This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.  
Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 1 (1994)


Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. By Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, editors. 1993. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. viii, 355 pp.


Reviewed by James F. Fisher, Professor of Anthropology, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota.

In 1978, Edward Said of Columbia University published a book, Orientalism, which created a sizable stir among humanists and social scientists concerned with the non-Western world. Said argued unequivocally, and trenchantly, that western knowledge about the Orient was not just the product of disinterested scholarship, but "a systematic discourse by which Europe was able to manage--and even produce--the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively." Orientalism, as he called this phenomenon, helped the West to control and exploit the Orient. Said, a Palestinian by origin, used the Mideast as his prime example of Orientalism, but he meant his sweeping claim to apply to all of the "Orient."

In Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, Breckenridge and van der Veer have brought forth a collection of articles devoted to discussing the Said thesis in the context of "the modern countries of South Asia, which include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sir Lanka." Whether Nepal and other South Asian countries are excluded because they are not modern, or because they were not colonies, is not clear.

What is clear is that the Said position seems most compelling when applied to the colonial world in colonial times. The "postcolonial predicament," or at least one part of it, turns on this point: in what forms does the Western creation of reality in which others have to live continue in todays world of independent states? The editors of the volume argue that "decolonization does not entail immediate escape from colonial discourse [and that] this predicament defines both the ex-colonizer and the ex-colonized." Nobody, it seems, can escape from history.

Most of the chapters were originally delivered at the University of Pennsylvania as papers at the 1988-1989 Annual South Asia Seminar, devoted to "Orientalism and Beyond." The ten contributors to the volume approach the predicament in different, albeit overlapping ways. The first section is called "The Postcolonial Predicament and Contemporary History." Van der Veer argues not that Orientalism caused communalism, but that both are rooted in the common discourse of modernity. Lele claims not only that Orientalism distorts the Orient, but that its offshoot, the modernization paradigm, prevents us from seeing our own pathologies in the West. In a similar vein, Pollock shows how Orientalism, with its delineation of South Asia into Aryan and non-Aryan components, contributed to the development of anti-Semitism in Germany. Spivak focuses on English as an Indianized phenomenon in which it operates as a vehicle for controlling colonials. Along similar lines, Dharwadker demonstrates that what we might otherwise take as the common sense notion of "Indian literature" owes its existence to idiosyncratic European ideas of what constitutes literature.

In the second section ("The Genealogy of the Postcolonial") the remaining five authors look at Orientalism more historically. Lelyveld draws a fascinating portrait of how a "native" language--Hindustani-- was actually a creation of "the colonial imagination that set out to create a common language" in north India, where languages changed every eight miles. Rocher traces much of the familiar acrimonious Hindu/Muslim division to 18th century British attempts to reduce complex and fluid indigenous matters to legal texts of those two traditions. Ludden attempts to show that what came to be regarded as neutral "facts" (such as the existence of autonomous village communities, Hinduism, and caste) were creations of systematizing and record-keeping for official colonial purposes. Alternative and competitive views of what constitutes bare-bones "facts" were silenced. Dirks discusses the case of Colin MacKenzie, an East India Company official whose collaboration with a corps of native assistants resulted in an enormous collection of documents and artifacts, which were eventually co-opted by later hegemonic colonial interests. Finally, Appadurai writes of the ways in which European concern with quantification (as in such seemingly innocent ways as measuring land by cadastral survey, and enumerating people by community in a census) helped create an assumption that aggregates of people were separable from any kind of territorial context.

All these writers share in the Saidian and/or Foucaultian tradition of concern with the insidious relations between knowledge and power, and their attendant buzzwords of "discourse" and its peculiar adjectival form, "discursive" (Lelyvelds paper is refreshingly clear of this language). It is odd that in an otherwise admirably coherent and carefully edited volume the citation conventions of the different papers are not uniform; some are in the form of notes while others are bibliographies. The restatements of the Orientalist project are at times repetitive, and inevitably so, but the subtly different takes on Said, and the thoughtful exceptions taken to his position, add to the clear problematic focus of the volume.

These papers add substantially to our understanding of how the western gaze has transformed South Asia. They also struggle to show how we can go beyond it, but one is left with the feeling that all this epistemological agonizing leaves us in a solipsistic state which denies genuine, discoverable cultural differences "out there," quite apart from the way Orientalism has helped create them. The effect of Orientalism on our understanding is a little like the effect of childhood experiences on adult personality. We all have them, and we are unquestionably better off for recognizing and coming to grips with them, but we cant let them stop us from getting on with the problems of living. Certainly Orientalist history, like any history, is constructed out of our own parochial concerns and interests, but that admission need not paralyse us from investigating and making truth claims about the past of empirical cultural Others.

We have always known the ethnocentric pitfalls of judging other peoples corn by our own bushels. This volume sounds the additional warning that counting dry volume measures may blind us from understanding what the most important and relevant things about grain are. It shows us not just how colonialism constructed the Orient, but how we continue to be trapped in our "postcolonial predicament" by the political and social categories we have inherited from the colonial era. History becomes in more ways than one the Joycean nightmare from which we are trying to awake.