Fiona Lee (English, PhD Program, GC)
Q has asked me to summarize our first Re-Orientale seminar meeting last Friday, October 15, with the aim of continuing the conversation until our next event. The centerpiece of the discussion between Professors Hamid Dabashi and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in the Time of Terror (Transaction Publishers, 2009), written by the former. Responding to questions from seminar participants, both shared generously from their personal experience. Biography as a means of addressing questions about the role of the intellectual in contemporary times invites its own reflection. Extracting themes from the various strands of thinking begun that afternoon for the summary below, I’ve inevitably diluted the richness of the exchanges. My apologies also for not attributing the insights below--there are many others I’m sure I’ve missed--to various participants. Your amendments and comments are needed here.
The question of home emerged as a useful counterpoint to think about the exilic intellectual. If exile underscores the sense of being cast out and marginalized, it is just as important to recognize intellectual production as a kind of home making. Home, as Prof. Dabashi suggested, can be understood in the metaphysical sense, which underscores the intellectual’s condition of exile as generative of thought. The phrase that enables the exilic intellectual to set up shop, so to speak, wherever he finds himself and take on the task of knowledge production. Edward Said’s lesser known phrase, “amphibian intellectual,” renders “home” and “exile” consonant (Post-Orientalism 229). At the same time, understood in a material sense, home also refers to a historical and geopolitical specificity, from which one may be barred from returning. Prof. Spivak reminded us to consider gender, offering the example of the woman in exogamy as a way to think about the exilic intellectual. The example, I think, is an allusion to Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic of Women,” which prompts further consideration of the systems of circulation and exchange that produce and maintain sexual difference, a boundary that distinguishes an inside and an outside, but also the points of resistance that can emerge from within them. As the chapter on Ignaz Goldziher and the lesson it offers to thinking Orientalism suggests, resistance emerges not from claiming identity positions but through understanding the systems--knowledge, political, economic, social--that produce them. This involves recognizing the normative authority that institutions impose on our thinking and condition our ideas, the reminder that Islam is not reducible to a singular definition, whether as determined by Western discourse or Islamic authorities themselves, but are complex realities manifested heterogeneously in various places and moments of history. Post-Orientalism’s challenge to change interlocutors rather than engaging in a West v. the rest polemic is a step toward reorienting our fields of knowledge to engage with the complex heterogeneity of that which we seek to study and undermining the normative authority and epistemic violence of Orientalist knowledge production. Prof. Spivak puts it as sabotaging the master’s tools. Responding to a question on Hegel and history, his lumping together of the rest as pre-history to inaugurate History of the west (see p. 140), Prof. Spivak offered the example of Frantz Fanon as saboteur. Elaborating the biographical reading of Black Skin White Masks (especially chapter 7) in Post-Orientalism (see p.198), Fanon’s border-crossing is not limited only in his participation in the decolonization struggles of the Third World. Risking his own negation, death, through his involvement with the FLN, Fanon inhabits the position of the Hegelian subject, risking his own negation, death, going against the grain of Hegel’s notion of history. The result is not only the dismantling of the Europe/Others structure of relations, but the insights that gave birth to his final masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth. It was only befitting that the discussions also reflected on the current state of the university and how academics are emplaced within the institution. Prof. Dabashi noted that after “9/11,” the area studies model of knowledge production, the successor to colonialism’s Orientalist scholarship, has given way to think tanks, which have emerge as efficient suppliers of information in service of the “War on Terror.” Even so, the task of understanding the persistence of age old bigotry amidst the mutating systems of knowledge making remains, the tenaciousness of ancient racisms perhaps the result of a lack of imagination in building relations across difference. Imperative also is an understanding of how late capitalism is restructuring the university. As Prof. Dabashi put it, even as capitalism is codified in terms of race and gender, it is also race- and gender-blind; rather than pursue the dead-ends of identity politics, the question of how the machine of capitalism needs to be addressed more than ever. Significantly, Prof. Spivak also begged the consideration of thinking the difference between intellectual and manual labor, for whom the latter is relegated and barred from pursuing the former. What kind of laboring is necessary to bridge the gap between the two?
Jordan Pascoe (Philosophy, PhD Program, GC)
To my colleague’s excellent summary of our discussion, I will add the following three themes from our discussion. First, a question was posed about the tension between normative agency and normative autonomy in Islam, and Professors Dabashi and Spivak engaged in a discussion of their experience of Islam. Professor Dabashi described Islam in Iran as a site of multiple normativities, characterized by a lack of normative centers of power, and Professor Spivak suggested that contrasting her concrete experiences of Islam in India to constructed experiences opened a space within which to negotiate this tension.
Second, we discussed the relationship between irony and power. Professor Dabashi raised concerns about the use of irony in writing: who can use irony? Under what conditions does irony become impossible? Can, for example, a Muslim in New York after 9/11 be ironic? Given that American conventions of legal discourse prevent irony, and the FAA explicitly refers to security as “not a joking matter” – what does this mean for irony and humor as discursive challenges to power? Finally, we discussed the idea that there has been a collapse of orientalism, or a collapse of colonialism. Professor Dabashi reminded us that orientalism, like all epistemes, tend to transmute rather than rupture. These transmutations take generations, and contemporary examples of orientalisms (such as Sex in the City 2) show that these metaphors still operate even as they are in the process of becoming something new. Orientalism is a mode of sentiment production that still sells. The shift has occurred not in relations to capital per se, but in relation to other kinds of power, where orientalism as a mode of knowledge production no longer functions in the same way.