Friday, October 6, 2017

John Dewey: Experience in Life

Throughout history, the capacity of art to affect both societies and individuals has been profound. As a concept that is undeniably complex and powerful, art has influenced mental states ranging from bliss to revulsion, as well as being both embraced and disavowed from societies. Various philosophic approaches have sought to determine essentialized definitions and understand anti-essentialist positions that attempt to know what art is, and how it functions in particular and universal modes. The American philosopher, John Dewey, formulated an aesthetic philosophy that called for a repositioning of art in the experience of the individual and the ideological constructions of society. According to this view, the moral implications of art are not fully appreciated in modernity, and consequently the human aesthetic experience has become significantly removed from the natural world. Thus, the aesthetic experience of art has the power to revitalize the relationships humans have with each other as well as their relationship to the societies in which they construct and inhabit.   

In his aesthetic philosophy, Dewey felt that the motivations to produce and appreciate art were foundational to the experience of being human. In this respect, art is not separate from human experience, but rather is something that can only be understood as an experience. Hence, the meaning of an artistic work cannot be derived from the singular objective status of the artwork. Instead, meaning is the result of a symbiotic relationship between the creator and appreciator of an artwork, and it is this aesthetic experience that defines art. In this way, the experience of art is similar to biological functions in that it works to link, or alternatively, associate humans to their environments. The aesthetic experience acts as a means to balance and harmoniously mediate the human presence within the natural world.

To understand Dewey’s conception of the importance of human experience, it is necessary to interpret experiences in ways that would not commonly be associated with art. At a primal level, humans have a constant relationship with their environment that is interactive. A human is, as Dewey designates, a “live creature” that exists within an environment in a manner that can be described as, “in the raw.” In this sense, the human is a reactive creature that is a constituent part of its surroundings, that correspondingly, ebbs and flows in a rhythmic, non-static fashion. For instance, an individual might be walking down a busy city street or find themselves on a solitary backpacking trip in the wilderness, or participating as an athlete in a sporting event or watching one on television. Degrees of experiential interaction vary from ennui to the momentous and positive to negative, but nonetheless, any experience can be powerful in its affect on an individual. Yet, an awareness of the power of experience seems to be lacking in modernity. This ignorance of experience can facilitate ideological designs upon the individual that function to disengage critical thinking and reify systems of power that come to dominate societies. It also can contribute to a sense of apathy that not only enables cultural homogeneity, but deprives an individual of a profound and meaningful existence. It is perhaps this loss of personal meaning through disjointed but repetitive experiences that emphasizes a lack of aesthetic appreciation that, in turn, invites external moral influence.

In the Deweyian perspective, such disjointed experiences are said to be “anesthetic.” These are experiences that have no connective thread that binds them into a cohesive whole that results in a definitive meaning. They are instances without any clear-cut inception or end. Dewey writes:

Things happen, but they are neither definitely included nor decisively excluded; we drift. We yield according to external pressure, or evade and compromise. There are beginnings and cessations, but no genuine initiations and concludings. One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience. 

These anesthetic experiences serve as an agent to mollify and shape entire societies into obedient and morally dutiful populations. In this manner, honor is bestowed on the individual that subserviently functions within an established order that the power of authority aligns with moral decency. Whether or not this endorsed, and thus majority, morality resonates with the individual’s singular moral sense of right and wrong is extraneous here, but rather the primary onus rests with the implications of an individual’s non-awareness of their experience in the world, as well as the desensitizing effects of the anesthetic experience. The concern herein is the morality of the anesthetic experience to affect individual notions of morality that consequently construct a plurality of sensibilities in a society. The power of ignorance in a well-functioning society is beneficial to hegemony, and as Dewey indicates; “One great defect in what passes as morality is its anesthetic quality. Instead of exemplifying wholehearted action, it takes the form of grudging piecemeal concessions to the demands of duty.” Thus, there is a crucial importance in an person’s ability to be aware of these aesthetic sensibilities that inform and aid in the development of individual morality. 

