' is that it will
be picked up as a vague slogan by others, who want to disrupt free, open
and informed dialogue.

Apparently I angered LS when I wrote

> India should be compared not with any single
> European country, but with Europe as a whole.

I know very well what I am talking about (see my qualifications, above).
India is not a monolithic cultural unit (nation), just as the Soviet Union
was not a monolithic cultural unit. India is more like the European Union, one
big difference of course being that India already has some of the
advantages of being a larger administrative unit. There are perfectly objective
grounds for my statement, and I am rather surprised that anyone (an Indian?)
should take offence when I say that India is culturally greater than any single
Western country - because that is what I am saying.

If objections about my view are fuzzily expressed ("mode of discourse does
not have the theoretical apparatus [...] way out of their areas of
specialization, way out of their depth in a subject of considerable complexity and
stuck in a state of ideological constipation") then I can only say: look at
the facts (all the facts that are relevant in the comparisons), check your
definitions, and do not seek refuge in conspiracy theories and misplaced
rhetoric. If your view differs, explain why it differs. Explain it with relevant
facts and logical reasoning. That would be decent and helpful. Then all of
us will listen politely and with interest.


Robert Zydenbos
Institut für Indologie und Iranistik
Universität München

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