Friday, October 31, 2014

Oriental itineraries and the direction of human perception

Agia Sophia mural, Thessaloniki, Greece
Image by Rodanthi Tzanelli, 2010

The reference to the ‘Orient’ is one of the oldest and most persistent in interdisciplinary literature. Its contemporary migration to the cybersphere is anything but unanticipated – what with the rise of new digital travel agencies, or the proliferation of individual travel accounts on diverse cultural destinations and territories. In fact, apropos Said (1978) one may note that the ‘Orient’ continues to exist in domains of cultural production precisely because of its definitional ambiguity. As the cybersphere is a thoroughly deterritorialised ‘space’, or, according to some, a non-space of abstract qualities, talking about the ‘Orient’ or plural ‘Orients’ comes naturally online.

The very same ambiguity allowed academic scholarship to constantly reconstruct the term’s essence, territorial boundaries and cosmographic imaginaries. Today encompassing as diverse geographical areas as those of the African, Asian and South American continents, the ever-expansive international scholarship on ‘Orientalism’ and the so-called ‘Orient’ performs the self same genealogical trick of which it accuses its colonial predecessors. It is true that there is no immunity even for this new class of scholars, who toil over postmodern variations of this well-established concept and who constantly have to invoke their epistemological limitations in the face of objections.

But I would argue that there is something exceeding the usual epistemological brawls over the concept’s spatial determinacy to overdetermine, in plain Althusserian terms, the very scholarly field’s epistemic intentionality. Just like ‘globalisation’, which ties humanity’s cosmological coordinates to a European ecumenical analytic (Inglis and Robertson 2005)), the ‘Orient’ betrays, quite literally, our scholarly sense of direction. Not only does it denote our orientation in a spatio-temporal fashion, it also relates in some ancient languages to a Darwinian-like arrow of progress(-ion). The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the Greek equivalent term of Anatolí, a télos or end mapped on our horizon accordingly (aná). The Orient is the child of (post)modern hermeneutics then – a hermeneutics catering for our new mobile epistemologies.

This realisation generates more questions: to what extent do we move conceptually beyond past prejudicial discourse in our writings about those we demarcate as our other(s)? If the ‘Orient’ is our original postcolonial classificatory ‘sin’, then how do we actually change our cognitive and phenomenological orientation? Finally, how can we avoid the problem of a deleterious ambiguity in the human sciences if we manage to erase the concept, its mobility genealogies and cosmological records from our social knowledge?

Inglis, D. and Robertson, R. (2005) ‘The ecumenical analytic: “Globalization”, reflexivity and the revolution in Greek historiography’, European Journal of Social Theory, 8 (2): 99–122.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

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