Post Colonialism

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Reconceptualising the Postcolonial Project Beyond the Strictures and Structures of Orientalism




We would like to begin with a disclaimer. This is not another interpretative article on Said’s Orientalism anymore than it is another defence or critique of post-colonial thinking, despite its title. Nevertheless, let us notice the status of post-colonial thinking today. Firstly, there is the background of mounting criticisms of the merits of the post-colonial projects and their shrill defence. Secondly, there is increasing disagreement among the post-colonial thinkers themselves, ranging from the identity of the field (what is post-colonial thinking?) to its finality (what is its goal?). Thirdly, in this process, important questions have become obfuscated under an impenetrable jargon. Fourthly, perhaps even more importantly, a narcissistic self-reflection is increasingly paralysing the practitioners of this domain.


These reflections are not new. Many before us have made similar remarks. What will, however, be new in this article is its attempt to refocus the attention on a dormant thread in Said that has hardly been elaborated upon. We believe that its explication will provide a much-needed telos to post-colonial thinking. Such a refocusing is necessary not just for those who identify themselves as post-colonial thinkers but even to those who want to throw the baby out along with the bathwater. In this sense, this article will outline the challenges facing the post-colonial thought (as a genre) and show just why facing up to this challenge is important for all of us today and not just to the post-colonial thinkers.


The Structure of the article

1. Orient and Orientalism in Edward Said

In one sense, the multiple criticisms of Said’s Orientalism are directly proportional to the polysemic nature of that text. There exist many justifiable constructions of the book, including Said’s own interpretation. This article will not add to this multiplicity. However, we need a certain minimal agreement about the meaning of the core concepts like ‘the Orient’, ‘Orientalism’, ‘discourse’, ‘hegemony’, and such like. Consequently, we shall attempt to provide a minimal interpretation of these notions based on Said’s text. What makes the interpretation ‘minimal’ is that we will not be relying on the technical meanings of notions like ‘discourse’ or ‘hegemony’. Instead, we will rely on the following claims: whatever else a discourse might be, it is minimally ‘a way of talking’; whatever else the word ‘hegemony’ refers to, it at least indicates the presence of ‘some kind of consensus’ in a society. These specifications are enough to construct the bare outlines of the story that Said tells, and all we need are the bare outlines.

 .1. About the nature of ‘the Orient’

‘The Orient’: a place and an idea

Above all, the word refers to a physical space in the world: “The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest colonies … (p. 1; our italics)”. Not only was this part colonised, but it also became a part of the material civilization of Europe: “The Orient is an integral part (our emphasis) of the European material civilization … (emphasis by Said). (p.2.)”.[1]


In the Orientalist discourse, one uses the word ‘Orient’ to mention the Orient. Further, the word ‘Orient’ acquires certain meanings within a particular way of talking about a part of the world. A way of talking about a part of the world is ‘Orientalism’. That is to say, an entity in the world is talked about (or represented) in some particular way (as a mode of discourse).[2] Such a theoretical term is an ‘idea’. This idea has a history; other ideas and imageries surround it, to the extent it is a part of a theory.


Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other (p.5; our italics).



The first part of the sentence says that both the ‘West’ and the ‘Orient’ are ideas. The ‘it’ here refers to the ‘idea of the Orient’. In the second sentence, the reference is to the real entities that the Orient and the West are. Without Orientalism, the word ‘Orient’ would have no reference to the Orient (in the world). Further, the reality of the Orient cannot be in the reality that the West is, that is, the Orient cannot be physically present in the Western culture. Rather, it is present for the West as a reality, i.e., as a culture, and is present in the Western culture as an idea (‘the Orient’) as well. “The Orient is an integral part of the European … culture.  Orientalism expresses and represents that part… as a mode of discourse (p.2; emphasis ours)”. The claim is not only that Western culture spoke about the Asian culture but also that both are fabricated entities.[3]


‘The Orient’ as an experiential entity


I shall be calling Orientalism (emphasis in the original) a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience (p.1; our italics).


Three things are of importance here. (a) Orient has a special place in the European Western experience, i.e., there is an Orient, which is an experiential entity to the Europeans. One can speak of the special place of this experiential entity only when we relate it to other experiential entities. These entities are obviously located within the experiential world of Europe. (b) The special place accorded to this experiential entity allows the Westerners to come to terms with that Orient which is in the world. That is to say, based on the special place the experiential Orient has, Europe “comes to terms” with the Orient in the real world. More simply formulated, Europeans come to terms with the ‘real’ Orient in some way or another way by appealing to and making use of their experience. (c) As a consequence, the word ‘Orient’ now also refers to an entity-in-experience.[4]


1.2. About the nature of ‘Orientalism’


A cultural project


There are two senses in which the Western way of talking about the East is a cultural project. The first sense is an obvious one: “to speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly, although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in … disparate realms … (p. 4; our emphasis).” However, in what sense is it a cultural project, as against a military or political project? The following citations from Said hint at another sense, a more profound one, in which Orientalism is a cultural project of the Western culture.