Awareness to all experience is fundamental to the appreciation of art in an aesthetic experience. This awareness involves the capacity to decipher the anesthetic experience from what Dewey characterizes as, “an experience.” In this approach, an experience is one in which a single quality permeates connected episodes. This quality serves to relate each episode, that in effect, consolidates parts into a whole. “An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience in spite of variation of its constituent parts.” This unifying quality also entails a decisive commencement and conclusion that makes an experience a fulfilling and complete experience in itself. Thus, in having an experience, one is fully engaged in a meaningful way that associates an individual’s aesthetic sensibilities to their environment. An experience is an acknowledgement of the artistic qualities that come to inform customarily non-artistic experiences throughout an individual’s existence. The aesthetic quality renders, not just the conclusion, but the entire experience as profound. To exemplify this aesthetic potential in an everyday scenario, Dewey writes; “The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.” Hence, the aesthetically informed individual is a person that is not as susceptible to the disconnected anesthetic experiences that make for oblivious submission at the hands of an external agent. In being aware of the power of an experience in the Deweyian sense, an individual is able to know the fulfillment of virtuous activities that engender a meaningful life in the Aristotelian eudaimonia sense. Therefore, the aesthetically cognizant individual is not separated from their environment. They are connected to their experiences in their surroundings in the same way the artist and art appreciator are sensitive to the aesthetic experiences of art.     
In differentiating between the anesthetic and the condition of an experience, Dewey reveals the ways in which art as embodied in the aesthetic experience affects people and the common good of a society. In this manner, art is something that is either connected or disconnected from culture. The modern-day museum displays artifacts from an ancient culture as “art”, when in fact the culture that produced the work had no conception of art. In its current understanding, art is a fairly recent invention, and moreover, it was invented, or rather emerged, as a consequence of ideological power. In this sense, the cultural hegemon has the power to establish knowledge and historicize past cultures in a postcolonial, imperialistic fashion. Dewey’s contention is that, “Most museums are, among other things, memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism... The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.” In perceiving art as a commodity that is produced by a trained artist, modern culture has separated the art of aesthetic experience from everyday life. Art is isolated as a whole and in forms like, “fine”, “low-brow”, or “vulgar” that function to define art in relation to entities that are non-aesthetic or anesthetic. Thus, art is no longer a part of life in the ways in which, for example, it is being exhibited in a museum. The displayed artifacts of ancient cultures are concrete manifestations of art as a normal part of an everyday cultural experience. That is to say, aesthetic experience was a unifying force in the past, whereas now, aesthetic experience only exists in the domain of artists and art appreciators, and not in the fragmentary and compartmentalized experience of contemporary life.
Ultimately, the best criterion for assessing the strength of Dewey’s argument is 21st century Western culture – principally, American society. Writing his aesthetic philosophy in the 1930s, Dewey’s insights into art as experience, and its corresponding link to humans and their environment are remarkably prescient. In the ensuing time, the separation of humans from the aesthetic experiences that engender a meaningful existence has only become more severe. That Dewey’s philosophy seems so radical is evidence of this severity. Improved sensitivity toward awareness has not developed. Technological advancement has allowed for more abundant communication and increased accessibility to artistic works, yet the isolating effects of the anesthetic experience are increasingly profound. Modern humans are paradoxically busy and bored at the same time. While the aesthetic experience still has the power to revitalize human relationships and the common good, this awareness has, as of yet, not matured.   

Friday, September 1, 2017

Constructing Time

In the history of thought, the conception of time has always been a contentious issue. It is often taken for granted, as the previous sentence demonstrates, that time is real and inherently natural. Time has been viewed as something that is categorically absolute, as with Newtonian interpretations, as well as a dimension relative to motion in Einsteinian spacetime. While these notions are not wrong, they nonetheless regard and further establish time as an actuality that is quantifiable. However, it has been argued by Parmenides and probably most notably by Immanuel Kant that time is an artificial construction imposed on reality by the human mind. While this mental imposition is certainly beneficial in that the architecture of time allows humans to measure and thus understand reality, it does not in fact mean that time in itself is a fact of reality. In this sense, time like language, is at best a reifying mechanism that has taken a representation of reality and made the representation real and natural in itself. For Parmenides, Kant, and two 20th century thinkers which are the focus of this essay, John Ellis McTaggart and Donald Cary Williams, time is not an axiomatic truth of reality but rather a symptomatic construct that represents the limitations of human thinking.   

In the early 20th century, J. Ellis McTaggart published a paper titled, “The Unreality of Time” in which, like the title suggests, he argued against the reality of time. McTaggart begins by establishing that there are positions in the appearance of time that are manifested in two ways. First, positions can be distinguished as “earlier than” or “later than” and McTaggart refers to this as the “B series.” Second, positions can be distinguished as past, present, or future and he refers to these classifications as the “A series.” In the B series, events in time are permanent. This is to say, for example, if M came earlier than N, then it will always be earlier than N. Or, if a sunrise happened earlier than a sunset, then that sunrise will always and permanently be earlier than that sunset. In the A series, events in time change and are not permanent. To explicate this, McTaggart uses the death of Queen Anne as it appears in the A series. Queen Anne’s death began by being an event in the distant future. It then became an event in the immediate future. Then, the monarch’s death happened in the present. After which, her death became an event in the past, and as time appears to change, Queen Anne’s death becomes more of a distant event that happened in the past.

McTaggart points out that humans perceive time in both the manners described by the A and B series. However, the A series displays change while the B series is permanent and does not display change. Since time as it appears to humans displays change, then, as McTaggart asserts, the A series is necessary and foundational to the concept of time while the B series is not necessary. Additionally, the B series cannot exist on its own because its features of “earlier than” and “later than” are temporal in nature and thus require the element of change which only the A series can provide. In this sense, the B series needs the A series in order to function properly.

McTaggart claims that there is another series in the concept of time, and labels it as the “C series.” The C series provides order for time but does not involve change. With the order of the C series and the change of the A series, the B series comes into existence. This dynamic functions by change proceeding in a certain direction. The C series, to use McTaggart’s example, provides an order like M, N, O, P or P, O, N, M. In conjunction with the A series, the C series provides an order to time so that time can proceed to change from earlier to later as in, M, N, O, P, or also as, P, O, N, M. It is also important to note that the C series order can only proceed in two ways, so in using the same alphabetical example, the order can only be the two mentioned above and not something else like, O, N, M, P. In this way, the A and C series are necessary to time, and the B series arises from the order provided by the C series and the change provided by the A series.

