Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Dialectic of Information and Control

I am at once delighted and startled by the fact that, despite its age, Edward Said's Orientalism is still applicable to contemporary studies of literature and culture. The longevity and grandeur of this text amazes me, while I am simultaneously deeply disturbed by its contemporary relevance. How is it that so many of the misunderstandings regarding the Eastern world, or Orient, that Said enumerates still dominate the popular imagination? Orientalism is a strange doctrine in that it promotes the gathering of vast amounts of knowledge for the express purpose of shaping foreign cultures into bite-sized, digestible pieces for the Western consumer. Said asserts, "...knowledge of a subject race or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control" (36). This notion illuminates our current situation in Iraq and the typically "American" way of asserting dominance. When dealing with anything new, I would argue, the first step to success is admitting that you know nothing about said item. The U.S., especially during the previous president's administration, has no concept of humility. God forbid we admit that we might have something to learn. Arrogance, delusions of infallibility, and a sense of entitlement characterize the American image as a world power, qualities which sunk us face first into a quagmire of misunderstanding that prevents any real progress in our current conflict. Because U.S. officials in charge of intelligence assume that we understand the Arab world, they feel comfortable assuming that we can also control it.

Said reprises this idea near the end of his main argument, reminding us that while other branches of "area study" underwent revision by the 1970s, Arabist and Islamist ideology remained unaltered (301). Furthermore, burgeoning intellectuals in the Arab world aspired to study with Western Orientalists, leading to what Said identifies as "the modern Orient...participat[ing] in its own Orientalizing" (325). Does this still occur in contemporary academia? It is indeed clear that, as a whole, the Arab world has been unable to wrest itself from the bonds of the very stereotypes discussed throughout Said's book. The same fear and ignorance regarding that region and culture persists. It is a staggering shock to me that, despite the fact that Said's text has existed for three decades, contemporary academia has allowed this disservice to proceed. It will, indeed, be the charge of our course in post-colonial lit to help right this wrong to the best of our humble ability.

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