The 'we' in western

Occidentalism
March 29, 1996

The Lone Ranger and his trusty Indian sidekick face a posse of Apache, armed to the teeth and fired up with Weetabix. With a sudden change of heart, Tonto looks at his erstwhile compadre and utters that immortal line: "Who's this 'we', Paleface?" Occidentalism poses, albeit in academic and anthropological terms, the same question: "Who is this 'we' that we talk about when we talk about the West as 'us'?" In trying to answer that, J. G. Carrier and his contributors have to tackle the other "we", that academic and impersonal voice signifying authority, objectivity and expertise. But on behalf of whom? The term "occidentalism" is an easy inversion of Edward Said's "orientalism", and the authors use it, with varying degrees of success, to attack the stereotyping of "the West" in contemporary anthropological work. If, however, you come to the book hoping for an insight into how nonwesterners view and construct the subject, you will be disappointed. Instead, what we have here is a collection of essays by ten western anthropologists offering yet another critique of their own discipline.

There are those who think that much of the anthropological research that went on before these enlightened, self-conscious times can be discounted entirely, treating "old-style anthropologists" as latter-day savages, just as blind to and constructed by their own myths as the "primitive" tribes whom they studied. Much to their credit, Carrier and his contributors reject this way of thinking, as the chapters on Mauss by Carrier himself and on Bourdieu by Deborah Reed-Danahay amply testify.

Lamont Lindstrom's opening chapter offers not only a convincing deconstruction of cargo cults and cargoist texts but also breaks down "occidentalism" into its component parts. Although my heart sank a little when confronted with all these subcategories - from sympathetic-orientalist to pseudo-occidentalist - they did help to make sense of otherwise rather opaque passages in the rest of the book.

Lindstrom's refreshing analysis of cargo cults brings cargoism right back home. From the mall of America to Britain's National Lottery, "we really believe, nowadays, that fortune depends on episode luck, animated by ritualistic strategy, rather than on the old truths of steady progressive effort and hard work. We nurture both cargo desires and our faith in ritual and magical practice, kneeling daily at the altar of television."

Both Lindstrom in his opening chapter and Jonathan Spencer in his excellent closing piece focus on desire and consumption. Lindstrom concludes that cargoist texts are economic parables because "we desire desire, more than cargo; we love love, more than sweethearts."

Jane Nadel-Klein sneaks up on British self-occidentalism by turning away from anthropological discourse and reading British murder mysteries. With their rural village settings, middle-class or upper-class detectives and colourful local characters, they read like textbook examples of how the rural is constructed as the "oriental within". The rural characters are almost invariably portrayed as lower class, speaking in dialect and somehow out of synch with the modern, progressive world. They may exist spatially with the modern, progressive bourgeois West, she suggests, but are "cultural anachronisms".

From these close textual readings, she draws pertinent conclusions. She suggest that the unquestioning overlay of the West with concepts such as "urban/progressive/modern rational" and the East with "rural/past/traditional/superstitious" produces and sustains a complex cultural map of Europe - particularly in light of conflicts in the Balkans and Ireland.

Michael Herzfeld also tackles the complex question of European unity in his chapter on Greece. The Greeks, in a severe and prolonged attack of orientalism, characterise all things local and vernacular as essentially Turkish in origin and therefore "foreign", effectively eroding their own claims to an authentic and untainted Hellenism at every level. This "taint of oriental culture", Herzfeld argues "explains Greece's externally attributed and by now tragically internalised sense of failure to achieve full democracy, civic responsibility and moderation". The hand that rocks the cradle of European civilisation is revealed to be Turkish.

Deborah B. Gewertz and Frederick K. Errington venture further afield, to Papua New Guinea, to examine the cultural significance of money. The drama unfolds around the (thwarted) attempts of a German curator to export shell money and native artefacts from East New Britain. For the islanders, it is of tantamount importance to them that shell money should not be subject to western currency. The authors suggest that shell money is valued as a "cultural property", whereas the value of the dollar is primarily fiscal. Would they be able to make such an occidentalist assumption had they witnessed the horror of the British at the sinister "Ecu"?

In her essay on Japanese advertising, Mille R. Creighton also seems to skirt dangerously close to falling into precisely the same occidentalising or essentialising trap which she (and the other contributors) warn us against. Japan, she asserts, "constructs identity around an assertion of homogeneity", which entirely reinforces the western orientalist mythology that this is exactly what the Japanese are like - xenophobic, corporate-minded, anti-individualist and nationalistic.

Robert Thornton loses the focus on "occidentalism" almost entirely in trying to give us the potted history of the creation of the modern South African state. The problem, as Nadel-Klein pithily states, is that anthropology is "a discipline specialising in the exotic" and when "exoticisation" itself has been so thoroughly and systematically debunked as a way of perpetuating an unequal power structure between West and non-West by Said and others, anthropologists themselves have found their intellectual ground cut away from beneath them. Whether or not a new more egalitarian and less totalising discourse can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old or whether we end up with yet another example of "Americans talking about themselves" is another question entirely.

In the end, one is left wondering whether the term "occidentalism" is any more useful than "orientalism" or whether they are just flip sides of the same coin. I cannot help but think that by this point we should be able to deal in different currencies.

Anita Roy, former humanities editor at Manchester University Press, now lives and works in New Delhi.

Occidentalism: Images of the West

Editor - J. D. Carrier
ISBN - 0 19 8978 7 35 and 89795
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00 and £13.99

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