In proving the unreality of time, McTaggart’s ultimate objective is to point out that the A series is contradictory. This is established by McTaggart claiming that events are either, past, present, or future. Yet, events in time always possess the property of a past, present, and future. Herein lies the contradiction, as McTaggart states, “Past, present, and future are incompatible determinations. Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one” (McTaggart, 468). Additionally, a “vicious circle” (ibid) emerges in this reasoning because for events to possess a past, present, and future, there has to be time. So, the past, present, and future of the A series is dependent on the existence of time, yet, as McTaggart has shown, time requires the necessary foundation of the A series to exist. Thus, time cannot be real.
In the mid 20th century, Donald C. Williams published a paper titled, “The Myth of Passage” in which he argued against the feeling of time passing. Williams believes that time exists in an Einsteinian, four dimensional spacetime fashion that he called “the manifold”, but rejects the notion that time is something that can flow or pass. Williams maintains that space cannot move within space, and similarly, time cannot move within time. This is to say that time interpreted as a thing that is quantifiable or measurable is a superfluous and purposeless metaphor. Time cannot be measured as something that flows because it simply exists as part of the manifold, and there is nothing relative to measure it against. Time cannot exist as something outside of itself in order to measure the passing of time. Williams construes time as an “ordered extension” (Williams, 463) that contains “parts of our being” (ibid), yet the feeling of aging through time is an illusion. In this way, the present or “absolute becoming” (ibid) is no more a real passage in time than is a point on a contiguous line. The only motion a human experiences is within the manifold and comprises of an individual existing at different places and times. Explaining this concept further, Williams states, “Time ‘flows’ only in the sense in which a line flows or a landscape ‘recedes into the west’... and each of us proceeds through time only as a fence proceeds across a farm” (ibid). He goes on to point out that the perceived becoming or passage of time is merely an unneeded mental construct that has perhaps developed from a unique human anxiety concerning the trajectory of aging, but ultimately this perception is not an inherent function of the spacetime manifold. Overall, these concepts of time that Williams has postulated can be related to McTaggart’s outright denial that time exists.

To begin, McTaggart believes that time is unreal due to the contradiction of the A series, while Williams believes that time is real but denies that it is something that measurably passes. However, Williams does incorporate some of McTaggart’s concepts into his own argument. Williams adopts the B series into his conception of the spacetime manifold and relegates the A series to a misunderstanding of the functionality of time. Williams asserts, “McTaggart was driven to deny the reality of time because he believed that while time must combine the dimensional spread with the fact of passage, the B series with the A series, every attempt to reconcile the two ended in absurdity” (Williams, 462). Essentially, Williams is claiming that the B series is correct because it represents time as an all encompassing dimension. This equates to Williams’ example of the sprawling fence on a farm. The “earlier than” or “later than” aspects of the B series can be located at different positions on the fence, which represents the manifold. Yet, the A series, for Williams, negatively contributes to the conception of time as something that flows. Thinking of time as a thing that has a past, present, and future, is wrong and only contributes to the myth of passage or the present as something that becomes. Williams writes, “It is the mainspring of McTaggart’s ‘A series’ which puts movement in time” (Williams, 461). This, of course, contrasts with Williams’ notion that time cannot move, as well as the perception that time has the ability to measure itself that results in a past, present, or future. Hence, for McTaggart, the A series is fundamental to the concept of time but in turn contradicts itself, thereby undermining the B series and the entire feasibility of time. For Williams, the A series is a useless construct that complicates time as conceived by the spacetime manifold, or B series. In both of these perspectives time is revealed to be a component of human thought and not a fact that is indicative of reality.   

Saturday, August 5, 2017

There was a moment when, after having talked of seeing old movies, we realized drive-in theaters were something we both remembered. The experiences at the theaters told between us, from our unacquainted past, preserved these remembered times as a narrative in which we once understood ourselves. They were always a peak in some specific night when arriving and leaving were sharp slopes. On one occasion it was recounted to me that when my friend was an adolescent, their party left the theater, which was a theater in the rural West, and drove on a myriad of dirt roads – the same roads in which they arrived but now found difficult to recognize in the dark of the new morning. Lost, they came upon an abandoned, strange building seen a ways from their vehicle. My friend told me that someone said it might’ve been a Japanese internment camp. The meaning of hearing such a term that was connected to an old building in the rural dark has gone past bewilderment and entered into memory. Of course, this is my memory, even though I remember my friend saying it was likely apocryphal, but yet, real or not not, it is something that is there.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Plato: Virtue & Love

Platonic virtue is an ideal and concept that runs through the Meno and Symposium. The ancient Greek word, “arete” was the original term that now translates to virtue. In Plato’s works, it is an approach to living that represents moral excellence, wisdom, courage, temperance, and is presented as an ideal that is continually sought and practiced. In both dialogues, virtue has a philosophically didactic nature that results from the various arguments presented.

