by Blake Backlash
I failed to make it past the introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism when I first encountered it at University. Since then I have fingered and then abandoned more than one copy in second-hand bookshops, telling myself that I would need to make time for it one day.
A couple of months ago I came across it again on the ‘Cult’ shelf of my local library and, since Egypt was in the news, I decided it was time to stop flirting with the book and make a commitment. I had a half-formed idea that this was the right time to read Orientalism.
It is just as well that this notion of reading the book for insights into the Arab Spring was only half-formed, because Said repeatedly states that it is not his intention to describe, or speak for, the Orient. In fact the text is marked by scepticism about the motivations and methodologies of such descriptive projects, and calls into question the conceptual category of ‘the Orient’ itself. What Said is interested in is the way the East is represented in the West.
Said untangles the inter-relationships between depictions of the East in different spheres (scientific, academic, political, literary) and surveys the ways these have developed since the late 18th Century. It makes for a demanding read: I frequently encountered names of people I’d never heard of; references to historical events I had no knowledge of; and, most embarrassingly, words I didn’t know the meaning of (mostly in French but some in English too). So to attempt a summary is reckless…
But, to over-simplify, Said’s thesis is that the West’s notion of its comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the Orient made possible, and was used to justify, its domination over the East. Said begins by quoting Balfour in the House of Commons in 1910: ‘We know the civilisation of Egypt better than we know the civilisation of any other country. We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it… Do not talk to me about superiority and inferiority.’ Said points out that knowing another civilisation in this way means ‘being able to do that. Knowledge means rising above immediacy, beyond self, into the foreign and distant.’
Europe saw that it could be economically and aesthetically rejuvenated by the Orient, but at the same time as it needed the East, it believed the East needed it – the two needs were mutually dependent. There was a kind of vast Eastern essence, ill-disciplined, illogical, sensual, chaotic and unknowable – but potentially inspirational and profitable. That essence, however, needed structure in order to make it both sensible and useful. The West provided this structure – and Orientalism proposed various metaphorical and literal spaces where this structuring could take place. The East could be presented in theatres, collected in museums, ordered in libraries, even absorbed by the Western intellect. Said characterises the Western perception of the relationship like this: ‘Asia has its prophets, Europe its doctors’.
At the end of January and beginning of February this year, Tony Blair gave interviews about the protests in Egypt to Sky News, CNN and the BBC. If you watch all three interviews (I know, but let’s say you could stand it) it’s striking how often Blair deploys the same phrases and facts. The interviews are a premeditated intervention into the debate – Blair wants to frame the uprising in Egypt, and the West’s relationship to these events, in a certain way. Blair says that Western governments ‘should not be embarrassed’ about being able to ‘not just commentate on but help partner’ the process of change in Egypt. When asked about Hosni Mubarak, Blair says that where you stand on him depends on ‘whether you’ve worked with him on the outside or the inside.’
At first I thought Blair was suggesting that his work with Mubarak as the Middle East envoy for the Quartet meant that he had worked with him from the inside. But in fact he puts himself in the ‘outside’ space and the protestors in Tahrir Square on the ‘inside’. Crucially, the perspective from outside is not an inferior one for Blair. Being on the outside allows Blair to survey what is best for the region and the Middle-East peace process. From this vantage point he urges caution to the Egyptian protestors who are right to want change and are ‘well intentioned’ but are presumably somewhat caught up in the moment and are thus unable to see the regional and global dimensions Blair can see. He is even more aware of the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood than the protestors are. He doesn’t quite cast himself as doctor to the prophets in Tahrir Square but there are significant echoes of the kind of relationship Said identified with Orientalism here. A raw, uncontrollable (or at the very least uncertain) Eastern space is contrasted with a more ordered Western one, from within which one can know more and see further. Once again the East needs the West – this time as a partner (a very Blairite word that) that will ensure that what is generated by the East, in this case the Egyptian desire for change, is made sensible and useful. The West can take what begins in Egypt and order and channel it – even in a sense legitimise it – by making it fit into the Western perspective of the region as a whole.
The visual grammar of the interviews echoes this notion of two spaces: CNN intercut Blair’s words with footage from Egypt. Sky actually creates two spaces within the screen, footage of Egyptian protestors on the left, Blair in the studio on the right. Television news asserts its knowledge and power in a way that parallels Orientalist projects – for the news, there are spaces out there in the world where ‘stuff happens’ (the camera shakes, people run, shout and get shot) and these are contrasted with the more ordered studio space where experts make sense of these events.
I’m not sure what impact Blair’s interviews had. As so often with him, the detail behind the rhetorical framework was unclear. He didn’t say (and wasn’t asked) what his notion of partnership really meant in terms of concrete actions for the West or Egypt. Nor did he say how the reality of events in Egypt could be made to fit into his framework of controlled change. So it would be nice to conclude that, post-Iraq, the West had to be spectators of the Arab Spring, that it had to not partner but merely comment on (to invert Blair’s phrase) what happened in the region. Except that Niall Ferguson, currently plugging his book Civilization: the West and the Rest, has also been on television claiming that these events are a vindication of neo-Conservative notions about democracy in the Middle-East. Ferguson suggests these neocon ideas, no longer discredited, should inform strategy for Western intervention in Libya. Orientalism makes explicit the connections between learned discourse about the Oriental and political and military power. But when an academic turns up on your television to tell you that Paul Wolfowitz was right about Western intervention in the region, it doesn’t take a mind as learned as Said’s to join the dots.
It’s futile to wonder just how exactly Ferguson thinks the failure of neocon policies in Iraq is redeemed by airstrikes in Libya. Or to ask if he thinks that such interventionist policies are equally applicable to Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries that have seen popular protest. Because, for Ferguson, more important than knowing the region is knowing to whom this sort of rhetoric will appeal – as Said wrote in his 2004 Preface to Orientalism ‘What matters is how efficient and resourceful it sounds, and who might go for it, as it were. The worst aspect of all this essentializing stuff is that human suffering in all its density and pain is spirited away.’