Orientalism in 2020

 New Critical Approaches to the Byzantine World Network

“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’… In short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Said, Orientalism, pp 2-3.



The argument that Edward Said made in Orientalism (1978) was that ‘the Orient’ functions as an imaginative and political construct. As a result, one cannot take for granted representations of ‘the East/Orient’ because these are formed by ideologies, values, and an imaginary, often one belonging to the dominant intellectual and ideological currents of the West (broadly conceived). Said sought to demystify self-evident truths produced about a space (a rather disparate space) conceived of as ‘the Orient’. For Said ‘Orientalism’ meant an acceptance of the division of Occident-Orient that functions ontologically. The manifestation of this ontology, according to Said, was most evident in a violent, imperial relationship towards that region, which the Occident has maintained (to this day). Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (1993), amongst other works, explored this relationship as mediated and informed by a Foucauldian regime of knowledge about the Orient that had been researched, produced, and reproduced by the Academy and in literature. Although others had already identified many of the constituent parts of Said’s critique, such as Anouar Abdel-Malek or Frantz Fanon, Said’s Orientalism disseminated a new common sense: an anti-colonial and anti-imperial critique that remains a topic of debate and injunction to this day.


‘Orientalism’ has become a common and wide-ranging critique, co-opted by a range of (sometimes) opposing actors. It began as a critique of Western scholarship on topics related to an imagined East that largely covered the MENA, but could easily have applied to the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and beyond. The concept of ‘Orientalism’ also covers a range of periods, since the spread of colonialism, according to Said, went hand-in-hand with the power to study and define. Thus, the historical study of ‘the Orient’, including what objects of study would be deemed as belonging to the discipline of ‘Oriental Studies’ was the remit of Western experts producing information about the East. It should be noted that ‘Oriental Studies’, as conceived by the academies of imperial states, varied; and ‘Oriental Studies’ in the Russian Empire differed from ‘Oriental Studies’ in the British Empire. This is why our network chose to revisit this work and to discuss the relevance of Orientalism to Byzantine Studies today. One area that we explored was how the fragmented production of knowledge about the Byzantine Empire and, beyond that, the Byzantine world, is a result of the failure to grasp the existence of an expanding cultural sphere without enforcement by a single state.


By the time that Gibbon was writing his history of the ‘fall of Rome’, the term ‘Byzantine’ was already widely accepted as an over-simplified representation of the Byzantine Empire, an empire in decline from its inception. The fascination and repugnance expressed by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Gibbon, or Hegel can be characterised as a sort of ‘orientalism’ in that it produced a regime of knowledge that installed a binary, delineating the trajectory of an East (at the time under Ottoman rule) from that of the seamless transformation of the Western Rome Empire into the proto-national medieval states that would become the nation-states of modern Western Europe. According to Byzantinists such as Angelov and Agapitos (see webinar bibliography), this story is one that favours a naïve claim to the heritage of Ancient Greece via Rome and the Renaissance, one that stridently excludes parts of the former Roman Empire deemed to have an ‘interrupted’ heritage. Thus, Libya, a centre of the Roman Empire until Late Antiquity, was ‘reclaimed’ via an Italian imperial venture that proclaimed the reconquest of Roman heritage for Italy. Libya and Libyans were thus written out of a story of continuity (as claimed by the unified Italian state), even though they had been instrumental in preserving Roman imperial heritage, inserting it into the continuous urban fabric of cities like Tripoli.


In many ways the ‘orientalising’ depiction of Byzantium and the Byzantine world is that of an ‘Anti-Europe’ or a machine for developing forms of theocratic and authoritarian modes of governing (such as the tired tropes and pseudo-historical analyses of Russia and its ‘democracy deficit’). And Byzantinists have grappled and repudiated this shaping of information about Byzantium and its cultural sphere. For Angelov, Byzantinism, like Balkanism, is a concept of ‘Otherness’ by which Byzantium is turned into a foil for the cultural construct of Europe, a foil that lacks a certain accomplishment, or modernity. Cameron demands the drawing of a distinction in the periodisation of Byzantium and posits the need for a critical analysis of the historical injunctions against Byzantium. She further points to the long history of Byzantine historiography and that many practitioners of Byzantine Studies have shown a marked hostility towards their object of study (e.g. Romilly Jenkins). Haldon is historicist in his analysis of the intellectual currents of the Byzantine period; namely, that the representation of a maintenance and return to Roman cultural and political forms preserved in Byzantine literature should in no way be read literally. In this sense, Byzantium (along with the Abbasid Caliphate and its successors) was constituent of the reception of Classical learning and the culture of learning developed during the Renaissance. For Kaldellis, it is a question of fully asserting the ‘Roman identity’ of Byzantium, which can also be called the Eastern Roman Empire. However, in our discussion, Felege-Selam Yirga pointed out that the thrall of Rome and Romanness, functions as a means to inherit a high level of cultivation in terms of politics, philosophy, culture, and even race. Thus, the privileging of Rome (Yirga gave the example of Ethiopian historiography where the Roman connection is privileged above any other) presents an exclusionary value argument, one that supports and reinforces an ‘orientalising’ binary rather than moving beyond it.


