Monday, December 24, 2007

Postmodernism and Orientalism

Old wine in new flasks? As promised, here are my thoughts on Ian Almond's The New Orientalists:

For Almond, Orientalism both in the classical Saidian sense of an imperial project of knowledge-power and forms of objectifying the oriental other in the present world share a basic insidious inability to ‘grasp the other’. The use of symbols and themes from the Islamic other that are deployed by postmodern thinkers to effect a critique of modernity can easily lapse into the distorted reification of the orient expressed in Orientalism. This new Orientalism, for Almond, represents a danger for postmodernism and for the world of Islam. In this book, the implications are clear: while we assume that orientalism is a feature of the popular right-wing media and the fear, hysteria and paranoia of the post-9/11 world, it is often those, thought to be most sympathetic to the plight of the Muslim other, who may actually represent an equally disturbing development in their objectification. Exoticisation and empathy with the Muslim other as outcaste is not the best way to promote integration and that new über-buzzword ‘community cohesion’ in Europe.

Juxtaposing Islam and postmodernism is not a new phenomenon. Akbar Ahmed in a rather bland and superficial book in the early 1990s examined the relationship and since then important contributions of Aziz al-Azmeh, Bobby Sayyid, and Ziaddin Sardar (to which list one should add Mohammed Arkoun) have drawn upon insights within postmodern theory to explain and understand the contemporary politics and intellectual history of the world of Islam. It is thus no surprise that Almond’s book reflects the influences of these authors – in particular he singles out Sayyid’s extended appropriation of postmodern thought that sees Islamists ‘narrating’ their politics through Islamic metaphors, considering Islam to be a ‘master signifier’ and ‘nodal point’ around point elements constitute and draw meaning, and examines the Prophet as a figure inaugurating a new ‘discursive horizon’.

The New Orientalists is divided into three sections. The first on the critique of modernity begins with the ‘godfather’ of postmodernism Nietzsche himself (and it is in this vein that Alasdair MacIntyre has labelled postmodernists as ‘neo-Nietzscheans’), followed by a chapter on Foucault’s engagement with the Iranian revolution (a theme of an excellent recent book by Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson) and completed with a chapter on Derrida (the neglect of Francophone Muslim scholarship is unfortunate). The second section grapples with fiction in the ‘standard sense’ with chapters on Borges, Rushdie and Pamuk. The final section switches to the context of postmodern theory and imagining Europe and its others with considerations of Kristeva, Baudrillard and Zizek. Some concluding thoughts then try to piece together the argument. In each of these sections, one discerns a basic pattern and structure: Almond chooses a thinker from the classical postmodern tradition, another from the founding figures of the Rushdie/Cold War period, and culminates with a contemporary thinker of immediate significance.

In conclusion, Almond argues that the aim of the book is to establish the genealogy of a gesture, of the use of foreign value-systems to elucidate, evaluate and re-present one’s parent culture. Juxtaposing monolithic alterity with pluralisms and multiple identities seems fairly obvious; but does one need postmodern thought to recognise the basic fact of plurality in Islam? More perceptive (and this renders some of the claims slightly undermined) is Almond’s basic conclusion that the study of perceptions of Islam in postmodernism tells us more about postmodernism. If one realises the continuities of post-modernism with the ‘Enlightenment project’ it often critiques and recognises the incestuous canonicity of the inter-textuality in which postmodern thinkers indulge, should this really surprise us? Just as Almond ends with an important question about the ethics of representation (already raised in Said’s Orientalism), one is minded to worry both about the Muslim apologist using postmodernism to critique Western modernity without realising that he who deconstructs will be deconstructed (a clear warning to Akbar Ahmed among others) and the Muslim seeking a ‘career in the West’ through the acceptance and appropriation of the fashion of metropolitan academia (a salient critique that Aijaz Ahmad makes of many a postcolonial theorist). But I say this not in condemnation or contempt nor do I wish to proscribe the nine authors discussed in the book: reading Derrida as well as Pamuk, Rushdie and the others is a joy from which I would not wish anyone to be deprived. A simple caveat suffices.

Specialists of Islamic studies and politics will find this mélange somewhat odd but Almond is an academic working on literature and his many years teaching the subject in Turkey no doubt have inspired his choices and interests. Much of this book, the title and its presentation seem faddish and this will encourage its sales. In recent years, we have seen cultural studies encroaching on the study of Islam perhaps because Islam has become a master signifier of our (European, multicultural, multi-faith, multi-ethnic) society. This is not necessarily a good thing. Of course, as an interested specialist, I would obviously bemoan the democraticisation of Islamic studies that cultural studies brings not because of my own desire to establish norms and ensure that those norms are adhered but because academic inquiry needs to retain standards of disciplinary excellence. The blurb of the back cover describes the book as timely and suggests that the new orientalism has implications for Islam. In this very statement lies the basic paradox of orientalism as a theory of analysis: it insists upon knowledge and perception as a distortion of reality but at the same time suggests that perception changes reality. But it further begs the question: what does one mean by Islam? Muslims may well be transformed (and then only those engaged with metropolitan discourses) by postmodern thought but does that affect the doctrines, beliefs, and theology of a faith system such as Islam? Or should one agree with al-Azmeh that not only are there are many islams as situations that sustain it (in itself an interesting vagueness of the general and the particular) but that Islam does not exist outside of the practices and beliefs of Muslims in history, in the present and in the future?

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