Hamid Dabashi draws a sharp line in the sand between European and post-colonial philosophers in this provocative introduction to Can Non-Europeans Think?
ART AFRICA, issue 07.
“Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!” With those grandiloquent words and the gesture they must have occasioned and accompanied, the distinguished and renowned European philosopher Slavoj Žižek begins his response to a piece that Walter Mignolo wrote in conversation with my essay Can Non-Europeans Think? Žižek is quite eloquent and habitually verbose: “Okay, fuck you, who are these bloody much more interesting intellectuals…? Let’s say I was not overly impressed.”
What was the reason, you might wonder, for the eminent European philosopher’s outburst: why so intemperate a reaction? What had Walter Mignolo said to deserve such precise elocutions from a leading European thinker?
A simple question
In January 2013 I published on the Al Jazeera website the playfully titled essay Can Non-Europeans Think? The essay soon emerged as one of the most popular pieces I have written in my academic career. It went viral on the Internet, to the degree that a polemical essay on philosophical thinking can go viral. It received more hits than anything I had ever written on that website. It had touched a nerve and people began to read and reflect on it far beyond my own limited reach or expectation when I wrote it. That piece is now the title of this book, which points to a mode of thinking I have marked as beyond the limits of the condition called “postcoloniality.” This book comes together, in effect, as a declaration of independence, not just from the condition of postcoloniality, but from the limited and now exhausted epistemics it had historically occasioned. Here you will perhaps have detected a cautious searching for the paths ahead, for a condition and urgency of thinking beyond coloniality, beyond postcoloniality, and thus above all beyond the explicit or implicit presence of a European interlocutor looking over our shoulder as we write.
And there precisely was the rub! Soon after the publication of my essay, Santiago Zabala, a research professor of philosophy at the University of Barcelona, responded to it. He did so in the belief that I had written it in response to a piece of his and thus felt obligated to reciprocate. This response to my essay, though quite welcome, seemed a bit odd to me, for I had not written it in response to his, but rather had just used something he had written earlier as a hook on which to hang my argument. He appeared to have taken offence at my essay, thought I was accusing him (and by extension other European philosophers) of Eurocentricism, and in turn took the fact that I had mentioned the eminent Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci as an indication that I was completely out to lunch, accusing him of something with which I was myself afflicted! It was a very bizarre response indeed to a charge I had never made. In general I find the charge of Eurocentricism punishingly boring, have no interest in the inflated argument, and consider the entire diction of Zabala’s piece rather juvenile, akin to the schoolyard pissing contest I had left behind in my high school back in Iran decades ago. Of course Europeans are Eurocentric, just as our Molla Nasreddin famously thought (in jest) that where he had nailed the rein of his mule was the centre of the universe – and why shouldn’t they believe this, the Europeans or Molla Nasreddin? I was not addressing Zabala, or any other European philosopher for that matter. But he thought I was.
Soon a comrade of Zabala, Michael Marder, joined forces with his European brother and wrote another piece against me in Al Jazeera, in which he too read my piece as addressed to Zabala and thought of it as somewhat comical. Marder’s objection was that I had ignored the fact that the philosophers Zabala had cited were all “counter-hegemonic” and thus quite radically subversive, and by virtue of which honorific title they were on my side of the false divide. Again, he could read my piece in whatever way he wished, including this outlandishly silly reading, but what greatly amused me was that these young European philosophers were so self-conscious of being “European philosophers” that they felt obligated to come out gang-like and defend themselves against the coloured boy who had dared to piss on their territory. My late mother used to remark that as soon as you pick up the stick the cat that has just stolen something runs away. You may not have intended to hit anyone, but the cat knew he was a thief. At any rate, I was not addressing Zabala or Marder. I was in fact addressing no European philosopher at all. But whenever something happens anywhere around the world they think it has something to do with them. It does not. And that precisely is the point: people like me are no longer interested in whatever it is they fancy to be “hegemonic” or “counter-hegemonic” in Europe and for Europeans. We have been to much greener pastures. Yet these belated defenders of the dead interlocutor they call “the West” were not up to speed with where we were. We (by which I mean we coloured boys and girls from their former colonies) were mapping a new topography of the world (our world, the whole planetary disposition of the globe we are now claiming as ours) in our thinking and scholarship; while they were turning their ignorance of this body of work into a critical point of strength for their philosophical arguments – just as their forebears did with our parents’ labour, abused and discarded it. They did not know we had told their Žižek to go enjoy himself long before he said to our Mignolo “Fuck you!”
