A Place So Rich, A People So Lacking: Or, An Overly Academic Essay on Why I Never Liked Edward Said

The ” East” and the “West ” is a rather favorite binary (or, what we’d call a heuristic in academia) in the world of post-colonial scholarship. It’s also relatively popular in general media and I’m sure one would have no trouble scouring up examples of conflict or conversation between the Western World and another category which is meant to stand in for everyone else. But this implicitly strict binary of subject (the West) versus the subjugated (the East) is a troublesome construct. Part of the problem with this particular version of “Us” versus “Them” is that it assumes a kind of regional and cultural unification on either side, where one voice can then claim authority to speak for multitudes. Put another way, it assumes that all of America, Canada, Australia, and Europe (or conversely, South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, and Africa) are made up of people who think the same, act the same, and experience the world the same.

Because of the West/East binary so uncritically present in our thinking, both the Occident and the Orient have then come to be thought of as monolithic institutions or essential cultural viewpoints: a position which many among you may recognize as quintessentially that of Edward Said’s foundational text Orientalism. In Said’s view, which draws intellectually from the works of Chomsky, Gramsci, and Foucault, Orientalism is “fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient, because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient′s difference with its weakness . . . As a cultural apparatus, Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge” (1979: 204). But given that this heuristic relies on explicit attempts to challenge attitudes that are ‘colonial´ or ‘imperialistic´ and attempts to demonstrate that the “West” still imagines itself as culture par excellence as opposed to other cultures who are inferior and not simply different, I cannot escape the question as to whether or not Said’s analysis represents his own sense of intellectual anti-colonialist castigation rather than a truly cultural view of the West imposed onto the East. It’s also important because, frankly, we’re all still doing this.

The dichotomy begs the larger question of whether or not Said’s work has potentially reduced the conversation between East and West to nothing more than a “conversation characterized by binary opposition and not mutual understanding and respect” (Wang 1997: 64). I say this also with the knowledge that “The Occident” (West) is far more nebulous and undefined in these critiques than “The Orient” (East) is. But you might be surprised to know exactly how far back in history these attitudes go.

None of this is to say that early European travelers to the Middle East and Asia didn’t hold diminutive, racist, or romanticized views of the peoples they visited or that the categorical ‘West’ has not, at some point, held universalistic pretensions. It’s also not to say that these attitudes aren’t still very much with us today. That’s not the problem I’m specifically addressing here. Instead, what I am wary of is the reductionist thinking that leads to notions of unproblematic imperialist dominion set against an assumption of recipient compliance and self-annihilation. In short, the West does not simply impose and the East does not simply accept (something we could be equally applying to a number of other “Us” versus “Them” divisions as well I might note). No, my contention here is that various modes of cross-cultural encounters more closely represent varieties of dialogue between self and otherness, what Fred Dallmayr describes as “ranging from outright domination over a number of intermediary stages to benign or empowering forms of self-other relations” (1996: 3). However, unlike Dallmayr, I do not take these dialogues as being mutually reciprocal. Instead, I see that the main outcome of these encounters was a reconstitution and re-imagining of one type of “self” in relation to a distilled and distorted “other.” This dialogue can then be more succinctly rendered in the form of self – other (self). And if we are to ever make any headway in our relationships with people who are not like ourselves, we need to start understanding how this all works.

One way in which this self-other (self) dialogue can be better understood is through the familiar travelogue theme of ‘places so rich, people so lacking.’ This is a theme very common to travel literature, for example, where foreign and exotic places are portrayed as wealthy and advanced, filled with abundance and complexity, but divorced from the work and knowledge of the people who built them and continue to live within them. This viewpoint is deeply flawed mainly because it affords a kind of microcosmic separation between desire and horror where the “Western” self can project its wants and ideals onto material places it desires to possess and assimilate while simultaneously projecting its fears and revulsions onto the native peoples it seeks to reject. Looking back to history, we see this theme appearing even in our earliest accounts of Western exploration.