Orientalism … has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world. (p. 12)


That Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient … Orientalism responded more to the culture that produced it than to its putative object, which was also produced by the West (p. 22; our italics).


In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals (p. 25; our emphasis).


These citations suggest that the way in which the East was made into the Orient, the way in which it transformed an Easterner into an Oriental, somehow expresses something typical to the Western culture. That is to say, the Orientalist discourse tells us something non-trivial about the nature of the culture that produced it, namely, the Western culture. In this sense, to study Orientalism is also to study something about the Western culture itself.


A constrained thought


As Said says repeatedly, ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘imperial­ist’ vocabularies do not transform a way of talking into an ‘Orientalist’ dis­course, any more than the use of ‘dichotomising essentialism’ does. These are not the constituent properties of the discourse but merely its imageries.


Said’s characterisation of Orientalism occurs almost en passant. “Orientalism... is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some case control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is manifestly a different (or alternative and novel) world” (p.12). There­fore, “Orientalism is better grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine” (p.42, our Italics). This means a “limited vocabulary and imagery ... impose themselves as a consequence” (p.60). That is to say, the limited vocabulary and imagery of the Orientalist discourse are the consequences of a set of constraints imposed upon Western thinking in its attempts to understand a world manifestly different from its own.


It is trivially true that all human thought is subject to constraints and limitations. Such constraining is a conditio sine qua non for human thought: it is con­strained by language and by the conceptual resources available to it. That is to say, human thinking is always a particular way of thinking. While Orientalist thinking is also human thinking (because it too is subject to constraints), it is not Orientalist because it is human. Orientalist thought, as a particular way of thinking, is ‘Orientalist’ because it is a particular way of think­ing. What constitutes this particular way of thinking? What kind of constraints and limitations transform human thinking into Orientalist thinking? Said’s remarks are en passant here as well:


(T)he Orient and the Oriental, Arab, Islamic, Indian, Chinese, or whatever, become repetitious pseudo-incarnations of some great original (Christ, Europe, the West) they were supposed to have been imitating (p.62).

To the Westerner, however, the Oriental was always like some aspect of the West; to some of the German Romantics, for example, Indian religion was essentially an Oriental version of Germano-Christian pantheism (p.67).


That is to say, in the Western descriptions of other cultures, the ‘otherness’ of the latter has disappeared. Better still, ‘non-Western’ cultures appear to differ from the West only as pale (or erring) imitations of the great original the latter is. Orientalism is constrained to describe non-Western cultures not merely in terms of the Western culture. It also effaces the differences between the two while doing so. A limited vocabulary and imagery are the consequences of this constraint. It requires noting that this formulation merely characterises Orientalism as a constrained thinking of the Western culture.



 2. Orientalism and the social sciences


In the course of generating descriptions of other cultures – whether framed in positive or negative axiological terms – Orientalism made use of a conceptual reservoir. It consisted of ideas and theories about human beings, the nature of languages, the structure of societies, the character of cultures, the nature of religion, the value of history, etc. In its turn, such a constructed dis­course had its impact on the evolution of subse­quent theorising about Man and Society. In other words, Oriental­ist discourse did not evolve in splendid isolation but in continuous interaction with and as a part of the growth of social sciences. It is not an extraneous and alien growth on the otherwise splendid corpus of social sciences. Instead, it is an inextricable part of social-scientific discourse.


One of the problems with the Saidian terminology is its difficulty in making sense of the social sciences. If what Weber wrote about the religions of India and China is Orientalist, “… Weber’s studies of Protestantism, Judaism, and Buddhism blew him (perhaps unwittingly) into the very territory originally charted and claimed by Orientalism” (p.259), what could we say about his theory on the development of capitalism and the Protestant ethics? If the European writings on ‘Hinduism’ are Orientalist, what about their histories of Christianity? If we assume that Marx’s claims in The Grundrisse about India are squarely in the Orientalist camp, where do his claims about commodities, money and capital belong? Is Freudian psychoanalysis itself Orientalist because using that theory entails that Asian culture is populated by pathological beings afflicted by secondary narcissism?


To these questions, neither Said nor those inspired by him answer directly. Inden (1990, 199?) criticises the ‘Orientalist constructions of India’ by using Collingwood’s notion of history. Are we to assume that using Collingwood’s concept of history to understand India is non-Orientalist, whereas using Marxist notion of history to study India is Orientalist? In fact, Dipesh Chakrabarty thinks that it is impossible for the non-western cultures to write ‘their’ own histories because of the prevalent meta-conceptions of history. In other words, one needs to know what relation, if any, is there between Orientalism and social sciences.


In Said’s case, it seems as though the existing social sciences are alternatives to Orientalism. This stance has to do with the ‘humanistic’ orientation that Said entertains. Knowledge about human beings, he believes, must be both general and specific. ‘General’ in the sense that knowledge about human beings tells us about ‘human beings as such’ and, in doing so, it does not divide them up in arbitrary ways. The distinctions of ‘culture’, ‘language’, ‘nation’, etc. are ‘imaginative’ and not ‘natural facts’. Consequently, a humanistic study (of human beings) is not trapped by these ‘man-made’ distinctions. At the same time, it must also be ‘specific’. That is, it must not lose itself in abstractions or ‘collectives’ but give us knowledge about the flesh-and-blood individuals.