Beginning with Plato’s transitional dialogue, Meno, the nature of virtue is examined. Meno asks Socrates if virtue is a concept that can be learned, acquired through experience, or if it is something that is innate to humans. Socrates replies that he does not know what virtue is, but then asks, “if I do not know what it is, how could I know what sort of thing it is?” (71b). Further, he claims to have never met anyone that did know what virtue is. However, Socrates’ answer already implies that there is a single definition that is common enough for all people to be familiar with the word “virtue.” So at the outset, it is established that virtue is a concept that people seem to know and understand, yet a precise definition remains elusive. Thus, Socrates then prompts Meno to tell him what he thinks virtue is. In doing this, Socrates has initiated his dialectical method of pursuing an answer with persistent questioning. The point, philosophically, is to question established answers and, in so doing, generate new answers that could possibly supersede the original answer in validity. Meno responds that virtue is relative to the perspective of an individual, therefore there are abounding definitions as to what virtue entails and that it cannot be described as an absolute concept. Socrates rejects this multifarious definition by saying, “we have found many virtues when we were inquiring about one” (74a). Although he does acknowledge that their inquiry is useful is stating, “the one that extends through all of them we cannot find” (ibid). Here the Socratic dialogue helps Meno to recognize that there has to be a singular accepted idea of what virtue is, and that Socrates’ methodology has eliminated an answer and produced a technique to further pursue a correct answer. At this point, Plato’s dialogue has demonstrated that inquiry has yielded knowledge. Socrates and Meno have learned about virtue without any teaching. This process has directed them to recall and articulate knowledge that was already within themselves.

Socrates tells Meno that knowledge is obtainable through recollection because the human soul is immortal and “has learned all things” (81c). To be persistent in self examination and inquiry will lead an individual to recollected knowledge. Socrates claims, “the whole of inquiry or learning, in that case, is recollection” (81d). To demonstrate this to a skeptical Meno, Socrates questions a slave boy on the geometrical nature of the areas of squares. In doing this, Plato through Socrates, establishes two philosophical conclusions. The first is that in realizing a lack of knowledge where one previously thought they possessed knowledge, an individual is likely to self-correct and vigorously pursue the true knowledge. Through Socrates’ questioning, the slave comes to accept that he was wrong where he previously thought he was correct. While the slave is now confused, he nonetheless understands that, “he does not in fact know, he does not think he does either” (84b). The second conclusion is that continual self-inquiry is virtuous in that it is good to seek knowledge within one’s self that leads to truths. With this in mind, Socrates continues to question the slave boy until the correct answer is produced. This confirms that the true knowledge concerning the area of a square was within the boy’s mind and that inquiry led him to recall the solution without instruction. Socrates tells Meno of the importance of this awareness of inherent knowledge in the slave boy’s future, “he will have knowledge without being taught by anyone but only questioned, since he will have recovered the knowledge from inside himself” (85d). In this sense, the boy has acquired wisdom. Through inquiry, he has reasoned his way to the truth and now believes in the process. This combination of belief and knowledge is essential to virtue in Meno. Although Socrates and Meno do not arrive at a definition of virtue by the dialogue’s end, the essence of virtue is distilled in the methodology of continual self-inquiry.

Moving on to a middle Platonic dialogue, the Symposium explores various appreciations and conceptions of eros, or what has been translated as “love.” In the diverse interpretations of love by the participants of the symposium, virtue is revealed to be an important factor that is also a multifaceted concept. In Phaedrus’ speech, love is described as something that provides guidance throughout life. In this way, love has a virtuous quality because it is being applied as an ethical model to follow. Plato evinces this in a binary fashion that determines what is right and wrong as Phaedrus says, “What guidance do I mean? I mean a sense of shame at acting shamefully, and a sense of pride in acting well” (178d). In the same way that the avoidance of physical pain keeps humans alive and healthy, shame keeps an individual away from things that are morally shameful. Likewise, virtue is rewarded with pride. Thus, the shame/pride dynamic constantly functions to direct one toward virtuousness. Similarly, in the next speech given by Pausanias, there is a right and wrong aspect in the way one chooses to love. Pausanias states “that there is a Common as well as a Heavenly Love” (180e). He associates common with “vulgar” (181b) in that the person that feels this love is interested in bodily pleasure that is immediate and temporary. Pausanias claims that male to female and older male to young male (boys) relationships are of this vulgar variety because there are no possibilities to develop a meaningful connection. Heavenly love, on the other hand, is equated with the soul and is long lasting. This love is seen in the ancient Greek practice of pederasty wherein an older male and an adolescent male have a relationship that is both erotic and filial. Pausanias claims that it is this kind of relationship that supports the teaching of and pursuit of wisdom. Hence, heavenly love is virtuous because it allows for philosophy as a love of wisdom to continue and thrive.

Virtue as moral wholeness that is aided by love’s permanence is taken up in the speech by Aristophanes. The speech can be interpreted as a morality based tale that is meant to communicate the importance of love to human nature. Aristophanes tells of a time long ago when humans where very powerful because they were whole bodies with two sets of sexual organs. Zeus thought they were too powerful and so cut all humans in half. As a result, human nature was imbibed with a sense of love that drove and continues to motivate humans to be with one another. Similar to Phaedrus’ theme, Aristophanes’ love is a kind of moral guide that, if followed, yields virtuousness. He asserts that “Love is our guide and our commander” (193b) and that “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature” (191d). The “wound” here can be likened to an incompleteness that results from an absence of love and virtue, and that mending it with wholeness insures a more righteous state. Wholeness also brings about reproduction that assures the continuation of love. This reproduction is both sexual and philosophic because, through humanity wisdom is perpetuated. This notion of reproduction is continued by Plato in Socrates’ speech, where he is reiterating concepts of love as told to him by Diotima. Stated simply, she says, “what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good” (205e) and “love is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Reproduction enables “forever” to be possible. She goes on to tell Socrates that all humans are pregnant and later give birth to beauty. Along the same lines as Pausanias’ common and heavenly versions of love, Diotima states that people are either “pregnant in body” (208e) or “pregnant in soul” (ibid), and both types of pregnancy are beautiful. Bodily reproduction is divine in nature and thus harmonious with beauty, while the soul’s reproduction is the endurance of “Wisdom and the rest of virtue” (209a). Virtuous qualities like temperance and justice are reproduced in the soul, and as a result remain stable and absolute. Virtue as a pursuit of knowledge is constant, yet ever-changing because new knowledge replaces old knowledge so that “everything that is mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been” (208a).

