MESA Banner
West and East and the Problem of History

Session XI-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
An abiding concern of Middle East studies has been to move beyond the representational structures of Orientalism identified by Edward Said over four decades ago. Yet the figures of East and West continue to find invocation in political as well as intellectual discourse in the present, continually reasserting the problem not only of the relationship between Western power and representations of the East, but also of the continued appeal of the East-West distinction itself. This roundtable discussion proposes to consider the persistence of the distinction between East and West in relation to a set of ideas about history which suffuse it. From the 19th century to the present, a notion of the West as the place where history is open, dynamic, and progressive has regularly been contrasted with a picture of the East or global south as where history is endured rather than made. As Tomoko Masuzawa memorably put it, “the East preserves history, the West creates history.” Various projects of national, ethnic, and religious self-assertion and self-critique, from Latin America to Southeast Asia to the Middle East, have claimed the mantle of East and West, variously asserting their association with one or the other but regularly doing so in relation to a geography of historical stasis and possibility. The aim of the discussion is less to dismantle or refute the East-West distinction than to account for its durability by relating it to the problem of history. Among the questions we will consider are: How does the invocation or elision of the coordinates of what Edward Said called the “imagined geography” of East and West make certain historical claims possible, plausible, or untenable? How does the work of distinction generated by the East/West division interlink with or become parasitic upon the historical labor of marking distinctions between subject and object, self and other, novelty and repetition, event and era, agent and victim? Is it possible to write critical histories without invocation of the East/West distinction, and does the effort to transcend this distinction reproduce its logic? Might the modern concept and practice of history depend upon the existence of an Orient, or indeed of an Occident? The presenters will offer initial thoughts on these questions while also raising a selection of ethnographic, historical, and literary cases that illustrate how the problem of history has infused the distinction between East and West.
  • "What Is ‘Eastern’ about ‘Eastern Christianity’?" Even Edward Said’s trenchant critique of Orientalism has been unable to shake scholars’ conviction in the existence of a real and fundamental difference between “Eastern” and “Western” Christianity. Students of the former can pursue graduate degrees in “Eastern Christian Studies” while consulting a number of recent edited volumes on the subject. The latter, meanwhile, holds pride of place in some of the most influential historico-philosophical accounts of the rise of secular modernity such as by Charles Taylor and Marcel Gauchet. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the qualifier “Eastern” in “Eastern Christianity” carries two distinct meanings, and it is my contention that the relation between these two meanings stands to account for the persistence of the division between “Eastern” and “Western” Christianity, perhaps between “East” and “West” more broadly. On the one hand, “Eastern Christianity” refers simply to the branch of Christianity which developed to the east (roughly) of Rome, a tradition of Christianity historically distinct from that which emerged in western Europe. Yet simultaneously, “Eastern Christianity” refers not merely to this historically distinct branch of Christianity but to that tradition (or those traditions) of Christianity that is principally historical; that exists in the past rather than the present; that is mired in custom and tradition; that is particular to a certain region and race rather than available to all; that is not merely located “in the East” but is quintessentially “Oriental.” These twinned understandings of Eastern Christianity—both historical, but in different ways—emerged in the context of European and American missionizing among, and fervent Orientalist interest in, Eastern Christian communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My remarks will make brief reference to this history. What I wish to highlight is how the identification of Eastern Christianity as a distinct and really-existing historical tradition went hand-in-hand with the suggestion that its time had passed, that the future of Christianity, like that of humanity more generally, lay elsewhere (namely, in the West). The methodological question is the extent to which the former can be separated from the latter: can the historical study of the “East” proceed without implying its obsolescence? Or, can a neutral historicism be isolated from its historical elaboration in/of the West? The West’s own Christian heritage dogs this question, and the division of Christianity into separate eastern and western traditions, I suggest, has functioned historically to allow its resolution.