In Herodotus, this self – other relationship follows the form of cultural inversion where he views the far-flung locale (Egypt, in this case) as a mirror-image of his own Greek culture.  For example, in section 2, part 35 of his history Herodotus states that “just as the climate that the Egyptians have is entirely their own and different from anyone else’s, and the river has a nature quite different from other rivers, so, in fact, the most of what they have made their habits and their customs are the exact opposite of other folks” (1987: 145). He then goes on to describe multiple ways in which the practices of the Egyptians act as mirror-images to that of Greeks, such as “the women run the market and shops, while the men, indoors, weave”, “the women piss standing upright, but the men do it squatting” and “The Greeks write and calculate moving their hands from left to right, but the Egyptians from right to left” (1987: 145-146). This inversion also carries with it the sense of majesty imputed onto Egypt and a sense of oddness imputed onto the Egyptians.

Herodotus remarks that Egypt “has more wonders in it than any country in the world and more works that are beyond description than anywhere else” (1987: 145) while he also goes on to describe the ‘strange’ (or at least wholly different) customs of the people in detail and to repeat “this is what they do” in such a way as to disconnect “having” with “doing.” Even though Herodotus considers much of Egyptian culture a foundation for Greek culture, what is difficult to say is whether or not this fits with Dallmayr’s modes of cross-cultural encounters, specifically that of conquest that has, at its root, attempts to comprehend a foreign culture with the aim of subjugating it more efficiently (1996: 5) and a sense of “”egocentrism” that is, in the “identification of our own values with values in general, of our one with the universe-in the conviction that the world is one” (1996: 8). This is because Herodotus doesn’t necessarily highlight, as Dallmayr points out, quoting Todorov, a “concern for objects: the architecture of houses, merchandise, fabrics, jewelry” (1996: 7). Herodotus seems more concerned with practices; a concern he shares with the fictional Odyssey and many other “Greeks among the Barbarians.”  In this self-other (self) dialogue, there appears to be less a sense of “essence,” a better way of being, at work and more a sense of better or worse ways of doing. Here the Greek self is privileged in having improved methods and correct symmetrical alignment as related to its expected opposite; an opposite that must exist through the order of the cosmos, who is bound by the inversion of its environment to an “upside-down” way of going about things. Though, this is certainly not the opinion that will be shared among many of the Western European travelers who follow him. This does, however, help to build a notion of a self (a Greek self in this case) that is rightly oriented within the cosmic order, a self that is somewhat contentedly defined by an ‘other self’ that confirms its structure. But, in Dallmayr’s approach, civilizations themselves are not entities taken for granted as having any real or absolute boundaries. Rather, they are evolving entities which, much like individuals in relation to one another, “risk themselves” in the process of interacting in the “transformative learning process in which the status of self and other are constantly renegotiated.” (1996: xviii).  This is truer, at least in part, of the arrival of later medieval Christian missionaries.

William of Rubruck set out for Constantinople and the Volga river region in 1253 on a missionary journey to convert the Tartars to Christianity. His account, the Itinerarium fratris Willielmi de Rubruquis de ordine fratrum Minorum, Galli, Anno gratia 1253 ad partes Orientales currently stands as one of the masterpieces of medieval geographic literature. In it, however, he too engages in the self – other (self) construction also using the theme of ‘a place so rich, a people so lacking.’ He speaks at length throughout the account of the richness of fabrics and furs, the “agreeableness” of kumiss (mare’s milk), and the grand beauty of decorated carts, but this is quickly enough juxtaposed with a commentary on the people he encounters. Of the women he remarks that they “disfigure themselves hideously by painting their faces. They never lie down on a bed to give birth to their children” (Rockhill 1900:103). He then goes on to say that they “never wash their clothes, for they say that it makes God angry and that it would thunder if they hung them out to dry; they even beat those who do wash them and take them away from them” nor do they “wash their dishes” (Rockhill 1900:103). Of the men, he equally points out “shameful customs” of marriage, such as a son taking on his deceased father’s wives or when a father gives his daughter in marriage and her new husband must find her from where she had hidden and bring her home by force (Rockhill 1900:104). Here, Rubruck does engage in Dallmayr’s “concern for objects” more than did Herodatus, but the self – other (self) construction present in this case is a more concerned with the idea of correct practices (orthopraxy); one where objects of wealth are evidence of God’s divine presence (Rubruck says as much on page 188) but the practices are the results of wrong thinking and wrong belief (Rockhill 1900: 189-190). But this separation of objects and people has a significantly different bent to it, one that is better exemplified in Rubruck’s account of a multi-religious debate with Sartaq Khan, one in which the Khan responded to Rubruck’s pronouncements of religious universalism with a universal claim of his own. He says, on page 195, “But just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men…God has given you the Scripture and you do not keep them; to us, on the other hand, He has given soothsayers.” This evaluation, on the part of Sartaq Khan, which included his preference for more religious contacts and resources under his central authority than the dissolution of all religious resources in favor of one, gives little evidence to Dallmayr’s intimations of mutual co-construction. The self – other was not here cooperatively remade, but instead, each was remade in terms of its own self and its own other self.