It was at this point that Walter Mignolo wrote his learned piece in direct response to my essay, in which he returned my question as an answer. Mignolo’s was the first essay I took seriously, for in it he began to address in earnest the issues I had raised. My essay had occasioned many other responses, among them – and perhaps the most poignant so far as the substance of my argument is concerned – the magnificent piece by Aditya Nigam, End of Postcolonialism and the Challenge for ‘Non-European’ Thought. The advantage of Nigam’s piece was that he was deeply informed by my work in general, and engaged with my argument from within my work. Nigam’s piece made a critical point very clear to me: that folks like Zabala and Marder really have no clue about my or anyone else’s work beyond their European nose, for they had no interest or reason to do so. Mignolo, Nigam and I are part of a generation of postcolonial thinkers who grew up compelled to learn the language and culture of our colonial interlocutors. These interlocutors have never had any reason to reciprocate. They had become provincial in their assumptions of universality. We had become universal under the colonial duress that had sought to provincialise us.
It was in direct response to Walter Mignolo’s essay that Žižek had started with that superlative opening and then proceeded to make his case as to why he does not take anything non-Europeans say seriously. I will leave Mignolo to fend for himself, for he is more than capable of doing so when dealing with Žižek. My task here is no longer to defend or fortify the arguments in my essay Can Non-Europeans Think? For, whatever it is worth, it stands on its own two feet. Instead I am far more interested in the curious question of whether or not European philosophers can actually read something and learn from it – rather than assimilate it back into what they already know. It is in this context that I wish to ponder what it is that brings a European thinker to use such expletives when confronted by something that a Mignolo or a Nigam or a Dabashi might say.
To read forward
Why should Europeans not be able to read, even when we write in the language they understand? They cannot read because they (as “Europeans,” caught in the snare of an exhausted but self-nostalgic metaphor) are assimilating what they read back into that snare and into what they already know – and are thus incapable of projecting it forward into something they may not know and yet might be able to learn. Historical conditions are the bedrock of ideas. The world at large, and the Arab and Muslim world in particular, is changing; these changes are the conditio sine qua non of new ideas that are yet to be articulated – precisely in the same manner that the myth of “Europe” or “the West” was born and began to generate ideas. My central argument over the last few decades has been that the condition of coloniality has occasioned a mode of knowledge production across the colonial world – from Asia to Africa to Latin America – that today we know and examine in the moment we designate as “postcolonial.” In my books on the Arab revolution and the Green Movement in Iran I have argued that, as evidenced in these revolutionary uprisings, the modes of knowledge production in the postcolonial register – militant Islamism, anticolonial nationalism, and Third World socialism – have in fact exhausted themselves. European thinkers like Žižek and Zabala, important and insightful as they are in their own immediate circles, are out of touch with these realities, and to the degree that they cannot come to terms with their unfolding particularities in terms immediate to their idiomaticities. For them “Philosophy” is a mental gymnastics performed with the received particulars of European philosophy in its postmodern or poststructuralist registers – exciting and productive to the degree that they can be. But unless and until those defining moments are structurally linked, thematically moved and conceptually compromised, and thus epistemically violated, they will have very little or nothing to say about the world that is unfolding in front of us.
Žižek claims Fanon all to himself by way of dismissing Mignolo
Now let’s go back to Mignolo. What Mignolo proposes is thus a version of Baudrillard’s battle cry… “Forget Foucault”… Forget Europe, we have better things to do than deal with European philosophy, better things than endlessly deconstructing. He explicitly includes deconstruction. This is endless narcissistic self-probing, [and] we should simply step out. The irony here is that this battle cry did not hold for Fanon himself, who dealt intensively [with European philosophy] and was proud of it. The first obscenity seems to me how dare he to quote Fanon! Fanon is my hero, that’s why I defend him against soft guys like Homi Bhabha, who wrote long texts trying to neutralise, normalise Fanon. No, he didn’t really mean it, with killing and violence; he meant some sublime gesture where there is no blood and nobody is really hurt and so on. Let’s face it, Fanon dealt extensively with Hegel, psychoanalysis, Sartre, even Lacan. My third reaction would have been: When I read lines like Mignolo’s, I reach not for the gun but for Fanon.
Žižek can have his Fanon all to himself. There is plenty of Fanon left for others. But Fanon on himself? Really? What is that supposed to mean? That we dark folks had our Fanon so we had better sit down and be quiet. Fanon was horribly wrong in his essay Unveiling Algeria and totally blinded to the nature and function of veiling in Muslim urbanity. So now what? We Muslims had better shut up and be happy that Mr Žižek has read his Fanon. I agree with Žižek’s criticism of Bhabha, whose useless bourgeois postmodernism I cannot stand. But why is Professor Žižek acting like a rookie graduate student regurgitating these names? So what if Fanon had read and engaged with Hegel? The entire world seems to have been cathected for Žižek with the name Fanon, where we colonized folks had our say, and so we had better shush – or, as he so eloquently puts it, “Fuck off!”