In the Meno and Symposium, there exists a coherent discourse on virtue. There is an immortal quality that virtue maintains in both works that is accessible to mortals that have an attuned awareness of virtue. This is seen in Meno when Socrates is discussing the recollection of knowledge; “Since the soul is immortal, then, and has been born many times... there is nothing it has not learned. So it is in no way surprising that it can recollect about virtue and other things, since it knew them before” (81c). In the Symposium, Diotima speaks of a ladder of love that leads to an ultimate beauty. She then wonders what would happen if one witnessed this divine beauty that is absolute and pure in its form. She answers that one would transcend past mere images of virtue to true virtue that is divine in nature; “The love of gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (212a). In both instances, virtue is a connecting point between the immortal and mortal. Through persistent inquiry, one can recollect and know virtue, and in understanding beauty’s true form, one can produce virtue. Ultimately, Platonic virtue is something that is sought and practiced, as well as held as an ideal that is revered.   

Friday, February 3, 2017

Edward Said: Postcolonial Orientalism

In the mid 20th century, European colonial empires of the previous 400 years began to develop into disconnected and more abstract forms of colonialism. The modern era of Western dominance in the colonized world still prevails in the forms of Neocolonialism and Postcolonialism. Although some traditional structures of physical colonialism remain, the prefixes of the reconstructed “colonialisms” connote new change and consequential aftereffect. Thus, Neocolonialism refers to imperial control via capitalist systems of free market economics and the related concepts of globalization. Postcolonialism refers to a critical theory of analysis that is used to study various hegemonic structures of knowledge, and is the focus of this essay. In this theory, colonial control and subjugation is ideological. The hegemony of the colonizing power is instituted by the creation of knowledge that defines itself through the binary of an idealized Other. That is to say, an identity is constructed and perpetuated by its polarized relationship to something else. As a critical theory, Postcolonialism is a method of interpreting the consequences of historical and contemporary imperialism.

In 1978 the Palestinian-American academic, Dr. Edward Said, initiated the field of postcolonial studies with his book, Orientalism. The text is a critical investigation into the nature of historical representations produced by ideological systems of epistemic power. The postcolonial perspective began with Said’s divergent experiences growing up in the British Mandate of Palestine, Egypt, and later, the United States. He came to feel an incongruence in the representations of the Middle East as portrayed in the West. The individual experience coupled with an amalgamation of interpretative features found in Structuralism, Psychoanalytic theory, Feminism, and the work of Michel Foucault led to an inquiry into the documentation processes of history. The resultant theory of “Orientalism” is both an analysis of traditional orientalist studies that began in the 19th century and a model of analysis that examines the resultant effects of oriental studies on the West. It is important to note that Said’s use of the root “orient” in language functions in a variety of denotative and connotative fashions. As a noun or adjective, the words “orientalism” and “orientalist” can be employed in the same way “racism” and “racist” are used to denote discriminatory practices. In a historical sense, the term “oriental” is not the present-day pejorative phrase that refers to the Far East of Asia, but instead is used in its obsolescent context to designate the Near East or what is now called the Middle East, as well as North Africa and India. Said also uses the terms “Occident” and “Orient” to respectively signify the geographical West and East, and to connote the Western and Eastern worlds as seen from a Western perspective. The positioning and multidimensional use of these terms in Orientalism, attends to Said’s overall thesis that the West has produced hegemonic knowledge of the East, to construct and know itself through the mirror of the East.

Said postulates that Orientalism began with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798. This event as opposed to previous European conquests, was an intellectual undertaking that was conceived as a scientific examination and documentation of ancient Egyptian history. The invasion removed the sovereignty of Ottoman Egypt to allow for a French occupation and the creation of the Institut d’Égypte. Hence, “Egypt was to become a department of French learning” (Said, 83) and in the words of French historian, François Charles-Roux, Egypt was to be “‘restored to prosperity, regenerated by wise and enlightened administration’” (qtd. in Said, 87). However, Egypt’s former greatness was now curated by a Western imperial power. The event illustrates the Foucaultian aspect of Orientalist power.

In observing, documenting, and archiving ancient Egyptian history, France created a new history of ancient Egypt. Of course, the French may have had noble intentions in the sense that modern conservation was needed to preserve the history of a society that existed for 3,000 years, and 1,800 years prior, but in no way could this undertaking be done without bias. The bias is not merely the separation of time and technology, but rather the difference in epochs that produce systems of knowledge and belief. Power moves with knowledge, and the conceptual seat of power and overall zeitgeist in 1798 France would have been vastly different from the Egypt of 2,000 BCE. Power is the concern of Orientalism for the reason being, that 1798 France was able to do something that 1798 Egypt was not able to do. The geographical and historical relics do not matter as much as the interpretation of, and then subsequent reinterpretation of knowledge. It is not as if 1798 Egypt would have been better at interpreting the past, but rather the past was interpreted through a modern European power that exists within the current epoch of modernity. To see history as something that is inert and solidified is nonsensical, and should alternatively be viewed as an all encompassing discipline that insists that “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied” (Said, 5). This first modern anthropological invasion of the Orient by a superior power created the foundation for the dissemination of discursive knowledge that is Orientalism.

Whether any knowledge purports to be true or not, the repetition of a certain knowledge is what incorporates knowledge into fact. This is a self-propelling process where the information of knowledge is recycled and sustained into a permanence that eventually becomes commonplace. Said’s Orientalism in this sense, has appropriated Michel Foucault’s use of discourse. Orientalism is a discourse, in that it perpetuates its own design of knowledge that believes itself. Examples of orientalist discourse, on a contemporary level, are the notion that all the variations of Islam in the Middle East are hostile to the West, or that all Arabs want Israel eliminated. These broad assumptions would be supported by repetitive language, literature, media, entertainment, advertising, etc., that in time would produce new knowledge of what it originally set out to describe. In terms of 19th century Orientalism the orientalist work of Alphonse de Lamartine, Ernest Renan, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, and Edward William Lane (who also translated and censored One Thousand and One Nights into its English version, The Arabian Nights), influenced the high literary work of Gustave Flaubert, Benjamin Disraeli (he also served as British Prime Minister twice), Gérard de Nerval, and Sir Richard Francis Burton. Discursive knowledge becomes essentialized and regenerates itself into knowledge influenced by generalizations and stereotypes. Orientalist discourse is this knowledge multiplied into the West as culture, arts, language, and histories that crystalize into the mindsets of new generations. The lyrics to opening song of the Disney film, Aladdin, are:
I come from a land, from a faraway place where a caravan camels roam, where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home. When the winds from the east and the suns from the west and sand in the glass is right, come on down, stop on by, hop a carpet and fly to another Arabian night.      
Orientalist discourse, whether it’s intended for children, readers of literature and journalism, or viewed as films, art, or television, is driven intertextually by any form of information dissemination.

The persuasive and authoritative power of Orientalist discourse emanates from the intertextuality of its sources. While the intertextuality of Orientalism from art to entertainment to journalism is somewhat broad, it can only occur in a contextual relationship to the West. This is the seemingly skewed dyadic of two unequal parties that was seen with the French occupation of Egypt. Yet, Orientalism became what it is, after that event. Consequently, there is no authentic East or Orient in Orientalism – there is only the West and its interpretative construction of a colonized place and its cultures. Hence, the breadth of Orientalism can seem expansive, but it can only ever exist within the confines of Western ideological control. To produce Orientalist art, entertainment, journalism, etc. is to operate, as Said claims, within a discourse that “is a regulated system of producing knowledge within certain constraints whereby certain rules have to be observed. To think past it, to go beyond it, not to use it, is virtually impossible because there’s no knowledge that isn’t codified in this way about that part of the world” (MEF, 10). In such a fashion, hegemony is real and the evidence is the internalized creative limitations of Orientalist representations of artists and audience. It is a system that Walter Benjamin has said “favors the overtaxing of the productive person in the name of a principle: the principle of ‘creativity.’ This overtaxing is all the more dangerous because, even as it flatters the self-esteem of the productive person, it effectively protects the interests of a social order” (Benjamin, 42). Such a system is normalized in the aforementioned intertextual repetition, as well as its condition as static and unchanging. The cultures of the Orient can be both backward and wise in inertia, because the conditions are needed as part of the authority of a normal or standardized entity to galvanize the reality of the Orient. Adopted Hindu and Buddhist wisdom, for example, are facets of Western culture because the West has the authority to present itself as tolerant and maintain its own versions of Eastern wisdom. Concepts like the “wisdom of the East” are a boon to authority in that they remain ancient and static, or synchronic, within and as a possession of a society that is diachronic, or constantly moving. They do not evolve, as the West contextually presents them, but rather function as orientalist representations. Thus, authority has given the West its identity. “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces” (Said, 20). The discursive power that can perform these functions, is a power that can construct binary identities that encourage superficial divides and polemical thinking.

Orientalism operates as a system of opposing binaries that create an idealized Self and Other. This is a relationship of difference. An Other cannot exist without a force to designate it as something else, as something that is not normal. This is ultimately how colonialism can establish a concept like race and how postcolonialism functions to preserve such a concept as an ideology. With the establishment of the Institut d’Égypte, the French began the process of ideologically colonizing the Other. Accordingly, Egypt became an object to study, judge, police, and reinterpret as something different. Through a taxonomy, an identity is created and then supported by the institutional structure of the authority. Validation of the Other, as to reify difference, comes with the highest form of authoritative truth; science. The reasons behind judgment become unchallenged and evolve into common sense, and into an area wherein, as Sut Jhally states, Orientalism can “present itself as objective knowledge” (MEF, 5). In this way, the universality of power has the ability to create racialized or orientalized subjects. This notion of Otherness, according to Said, was, and still is, supported by:
second-order Darwinism, which seemed to accentuate the “scientific” validity of the division of races into advanced and backward, or European-Aryan and Oriental-African. Thus the whole question of imperialism, as it was debated in the late nineteenth century by pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists alike, carried forward the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races, cultures, and societies (Said, 206).  
To possess ownership of the truth is to have the right to morally, spiritually, and intellectually decide what is correct, as well as to suffer at the hands the Other. However, a binary Other is a displacement of abnormality and the opposite of a Self that, is what it is not. In other words, the West projects itself onto the East, to create the Orient and the ideal Occident.