Friar Odoric of Pordenone, who undertook his own diplomatic and missionary journey to Asia in the 1320s, offers us yet another example of places of abundance and people of deficiency. In his account of China, for example, he describes the city of Censcalan as having a “great abundance of all possible kinds of victual” (2002: 122), the city of Zeyton as “twice as great as Bologna” and as having a “great plenty of all things that are needed for human subsistence” (2002: 123) and the city of Fuzo as having chickens with “no feather, but wool upon them, like sheep” and adding that “the city is a mighty fine one and standeth upon the sea” (2002: 124). However, in similar fashion to Rubruck, Odoric also expounds on the aberrant nature of its people who are variously “idolaters,” “Saracens,” or “infidels” and where “on the one side (of a mountain) all the animals that dwell there are black, and the men and women have a very strange way of living. But on the other side all the animals are white and the men and women have a quite different way of living than the others” (2002: 124). Here then continues this theme wherein the place is framed through marvel and desire while the people are relegated to peculiar and deviant (and thus in need of intervention). This is mainly because, though he points out numerous parallels between European customs and Asian customs, Odoric of Pordenone sees these comparisons as ultimately invalid. In the culmination of the thread then from Herodatus to Odoric, the ‘dialogue of authority’ has gone from semantic parallels (comparisons in form) to syntactic arrangements of truth and falsity. This is why, for Odoric, the peoples he encounters are not “like Christian” in the way that Herodatus imagined the Egyptians as “like Greeks,” they are, in fact, nothing like them at all and he would likely turn the pronouncement of Rubruck’s Khan on its head. For Odoric, there is only one way of doing things and that is the Franciscan way, and there is only one self, the self that subsumes the other.

Even with the arrival of Marco Polo’s account on the scene, between that of Rubruck and Odoric, and that of Matteo Ricci in the 1580s, the self – other (self) discourse is continuous. Even though Polo will see China as the inverse of European order he ushers in a literary genre of reverse Orientalism, where the ‘marvellous,’ ‘fantastic,’ and often fictionalized East is constructed as a commentary on the vagaries of Europe; the self – other (self). Ricci, equally so, will view the Chinese as good objects of the Christian mission because the Chinese, in his view, have no comparable religious existence. This view of Chinese culture as laden with gaps where the elite can embrace Christianity as a method for upward cultural evolution is as much a statement about Europe during the time as it is about a missionary’s experience in China. This is the self – other (self) that will persist into the Imperial age and then, climactically, manifest in the Colonial project. This is the self – other (self) that will also underlie so many of Dallmayr’s cross-cultural encounters from conquest to conversion to assimilation and engagement, in direct critique of Said and his one-size-fits-all binary. The tensions of synthesis, the struggles over rulership, and the politics of limited engagement all have at their core a central question and that question is not so much “who are you” but “because of you, who am I”? And that is the conversation we’re all really having.



Dallmayr, Fred. 1996. Beyond Orientalism: Essays on Cross-Cultural Encounter. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Herodotus (1987). The History, translated by David Grene. University of Chicago Press.

Ning, Wang. 1997. Orientalism versus Occidentalism. New Literary History 28:1 Cultural Studies: China and the West: 57-67. Johns Hopkins University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20057401.

Odoric of Pordenone. 1265-1331 (2002). The Travels of Friar Odoric: 14th Century Journal of the Blessed Odoric of Pordenone. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Said, Edward W. 1979. Orientalism. Toronto: Random House.

William of Rubruck, “The Journal of William of Rubruck,” Mission to Asia (ed. C. Dawson) [selections].

William of Rubruck. “William of Rubruck’s Account of the Mongols”. Edited by the Société de Géographie in the “Recueil de voyages et de mémoires”, IV (Paris, 1893), German translation by Kulb in the “Geschichte der Missionsreisen nach Mongolei”, I, II (Ratisbon, 1860); English tr. by Rockhill, “The Journey of William of Rubruk to the Eastern Parts” (London, 1900). Available at http://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/rubruck.html.

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