The point, however, is not to have any exclusive claim on Fanon, or to fetishize him (or any other non-European thinker for that matter) as a frozen talisman for Europeans to cite to prove they are not philosophically racist. The point is not to dismiss but to overcome the myth of “the West” as the measure of truth. Žižek claims:
“I am a man and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world, I am not responsible only for the slavery involved in Santo Domingo, every time man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of colour. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving some black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. My black skin is not a repository for specific values. Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the blacks of the 17th century?”
This is all fine and dandy – for Žižek. He can make any claim he wishes. All power to him. But the point is the singularity of the world, his world: he claims that as a European he is responsible not just for slavery but also for fighting injustice. He is absolutely right. But so is the “black man” he just buried alive and relegated to the seventeenth century. He asserts prophetically that he is “a man.” One hopes he means this not just anatomically. But he is not the only man, either in body or as archetype. The “black man,” as he puts it, is also a man, a different man, in flogged body and in denied archetype. The black and brown person – male and female – also has a world, a contemporary world, the world that Žižek occupies. Žižek is absolutely right that he has a total claim on this world that he occupies, and over which he and his philosophical precursors have presided. But what about a non-European – made “non-European” by virtue of “the European”? Can she also have a claim on this world, and in a philosophical or artistic or revolutionary move claim for herself the colonial and the postcolonial, the European and the non-European, heritage and thereby transcend the world that Žižek claims exclusively for himself, placing herself in some other world, a different worldliness beyond Žižek’s European imagination? Of course she can, without waiting for Žižek’s permission, acknowledgement, or even recognition. The world we inhabit, planet Earth, has many imaginative geographies; that of Žižek and all his fellow Europeans is only one such geography. The point is that they are utterly blinded to the possibility of these alternative geographies – both historical and contemporary.
Other people are also entitled “to recapture” – as, of course, is Žižek – a world beyond their imagination. Žižek is correct that “In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of colour.” But those very “people of colour” (as he categorises them, according to his prerogative) do not only have a past; they also have a present, and a future. Žižek is blinded to that present unless he assimilates it backward into his present, and is indifferent to that future unless he gets (singularly) to define it. He is unconditionally correct that “In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving some black civilization unjustly ignored.” But a “black civilization” unjustly ignored is peopled by other people, by other thinking people, kicking people, people who talk, and talk back, and talk past Žižek. He is entirely entitled to say “I will not make myself the man of any past” – and he should not, as no one should. But the people of colour he just buried alive in their past are also living and breathing a present of which he seems to be blissfully ignorant. He is, of course, pulling my coloured beard when he says, “My black skin is not a repository for specific values.” But mine is, and I am a living repository of not just “values” but universes, emotions, words, sentiments, rebellions that he and all his Horatios have not yet dreamt of in their philosophy.
Žižek and his fellow philosophers are oblivious to those geographies because they cannot read any other script, any other map, than the colonial script and the colonial map with which Europeans have read and navigated the world; conversely they cannot read any other script or map because they are blinded to alternative geographies that resistance to that colonialism had written and navigated. The condition is exacerbated any time people around the world rise up to assert their geography as the ground zero of a world historical event. At these times Žižek and his followers are all up and about trying to read the world back into what they already know. There is a new condition beyond postcoloniality that these Europeans cannot read, hard as they try to assimilate it back into the condition of coloniality. The task is not a mere critique of neo-Orientalism, which always is commensurate with immediate and short-sighted political interests, but to overcome “Europe” as an idea and make it behave as one among any number of other exhausted metaphors, neither less nor more potent, organic, or trustworthy. Europe was “the invention of the Third World,” as Fanon fully realised – both in material and normative senses of the term. I have already argued that we need to change the interlocutor with whom we discuss the terms of our emerging worlds. We should no longer address a dead interlocutor. Europe is dead. Long live Europeans. The Islam they had invented in their Orientalism is dead. Long live Muslims. The Orient they had created, the Third World they had crafted to rule and denigrate, have disappeared. If only those who still see themselves as Orientals would begin to decolonise their minds too.
Young European philosophers like Zabala and Marder, who think that as Europeans they own the world of ideas, feign the authority of their colonial forebears as if anything anyone says anywhere in the world is about them. History has started anew globally – from the Green Movement in Iran to the Arab Spring, to Indignados in Europe, to Occupy Wall Street in the US, to massive protests in Brazil. These uprisings will generate their own regimes of knowledge, not despite the reactionary and counter revolutionary forces launched against them but precisely because of them. The anthropology of these revolutions is the first discipline that has been torpedoed into nullity. It is the very idea of “Europe” that is today most suspect and dispensable. Europeans as people, too, have re-entered history, if European philosophers old and young were to let them go, and let them be, and learn from them new words. From modernity to postmodernity, from structuralism to poststructuralism, from constructivism to deconstructionism, European philosophers chase after their own tails; and what was called ‘postcolonialism’ in and of itself was the product of a European colonial imagining that wreaked havoc on this earth and finally ran aground. We are no longer postcolonial creatures.
The condition of coloniality that had given intellectual birth to us – from Césaire through Fanon to Said – has run its course. That episteme is no longer producing any meaningful knowledge. We are free, but not aimless; liberated, but not futile. This “we” is no longer we folks in the global South, for some of us have migrated to the global North chasing after their capital in search of jobs, as their capital has gone positively transnational and chases after our cheap labour in the global South. So this “we” is no longer colour-coded or continental and includes all those disenfranchised by the global operation of capital whether in the north or south of planet Earth, or deep into cyberspace, or else flown into outer space, and those richly privileged by the selfsame operation. In its originary modernity this globalised capital was made mythically “European.” It no longer is. It has been de-Europeanised, freed from its overreaching fetishes. Rich Arab, Indian, Russian, Chinese, Latin American, or African entrepreneurs, mafia states, deep states, garrison states, Israeli warlords, and mercenary murderers of Isis are part and parcel of a worldly reality that has for ever dispensed with the myth of “the West.”
Orientalism then and now
In what way have we actually transcended our forebears, colonial and postcolonial, modern and postmodern? Where exactly is it that we stand and think, and upon what leveled ground is it that Mignolo, Nigam and I can invite Žižek, Zabala, and Marder kindly to drop their guards and join us and let us think and play together?
In a piece I wrote for Al Jazeera in July 2012, I took the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to task for a series of cliché-ridden pieces he wrote on Iran following a quick visit. Soon an article appeared in the Jerusalem Post taking me to task for abusing the term “Orientalism” and using it to bully Mr. Kristof. In this piece, the author, Seth J. Frantzman, asserts that “the term ‘orientalism,’ or more specifically the accusation that someone is an ‘orientalist,’ should be deracinated from discourse” – adding that the term has become “nonsensical in its application.” He believes that in criticising Orientalist clichés we in fact are blinding the world: “This is an attempt to make the world ignorant, so that only the Iranian scholar can tell others about Iran, and only the Chinese communist party official can explain China to outsiders. We are supposed to rely on the Islamists of Mali to explain why they are destroying the ‘false idols’ present in the Sufi tombs of Timbuktu” – thus effectively and not so subtly equating “the Iranian scholar” with the Chinese communist and the Mali Islamist terrorists. (Does that equation ring a bell with a certain mass murderer in Norway?)
One can, of course, experience a certain passing pleasure in making it onto a Zionist’s blacklist, as I did long before this Jerusalem Post figure knew of my name from the book his soulmate David Horowitz wrote on the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. But so far as this particular “Iranian scholar” is concerned (now that with a keystroke the Jerusalem Post columnist has stripped me of my American citizenship altogether – for quite obviously a “Hamid Dabashi” cannot be an American, while a Seth J. Frantzman can at one and the same time be both an “American” citizen and an “Israeli” settler colonist – a racist assumption that of course is not “Orientalism”), in the very same piece in which I criticised Nicholas Kristof I also praised his New York Times colleague Roger Cohen’s reporting from Iran. So I am quite obviously not in the business of silencing anyone, including non-Iranians, from saying anything (sensible or inane) about Iran, or anywhere else for that matter.
Yet, despite its sophomoric tone and flawed logic, Seth J. Frantzman’s piece does indeed have a legitimate point, namely the pervasive abuse of the term “Orientalism” in journalistic writings – though, ironically, his own piece fits perfectly within the realm of such dilettante abuses.
Much to Edward Said’s chagrin to his dying day, both his book and the concept of “Orientalism” have been not just duly influential but also widely abused – and that abuse continues apace today. Said never tired of trying his best to correct these erroneous readings of his groundbreaking idea. However, the abuse eventually took the form of a fetishized trope. There are people today who think the very term “Arab Spring” is an Orientalist invention, evidently oblivious to the fact that the term “Spring of Nations” was also used for the European revolutions of 1848. A comment marking the non-violent disposition of the Arab Spring when it was initially launched, is enough to provoke accusations of Orientalism, or, worse, of “self-Orientalization.” Indeed, believe it or not, there are even bloggers who consider any comparison between the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions a case of Orientalism!
At the root of the problem is the fact that Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has now assumed the status of the proverbial ‘classic’: a book that everyone cites but scarcely anyone reads. But just because the term “Orientalism” has been systematically misused by its detractors and admirers alike, or in effect turned into a term of abuse people hurl at anyone and everything they don’t like, it does not mean that one of the most powerful analytical concepts of the last century ought to be categorically avoided, disregarded, or indeed “deracinated from discourse,” as the Jerusalem Post columnist instructs us to do. Quite the contrary: precisely on account of such abusive dilettantism, the term needs incessant theoretical re/articulation. Persistent theorisation will not prevent people from abusing it in one way or another, of course, but it might help the rest of us avoid the confusion such misuse is bound to generate.
