Monday, June 4, 2007

Theses on Orientalism and Islamophobia

1: Public opinion is held by no one, but is the opinion in which one becomes Other to oneself.

Steven Assael, Untitled [Superman] (2006)

2: It would seem that public opinion represents the consciousness of a group of people as they unite and impose their will upon some relevant authority, whether that authority be some government official of whatever rank, the local radio station or the bakery across the street. But this is not the case. Public opinion is not the expression of the power of a group, but the manifestation of the powerlessness of the self in the mass in which that self has become anonymous or abstract. It is the structure of a collective and therefore external identity.

3: That there is a connection between Orientalism and Islamophobia is not a surprising declaration. They are intertwined ways in which the Occident orients itself towards the Other as threat. But two things must be realized here.

3.1: First, every Other is, as such, a threat. This is not unique to the Oriental. They represent a comparable but separate desire with its own projects which is capable of appropriating resources and values which I may need against my will. Orientalism, then, represents the way in which the specific threat represented by a particular object, now called the Oriental, is thematized so that it might be put into practice.

3.1.example: This is different in content and scope, but comparable in its form to my relation to my neighbor, who is likewise an Other and a threat to me. Let us say that along the property line between my property and theirs are two rows, very close to one another, of blueberry bushes. The property line runs directly between these two rows of blueberry bushes. When my neighbor goes to cut the grass they are not able to ride the lawn mower directly between the two rows of bushes and so they always use the weedeater to tend to the blueberry bushes. One day, knowing that I have hurt my ankle, the neighbor trims around my bushes for me in an action of recognition and reciprocity between us. This allows me to complete my lawn care on the riding mower. But the next week, the neighbor does it again. And the next week again. Now there is confrontation and conflict regardless of the (let us say it already!) supposed good will of the neighbor, because if I allow the behavior to continue, at a certain point, in the eyes of the state of North Carolina, the property will pass over to my neighbor because they have cared for it (and we all have John Locke’s theory of property to thank for that). The bushes that were mine and which I used to make desserts and such to my great delight, will no longer be mine. The neighbor becomes in my eyes crafty and deceitful, a dissembler, who flatters me on the one hand while trying to steal from me on the other. The neighbor must be watched at all times because they are lazy and shiftless, not content to gain profit in a legitimate way, they would rather take what belongs to and has been nurtured by another, namely myself.

3.1.conclusion: Their separation from me and from my interests is made necessary by the nature of the object itself – my property – which constitutes them, by its very shape, as a threat, as an Other whose projects may interrupt my own, ultimately in a critical and perhaps even fatal way if things spiral too far out of hand. I need know NOTHING about my neighbor in order to know this. This is the truth of who they are in relation to the object in question, no matter what subjective characteristics they might possess. In other words it is objectively the truth: it is the truth carried in and constituted by the object itself. So we can summarize the first move of the object is that it constitutes the Other as Other and in this case as someone lazy, a liar, tricky and dissembling, greedy and lustful, etc., and I must adopt this attitude towards the Other if I am going to act in my own interests.

3.2: So the object makes the Other into the Other, but the truth of the matter is that the object also makes me into an Other.

3.2.1: Islamophobia, as the reflex of Orientalism, is not, first of all about the Oriental. It is about me. It describes the actions that I must take in order to maintain myself with my desires in the face of this Other, this Oriental, who is a threat. Once again, this is not a description of some subjective attitude on my part. It is not necessarily reflective of who I am in my personality, subjectivity, or selfhood, etc. It is who I am objectively, i.e., in relation to this object which demands maintenance and defense from me. My attitude and actions are given to me by the object as part and parcel of its character. This means that once again the attitude of Islamophobia is given to me as someone anonymous. Who I am does not matter other than the fact that I, like any other of a certain type, stand before this object in a particular way (as an American, and most probably as a White American). What matters is this generic identification which is indifferent to who I am individually. In other words, I receive my actions and attitudes as externalities. The I-who-acts could be anyone, any member of the genus to which I happen to find myself a part. I receive them as something Other than who I am; I am Other-than-I-am.

3.2.2: But we can take it one brief step further. To a certain extent MY Islamophobia is not even the attitude I hold indirectly, but the attitude I hold for Others, or, to put it otherwise, it is not the attitude I hold, but the attitude that I wish other members of my genus to hold. As an individual I need not hate the Oriental. I am capable of making individual judgments about good and bad Orientals. This is the source of that timeless but irrelevant defense in the face of my own racism: “I have Oriental friends; I cannot be an Islamophobe”. The problem is that the Oriental is a threat not only to me directly, or even more correctly, is not a threat at all to me directly, the Oriental is a threat to me-as-member-of-a-genus (e.g., American or Westerner or civilized humanity). The threat is not only to me but to me through all the other members of my genus. I am threatened through them and I am powerless to protect myself from the threat that occurs to me through them. Thus I need them to hold an attitude which will protect me from the Oriental-threat. I need them to defend me with all vigilance (the same holds true, by the way, for other members of my genus about me – they are threatened through me and I must maintain vigilance for them). Thus when I adopt the attitude of Islamophobia, as the attitude objectively required by the object (America, civilization, Christianity, etc.) I am not adopting it for myself as such but as the attitude of the others of my own genus to whom I offer myself as example.

3.2.example: Let us return to the much lower stakes of the owner of the blueberry bushes. My aggression against my neighbor is not based on my subjective attitude towards them, but out of my bushes’ demand that they be maintained by me if I am to use enjoy tarts in the summer. Moreover my own good will towards my neighbor is irrelevant because I must live the aggressive maintenance which the bushes require of me as an example to my neighbors so that they too will maintain their property and thus protect the common laws of property against any violation which would jeopardize mine in turn and in so doing expose me to harm and, if things were to spiral out of control, complete loss of property and death.

3.2.conclusion: Thus my phobic attitudes are doubly Other to me, or, better, are the attitudes-I-hold-as-Other-to-myself. They are the objectively demanded attitudes that all members of my genus must hold and which I hold as an example to the other members of my genus, due to my own impotence, as a reminder of the attitudes they must hold in order avoid exposing me.


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