However, there is also his critique of Orientalist discourse. Orientalism, as a field of study, stands on its own. It studies the ‘Oriental’: a type, an abstraction, a fictitious creature with some ‘essential properties’ who populates the domain of discourse. Consequently, in so far as Orientalism talks and ‘studies’ this human being qua Oriental, it cannot produce knowledge. This ‘Oriental’ is a bi-dimensional figure: he is not the ‘blood-and-flesh’ individual of our human world.


Said notices that Orientalism has borrowed wittingly or unwittingly from the social sciences.[5]


Orientalism borrowed and was frequently informed by ‘strong’ ideas, doctrines, and trends ruling the culture. Thus there was (and is) a linguistic Orient, a Freudian Orient, a Spenglerian Orient, a Darwinian Orient, a racist Orient – and so on (p. 22).


He is certain too where the alternatives to Orientalism are likely to come[6] from:


… enough is being done today in the human sciences to provide the contemporary scholar with insights, methods, and ideas that could dispense with racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes of the sort provided during the historical ascendancy by Orientalism (p. 328).


On the one hand, Orientalism is a massive cultural project, which has a huge impact on the Western culture, people, and their imagination. People produce/reproduce Orientalist discourse without realising they are doing so, and without wanting to do so. Furthermore, the Orientalist discourse also creates and reinforces the Western ‘self-conception’ and ‘self-representation’.


Yet, on the other hand, if we believe Said, such a discourse has no impact on the growth and development of the social sciences. This enterprise, which is also a cultural project of the West, is completely unaffected by (or even oblivious to) the other cultural project. One cultural enterprise, Orientalism, appears to borrow continuously from the other cultural enterprise, the social scientific discourse. The social sciences, for their part, do not borrow anything from the Orientalist discourse and from the concomitant cultural images about man and society. Not only that. They are also alternatives to the Orientalist discourse. Surely, this suggestion is implausible.


Why is it implausible? The answer is obvious. The existing social sciences, which are primarily western initiatives, make claims about human beings and their society in both West and the East. Orientalism does not merely put across claims about the non-western cultures but it also creates and reinforces certain ideas about the western man and his society. Therefore, we have two sets of claims about the social and cultural world: one set of claims formulated by Orientalism and the other formulated by the social sciences. Because of their subject matter, these claims cannot be indifferent to each other; either they are compatible or they are not. Because Orientalism borrows from the social sciences, their claims must be compatible. From this, it follows that the claims of Orientalism must also be compatible with the claims of social sciences. If this is the case, the existing social sciences cannot provide us with alternatives to Orientalism; instead, they too must continue the legacy of the Orientalist writings. The images of man and society that the existing social sciences either reinforce or take for granted must be continuous with Orientalism.


On constructing the Orient


When the Europeans came to the East (say, India or Egypt) and wrote about their experiences, they were not hallucinating. They did not write about their dreams nor did they compose stories. Whether of a merchant, a missionary, or a bureaucrat, their reports had some kind of a structure. Reflections about such reports at second remove, reflections on experiences at a later stage or in a distant way, led to finding a pattern or a structure in these experiences themselves. That structure is the Orient and the discourse about it is the Orientalist discourse.


The previous sentence is not a description of how the pattern or structure was found. It is not as though any one person pored over these reports (though many did), trying out one inductive hypothesis after another (even though a few were formulated), until a satisfactory pattern finally emerged. These reports lent structure to what the Europeans saw. At the same time, they filtered out phenomena that could not be structured in this fashion. Thus, they contributed to structuring a European way of seeing and describing phenomena in other cultures. These reports, that embodied an explanatory structuring of European experiences, would end up becoming the ‘ethnological data’ that the social theories would later try to explain.[7]


‘Orientalism’ is how the Western culture came to terms with the reality that the East is. That is to say, ‘Orientalism’ refers to not only the discourse about experience but also to the way of reflecting about and structuring this experience. In this sense, even though Orientalism is a discourse about Western cultural experience, it is oblique. It is oblique because it appears to be about other cultures. It is also oblique because the experience is not directly reflected upon. It is Western in the sense that it refers to the experiences of the members from a particular culture. Orientalism, if you like, is the Western way of thinking about its experience of non-western cultures.[8] However, it takes the form of an apparent discourse about the Orient.[9] 


Elsewhere, Said puts it this way:


Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge (p. 72; emphasis ours).


Let us look at this contrast between the ‘knowledge’ that paranoia is (i.e. the kind of beliefs that a paranoid figure entertains or believes in) and historical knowledge. In fact, this contrast is more to the point than might appear at first sight: the distinction is drawn between ‘ordinary historical knowledge’ (i.e. knowledge of other peoples and places) and the paranoid ‘experience’. (That is, where the person confuses the experiences he has of other people with the knowledge about them). The paranoid thinks that his beliefs about other people is a description of other people and does not see them as a report about his experience. Not only that: he also stubbornly refuses to accept that his beliefs about other people are reports of his experiences and not descriptions of other people. This is also the case with Orientalism: the Orientalist stubbornly refuses to believe that he is talking about his experiences; instead, he maintains that he is reporting about other people as they are in the world. However, if this Saidian analogy is accepted, we can make sense of one of the extraordinary epistemological properties of Orientalism:


This information (about the Orient) seemed to be morally neutral and objectively valid; it seemed to have an epistemological status equal to that of historical chronology or geographical location. In its most basic form, then, Oriental material could not really be violated by anyone’s discoveries, nor did it seem ever to be revaluated completely. (p. 205)


It must be obvious why Orientalism possesses this epistemological property.  Because the ‘knowledge’ is a report of a cultural experience, and because no ‘fact’ or ‘discovery’ can ever refute experience, the Orientalist knowledge cannot be refuted. Nevertheless, it appears ‘objectively valid’ and ‘morally neutral’ because one assumes that it is a set of claims about the world, instead of seeing it for what it is, viz. a report of an experience.


The fact that it is a discourse about the Western experience of the Orient implies that people from other cultures cannot directly participate in disputes concerning the nature and place of the ‘others’ within the West. One could reproduce Western discussions in, say, the Indian journals and periodicals. However, this would not contribute to the debate. The debate would still be in terms of the Western experience of the other, an experience that the non-Western people cannot access. The discussion or debate among the Western intellectuals pertains to the role and place of the others in their experiential world.


In fact, there is almost something surrealistic about the Asians claiming that ‘Orientalism constructed the Orient imaginatively’. What is incredible about it is the ease with which the Asians seem to take this statement at face value. What is their relationship to this imaginatively constructed Orient? How could they have access to this entity? After all, Orientalist writings formulated claims about the entity that they, the Orientalists, saw. How can the Asians see what the Orientalists saw?  Actually, the problem is even more acute. How can the Asians vigorously participate in the debate? How can they discuss with the European intellectuals about Europe’s cultural experience of the East, as though they, the post-colonial intellectuals from the East, are privy to such an experience? How can they even make sense of the claims that the Orientalists make?


One could also summarise these puzzles in the form of questions: How do the imagined and imaginary constructions appear to those whose imaginative product it is not? How does the ‘Orient’, the ‘imaginative Western construction’, appear to those from the East?  If Orientalism is a culturally constrained discourse, does the reception of this discourse (in the East) make it something other than what it is in the West? We propose assigning to these questions the status of a litmus test.


The litmus test


Like all massive and significant social processes (revolutions, fascism, war, etc.), colonisation too is complex. It involved not only the colonising of land and resources, subjugating peoples and their traditions, but also the colonising of their experience and imagination. When modern Orientalism provided descriptions of other peoples and traditions, the colonised took such portrayals as descriptions of themselves. The picture that the Orientalists provided was true, their diagnosis accurate, the prognosis probable and the therapy certain – these were the experiences (and convictions) of those who were colonised.


The colonial powers looked at and described the colonised. The latter accepted these as true descriptions of themselves. To isolate just one relevant thread, ‘colonial experience’ refers to the conjunction of both the earlier statements. Correspondingly, if it is not mere hot air, ‘post-colonial experience’ indicates at least two things. (1) ‘Our’ experience occurs after (the chronological sense of ‘post’) such a colonial experience. (2) ‘Our’ experience is ‘beyond’ (the logical sense of ‘post’) the colonial experience in the sense that our experience includes reflections about the experiences of the coloniser and the colonised. That is to say, modern Orientalism cannot appear to us as descriptions (whether contested or not) of ourselves – because that is how they appeared in the colonial experience. Consequently, we suggest that to dispute the truth status of such descriptions, or decorate them ad nauseam, is to remain a colonial subject and stay within the framework of the colonial experience. The rationale for this suggestion must be obvious. Firstly, modern Orientalism is how Western culture spoke about other cultures (a particular kind of ‘discourse’); also, it is about how such a way of talking enabled them to go-about with people from other cultures: modern Orientalism enabled the West to colonise people from other cultures. Secondly, to both the West and to the colonised, Orientalism appeared as a veridical discourse about the world. That is to say, to both the colonised and the colonisers, Orientalism was primarily a description of the colonised and his culture. Thirdly, colonial experience refers to the experiential world of both the coloniser and the colonised that allowed them to see Oriental discourse as a true description of the colonial world. Fourthly, because of these, both the coloniser and the colonised lived according to these descriptions: the colonised as ‘the Oriental’, and the coloniser as the Occidental. In this way, Orientalism did not just transform the Easterner into an Oriental; it also ‘Orientalised’ the Oriental. Fifthly and finally, this discourse also defines the parameter of how the coloniser and the colonised engage with it: challenging the ‘truth’ of its description, and negotiating a ‘better place’ for the Orient, the experiential entity, within the Western experiential world. This is a colonial contestation.