Contrary to Mr. Frantzman’s confusion and that of many others – both “Orientals” and “non-Orientals” – the critique of Orientalism was a critique of a mode of knowledge-production, and most certainly not that of any race or people or culture. The mode of knowledge production called “Orientalism” was commensurate with the European imperial project; the fortunate fact that scholars ranging from Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti to V.G. Kiernan, Bernard S. Cohn, Anwar Abd al-Malik, and Talal Assad had addressed the relationship between empire and knowledge production before Edward Said (or even Michel Foucault) shows that the tradition of this critique has had a much deeper epistemic history, of which both those who abuse the term and those who are incensed by it seem to be blissfully ignorant. Entirely independent of the Said/Foucault trajectory, that history can be traced back, as I have demonstrated in Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008), to a vast and variegated tradition in the sociology of knowledge, whose genealogy includes Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Scheler (1874–1928), and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). There is more to “Orientalism” – and to the organic relationship between knowledge and power – than can be conceived of by a New York Times or a Jerusalem Post journalist.
If we unpack the term “Orientalism,” and are attentive to Said’s dismantling of it in his classic study, the evolving historical symbiosis between knowledge and power becomes clear. This reading helps provide an insight into the terms of the new regime of knowledge of which I have been writing since the rise of the Arab revolutions in 2010 – the premiss that may enable Europeans and non-Europeans alike to move onto the same page, and there to overcome the condition of coloniality that has made one unable to think and the other unable to read the idioms of an emerging world.
The cover of Hamid Dabashi’s book ‘Can Non-Europeans Think?’ © Zed Books.
Knowledge and Power
So where do we get together to think through our fragile worldliness, so that “the European” is finally demythologised and stripped of the remnants of colonial and imperial arrogance; so that when he or she philosophises with me (the Muslim, the Oriental, the Third World intellectual, or any other term used to mark and alienate me), it is no longer as an Obama or a Hillary Clinton, or as NATO sending drones over the primitive Taliban? It is long overdue that Europeans exit the certainty of their mythical self-philosophising and re-enter history. They must come down off their high horses and fat Humvees and stop philosophising me, and instead kindly consider philosophising with me. The moment they dismount they will see me, Walter Mignolo, and Aditya Nigam waiting, with laptops open.
But where exactly will be the location of this historic rendezvous? Let’s take a detour.
“Orientalism” has today become a journalistic cliché. The problem with journalistic uses and abuses is that writers tend to fetishise the term without taking the trouble to learn and convey what it means, and how as a concept it may have an organic life and evolve. Towards the end of my Post-Orientalism (a book whose existence has yet to be registered by the Jerusalem Post) I argue that the modus operandi of knowledge production we know categorically as “Orientalism,” and that was the subject of Edward Said’s magisterial critique, has by now dissolved into a degenerative phase I have identified as “endosmosis,” or disposable knowledge – knowledge no longer predicated on any enduring episteme. This proposition is predicated on an active historicisation of “Orientalism” beyond the immediate theorisation of Edward Said, which was primarily a literary-critical take on the crisis of representation embedded in the relation between knowledge and power.
As a mode of knowledge-production, I argue, Orientalism is not a fait accompli, a closed and circuited project. It was the product of a particular moment in the history of European colonialism, and as a result changes and falters with the fate of imperialism. Thus I have sought to formulate a historically more nuanced conception of Orientalism. The current, post-9/11 condition I identified as an amorphous mode of knowledge production, or a case of epistemic endosmosis, in which the aggressive formation of a field of public knowledge about Muslims is no longer conducive to the reversed formation of a sovereign (European or American) and all-knowing (Kantian) subject.
The transmutation of classical Orientalism to Area Studies and thence into disposable knowledge produced at US and European think tanks, I propose, was coterminous with the rise of an empire without hegemony. This epistemic endosmosis – or interested knowledge manufactured in think tanks and percolating into the public domain – is, I suggest, conducive to various modes of disposable knowledge production, predicated on no enduring or coherent episteme, but in fact modelled on disposable commodities that provide instant gratification and are then disposed of after one use only.
This is “fast knowledge” produced on the model of “fast food,” with plastic cups, plastic knives, plastic forks, bad nutrition, false satisfaction. The US invades Afghanistan and these think tanks produce a knowledge conducive to that project; then the US leads another invasion of Iraq and these think tanks begin producing knowledge about Iraq, with little or no connection with what they had said about Afghanistan, or what they might say about Iran. There is little or no epistemic consistency among the three – for these forms of knowledge are produced under duress (with tight deadlines) and are entirely disposable. You throw them out after one use.