In Orientalism, the West is a reflection of its perfected self. It is the Self that looks to an Other to imagine what it is not. This is twofold by reason of the West’s fascination and subjugation of the Orient. In the former, the Orient is a place and attitude of exoticism. It is a mysterious land of scimitars, sensuality, Arabic music, flying carpets, veils, snake charmers, Rumi, belly dancers, fortune tellers, beautiful desert landscapes, Islamic calligraphy, camels, ornate mosques, etc. These were the great unknown qualities of the Orient that produced awe and curiosity. A desire manifested in the Occident for the Oriental dissimilarity. In this way, the Self recognizes itself in what it does not possess. As Jacques Lacan wrote, “man’s desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other holds the key to the object of desire, as because the first object of desire is to be recognized by the other” (Lacan, 58). In Orientalism, this desire is self-contained. This is how the Occident comes to construct the Orient in its own contrasting unlikeness. Although the object, or idea in this case, can never be as it appears in the Self. Arjun Chowdhury asserts, “In Lacanian terms, this is a risk prevalent in all situations of desire: desire always misses its object because what one desires is not a concrete object or person but a certain fantasmatic structure” (Chowdhury, 7). This Self/Other binary necessitates the projection of power from the Self to abase the status of the Other.

The exotic, unquenchable Orient in Orientalism is still the opposite of a Western colonial power, but now the exotic is coupled with weakness. “The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal” (Said, 40). This is the reciprocating, love/hate relationship of West to West using the classical, static elements of Orientalism. Hence the East became a place that needed Western ideals of law and morality. “The white man’s burden” became the simple trope appropriated from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name to rationalize imperial conquest. Now with a physical Western presence in the East, the “Orientals were viewed in a framework constructed out of biological determinism and moral-political admonishment. The Oriental was linked thus to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien” (Said, 207). This is the projection that rids the real of the real, to become a simulacrum, to become the Occident divorced of the Orient.

Physically and ideologically, this is still the essentialized vision of Orientalism that dominates Western perspectives of the Middle East today. Said’s example of imperial France’s invasion and taxonomy of Egypt runs a direct course to the American influence in the Middle East today. As a postcolonial ideology, Orientalism is active in Western media and as America’s Judeo-Christian Other. In action films, and journalism especially, American-led support for Israel produces skewed depictions of Middle Eastern peoples as simple and violent adversaries. The Israel/Palestine conflict is inordinately portrayed as the Middle Eastern Other against Western morality. Through repetition and saturation, images of war and Islamic terrorism become synonymous with evil, as well as the direct opposite of what is portrayed as Judeo-Christian America. Essentialist stereotyping of an out-group becomes so prevalent and lasting that almost any terrorist act is labeled as a product of the Oriental Other. When, in 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, it was assumed by many that it was an act of Middle Eastern terrorism:
[CBS News] Within hours of the explosion, local police and the FBI had issued the All Points Bulletin looking for three men believed to be of Middle East origin (MEF, 11)

[ABC News] The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East. ABC News has learned that the FBI has asked the US Military to provide up to ten Arabic speakers to help in the investigation (ibid.).
Orientalist projections not only explicitly demonize people from the Middle East with xenophobic assumptions, but act too easily in a racist manner as they differentiate themselves from the Other. This phenomena is exactly what Orientalism describes and predicts in its model.

Postcolonial theory has come to be recognized as a useful methodology to understand cultural, as well as literary and artistic endeavors. To apply any critical theory, is to analyze a phenomena through a specialized apparatus. Orientalism has been used in its original form to study the West’s relationship to the Middle East, but it can just as well be applied to any relationship involving an imbalance of power. Thus, Orientalism can be applicable to settler colonies, wherein the invading colonizers stay and subsequently construct internal colonies. The internal colonies are physical places that confine subjugated peoples to removed areas like reservations or urban areas like slums. In either scenario, there is colonial control and it is ideological, making it postcolonial.

