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Reorienting orientalism

This collection of eleven essays re-evaluates Edward Said?s definition of orientalism.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2006 17:55 IST

Reorienting Orientalism
Author(s): Various; Edited by Chandreyee Niyogi
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 295
Publisher: SAGE Publications
Price: Rs 580
ISBN: 0-7619-3447-2

This collection of eleven essays re-evaluates Edward Said’s definition of ‘orientalism’ widely misconstrued as being merely postcolonial and contestable. The volume emphasizes the need to move beyond the prejudice and stereotyping tied to the context of colonial exploitation. It challenges the assumption that oriental studies only served to segregate cultures and undermine the oriental peoples’ capacity for self-formation.


This book shows how cultures can generate studies of themselves on their own and that the impetus for such work was clearly noticeable at least in Indian cultural scholarship during the colonial period. The contributors bring to light the orientals’ ordering of themselves and expose the fallacy that western imperialist discourse defined and described us. In the process, they draw upon Said`s distinction between ‘oriental studies’ and ‘orientalism’.

Overall, this volume is a plea for reading Said all over again. It shows how best this can be done by offering a variety of readings and texts and events of our cultural past, either in dialogue with the West or just being themselves in their oriental locations. Either way, it calls for a reorientation. Its successful effort in that direction makes this volume of considerable interest and significance to students and scholars of literature, history, sociology and culture studies.

Excerpt from Ananya Jahanara Kabir's essay "'Oriental Gothic': The Medieval Past in the Colonial Encounter":

This essay is part of a wider project on what I term 'imperial medievalism'. I use 'imperial medievalism' as shorthand for the relationship between medievalism and British colonial and imperial interests, especially in India. 'Medievalism' signals the construction of the Middle Ages as a distinct period within European civilization and history, a period demarcated from classical antiquity on the one hand, and modernity on the other. Medievalism can serve a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ideological and affective purposes - take for instance the Harry Potter books and films. In the films, especially, a counter-Reformationist's fascination with 'medieval' magic and witchery interact with resurrected memories of post-war children's literature to evoke and evade the realities of contemporary Britain. The Harry Potter phenomenon usefully illustrates how medievalism continues to work today, in order to discursive reproduce the Middle Ages as 'a historical entity capable of offering meaningful and even satisfying intellectual, aesthetic, political and religious images to subsequent societies' (Chandler 1998: 173).

Harry Potter notwithstanding, the heyday of medievalism was arguably the Victorian period, when academic, serious and popular discourse alike were criss-crossed by an intimate relationship with different aspects of the medieval period, and when King Alfred and King Arthur, Normans and Saxons, were frequently turned to as exempla for a historically conscious society. My basic starting point is that Victorian medievalism impacted colony as much as metropolis, in fact, worked to link colony and metropolis together. Victorian medievalism, thus redefined as a variety of imperial medievalism, is to be then traced to processes that were set in motion during the last half of the eighteenth century when on the one hand, medieval studies moved into the public sphere, and on the other, the work of the Orientalists began in earnest. In fact, I see Orientalism and medieval studies as emerging from a similar eighteenth century European milieu and mentalité; not only should we revisit both branches of scholarly endeavour as processual and evolving through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but we should examine the ways in which they evolved in tandem and in dialogue with each other.

Chandreyee Niyogi is a Reader in English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and has previously taught at Durgapur Government College.

First Published: Apr 11, 2006 17:55 IST