It is not hard to imagine how the process of colonialism in many countries around the world could result in a great number of misjudged and inaccurate representations of other societies – it is obvious this is going to happen. However, what is slightly less obvious is the exact reason for this happening. For the sake of simplicity, we will split reasons into two main categories (although in reality it is much more complex and boundaries are hazy); those of genuine misinterpretations and matters of power. Genuine misinterpretations are understandable, yet avoidable.
There was of course a tendency for westerners arriving in new lands to observe cultures, analyse them against frameworks that had been common in their own country. They could, say, compare the number of people in a certain African culture who displayed a certain type of behaviour to the amount of people that did so in western societies and seemingly draw a conclusion. James Clifford6 explains that problems with such types of research stem from the fact that cultures are not simply scienficic objects for study, that; “Culture, and our views of it, are produced historically, and are actively contested.
Obviously the second caterogy, that of political power, has given rise to the greatest amount of contreversy. The idea is simple: if a society are made out to be primitive, backwards, and savage, there is a percieved greater acceptance of using such peoples for the benefit of ourselves – ‘you eat each other, which justifies using you as slaves’ – canibbilism, of course being a common theme. Michael Taussig7 illustrates a speficic example of such exploitation in Native America, where “The savagery of the wild Indians was important to the propaganda of the rubber company.
” (1987: 83). He goes on to explain however that views of these Indians contradicted each other. ” (1987: 91). This example is the result of a specific company trying to exploit innocent natives, and of course similar methods are used in a wider context to manage whole nations, as Breckenridge and van der Veer point out from an Oriental perspective: “… not just a way of thinking. It is a way of conceptualizing the landscape of the colonial world that makes it subject to certain kinds of management” (1993: 6).
The former category could be the result of a secondary misinterpretation of people ‘back home’ in Europe: lies and deception resulting from colonial manipulation would often result in people being bombarded with false views of what had been experienced in foreign lands. These problems of interpretation are highlighted by Gananath Obeyesekere8 in his book describing the massive western misinterpretation on the act of cannibalism. (2005: 4). The general problem of all this for anthropology is, as Peter Forster9 makes clear, is that it simply does not take into account the massive influence of this colonial situation. (Talal Asad, 1973: 25).
In response to such a situation, I propose a question. Orientalism, like all western representations of the ‘other’, has always had a clear emphasis on power and control. With the modern world developing as it is – China fast becoming one of the world’s main powers, with India to follow in the future, what effect will this have on western Oriental views? Is it possible that a shift in, or at least an expansion of, power bases would abolish such stereotypes in any way, or is it possible that our views of what the Orient is are so distant from reality that any such change would in fact leave our ill informed views intact?
It seems fitting that an essay that originally intended to focus on the way the West represents the other actually focussed more on the universal criticisms of these representations – this is hardly a coincidence. What is clear from discussing these different representations of the ‘other’ we have is that while they may focus on very different locations, and completely different sets of misinterpretations, they all share some very common grounds – both in the way these representations are formed, and more importantly the way these representations are criticized and rejected.
Therefore in conclusion, while there will always be different names given to the ways we may represent certain areas around the world, it is likely that there will always be one combined perceived ‘other’ that an ignorant westerner may apply very similar frameworks to, no matter how different they may actually be.
Asad, Talal. 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Ithaca Press. (Chapter by Peter Forster. ) Breckenridge, Carol Appadurai, ; Van der Veer, Peter. 1993. Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Oxford University Press. Clifford, James. 1986. “Introduction: Partial Truths” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. (Clifford ; Marcus). University of California Press. Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge. Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. 1992.
White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press. Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2005. Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press. Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Books. Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A study in terror and healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.