The ‘post-colonial predicament’, to the extent it is a predicament of those coming after colonialism, refers to the continuity between the colonial experience and the experience of those living in today’s world. It is the predicament of not only Edward Said but also of most post-colonial thinkers: they too continue to share the colonial experience. They naively believe that an experiential entity of another culture is accessible to them; they contest the ‘construction’ of the Orient, as though this entity or the discourse about it makes sense to them. Much like the ‘humanists’ in the West, they attempt to provide or negotiate a ‘better place’ for the Orient within the experiential world of the Western culture. Equally naively, they think that the social sciences of today will provide them with the required alternative. In this sense, the post-colonial predicament refers to the persistence of colonial consciousness after direct colonisation has ended.


The difference between the colonial and the post-colonial intellectual would lie in the type of questions they ask, and the kind of answers they seek. When the post-colonial intellectual engages himself with the Orientalist writings, he does not do so the way a Raja Ram Mohan Roy or a Dayananda Saraswathi did. He does not contest the truth of the Orientalist discourse or its imagery, because that is what a Franz Fannon or an Aimé Césaire did (irrespective of how they did it). Instead, he looks at Orientalism the way his predecessors did not and could not. Orientalism (including its modern variant) is the raw material from which he constructs an understanding of how the Orientalist discourse was possible at all.


3. On decolonising the social sciences


‘Orientalism’ is not only about how Europe experienced the East, but also about the way it gave expression to that experience. In this process, Western culture built and elaborated conceptual frameworks using resources available from its own culture. These descriptions helped in Europe’s description and understanding of itself. That is to say, Europe’s description of other cultures is fundamentally entwined in many untold ways with the way it has experienced the world. To understand the way Western culture has de­scribed both itself and others is to begin understanding Western culture. The challenge of Orientalism, thus, is a challenge to understand the Western culture itself.


Religions in India: an example


Consider the claim that most would give their assent to: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. are the religions of India. Post-colonial intellectuals would probably add two or three qualifications to this claim. They would probably say that it is not possible to speak of one Hinduism, one Buddhism, one Jainism, etc. Instead, one should speak about many ‘Hinduisms’, many ‘Buddhisms’, many ‘Jainisms’ and so on. Secondly, they would also raise questions about who could speak for and about these religions. Thirdly, they are likely to add that the British ‘created’ or ‘constructed’ these religions in India during the colonial period. Actually, the first two qualifications are cognitively uninteresting because one could simply accept that ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’ etc. do not name a unitary phenomenon but that they pick out many different sets of practices and beliefs. One could also dispense with the second qualification by suggesting that we are not after ‘canonical’ descriptions of these phenomena. By far, the most interesting qualification is the third one. Let us look at it closely.


During the colonial period, the British created many things: an education system, a legal system, a bureaucracy, roads and railways. None of these existed in these forms before the British colonised India. Were religions like ‘Hinduism’ etc., also created in this way? Some post-colonial thinkers are inclined to answer this question in the positive: the British created Hinduism as a religion in India, the way they created the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In that case, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Orientalist writings on Hinduism. Some of them might have made false claims, but we can be correct them as information that is more accurate accumulates. In that case, contemporary writings on Hinduism, etc., whether from the field of Indology or Religious Studies, would remain continuous with the Orientalist writings on the subject. That is to say, the ‘facts’ that the Orientalists provided becomes the point of departure for the writings in social sciences. The latter either add to these facts or explain them. This is also the status of the field today: the writings in the humanities and social sciences maintain an unbroken line of continuity with the Orientalist writings on these ‘religions’ in India.


If this is the case, one can hardly understand what the excitement is about either ‘Orientalism’ or ‘post-colonial studies’. Of course, if one adds other items to this creation story, one can blame the Western culture as the ‘big bad wolf’: the British created the ‘Sati’, the ‘dowry system’, ‘the caste system’, and anything else one feels like. Not only is this exercise in apportioning blame uninteresting, it also transforms the Indians into a bunch of idiots bereft of all reason: the British could do what they wanted with the Indian culture, introduce and create whatever took their fancy, while the people stood around without even wanting to move the thumbs they were sucking upon. To put it in the language of the post-colonial thinkers: such a story deprives the colonial subjects of their agency. The post-colonial writers who tell such stories indeed deprive the colonial subjects of their agency in the name of giving it back to them or discover in the vigorous sucking of their thumbs an expression of ‘resistance’ to colonialism. Homi Bhabha, for instance, has made a lucrative business of telling such stories.


There is, however, another way of looking at the claim of creating these religions in India. Despite the limitations, drawing an analogy could make it more perspicuous. Imagine someone coming to earth and noticing the following phenomena: grass is green, milk turns sour, birds fly, and some flowers put out a fragrant smell. He is convinced that these phenomena are related to each other and sees hipkapi in them. The presence of hipkapi not only explains the above phenomena are but also how they are related to each other. To those who doubt the existence of hipkapi, he draws their attention to its visible manifestation: the tigers eating the gazelle, dogs chasing the cats, and the massive size of the elephants. Each of these is a fact, as everyone can see it. However, neither severally nor individually do they tell us anything about hipkapi. When more like him come to earth and reiterate the presence of hipkapi, other conditions permitting, hipkapi not only becomes a synonym for these phenomena but also turns out to be their explanation. Thereafter, to ask what hipkapi is, or even how it explains, is an expression of one’s idiocy: does not everyone see hipkapi, this self-explanatory thing? In this analogy, the extra-terrestrial visitor has ‘constructed’ the hipkapi. To him, it is an experiential entity. He talks, as his fellow-beings do, about this experiential entity in a systematic way.