The wider discussion brought up the key role of value and valorisation in battling the ‘orientalising’ narrative as it pertains to Byzantine history. Network member, Mirela Ivanova, saw the insertion of Byzantine history into European history as a form of retroactive valorisation. As network member Jules Gleeson suggested, the misfortune of Byzantium is that it exists at a productive crossroads, invalidating the exclusionary logic of wider medieval history while, at the same time, existing in a marginal zone within disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, as Sophie Moore stated: Byzantium destabilizes the clean rhetoric around Rome, showing that all of our taxonomies are culturally-loaded and politically-mediated. Gleeson opined that the absence of any critical historiographical training for future Byzantinists only functions to perpetuate stereotypes. Thus, the ‘orientalist’ shaping and treatment of information about the Byzantine world renders ‘Orientalism’ as an auxiliary concept in Byzantine Studies. Network member, Matthew Kinloch pointed to the mental map of the Roman Empire, which both excludes Byzantium (beyond the late antique period), but also posits imperialism as synonymous with successful rule and association with the Roman model. Medieval Byzantium, assailed by the proto-colonialism of the Crusades, scrambles a worldview that sees associates successful imperial conquest with a certain prestige. Thus, Byzantium (minus its cultural sphere) becomes a site of an ‘orientalising’ discourse while maintaining a draw and self-representation of antiquity and Romanness. Network member, Nik Matheou, posited that the study of Byzantium suffers from its periodisation. After all, the Byzantine period covers Antiquity itself, ending in 1453 (minus the paradigm of ‘Byzance après Byzance’). This leads to the question of how to formulate a cogent narrative that covers a thousand years of history, incorporting a space that, ultimately, ranges from Spain to modern Iraq and from the Russian North to Ethiopia. Matheou further posited that the source of this paradigm is a fetishization of the state form, functioning as a basis for the continuity and prestige of Byzantium (according to a late antique model); mostly ignoring its wider cultural sphere and many permutations. The elimination of ‘Orientalisation’ is not an objective. Rather, the aim should be to move beyond the binary logic of ‘Orientalism’ towards a post-colonial historiography, one that is critical of empire; one that sees beyond the state form.


Perhaps one of the pitfalls of reading Said à la lettre is that Orientalism, at times, only functions as a cultural critique, narrativizing difference according to an Occident/Orient binary. Certainly, the authoritative discourse of Orientalism offers a cosmopolitan, and even a detached, critique; very much a critique of Western scholarship from within Western scholarship. As a result, a critique of Orientalism (see Pouillan et al.) posits that exchanges between these spheres (as conceived after the 18th century) were neutral; rightly viewing ‘Orientalism’ as the culmination of a historical process (see Janet Abu-Lughod for a historical evaluation). Here, a materialist critique of Orientalism is productive in connecting the incipient processes of classification and knowledge production with the appropriation of territory and resources. In Culture and Imperialism, Said argued that one of the achievements of imperialism was to bring the world closer together; that the experience of empire was a common one. The common experience of the Byzantine Empire was that imperialism was a structure and not just an event. However, at the same time, the Byzantine Empire was very much a premodern empire. The Byzantine cultural sphere developed out of neither exploitation (in the way that we understand imperial ventures since the 19th century) nor conquest. Thus, there are many avenues that remain to be explored (here Vivek Chibber’s ‘The Dual Legacy of Orientalism’ is useful) and ‘Orientalism’ remain a valuable heuristic underpinning our evaluation and interpretation of Byzantium as a historical unconsciousness.


Alexandra Vukovich

Listen to the Podcast Orientalism and the Postcolonial Turn here.

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