One such internal colony is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation’s troubled history is fairly understood, but it’s current status is not as well-known. By employing Orientalism to analyze the current conditions of Native Americans at Pine Ridge, one can begin to understand the nature and strength of ideological domination. In this case, ideology is very apparent because there is no direct physical control. Rather, Oriental-like effects of power constructs can be recognized in the current state of health, of nearly 100% of Pine Ridge’s residents. The abysmal conditions of the reservation and its relationship to the US government are a fitting example of the effects of postcolonialism.
From the Orientalist perspective, the colonizer overly romanticizes the colonized into a distorted image of a fixed place in time. In this way, the modern Native American is only partially known to the “West” – the US government and most of the American population. Instead, the West experiences the Native American as the original inhabitants of the continent that look more or less, as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are strong warriors, nomadic, bear ornate clothing and headdresses, have a natural command over the fauna as well as ecology, speak in strange tongues, have eternal wisdom, and so on. The known modern view of the Native Americans is the solitary, sad and defeated alcoholic that is wasting away on a reservation. This perspective is true to an extent, but in the reality of Pine Ridge, the situation is a great deal more complicated. The romanticized classic plains Indian is the overall representation of Native Americans today. This is inline with the Oriental Self desiring the Other. The Western Self wants the simulacrum of that which it cannot have. The projected binary opposite of the least desirable aspects of the West are the disenfranchised, broken Indians, that are less seen in cultural representations of Native Americans. There is an unreality at work here as there is with the Orient and Occident dynamic. The classic Indian of the past and the American Western film genre is always of a lower caste than the colonizers even though the colonizer desires certain traits, and the defeated Indian is especially of a lower social rank. These images are the essentialized constructs of the binary that belies the true conditions that exist on Pine Ridge. What Orientalism is masking are some of the disquieting statistics of Pine Ridge:
·      Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the lowest anywhere in the western hemisphere, except for Haiti... Life expectancy for men [is] 48 years, and for women it is 52 years.
·      Native Americans’ rate of amputations related to diabetes is three to four times higher than among the general United States population. 
·      The suicide rate is more than twice the [US] national average.
·      The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the [US] national average (RCIS).    
When these facts are presented to an average authority of the West, the usual response concerns Native American’s laziness, that reservations are “nanny states,” alcoholism, etc. The Orientalist Native Americans are free people that were colonized and became victims of a problem, but then became creators of a moral problem. The colonized are now the burdensome derelicts of the modern West:
The earliest images of the native peoples in the European imagination reveal the projection of European binary alterity and ambivalence (Hulme qtd. in Duran, 118)... The imagery of the drunken native – violent, lawless, impetuous – emerges clearly in this analysis as one of the instruments which attuned Western collective consciousness to the notion of a North America awaiting the civilizing and rationalizing mission of European settlement (Duran, 118).
Orientalist Postcolonial theory is able to show the essentialization and subjugation of the modern Native American. Cultural discourse has portrayed the indigenous as romantic and broken, they have been infantilized to display native incompetence, and objectified into an Other. This becomes practical knowledge by virtue of tainted common sense and is used to understand or gain new knowledge with this hindered perspective. This is Postcolonial Orientalism and the power of its discourse.  

Works Cited:

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print

Edward Said: On ‘Orientalism’. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation (MEF), 2005. Video.

Chowdhury, Arjun. “Shocked by War.” Orientalism and War. Ed. Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski. Oxford: Oxford Press Scholarship Online, 2014. 1 – 29. Web.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.

Duran, Eduardo, and Duran, Bonnie. Native American Postcolonial Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.

“Our Story – The Reservation – Red Cloud Indian School.” n.d. Web. 24 March 2016.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Michel Foucault: Discourse, Discipline, and the Construction of Knowledge

In the work of the late 20th century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, “discourse” and “discipline” are terms used to respectively describe conceptions of knowledge and the nature of power. The terms have a symbiotic relationship and are aspects of Foucault’s theories concerning historical and anthropological explanations of ideology formation. The meanings of these words reach beyond standard definitions to demonstrate the malleability of societal and individual perceptions of accepted truths.

The traditional understanding of discourse is to communicate via speech or written text to produce an informative dialog on any given subject. Foucault however, uses the term to define a certain epistemology, which is to say, discourse is the product of knowledge. In this sense knowledge is not acquired onto a blank slate-like condition of mind, but rather acquired through discriminating filters of social constructs. New knowledge can only be influenced by old knowledge. Eventually, according to an interpretation of this Foucaultian concept by Robert Dale Parker, “knowledge constructs what it purports to know.” In this way, an idea or judgment happens and appeals to a dominant power structure, such as a cultural elite entity. The idea then gets recycled to eventually produce a convention. The original knowledge becomes self-perpetuating and thus produces an epistemic byproduct that develops into accepted truth. Knowledge grows into a caricature of itself through reproductive cycles that solidify its authority. It turns into a dogmatism as a result of its internalization by a society. For Foucault this process and result are a cumulative discourse. Internalized conceptions of truth become absolute and are labeled as “the discourse” in a particular subject. Put differently, an individual’s thinking is effected by the historical zeitgeist they are born into and their thoughts are more the product of discourse than original thought.

The conventional meaning of discipline as a punitive way to deter a behavior is used by Foucault in regard to individuals and societies self-disciplining themselves. Using Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon, Foucault described a system of control where prisoners self-police themselves under the surveillance of an invisible, but present, authority. Societies work like the Panopticon in that they have norms and socially accepted ways of behaving and thinking. Individuals conform to their societal and cultural traditions by operating within the boundaries of what is considered to be normal for the time and place in which they live. If one is to deviate from a social norm, they are punished in diverse ways until they re-adhere to the norm. The punishments for acting or thinking outside of habituated tradition include; social ostracism and isolation, being labeled as a pariah, misfit, outsider, or criminal, seen as abnormal, freakish, dangerous, and teased, bullied, fined, imprisoned or killed. Discipline and punishment are self-enforced as well as maintained by societal expectations and codes of conduct. This system of regulation is seemingly invisible but nonetheless a powerful structure in which authority governs.

The notion of sexual identity as gender can be used as an example to elucidate Foucault’s use of discourse and discipline. The modern discourse on gender creates accepted gender roles more than it defines gender. Conceptions of femininity and masculinity are indoctrinated into societal norms, and are recycled through generations to become a self-perpetuating discourse. The information on gender is not correct or incorrect, but rather a construct that has been strengthened through repetition. The repetition of the discourse is maintained by discipline. Gender roles are established, or just known, and operate within the discourse by disciplined reinforcement. Hence gender is a description of itself, and not a description of the anatomical differences (or intersexual combination) between the male and female sexes.