This is what the Europeans did. The puja in the temples, the sandhyavandanam of the Brahmins, the Sahasranamams, etc. became organic parts of the Indian religion. Purushasukta was the cosmogony of the caste system, and ‘untouchability’ its outward manifestation. Dharma and Adharma were the Sanskrit names for ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and the Indian deities are much like their Greek counterparts. To the missionaries, Indians are idolaters; to the contemporary liberal, they are mere polytheists. In terms of the analogy, the visitors ‘construct’ a hipkapi. To them, it becomes an experiential entity. They talk about this experiential entity in a systematic way.


This would entail suggesting the Europeans created ‘Hinduism’ etc. as their experiential entities. The Orientalists, under this construal, did not describe what exists in the Indian culture. Instead, they created a hipkapi, constructed a pattern and a structure that lent coherence to their cultural experience of India. In such a case, claims about Hinduism become somewhat akin to claims about having visions of Mother Mary in the Lourdes. Only ‘somewhat’, because such a vision could be characterised as a hallucination, whereas one cannot say that the West has been ‘hallucinating’ about the Indian religions. All writings on ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, whether their authors are Indian or Western, become suspect because they maintain a line of continuity between Orientalism and their own writings.


Can one tell such a story? It has been told (Balagangadhara 1994). In this book, the author argues that not only did the West ‘imaginatively’ create Hinduism, but also explains why it was compelled to do so. Its compulsion is rooted in the nature of religion, and the author advances a hypothesis about religion that also explains this compulsion. Consequently, it emerges as an alternative, a competitor theory to those in the marketplace about what religion is. This hypothesis breaks the ‘structural unity’ that Orientalism has constructed. ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, etc. become hipkapi’s. Consequently, it is possible to investigate which of the ‘facts’ that went into constructing the hipkapi belong together, which do not, and how. One can start probing deeper into one’s own culture, because one’s experience is accessible for reflection. “What is Hinduism? What is Buddhism?” translate themselves as tasks, which require one to account for the facts that appeared to lend credibility to the existence of the hipkapi in a non-ad hoc way.


This point is important for us to linger on it longer. To suggest that the West created ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Buddhism’ as religions, and to counterpose it to a multiplicity of theories and practices present in India is to continue the colonial inheritance. It is to accept that these entities are real, i.e. that they are present in the Indian culture. (See Sugirtharajah 2003 for such a ‘postcolonial’ perspective.) It is not enough to suggest (as Dirks 2002 does) that the British created the ‘contemporary’ caste system and end up accepting the reality of the caste system. We are suggesting that these fictitious ‘entities’ lend coherence to the European experience of the Indian culture and that they do not exist. It is not as though colonialism brought ‘Hinduism’ and ‘the caste system’ into existence. The Europeans spoke about these entities as though they existed. They acted as though these entities are real. However, neither before nor after colonialism do such entities or phenomena exist. They are hipkapi’s. These entities merely lend structure and stability to the European experience and the Orientalist discourse talks as though they are properties of the India culture. In other words, language-use does not characterise the Orientalist discourse. Rather, Orientalism characteristically assumes that ‘the caste system’ or ‘Hinduism’ exist in the Indian culture.  The present-day social sciences also assume the same. Consequently, a critique of Orientalism becomes coterminous with the task of creating alternative theories in the domain of humanities and social sciences. That is to say, the process of developing a critique of Orientalism also outlines the nature of its grand telos: decolonising the social sciences.


Social sciences and the non-western societies


Dipesh Chakrabarty, in his ‘Post-Coloniality and the Artifice of History’, formulates the aporia confronting us in the following manner:


For generations now, philosophers and thinkers have produced theories embracing the entirety of humanity. As we well know, these statements have been produced in relative, and sometimes, absolute ignorance of the majority of humankind – i.e., those living in non-Western cultures. This in itself is not paradoxical, for the more self-conscious of European philosophers have always sought theoretically to justify this stance. The everyday paradox of the third-world social science is that we find these theories, in spite of their inherent ignorance of ‘us’, eminently useful in understanding our societies. What allowed the modern European sages to develop such clairvoyance with regard to societies, which they were empirically ignorant? Why cannot we, once again, return the gaze?” (1992: 3; italics removed.)


Prima facie, there is something very peculiar about this claim and these questions. There is supposed to be a paradox, but it is not obvious where it lies. Let us try to provide a justifiable reconstruction of this paradox.


Social science, if it is any kind of science, is knowledge. Its objects are man, society and culture. To the extent it is knowledge, social science cannot claim ignorance about its objects. All of these are facts, under the assumption that ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ have different meanings. In the way we normally use the words, of course, ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ share neither the same extension nor the meaning. That is, they do not range over the same objects in the same way.


