Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:

Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority for the Orient. (1978, 3)

Said then explains that he is employing Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse. Some have argued that Said problematically veers from Foucault in ways that weaken his argument. Nonetheless, the notion of a systemic regime of discourse is undoubtedly Foucauldian. A systemic regime is the sum of all the ways in which we communicate, in various media and contexts, a limited range of possible ways of understanding some topic. That is, a discursive regime is the possibilities of which we are given the tools to think about a subject; it also includes the fact that when we do act  or communicate we contribute to those possibilities. Orientalism, as a discursive regime, is particularly related to the manner in which we understand the Orient. For Said, this notion of discourse is fundamental to his critical project: “My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systemic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient…” (3).

Fundamental to Orientalism is the binary between East and West. Part of Said’s argument is that while, for example, India and China historically saw themselves as the center of the world because of colonialism the West had the power to construct and impose a binary that relegated all non-European based cultures as East, as Other. This was often not a consciously purposeful construction, but in sum, it became a standard basis for understanding the world. As such, the colonial and post-colonial periods have been dominated by the Orient/Occident binary, even if it continues in terms like First World/Third World.

Foucault’s understanding of power/knowledge, when applied to Orientalism by Said, gives us insight into how this developed. The European imagining of an East and West served its own purposes of self-definition. In order for Europe to imagine itself it imagined what it was not. The increasingly global awareness of colonial knowledge provided much fruit for this project, culminating in the Orient as West’s Other. The Orient or the East was constructed to be a foil that was the opposite of how the West wanted to imagine itself. That being said, it was not the case that this was a necessarily conscious and homogenous construct: there was a wide variety of concerns and opinions, some appreciative of the East, some not.

But, by the 19th century one could rarely think outside of the East/West binary, and all the connected understandings that come with the binary. Each pole of the dyad has its own associations. The West was rational, materialistic, civilized, masculine, scientific, modern, individualistic, active, dynamic—and conceived of as Self. The East was irrational, spiritual, savage, feminine, exotic, mysterious, traditional, communal, passive, unchanging—Other. Individual European and non-European thinkers may have occasionally stepped outside of this understanding, but in sum the patterns of Orientalist thought follow these associations. The hierarchies between these associated binaries privilege the West. Even in the case of Romanticist leanings towards the East or anti-colonial resistance to colonization, this set of binary associations generally remained the unchallenged episteme through which people thought.

The more people expressed themselves in relation to this set of binaries, the more epistemic weight these binaries possessed. This could only happen because of power of Europe to impose (not just by material force but perhaps more powerfully by imaginative force) itself and its understanding on or about the Orient: “The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he [sic] could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part” (7; emphasis in the original). Many contemporary scholars have emphasized how little indigenous agency plays a part in Said’s analysis, and to a certain degree I sympathize with their criticisms. Nonetheless, indigenous elites, often trained in or heavily exposed to the European episteme, frequently thought in Orientalist ways themselves. The positive nature of the critique of Orientalism is an awareness that this critique lays bare the manner in which the construction of knowledge is put into service by and contributes to political action. Orientalism is a discourse whose underlying political movement is to characterize the Orient in a manner that allows the West to not only define itself as superior to the East, but to facilitate ready and favourable ways of dealing with the East based on these characterizations.

All this being said, aside from this general picture of Orientalism as a systemic discourse, we can identify certain strategies of interpretation that contribute to Orientalism. The 19th century showed the crystallization of Orientalism as a construction of Self and Other, but also laid the foundation for many of the ways that we think about East/West today.

As a matter of course, whenever we reify the distinction between East and West, we contribute to the underlying structural framework wherein the West is constructed as the centerpoint, the locus, for all subsequent distinctions. Any use this binary is indebted to the nineteenth-century construction of the imagined Orient as somehow Other to the West as Self. In the nineteenth century, the West was Europe; the Orient was in many ways a stand-in for the rest of the world. It is the connection of this discourse to colonial power that had such far-reaching global and temporal consequences.

As the volume, Orientalism and the Post-colonial Predicament, by Breckenridge and van der Veer points out, colonials often readily accepted these characterizations and reframed them as sites for anti-colonial, nationalist, or even, in the case of Japan, their own colonial endeavors. With post-colonialism, these essentializations, structures and institutions taken up by colonials remains, naturalized. In 1993, the authors coined this the Post-colonial predicament:  “decolonization does not entail immediate escape from colonial discourse [which]… defines both the ex-colonizer and the ex-colonized” (2). As many contemporary theorists have expressed, the assumption of essential qualities in regards to culture or human nature is a strategy. Its productive effect is to provide a basis for policing and disciplining deviations from the essence as abnormalities (disregarding the objection that the very existence of some deviation from the essence refutes the notion of essence taken as universal).

This essentialization has been explored by thinkers such as Franz Fanon and Homi Bhabha. In Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, the fact of blackness becomes an embodied, and internalized conflict of the external fact of white essentialization of the black man: “And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight bore on me. .. As I began to recognize the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognize that I am Negro” (Fanon, 1952: 325). He later, in his The Wretched of the Earth, notes this process of post-colonial internalization of colonial understandings in the figure of the colonized intellectual:

The colonialist bourgeoisie, in its narcissistic dialogue, expounded by the members of its universities, had in fact deeply implanted in the minds of the colonized intellectual that the essential qualities remain eternal in spite of all the blunders men may make: the essential qualities of the West, of course. The native intellectual accepted the cogency of these ideas, and deep down in his brain you could always find a vigilant sentinel ready to defend the Greco-Latin pedestal. (46)

The double consciousness (to use De Bois’ famous phrasing) of colonized subjectivity it at once a consciousness of the self and a consciousness of the colonizing other—always being aware of the gaze of the colonizer. However, after decolonization, an unconscious or structural reflection of this double consciousness remains.

In an analysis of this phenomenon in India, Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy explores the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized and post-colonial subject. He argues that the colonization is most powerfully a product of the mind, and decolonization is the process of resisting internalized colonial structures of thought. He says:

This colonialism colonizes minds in addition to  bodies and it  releases forces within the colonized societies to alter their cultural priorities once for all. In the process, it helps  generalize the concept of the modern West from a geographical and temporal entity to  a psychological category. The West is now everywhere, within the West and outside; in structures and in minds. (1983: xi)

Homi Bhabha (1994) takes up theses insights about the colonized mind and argues that this internalization of colonial consciousness is a site of mimicry, irony and subversion. His analysis too involves the process of a decolonization of the mind. That is, in terms of Orientalism, the internalized projection of the colonial image of the Oriental is a farce where the post-colonial subject can use this internalized image as a site of play to resist, mock and ironically destabilize the remnants of the post-colonial predicament on the subject.

In conclusion, post-colonial thinkers today tend to attempt a kind of epistemic de-colonization or a structural critique of the post-colonial predicament in order to develop strategies that resist the remnants of colonization. Decolonization does not just end at independence. Decolonization is still ongoing, and I would argue, with many others (e.g. Negri and Hardt), that as long as there remains a Western dominated global politico-economic hegemony, decolonization will remain an fundamental task of justice.

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One Response to “Orientalism and the Colonized Mind”

  1. ali Says:

    Good piece of summative writing.

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