Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Orientalism Still Alive and Kicking

There has probably been no discipline more compromised by its close association with imperialistic government policies in the west than anthropology. Whether it is creating racial hierarchies to justify colonialism, trying to learn how to manipulate societies in order to legitimate colonial governments, or prop up friendly regimes, introducing infectious diseases into isolated tribal societies in order to model the impact of a nuclear war on American society in which a huge chunk of its population might die, or trying to justify abu gharaib by asserting that force is the only thing Arab societies respect and sexual abuse is the best way to get Arab prisoner's to talk, anthropology has been moulded by, and has moulded, how imperial powers interact with societies across the globe.

Its no wonder then that America has turned to anthropologists once again given its problems in Iraq. Enter the Human Terrain System - a plan to insert anthropologists into Iraq to study the "culture" from the ground and provide the Pentagon on the valuable information and perspective it currently lacks. As this U.S. Army site breathlessly informs us:
U.S. forces can operate more effectively in the human terrain in which insurgents live and function, HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decision-making process.

Of course, this has led to a widespread outcry and debate within anthropology circles. Most anthropologists know the roots of their discipline lie in the colonisers attempts to know/subjugate "alien" societies. Ever since Edward Said wrote his monumental work 'Orientalism' in 1978, the idea that branches of western knowledge have been constructed around attempts to dominate other societies and cultures has become increasingly understood, and post-colonial anthropology has done much to take to task much of the discipline, its inbuilt racist and hegemonic assumptions and aims.

Except in America. Its so interesting to see how Edward Said's name, as well as the term 'orientalism' have become "dirty" words in the language of much of the American political and cultural elite. People who have never read the book remark with scorn that Said was a Muslim fundamentalist (he was Anglican), a hater of the west (he was a professor of English literature and loved the arts), an opponent of the Enlightenment (he was a strong humanitarian and believer in universal rights, it is the abuse and absence of these ideals in much of academia that was the focus of his work on culture) and an anti-semite (despite having many Jewish friends and co-workers and, as he pointed out, being a semite himself).

Interestingly enough, the debate over anthropology's co-option into the Iraq war is being couched in the media as a struggle over whether the discipline will remain in an ivory tower or become "relevant". Consider this odd article which mixes intelligent quotes with muddle-headed observations:

That, said George Mason University's Gusterson, points to a more fundamental issue that arose in anthropology in the 1970s: the idea that cooperation with the military ran contrary to the science's basic principles.

"You pitch a tent ... among the people you want to understand, you live with them, you catch their diseases, you eat their horrible food, you share their joys and pains," he said. "The thought that you would cultivate those relationships of trust and intimacy and then ... go to the Pentagon and say 'these are the people you should kill, these are the people you shouldn't kill,' that's extremely problematic for people with that methodology."

For some elder anthropologists, the discipline's recoil had by the 21st century led to practical irrelevance.

"Margaret Mead was on 'Johnny Carson' more than two dozen times," said Felix Moos, a University of Kansas anthropologist. "Today when I ask an audience can you name one internationally or nationally known anthropologist, I meet nothing but silence."

Umm... now what is the real issue here? The fact that anthropologists are attempting to become part of a society in the name of creating knowledge and "understanding" while having the ulterior motive of creating types of knowledge geared for outsiders who wish to use violence to change that society for their own purposes, or that anthropologists don't get invited to the Johnny Carson show any more?

Having said all of this, the social sciences certainly need to play a greater role in informing and educating people about the world, even if it is only to correct the assumptions of other, more directly "orientalist" social science. If the Human Terrain System is overtly problematic, other government initiatives are less easily categorised. For example, is it possible for the social sciences to inform and shape a less-imperialistic 'war on terror'? This excellent article in the New Yorker gives some food for thought on the issue. One of the anthropologists involved in the HTS has his own blog here where he also attempts to tackle the ethics of what he is doing.


No comments: