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- Digital Scholarship/History
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Orientalism Transposed takes on two formidable tasks: to connect the methodologies of art history with the insights of postcolonial scholarship on Orientalism, and at the same time to shift the perspective from which Orientalism has traditionally been formulated. I say formidable, because incorporating both of these elements in a volume accessible and useful for both art historians and postcolonial culture scholars is a difficult balancing act. It requires that one combine theoretical apparati from Saidian Orientalism to Bhabha’s “sly civility” while discussing works of art—something neither of those theorists did. Each essay in the volume approaches the colonial encounter and Orientalism in differing ways, adding to our understanding of colonial and Orientalist interactions and challenging us to reconsider the ways in which we conceive of Orientalism, Colonialism, and the visual culture that supported and produced those relations of power. While individually the essays in the book are strong contributions to colonial studies, the project of Orientalism Transposed is not fully realized, in part because the discourse of Orientalism is not addressed and probed as a guiding principle of the volume.
The essays in the volume offer insights into the colonial encounter and the construction of the Orient that are contributions of inestimable value to our understanding of the relationship between Britain and its colonies. Julie Codell’s essay, “Resistance and Performance: Native Informant Discourse in the Biographies of Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda (1863-1939),” examines the biographies of Sayaji Rao in order to assess the king’s role in shaping his image overseas. Weaving together various readings of these biographies, Codell produces an image of the colonial subject as an active agent in the production of his own biography. This essay reveals and analyzes the complex interrelationships between cultures at play in charged political situations. Codell, for example, cleverly demonstrates that Sayaji Rao was presented as a Western-educated reformer whose support of the Independence movement in India was made to fit into his Western education and English political ties. Sayaji Rao thus manipulated the Enlightenment values of the colonizers to his own advantage. A major underlying strength of Codell’s argument lies in its debunking of the idea that the British colonial power was itself a unified, singular actor. Each of the British biographers she discusses takes a significantly different view of Sayaji Rao— together these dialogues form a complex and multifaceted discourse, not a simple or monolithic statement.
Other essays in the volume analyze how the colonies altered British aesthetic concepts. In this regard, the concepts of the sublime and the picturesque arise in several different essays throughout the book. Romita Ray’s essay, entitled “The Memsahib’s Brush: Anglo-Indian Women and the Art of the Picturesque, 1830-1880,” articulates these issues by examining five British women who painted and drew Indian subjects in the nineteenth century. Ray argues that picturesque renderings of the subcontinent reveal a sense of place and identity for Anglo-Indians (in this case, Britons living in India). In doing so, Ray draws upon a unique group of works, from traditionally picturesque landscapes to portraits, ethnographic imagery, and even botanical subjects. Through an art historical analysis, she demonstrates the interconnected threads of all of these subject matters, suggesting that the colonial encounter played a substantive and constitutive role in shaping the aesthetic category of the picturesque back in the metropole.
The sublime figures prominently in several other essays, including Leonard Bell’s “To See or Not to See: Conflicting Eyes in the Travel Art of August Earle,” which examines Earle’s paintings and sketches of Australia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean, and Kathryn S. Freeman’s “‘Beyond the Stretch of Labouring Thought Sublime’: Romanticism, Post-Colonial Theory and the Transmission of Sanskrit Texts,” a discussion of the challenge that the sublimity of ancient Indian texts posed to Enlightenment thinking in the nineteenth century. As Codell and Macleod point out in their introduction, the importance of the sublime for the transposition of Orientalism lies in the combination of desire and fear that characterizes sublimity. In this vein, Freeman’s essay charts the threatening shape of Sanskrit translations as they suggested a nondual world to the Enlightenment intellectuals who went in search of ancient Indian knowledge. Bell’s essay, on the other hand, suggests that Earle’s paintings in fact parody the sublime; and, in doing so, these works communicate the tenuous and conflicted space of the European traveler in colonized lands, complicit with the destruction of culture and humanity witnessed in these spaces. Both of these essays offer new ways of working through the histories of seemingly European aesthetic concepts, and because they produce rich, complex readings of the interrelationship of Europeans and the “other” they encourage art historians to examine many varied concepts and movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in terms of colonial and Orientalist discourses.
Dianne Sachko Macleod and Jeff Rosen contribute essays to the volume which critically and directly interrogate the foundations of Orientalist discourse and the ways in which it might be transposed. In “Cross-Cultural Cross-Dressing: Class, Gender and Modernist Sexual Identity,” Macleod addresses issues of gender transgression and the exotic Orient, tracing the use of cultural cross-dressing and characterizing women who in the nineteenth century wore, for example, Turkish trousers, as cross-coding gender. Macleod weaves together the performativities of these European cultural and gender transgressors, showing the interconnections between gender and Orientalism during the nineteenth century. Rosen, in his turn, uses Bhabha’s concepts of ambivalence and representation to discuss Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic exhibitions in his “Cameron’s Photographic Double Takes.” In doing so, Rosen addresses questions of hybridity and multiplicity/duplicity in the readings of these theatrically staged photos of Abyssinian royal refugees and others. These two essays exemplify a powerful, yet difficult, achievement: a balance between theory and art which enables a clearer understanding of the complex, contradictory, and ambivalent terrain of colonial power relations.
The diversity of this volume reinforces a central tenet of Orientalism—that the discourse is far from singular or even dual, but rather that it maintains an internal consistency while also continually renegotiating the multitude of colonial, gendered, racial, and economic relations of power. Each essay offers intriguing and exciting analyses of art and history from eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century colonialisms. However, the project of the volume—to address the issue of Orientalism transposed—remains unfulfilled because of the lack of direct engagement with both Said’s work as well as later debates surrounding Orientalist and postcolonial discourse.
I read the title Orientalism Transposed with a twofold meaning—each a differently nuanced way of reinterpreting Edward Said’s project in Orientalism. First, the Orientalism of the title can be read as itself transposed. In introducing the text, the editors discuss the verb “to transpose,” primarily to distinguish it from verbs such as “to invert” (3). Transposition does not imply a mere changing-places of protagonist and antagonist, colonizer and colonized; it instead moves the questions of Orientalism into a different key, changing them but retaining the core of the relationships among the notes. Thus one reading of the title suggests that Orientalist scholarship has been transposed such that scholars now acknowledge and attempt to move beyond the bounds of any single understanding of colonial power.
A second reading of the title places Orientalism as an active subject, one that might transpose, and one that might have transposed in the past. The title suggests, then, that Orientalism embodies not simply an effective way of comprehending the interrelationships of colonial power, but also an element directly shaping and shifting those interrelationships even as it, in turn, is shaped by them. This dual meaning of the title suggests multiple approaches to the problem of examining both a transposed Orientalism and Orientalism’s active transposition of power relations. Applied to art and art history, these questions have the potential to alter radically our discipline’s approaches to images of and from the “Orient.” By subtly shifting the problematics that Orientalism pose rather than simply inverting the question “How did the East portray the West?” a deeper and fuller understanding of the intersections of colonizer and colonized can be achieved, so that the mutual production of Orientalist discourse might be finally uncovered for art historical objects of inquiry.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that it raises Orientalism as a central trope, the volume does not directly engage its relationship to Said’s work, or even to the multifaceted (and oftentimes nebulous) use of Orientalism within the humanities since Said’s volume. While this seems an odd criticism of a book entering into an existing decades-long scholarly discussion of Orientalism, this particular volume’s premise—that the historical examples presented here transpose Orientalism or reveal the transposing nature of Orientalism—suggests that it moves beyond or shifts the focus of Saidian Orientalism in some way. In the introduction, Codell and Macleod state that the volume takes a two-pronged approach to the issue of the ‘Easternization’ of Britain: by examining the “ways that colonized people intervened in the hegemonic colonial or Orientalist discourse” and by charting the “manner in which British aesthetic concepts were altered by colonial experience” (1). If the volume’s project is, as the editors say, to reveal that “colonial discourse was available to all parties in the Empire and was often turned on its head” (1), this statement signals an underestimation of the scope of Said’s Orientalism and a conflation of Orientalist discourse and colonialism.
Orientalism, as a set of discursive practices first described by Said, works within colonial asymmetrical configurations of power and from those configurations produces its consistent-yet-shifting, discursively constituted Orient: not an image of the Orient, which might be stripped away to reveal a reality, but the Orient itself. As Said remarks, “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be ‘Oriental’ in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (5-6, Said’s italics). Thus, an integral and even constitutive portion of Saidian Orientalism lies in its acknowledgment of the very project Orientalism Transposed takes on: the Orient, in always uneven and always renegotiated relations of power to the Occident, itself enabled and shaped the Orientalist discursive construction of the Orient. Rather than transposing Orientalism, this volume more accurately raises to the surface something existing within Said’s framework: the encompassing nature of discourse; and, therefore, the lack of exteriority for any culture implicated in Orientalism—East or West.