Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Dear James (C)–Sloth, Disobedience, and Listening

Dear James,

It is true, as you say, that Pride is traditionally thought to be the sin of the Garden. That doesn’t mean that Lust wasn’t part of it as well. But please note that I was very careful in my last letter to avoid suggesting that Adam and Eve’s sin was some form of sexual consummation. Rather, I focused on how their sin elevated an appetite above their obedience to God. It was carnal, therefore, in the sense that it was rooted in the body, in that it was a sin of the flesh. Claiming that their sin was a sin of Lust does not eliminate Pride, but perhaps merely augments it. (And for what it’s worth, I still believe Pride was central in that moment, but we’ll have to discuss that another week.) What this does illuminate for us clearly—and what you note as well—is that there seems to be a blurring between these sins as we’ve dealt with them so far. As far as I’m concerned, this blurring is to be expected, if only because (as Jeremiah says) the heart is deceitful above all else. Its deceit is surely manifested in the manifold ugliness of our invention for sin, and in the festering motives which sit rooted in the heart. It is the heart that is sinful, and the Seven Deadly Sins are useful inasmuch as they can bring me into fresh insight about my own, corrupted heart. In that sense, Gluttony or Lust or Pride aren’t the problem—they are symptoms. The problem is deeper—it is sin itself, rebellion against God—and all our acts of meditation and personal reflection upon sin are ineffective if they don’t target the real problem.

When you think about it, it seems that a great deal of Christian spirituality is geared toward addressing symptoms. We’re a very ad hoc people—always addressing the problem of the present moment. Part of the reason for this, surely, is that we’ve become so bad at simply listening. We hold one-way conversations with God. We abhor silence. We privilege activism over reflection, tangible service over prayerful contemplation. If you set aside time for silent reflection, however, it won’t take long for God to begin to show you your deep need for Him, and to do this by bringing to your awareness your misdeeds and failures. At least that’s what He does for me!

Ironically, this failure to listen generates our widespread subservience to Sloth, which is, I imagine, the sin we most commit out of simple negligence. The irony, of course, is that for many people silent reflection looks like laziness—it is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while there are things to be done. But true contemplation is never laziness, and nor, for that matter, is laziness quite the same thing as Sloth. Sloth is the business of ignoring our duty, or, of seeing it, and then neglecting to do it. It is an indolence in the face of a call, a turning away of our attentions from what God is asking us to do toward our own preferences, a disposition of disobedience, and it is deadly. Consider how the Rich Man in Jesus’ story reveals his Sloth by ignoring Lazarus at his doorstep.

Sloth wars against our human call to magnanimity—and here I borrow from Josef Pieper’s language. As humans we each bear within us an urge toward greatness, one that I expect is rooted in the image of God. This urge is toward what Pieper (quoting Aquinas) calls the extensio animi ad magna—the stretching of the soul towards greatness. To deny this urge is to deny something essential to our humanity. To ignore its call, or to deflect it, or to live in intentional ignorance of what it implies, is to live in Sloth. In the grip of Sloth, I sanctify my own disobedience.

The tonic to this, of course, is listening and obedience. We set aside time for meditation and reflection, to listen to God’s voice, to really hear what He wants to say. From those gleanings, we must seek to obey His voice. As a rule, this process becomes cyclic—the more we listen and obey, the more He speaks, and the more opportunities we are given to obey. Ultimately, because our true greatness can only be found in obedient service to Christ (and not by our own efforts at greatness), it follows that an attitude of intentional listening is critical to the fulfillment of call. The kind of listening, in fact, which is precisely in view when we approach a season of fasting such as this one.

In view of this, is it not possible that in some sense busyness—our chronic mania of activity—is actually a manifestation of Sloth? From what we’ve seen, the Slothful person could conceivably be extremely active and busy, but busy about all the wrong kinds of things. And indeed, how often it is that we utilize our busyness wickedly, whether to earn credit with God for our actions, or to drown out our true obedience. Busyness dulls the ears from hearing God’s voice.

That’s not to say that our lives won’t be full. Busyness and fullness are not the same thing at all. Nor are rest and play to be confused with laziness. The Lord has given us time and pleasure as gifts. They only become wicked when utilized out of proportion to their purpose. In this sense, in addition to listening, Sabbath keeping would be another ironic answer to Sloth. In Sabbath, I declare that I am not too busy to stop, rest, and enjoy God’s goodness.

May God continue to bless your fasting, James—please pray also for mine!


Jeremy Rios