Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Where we are", "when we are" and Who we Are

While combing through the archives of the French consul to Constantinople (1806) today, I came across a large stash of his more literary notes. These included a no doubt useful guide to reading Arabic, as well as more whimsical writings, such as his attempts at imitating Virgil in French verse and translations of Horace. He also recorded a number of local myths and fables.

I sometimes forget how intellectually curious these people were. Many of their documents pertain, of course, to dull bureaucratic matters; but they also spent a great deal of time studying the places in which they lived and worked. Frequently, I will find “missions” in which the consul has sent a dragoman (a Levant translator) to scope out forgotten ruins or local folk songs. If you were interested in these cultures, working as an ambassador or consulate was ideal; conversely, if you had the interest, you would be good for the job.

I think there’s also a tendency to lump everyone who travelled outside of Europe in the nineteenth century in with the mad imperial scramble of the time (really the latter part of the century). I have had scholars respond with shock when they found out that I am interested in finding out whether the traveling writers that I am studying actually supported the colonial project. “But, of course they did,” one insisted to me. “They were imperialists!”

Well, maybe. But how do all these different motivations: patriotic duty, intellectual curiosity, a love of culture, keeping a job, and even self-discovery: play out and how do they relate to the world around us? Heidegger might have been a bit of a con artist, but he was perhaps right that “to be” can only be understood as Being-in-the-world. How much of “who we are” is basically where we are, and when we are? And, as a historian, am I only really able to study those parts of people’s lives that related to their time and place, but not whatever lies beyond that? Does my curiosity make me an “imperialist” too?

5 comments:

Hiromi said...

I have had scholars respond with shock when they found out that I am interested in finding out whether the traveling writers that I am studying actually supported the colonial project. “But, of course they did,” one insisted to me. “They were imperialists!”

Oh come on. There had to have been dissenters. To me, heterogeneity is to be assumed.

narrator said...

Do you think there might be a difference - using the somewhat worthless "overall" category - between British and French diplomats in this regard? Not that there were not British diplomats who "saw well," but, did the French approach this a bit differently?

My son says, "the French were looking for interesting things, starting with food." It's a joke, but, French colonial cultures seem far more "collaborative" - from Algiers to Saigon - than the fully imposed British vision - from Williamsburg, VA to New Delhi.

And, after all, didn't Napoleon invade Egypt primarily because his scholars wanted access to the archeology?

Or is this just some fantasy of mine spun from an inherited anti-British bias?

Rufus said...

Well, I think what's getting me in trouble is that I'm dealing with some of the same people: Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Fromentin, Lamartine, Nerval, etc. that Edward Said put at the center of Orientalism. I definitely don't think it's as simple as he made it out to be, but his framework has been very influential.

But, no, I definitely think it was not as easy as western Orientalist bias: not only did different people vary widely in their opinions, but the "Orientalist" writers had a wide variety of opinions in each text. It's also worth remembering that they were classical republicans who saw the Ottoman Empire (not unfairly) as oppressive. So, they often tended to be anti-Turk, but pro-Arab, something that generally gets forgotten.

I think the real problem with the "Orientalist" idea (in the Said sense) is that nobody actually subscribed to an Orientalist ideology- we've just ascribed one to them after the fact. So, when they go off the script we've given them, people tend not to catch it.

I don't know how the French and English differed in their colonial practices. I will say that most of the native Americans I've known had French last names!

narrator said...

Said's always been a favourite of mine - but I'm speaking in "my role" as a post-colonialist type. I might imagine that the orientalism he sees in these readers is part of of what I just described, the French interest in pulling in what was new and different to them. This, of course, is good and bad - but as your "family name" anecdote suggests, many more French colonialists seem to have "gone native" than British colonialists did.

Anyway, I think Said is far more valuable in understanding the present - that is - in understanding how representations of this orientalism shape 20th and 21st Century politics and power, than he is helpful in understanding how these writers thought, or why they thought as they did. I suspect he would have admitted as much, at least later in his life.

Rufus said...

I like it. I have my problems with it, but you know, it's just a book. I think it's weird when academics talk about it like it's a masterpiece, but I've also heard conservatives say things like "Said poisonned the minds of a generation" and I just think "huh?"

Books are like a salad bar: you take a bit here and a bit there and keep moving.