In Post-Orientalism I argue that, as an institutional reflection of this transformation, today right-wing think tanks like the Zionist WINEP (Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy) or the neocon operation the Hoover Institution, have by and large replaced universities as the institutional basis of these modes of knowledge production at the immediate service of the Empire. These two institutions – which are perfect examples of the rest – hire native informers with no academic or scholarly qualifications but who are ideologically compatible with their agenda. In a brilliant essay, Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, A Brief History, Lewis Lapham has provided a detailed map of these institutions, along with the network of American millionaires and right-wing foundations who ever since the Civil Rights and Antiwar movement of the 1960s have aggressively supported them.
My assessment of this self-degenerative disposition of Orientalism was and remains predicated on the proposition that at this late (or, at least, the latest) stage of capitalism – with the scarcity of resources and the even more aggressive militarisation of imperial domination – we are no longer witness to sustained disciplinary formations of Orientalism at the stage that Edward Said had best diagnosed it. Thus no master Orientalist on the model we know from the nineteenth century is in fact anywhere in sight anymore – if we compare the exquisite scholarship of someone like Ignaz Goldziher (1850–1921), for example, with the paper-jammed propaganda copy machine that is known as Bernard Lewis (b. 1916). (One of my principal tasks in Post-Orientalism was to rescue and exonerate Ignaz Goldziher from much abuse by both his Zionist biographers and Muslim detractors).
My clue regarding that proposition was entirely predicated on Max Weber’s last, prophetic, words in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). “One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism,” Weber observed, “and not only of that but of all modern culture: rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling was born… from the spirit of Christian asceticism.” This singular insight of Weber into capitalist modernity leads him to the beautiful discernment that “the Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.” From this he concludes:
“Since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history. Today the spirit of religious asceticism… has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer.”
As for the Enlightenment, Weber resorted to his occasional, but sublime, sense of humour: “The rosy blush of its laughing heir, the Enlightenment, seems also to be irretrievably fading, and the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.” The astute diagnosis of that degenerative spiral then becomes the premise upon which Weber builds his magisterial insight regarding the fate of our humanity at large, and the spirit of capitalism in particular:
“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanised petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of, civilization never before achieved.”
The Orientalism of those epochs that corresponded with that dawning spirit of capitalism and the predatory imperialism it entailed ultimately degenerated to the propaganda machinery of Bernard Lewis, who corresponds with the nullity that Weber aptly characterises. But were it to be thought that Bernard Lewis was the example par excellence of “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” I invite my readers to take a look at Nicholas Kristof (and at Seth J. Frantzman) on the precious pages of our “Paper of Record,” the Jerusalem Post as they call it, to see how that Weberian “nullity” keeps degenerating.
Far beyond the limits of such journalistic dilettantism, however, the critique of the vestiges of Orientalism in the public sphere should no longer be directed against the politics of representation but in precisely the opposite direction at the crisis of ideology, legitimacy, and hegemony that this phase of globalised imperialism faces. This critique is necessary because we in the Muslim world, in particular, are at the cusp of a new liberation geography (discussed in detail in The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism), and the democratic uprisings we witness are in need of new metaphors, and a radical transformation of the regime of knowledge that is integral to the Tahrir Square slogan “People demand the overthrow of the regime.”
In the absence of that radical reshaping of the regime of knowledge with which we read the Arab and Muslim revolts, we are at the mercy of the all-time Jerusalem Post favourite Bernard Lewis, whose favourite trope in reading them is through his casual and ageing conception of sex and bordello houses. “You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the brideprice,” Lewis once told Seth J. Frantzman’s colleagues at the Jerusalem Post by way of explaining the Arab revolts, “with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.” These are Frantzman’s preferred means of understanding the world historical events we are witnessing. Any critique of such gibberish emanating from the tired but evidently still vivid imagination of an ageing Orientalist will rub him the wrong way.
The battle lines are thus drawn as much in the streets and squares of our public spheres as they are around the new régime du savoir that we need in order to understand and alter our emerging world. In that direction we need to clear from the table the lingering legacies of old-fashioned Orientalism and its varied transmutations, expose the theoretical illiteracy of those who have fetishised and keep abusing the term, and allow the emerging facts from our public sphere to define the new regime of knowledge that will speak to our will to resist power and help change it to an institutional claim on that sphere.
In that direction, Joel Beinin is correct in his observation that in the aftermath of the Egyptian presidential election we need a new political language. But that language will emerge as much from new political alliances, as Beinin rightly suggests, as from a much larger frame of epistemic references that these revolutions have occasioned. Equally crucial and insightful is Seumas Milne’s suggestion that “Egypt’s revolution will only be secured by spreading it.” But that process of spreading, too, needs the “new political language” that Beinin calls for, right now, before Seth J. Frantzman contacts Homeland Security officials and has us all stripped of our citizenship and shipped to Guantánamo Bay.