Here are the two facts noticed by Dipesh Chakrabarty. (1) Some social sciences, which study human beings and their societies, are ignorant about aspects of non-Western cultures and societies. This statement implies that these social sciences, therefore, cannot be knowledge of those aspects of culture and societies, which they deal with. If knowledge is useful in understanding those cultures and societies, it further follows that these social sciences cannot be useful in that venture. (2) We (say, the Asians) find the very same social sciences useful in understanding all aspects of our societies and cultures. From this statement, it follows that these sciences do embody knowledge.


The first sentence notices the fact that social sciences are ignorant about aspects of our societies and cultures and implies that they cannot be useful. The second notices the fact that they are useful in understanding all aspects of our societies and implies that social sciences do embody knowledge of our societies. The first statement is true. The second statement is also true. It is also true that, under the assumption about knowledge and understanding, the implication of the first statement is the negation of the second. Severally taken, both statements describe our situation. Jointly, however, they cannot both be true and yet they are. That is to say, the conditions under which these facts are true require that ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’ share the same extension. Alternatively, knowledge is ignorance if, and only if, knowledge is not ignorance.


Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests that this claim is not only paradoxical but also true. It is true because the claim is a (partial) description of our situation, and we realise this to be the case as well. In other words, not only are we committed to the truth of this paradox, but also realise that the situation that forces us to affirm this truth as our own. We live not merely paradoxically but in the awareness of the paradox as well. Our experience, then, involves these two dimensions and both have to do with the social sciences.  If these are the experiences of people from the non-western cultures, what do such experiences tell us about the tasks confronting intellectuals from these cultures?



Grand telos or fractured goals?


Some contemporary post-colonial thinkers refuse to recognise the unity of this genre of thinking. They seem to believe that one cannot speak of the ‘the’ post-colonial thought either in terms of a unity of purpose or in terms of a unifying set of concerns and questions. One way of making sense of their refusal is to appreciate that there is indeed a disjunction in ‘the Orient’ of Orientalist thinking. There is, firstly, the experiential entity, namely ‘the Orient’. This does not appear to be a singular object; it varies according to the experience of the individual. Criticism of the Orientalist discourse, in such cases, seems oriented towards providing such an experiential entity another place than what someone else accords to it. Contestations about this entity are disputes about the place this entity should occupy within one’s experiential world.


Secondly, however, there is also a discourse about the western cultural experience.  It claims to be about the non-western cultures. That is to say, Orientalism presents itself as a veridical discourse about the peoples of the Orient. In this guise, it both appeals to and is sustained by the western social sciences. A critique of this discourse is co-terminus with developing an alternate set of theories in several domains of the social sciences. This task is primarily one for the intellectuals from the erstwhile colonies. After all, they have difficulty in making sense of ‘the Orient’, the experiential entity of the western culture. They have difficulty in recognising either themselves or their social world in the descriptions that Orientalism and the social sciences provide. Consequently, the onus is on them to come up with alternative descriptions of their cultures and societies.


In other words, the issues are these: does the discourse about the Orient retain the same character in both the East and the West? Are there two sets of post-colonial projects, one for the intellectuals from the West and the other for those from the East? Alternatively, is it the case that the telos of post-colonial thinking, that of decolonising the social sciences, unites the intellectuals from both the East and the West?


Whatever the answers, one thing appears to be certain. Some of the problems confronting the post-colonial thinkers of today would find some kind of resolution if one starts reflecting on the relationship between the nature of western cultural experience and the way of talking about the same. In this process, one will be obliged to address the issue of the relationship between social sciences and Orientalism. Doing so might help us figure out the way ahead and not waste time in arid disputes.




[1] “Under the general heading of knowledge of the Orient, and within the umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient during the period from the end of the eighteenth century, there emerged a complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe … (ibid.; p. 7, our emphases).” Notice that Said talks here about the emergence of a complex Orient during the eighteenth century, a period before which the West already had hegemony over the Orient. Clearly, the ‘Orient’ that emerges as an ‘object’ capable of study in the academy and display in the museum is different from the ‘Orient’ (a part of the world) over which Europe already had hegemony. Being a European or an American means, to Said, of “being aware, however dimly, that  … one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer (p. 11; our emphases). Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France and the Orient, which … meant … India and the Bible lands…” (p. 4). Closeness is experienced between the two lands that Britain and France are, and the ‘Orient’, viz., ‘India and the Bible lands’. Or again, “…Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient (p. 6; our italics).” See also p.67.


[2] “What interests me most …  is not the gross political verity but the detail, as indeed what interests us in someone like Lane or Flaubert or Renan is not the (to him) indisputable truth that Occidentals are superior to Orientals, but the profoundly worked over and modulated evidence of his detailed work within the very wide space opened up by that truth (p.15).” Here, ‘worked over’ refers to how the details express both the gross truth of racial superiority (a theoretical claim) and the facts about the world. That is to say, facts are ‘theory-laden’. ‘Worked-over’ categories then are categories within a theory, and facts are worked over to the extent they are theory-laden.


