“And… so what?”

The question that many fear to encounter after delivering an agonizingly-constructed, seemingly-whole argument is a powerful tool. The rise of cotton monoculture in the deserts of Central Asia has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea. So what?

It allows the reader to define the aspects of our experience important to them. For example, if one is concerned with the preservation and protection of so-called natural resources, the disappearance of the world’s fourth largest lake would seem to be a big deal. However, the question “So what?” can also challenge those closely-held beliefs. For example, in a world that believes in the law of the conservation of energy, the resources of the Aral Sea didn’t ever “disappear,” but rather were scattered around the region in unplanned reservoirs and in the cotton that leaves the region. Perhaps the argument can be refocused to include a critique of globalization that allows such a trade to take place. Or a critique of the characterization of the Aral Sea as the “fourth largest lake,” which might obscure the fact that the Aral Sea is vastly different from other large lakes like Baikal, Victoria, and the Great Lakes system in terms of rates of evaporation and average rainfall.

Only a few years have passed since a graduate colloquium introduced me to the work of Edward Said. It has reappeared several times, sometimes in a positive light, at least once in a neutral light, and several times in a negative light. In other words, I have seen criticism leveled at the work itself and at the critics of the work. Defining the work itself can be difficult and often leads to simplified characterizations. For example, one might say Said’s work is anti-imperial; or Said’s work is literary criticism; or Said’s work is a scholarly response to the new problems of a global world; or Said’s work is a product of the Arab-Israeli political turmoil of its time; or Said’s work is a bold uncovering of the corruption of white established ivory tower elite education. In addition, criticism of Said has often been characterized (correctly or not) as defense of Western authority; the largely negative reviews the original work received seems unsurprising considering how easily Said crossed between different scholarly fields and the modern political environment.

So what?

Edward Said is one of those people that is entirely unknown to a large portion of the population and widely known by a dedicated minority. Scholarship often likes to characterize itself as a force, like gravity or disease, that affects the masses whether or not they are aware of that force. Certainly historians have written the same in the past – consider the trite axiom regarding those that fail to learn and are doomed to repeat history.

I imagine the possibility that Said wrote for a different audience than he, in the end, received. The world of scholarly literary review seems to have been less distraught by Said’s contribution. Said would have known very well the meaning of the word synecdoche; a figure of speech where one item stands in to represent the whole. A typical example is the expression “All hands on deck!” I am not the first person to suggest that his critique of Orientalism has turned one specific field of study into a synecdoche for imperialism and the abuses of imperial power through the acquisition of imperial knowledge.

I believe part of the problem is the naming of this webbed, branched totality of knowledge a “discourse,” following the terminology used by Foucault.

What is Orientalism according to Said? There is a set of definitions offered in the book, or more accurately approaches toward a definition. Orientalism is:

  1. what Orientalists do and have done.
  2. a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'”
  3. an institution for dealing with the Orient, a Western way of dealing with and dominating the Orient.

This leads to Said’s lack of focus, in my opinion, because the first and third involve a dialogue between West and East (or at least the observance of the East by the West), where the second is entirely in the minds of the ignorant, isolated West. This has led to the work easily being borrowed for the critique of cross-cultural scholarship on the whole. The irony is that there, as in the critique of Orientalism, the critics resemble the same essentializing, monolithic cast of the scholarly model they happen to be attacking. One example is Said’s omission of Foucault’s criticism of authorship. In other words, none of the Orientalists are given the benefit of a dynamic career in which their works and experiences are free to shift, change, shrink, or grow. They seem to be portrayed as static representatives of Orientalism.

I don’t want to be overly derivative in my opinions on Orientalism. I am responding largely as a scholar of Kazakhstan – country decidedly to the East of Europe. I grant that in earlier days I would self-identify as an Orientalist in English, as I would even today in Russian, Persian, or Kazakh. If someone were to name me an Orientalist today, I would accept the title, but its reputation is such that I don’t want to start arguments by naming myself as such outright.

And so I return to the eternal “So what?” with regard to Orientalism and the critique against the same made by Said. What would Said have us do? What is the problem, exactly, and how best to solve the problem as such? If it is an unavoidable error of representation (as some have it), there is no action to be taken, only an order to eternal vigilance against taking my observations as an Orientalist to heart without challenge. That much seems easy to take; all scholars should have the benefit of being reminded of their own imperfections and errors. In the case of the Russian empire, the case has been made that much work remains to be done towards understanding the implications of Said’s critique because he made no analysis of German, Russian, or other imperial discourse; which is to say nothing also about Ottoman Orientalism, Japanese Orientalism, and other so-called “imperial” discourses.

So what? What does Orientalism have to do with Kazakhstan? Are Russian scholars past or present immune to the ills of Orientalism? Are Russian-trained Kazakh scholars, or madrasa-trained scholars from the area immune to the same? Is not the nature of representation a reason for caution and the challenging of prior narratives? In other words, could I reiterate the argument of Said as a simple, “Be careful!” spoken in earnest to future scholars of regions other than their own? And shouldn’t those that study their own history and culture be just as careful? I’ve read more ill-reasoned American history than I have Russian history – the market is larger and the barrier to entry is considerably lower.

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