Power is Power
I took this detour from a critique of post/Orientalism because such militant misreadings are precisely the delusional prism that separates me, Walter Mignolo, and Aditya Nigam from Žižek, Zabala, and Marder. Instead of the habitual mise-en-scène within which we talk to them as they talk to themselves, we need to change the whole architectonics of this interlocution altogether, and address the only interlocutor that has been left to all of us: a fractured and self-destructing world. The European philosophers can only overcome what they consider their “crisis of the subject” by avoiding the Kantian cul-de-sac that defines the knowing subject as the European knowing subject and designates us – the rest of the world – as their knowable realm. We are no longer (if we ever were) knowable to that European knowing subject. Because we no longer exist as they had fathomed in their process of self-centering subjection, so have they ceased to exist as our or any other kind of knowing subject. They don’t and cannot know anymore. The European knowing subject, to the degree that it is incarcerated within the dead certainties of being “European” – namely, as Fanon said, “the invention of the Third World” – cannot have a clue who and what we/they are. We must dismantle the fact that we are each other’s figment of the imagination. We have now deposited both Kurtz of the Heart of Darkness and Mustapha Said of Season of Migration to the North in the dustbin of history.
We therefore come together at a new gathering of knowledge and power not to mourn but to dislodge the link. Here the will is not to power; it is to resist power. Once that negative dialectic (Adorno) is posited, we will see alternative worlds emerge beyond “the West and the Rest.” Those worlds exist and enable here and now; they are not located back in the seventeenth century. Yet all those worlds are also on the verge of being subsumed into the two poles of cyberspace and outer space connecting the geopolitics that rules our lives to the cyber and astropolitics that dwarf our very physicality, at the very moment when all the rich people have gone to the heavens to live on a satellite, leaving us, the wretched of the earth, on earth. On this site I wish to teach them – Ahmad Shamlou, Nazem Hekmat, Mahmoud Darwish, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz – in gratitude for what I have learned from their Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, and Rancière. I wish to invite European philosophers to read these poets not through the exoticised lenses of Orientalism or Area Studies, but with the same attitude of critical intimacy that they approach their own philosophers. Thus I wish for them to join me in collapsing the binary between philosophy and poetry, to stand next to me as I show them the poetic philosophy of our poets, teaching them how to reread philosophical poetry from Nietzsche to Blanchot. If they read Shamlou they will understand Heidegger on Rilke better, and if they learn Darwish they will understand Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and C.L.R. James in a wholly different light.
This is not merely a world of my imagining. It is real. Here on earth the depletion of the myth of “the West” has created new alliances. Zionists in Israel think and act precisely like the Islamists in Iran, as a new generation of comprador intellectuals have moved into Europe and North America and collaborate with neocon cohorts to incorporate their homelands into the quagmire of globalised neoliberalism. Notorious Islamophobes like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Foad Ajami are Muslims from whose company I would happily run to that of Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaïd, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, or Jacques Rancière on any given day, and twice at the weekend. On the other side of the divide are those who abuse the charge of “Orientalism” from a position of power.
It is not just those like the Jerusalem Post columnist who are incensed by the term “Orientalism.” It is also abused by the leading propagandist officers of the Islamic Republic as a scare tactic to silence their opponents. Seth J. Frantzman’s counterpart in Iran is Mohammad Marandi. Common to both these forces, represented by Frantzman (Zionist) and Marandi (Islamist), is the most basic insight of the Saidian argument in Orientalism: the relation between knowledge and power. Those in power in Israel dislike the term “Orientalism” to the same degree that those in power in the Islamic republic like and abuse it for their own benefit. What Israeli propagandists and their counterparts in the Islamic Republic have in common, then, is that they are both in power. There is no iota of difference between the manner in which Zionists like Frantzman wish to silence the Palestinians and that in which propaganda officers of the Islamic Republic like Marandi wish to stifle the voices of their opponents.
Consider the fact that the Islamic Republic funds graduate students from one end of the Islamic world to the other, either to go to Iran and study in Shi’i seminaries or else study in Europe or the United States and receive a degree in “Islamic Studies,” and thereafter join forces with the ruling clerical establishment to bolster a militant reading of Shi’ism compatible with the political interests of the ruling ideology. These graduate students – later young faculty – soon see their very livelihood as being contingent upon aiding and abetting the leading propagandist officers of the Islamic Republic to write and generate knowledge from and for the position of power they serve. The operation of this power/knowledge symbiosis is identical to that of Orientalism.
These propagandists call themselves “professors” and operate in the occupied territories of Tehran University, where generations of principle and uncompromising faculty have been systematically purged. They dare to write articles and publish them on Al Jazeera, levelling the charge of Orientalism at “the West.” Furthermore, they enabled ex-CIA agents to write articles and books denying the legitimacy of the Green Movement. Four years later the highest military officers of the Islamic Republic confess in broad daylight that they engineered the election and violently oppressed the dissidents. It is not just European Orientalists who abused their positions of power to produce knowledge at the service of that power. On this issue I stand firmly against these propagandists who have brutalised a nation and who preside over its destiny. My being “an Iranian scholar” is nothing but a red herring.