[3] In Said’s reflections in the “afterword to the 1995 printing” of his book, we read the following: “Actually … very early in the book, I say that words such as “Orient” and “Occident” correspond to no stable reality that exists as a natural fact. Moreover, all such geographical designations are an odd combination of the empirical and the imaginative (p. 331; emphasis ours).” The claim is not that the word ‘Orient’ does not refer, but that there is no stable reality to which the word refers, and that it does not refer to any ‘natural’ fact. That is, ‘Orient’ does not have the kind of reference that ‘leg’ or ‘rain’ or ‘mountain’, etc. have. In this sense, the ‘Orient’ refers to a man-made entity: like ‘house’ or ‘movie-theatre’, or ‘Dutch’ or “English’. As far as the ‘odd combination’ is concerned, one could say that historical and social geography too work with man-made ‘realities’: cities, jails, parks, etc. None of these is ‘stable’, that is, cities, parks, jails, etc., change, shift, expand, contract, disintegrate, and so on. What is odd about this? Even if one’s representation of New York as ‘the city that never sleeps’ is part of a discourse about the USA, this does not imply that ‘New York’ does not refer to a place in the United States. See also p.63.

[4] This ‘experiential entity’ appears analogous to the Kantian ‘Welt-für-uns’, except that the ‘us’ here picks out the Western world. The Kantian distinction returns elsewhere in the book: “Islam became an image… whose function was not so much to represent Islam in itself as to represent it for the medieval Christian” (p. 60; our emphases). The Kantian distinction is not at issue here. What is at issue is that Said does not keep track of the distinctions he implicitly introduces, and, at times, even mixes them up, as the following citation testifies.


“(T)he third meaning of Orientalism … (deals) with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient (p. 3, italics ours).” This citation exhibits the kind of problems Said needlessly creates. The demonstrative pronoun, ‘it’, has two distinct references within the same sentence: one teaches concepts (teaching ‘it’ clearly means teaching the ‘concept of the Orient’) whereas one settles physical places (settling ‘it’ means settling the physical Orient) and rules over peoples in particular places (ruling over ‘it’). ‘Dominating and restructuring’ refer primarily to physical and/or social entities, whereas, depending on the notion of ‘authority’, ‘having authority’ is applicable to either concepts or physical entities.

[5]Although he never thoroughly studied Islam, Weber nevertheless influenced the field considerably, mainly because his notions of type were simply an ‘outside’ confirmation of many of the canonical theses held by Orientalists …” (p. 259).

[6] … interesting work is most likely to be produced by scholars whose allegiance is to a discipline defined intellectually and not to a ‘field’ like Orientalism defined either canonically, imperially and geographically. An excellent recent instance is the anthropology of Clifford Geertz … (p.328).

[7] “In two important and urgent ways, therefore, Lane gains scholarly credibility and legitimacy. First, by interfering with the ordinary narrative course of human life: his is the function of his colossal detail, in which the observing intelligence of a foreigner can introduce and then piece together massive information. The Egyptians are disembowelled for exposition, so to speak, then put together admonishingly by Lane. (p. 162-164; our emphases.)” The construction of the Orient is possible only because all these reports exhibit a similar structuring of experience. The Orient could emerge as an experiential entity because the way in which millions of Europeans look exhibited such a structure. “(The doctrine about the Orient) was fashioned out of the experience of many Europeans, all of them converging upon such essential aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism … (p. 203; our emphasis).”


[8]“In a sense Orientalism was a library or archive of information… What bound the archive together was a family of ideas … proven in various ways to be effective. These ideas explained the behavior of Orientals… most important, they allowed Europeans to deal with and even see Orientals as a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics (p. 41-42; our emphases).” Here is one possible answer to why Orientalism continues to exist in the European culture. It enables the European to deal with people from the East. That is, Orientalism constructs the ‘Oriental’, in the sense that it describes people from the East as ‘a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics’. This description (identified using the word ‘Oriental’), which appears to be about these people, enables the Europeans to go-about with people from other cultures. Modern Orientalism went-about with people from other cultures through the process of colonisation. Further, these descriptions also enable the Europeans to ‘see’ order instead of chaos. The claim, ‘it is in the nature of the Orientals to be chaotic’, reduces the sense of chaos too.

[9]“The eccentricities of Oriental life, with its odd calendars, its exotic spatial configurations, its hopelessly strange languages, its seemingly perverse morality, were reduced considerably when they appeared as a series of detailed items presented in a normative European prose style. (p. 166-67; our emphases.)” The strangeness or the otherness of cultures is first described in colossal detail and then it is comprehended by classifying it under a category from one’s own culture that functions normatively. The normativity of the category lies in the elegance, simplicity, rational nature, etc. it has by virtue of being familiar. That is to say, the familiar possesses epistemic virtues that the strange does not have because the latter is strange and hence, complicated, farfetched, irrational, ‘mumbo-jumbo’ etc. In fact, the ‘essentialist’ descriptions of the Oriental mind and attitude express precisely such a reduction.