Michael Fischer‘s “Orientalizing America: Beginnings and Middle Passages” (MER 178) is clearly an attack on the critical analysis of Edward Said and those scholars who have worked to cut down to size disciplines such as anthropology by continually reminding us of the conditions which allowed those disciplines to emerge. While Said would be pleased to learn that there is an “industry of Orientalist bashing” of which he is presumed to be CEO, the reality of a trickle of critical works from he, Gayatri Spivak and Talal Asad remains. Fischer poses radical chic to give the impression that anthropology has come to terms with its epistemological privileges, with the ways in which it constitutes others, and with the essential fact that its historical baggage is despicable and has played a crucial role in domination.
The list of “books and films discussed in this essay” is itself a misnomer — no such “discussion” takes place. Fischer really seems to be waving credentials by announcing that he has read and seen Arab expressions. It is interesting that the Said essay he cites is After the Last Sky; no mention of Covering Islam, The Question of Palestine or, most conspicuously, Orientalism. Fischer’s danger here is racism — it is all well and good that the subaltern is speaking, but at the end of the day the good Doctor Euroman will set things straight, constitute truths anew and patronizingly explain to the subaltern that the anger is justified but misguided. In short, power is never at stake with this perspective.
The notion of “multicultural media,” showing how “different perspectives can survive in the same social space,” is ludicrous. The New World Information and Communications Order initiative of the 1970s continues to fight the gross inequities in global media access and dissemination. Writers such as Ed Herman and, especially, Herb Schiller continue to demonstrate that a shared “social space” is nowhere to be found. Schiller’s “Not Yet the Post-Imperialist Era” (Critical Studies in Mass Communication, March 1991) demolishes any notion of a global civil society, reminding us of the continuing realities of cultural hegemony, corporate transnationalism, imperialism and other unpleasant truths that were supposed to have faded from existence approximately when progressive intellectuals in the West tired of hearing about them.
At the end of the day, anthropology and its ethnographies constitute just one faith amongst many others and can at best argue on political (i.e. non-rational) terms. Fischer and his colleagues must give up the “white men in lab coats” and at the very least acknowledge what has enabled their enunciations in the first place. As Said wrote, the voice of the subaltern “is in resistance to the discipline and praxis of anthropology” (“Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry 15/1).
New Britain, CT
Michael Fischer Responds
Reilly’s ideological bombast illustrates the mechanical “Orientalist bashing” industry to which I referred. Edward Said, whom I respect enormously, is not the object of such strictures. Indeed, while I have my friendly disagreements, I view Said as an ally in the struggle for secular democratic states in the Middle East, in which people of all faiths (and good will) can live together on the same land. I do call for an ethnographic listening to what others have to say, for recognizing alternative perspectives, competing interests and power relations, rather than doing as Reilly does: simply imposing his own moralism on everybody else (wielding privilege as a “European” white male?).
I’m glad the reader from Connecticut has discovered power relations. The question, dear Reilly, is not how to condemn and harangue, but how to change matters. A gentle proposal might be that sometimes articulating powerful alternative visions (alternative ways to listen and see the realities before you) to the repressive repetitions of the present can work more effectively than mere condemnations which reinforce the categories they pretend to condemn. Feminist perspectives such as those of Evelyn Accad, Fadwa Malti-Douglas, Fatima Mernissi, Bouthaina Shaaban, the decentrist poets of Beirut, Gayatri Spivak, Barbara Harlow, Ella Shohat, Smadar Lavie and others, for instance, may not overthrow the current governments of the Middle East or those of the hegemonic West, but they may help lay the groundwork for new ways of thinking. Many of these individuals find themselves caught in conditions of hybridity that sensitize them to the complexities of power configurations that the black and white world of Reilly cannot comprehend. Attacks like Reilly’s too often merely re-entrench defensive power configurations rather than undoing them. The greatest insult is perhaps the denial of agency to those Reilly presumably claims to see as victims:Tthe Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, has been fairly spectacular (whether effective opens up a series of further questions about ends and goals) in utilizing the international media. To dismiss this as not counting is Reilly’s own form of Orientalism. But I certainly agree that the arenas of the global media are now important ones to analyze in terms of both cultural politics and their attendant power relations, and I don’t think my article suggests otherwise.