Is the mother of Sattar Beheshti, whose son was murdered in the prisons of the Islamic Republic, an Orientalist? Are the mothers of Neda Agha Soltan and Sohrab Arabi, murdered point-blank by the agents of the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic, Orientalists? Is Mohammad Nourizad, who has risked his life to inform the world of the atrocities of the Islamic Republic, an Orientalist? Are leading political prisoners like Mohsen Aminzadeh, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Abdollah Ramazanzadeh, Feizollah Arabsorkhi, Moshen Safai Farahani, Mohsen Mirdamadi, and Behzad Nabavi all Orientalists? Are Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and their fellow presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi – all of whom have accused the ruling regime of fraudulent behaviour and abuse of power – also Orientalists? Lines of alliance and solidarity long ago crossed the false binary of “the West and the Rest.”
The Fierce Urgency of Now
The shifting centres of power have become amorphous, and produce equally unstable modes of knowledge. In what I have called “liberation geography,” the world at large is now actively engaged in reimagining itself. This book is informed by a feeling for “the fierce urgency of now,” as Martin Luther King called key moments, as a form of eyewitness history, from the trenches. This mode of thinking is the material of a future history of our present. Beyond the condition of coloniality was the reactive moment of postcoloniality. The combined effects of the Green Movement in Iran and the Arab revolutions have put an end to that – epistemically, far more than politically. Politically the battles rage not just in Egypt and Syria, but also in the trenches of ideas that can no longer afford to be bored with banal bifurcations such as “Islam and the West,” and “the West and the Rest.”
In my essay Can Non-Europeans Think? I asked a very simple question. A couple of young European philosophers thought I was addressing them, even though a quick look at the title alone clearly indicates that the target was non-Europeans. I have concluded from their response that there is a structural flaw in the make-up of the European philosophical mind, at least in the version that these two philosophers practice: they cannot read other people’s thoughts, even when they have crossed the linguistic divide and write in one of their languages, one of those they have colonially imposed upon the world at large; consequently they are blinded to these other realms, do not reads their scripts, cannot fathom their universes, and systematically and habitually assimilate whatever they read back into what they already know and have epistemically pasted upon the world. This is doubtless natural for them, but is quite a nuisance for the world at large, for the inhabitants of other worlds, those that European imperialism has ravaged and left in ruins, and whose inhabitants might indeed one day fathom things out for themselves.
These philosophers cannot comprehend the notion of the moment when a thinker might actually not be talking to them, but rather be standing right next to them, neither under nor over them, nor indeed up there. They are blinded to the world in which other people think their unthinkable thoughts. When their anthropologists and area specialists read the world for them, they assimilate this reading into what they already know; and what they know is how to rule, how to own, how to possess, and how to map the world in defiance of its inhabitants’ will, wishes, and resistance against their will to know. This will to know has made them the knowing subject since the pages of Immanuel Kant; the very same pages that state that we coloured folks cannot think because we are coloured, and consequently we are part of the knowable world. Another map more familiar to others will drive them mad, so they consider those who have created those maps and who live by them to be mad. Orientalism is about knowledge and power; it is not just about European power and the knowledge it needed to rule the world. All empires have produced knowledge that is compatible with their imperial interests – witness the Arabs, Persians, Mongols, Romans, and so on.
Europeans as Europeans (the saturated sign of a self-raising, other-lowering ruse) will be unable to read unless and until they join the rest of humanity in their common quest for a level remapping of the world. The relations of knowledge and power are multiple and varied. Thus the Islamic Republic of Iran can mimic, ape, and even up the ante on the model of imperial notions of soft power by revising it through asymmetric warfare. We thus need to change the interlocutor, for we are no longer talking to the dead interlocutor code-named “Europe,” or “the West.” For “the West” was (as Fanon said) the invention of the Third World; since the Third World has imploded and gone in search of its own future beyond the European imagination, so has “the West.” And since where the colonial world once was is now an empty echo chamber awaiting future philosophers, European thinkers like Zabala and Marder need to stop playing with their philosophical drones. Otherwise, when their favourite guru screams “Fuck you, Walter Mignolo!” all he hears back is the echo of his own words, and in his own voice: “Fuck you…”
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University. Born in Iran, he received a dual PhD in the sociology of culture and Islamic studies from the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Dabashi has written and edited many books, including Iran, the Green Movement and the USA and The Arab Spring, as well as numerous chapters, essays, articles and book reviews. He is an internationally renowned cultural critic, whose writings have been translated into numerous languages.
This text appeared as the Introduction to the book Can Non-Europeans Think?, by Hamid Dabashi, with a Foreword by Walter Mignolo. Its original title in the book is Can Non-Europeans Read?
© Zed Books.