Orientalism and Globalization

Since the last post was about nationalism, it seems logical to take a step into the international system. This post will do so in two ways, by looking at international relations through a colonial/post-colonial framework known as Orientalism, and then responding to Orientalism with an argument from globalization.

Orientalism is a theory typically associated with the Edward Said book of the same name and subsequent works. To (over)simplify, Said et al describe Orientalism as the beliefs and actions in the West that facilitated the colonial enterprise. Specifically it is the collection of attitudes that political and military officials–and even some artists/writers–in France, Britain, and the US (“the West”) about people in the Middle East and Asia (“the East/Orient”). These attitudes often included thinking of Orientals as “the Other” in a way that allowed Westerners to subjugate them. Most scholars of Orientalism insist that this attitude continues today in the US as a form of neo-colonialism. More generally, Said and company’s argument is essentially that powerful people/states construe less powerful people/states in a way that allows the former to dominate the latter. I know all of this is a bit foggy, but trying to summarize hundreds if not thousands of pages of argument into one paragraph can be a bit tricky.

Now to the response from Globalization. I object to Said’s theory of Orientalism not on any factual grounds, but because of its implications. While I admit that the colonial enterprise resulted in a lot of suffering in many cases, on the whole I am of the opinion that it generally raised living standards in most of the places where it was undertaken (sub-Saharan Africa may be an exception, although I think this has more to do with ethnic conflict than with colonialism per se). If Orientalism’s argument is about power (as I asserted above), then Globalization is about economics. To again oversimplify, I take Globalization to be the process by which economic actors (states, corporations, and individuals) have become increasingly interconnected over the last couple of decades. It is this era that made 9/11 possible: before the widespread availability of cheap air travel, those attacks would’ve been impossible. Before the advent of 24-hour news networks that exposed residents of third world countries to international politics, the 9/11 attacks would’ve been unimaginable.

In the era of Globalization, in which a small group of terrorists with access to technology (both of the laptop computer variety and the more lethal, Semtex variety) can destroy skyscrapers and cause billions of dollars worth of damage to the world economy, Orientalism no longer makes sense. Traditional power structures are no longer the only way of dominance. While it is almost certainly true that the West construed Orientals (remember that typically means Middle Easterners, not just East Asians) as the “Other” throughout the colonial period, today the reverse is happening. Five or ten years ago (it may be less true today), young people from Casablanca to Calcutta saw the US and its allies on TV and immediately perceived them as an enemy. Some have called this Occidentalism. I don’t agree entirely with the Occidentalist argument either, but what I’m saying is that the cultural power of the West is no longer hegemonic. To continue to berate the West as Orientalist when it is trying to bring freedom to those same countries is both inaccurate and irresponsible.

I welcome discussion of this in the comments. More on this topic will almost certainly come as I read a couple of John Gray’s books over the summer.

One thought on “Orientalism and Globalization

  1. Withstanding the very vague interpretation of Said and the important exclusion of the impacts of discourse on a macropolitical and micropolitical level in your description, i have a great problem with your response
    1) Orientalism is very much alive and well. The US reaction to 9/11 is a casebook orientalist mess. Terrorism is a reaction to traditional power structures not a means of dominance. It occurs only as a reaction to western imperialism…not as an attempt to assert islamic or middle eastern dominance upon 1st world countries. Al Queda would not be so popular if there wasnt an invading force like America there.
    2) Your response is very much what Edward Said critiques on 2 different levels
    a) Globalization and Free market economies only benefit the west. Its a big mistake to assume that we are helping them. We use their people as cheap labor, strip their land of natural resources, influence and even overthrow their governments to maintain our economic stronghold. Worst of all (as implicit by your last sentence) we blame them for being ignorant.
    b) Morally vile: TO believe that America is helping these countries is being completely complicit with America’s atrocities. This mindset that the people of the orient are NEEDING of Western intervention is ALWAYS the first justification needed for colonialism. Look at Iraq, this is exactly what has occurred in the last 10 years
    3) Western Power is still Hegemonic: As long as you still have institutions like NATO and economic structures like the one we have now, the WEST will continually dominate the East. You also miss SAID’s main point that Western hegemony stems as a result of its epistemology; Western discourse demeans the oriental other, justifies violence against them, and directly affects the them as well as they accept such interpretations and police themselves.

    rather than seeing orientalism as a distinct phenomenon from globalization i think it best to see both as essentially intertwined and acting hand in hand. I don’t necessarily see Orientalism as the best framework for it has many flaws, including a means to combating Orientalism, and prefer more of a Deleuzian approach like that of Hardt and Negri. Regardless, your response lacks academic rigor and needs revision.

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