  • Copts between East & West: The Minority Condition in Transnational Perspective This short commentary will elaborate on the case of transnational Coptic Christians. As a Christian minority community in Egypt, they have varyingly experienced forms of discrimination and persecution by governing authorities, militant groups, and in everyday life. Since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Copts have increasingly immigrated to the United States seeking a better life as well as respite from structural discrimination and violent attacks. In the United States, the suffering of Coptic Christians in Egypt has been theologically engaged by American evangelicals and their kin as a triumphalist vision of Western Christendom. Coptic martyrdom is transvalued and remapped onto an American Christian terrain, which imagines Christianity as under threat, marginalized, and persecuted. In this reading, the American Christian experience is paralleled to the various experiences of Christian communities in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia (mainly as minorities in Muslim-majority contexts). It is by the spilling of their blood that Western Christian kinship is opened to Eastern Christian communities, like the Copts. Yet, in everyday life in the United States, Copts, as immigrants of many different social classes, are also racialized as Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim, non-white others through governing practices and everyday experiences in the context of War on Terror securitization. The racialization of American Copts is a dual process oscillating between Christian kinship with white America and a sensorium of non-white suspicion. American Christians mobilize Eastern Christian suffering, yet those Christians ultimately remain “Eastern,” non-white bodies in everyday interactions within American society. This contemporary configuration is nothing new. Over centuries, Coptic identity has been constructed by Orientalist writers, missionaries, and colonial regimes as part of a broader historical narrative of Christian kinship that has drawn them into white, imperial powers, while at the same time subjecting them to both racial and religious difference. This commentary will unpack these contradictions of Coptic identity between East & West, and offer an ethnographic perspective on the ordinary effects of such dynamics on Copts between Egypt and the United States.
  • From Colonising Egypt to Carbon Democracy: The Durability of the East/West Distinction What do the methodological insights developed in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) offer postcolonial critiques of the East/West distinction? I will approach the problem of the durability of the East/West distinction by re-examining Timothy Mitchell’s seminal text, Colonising Egypt (1988), resituating it within the larger body of his oeuvre, which has turned to the methodological insights of STS to think about durability of forms of power. Colonising Egypt offers an early account of the metaphysics of colonial modernity, which produces the effect of a binary division of the world into: representation and reality, subject and object, the ideational and the material, the abstract and the concrete—binary formations which ultimately map onto West and East. In this way, the West is produced as the subject of history, the realm of ideas, abstract concepts and representation, while the East is rendered as object, the realm of the material, of the concrete, and of inert reality. As Mitchell and other have argued, this binary division of the world masks the operation of specific forms of power. Although these binaries fall apart upon closer examination, the fact of their falsity explains neither their emergence nor their durability. Colonising Egypt explains their rise through an account of the reorderings and reorganisations that took place in nineteenth century Egypt. However, the question of the continued durability of these binary effects—a phenomenon that defines our modern condition— requires further elaboration. By situating Colonising Egypt in the context of Mitchell’s later work, leading up to and including, Carbon Democracy, I will consider how we might take on the question of durability through recourse to the technical. Carbon Democracy offers a contingent, material history of the durability of the East/West distinction, one which relies on the simultaneous stabilisation of technical structures and their obfuscation of the forms of (colonial) power they enable. More broadly, drawing on STS, I argue, offers a method through which we can account for our experience of the modern as one dominated by the great metaphysicals.
  • The 'West', Indigenous Knowledge and the Anthropocene: Reflections on Middle East Environmental History This contribution will consider the enduring appeal of the East-West binary through its place in historical narratives of the Anthropocene, the current geological epoch marked by anthropogenic alterations to climate and earth systems. It does so by focusing on two tendencies present in decolonial approaches to the environmental humanities. First, scholars have increasingly questioned the singular figure of the anthropos in the Anthropocene in failing to account for geographical unevenness, obscuring how environmental degradation has been imbricated in histories of colonialism and global capitalism. In these critiques, the ‘West’ is the primary agent of history, while the ‘East’ is its victim, consequently suffering most in today’s global climate crisis. Moreover, an increasing number of scholars have turned towards ‘non-Western’ epistemologies for solutions towards a more sustainable future. Seeking to challenge epistemic coloniality, especially the Cartesian dualisms and Promethean domination of ‘Nature’ underpinning the Enlightenment, they have highlighted more ethical entanglements and relationships with natural environments existing in ‘indigenous knowledge’ systems, especially in the Americas. However, postcolonial scholarship has alerted us to the problematic nature of ‘indigenous knowledge’ as a category because it posits a fixed, static episteme that figures as modernity’s Other, reproducing the essentialized categories of Orientalism. The effort to ‘recover’ indigenous knowledge, then, runs the risk of presupposing an ahistorical tradition, designating the ‘East’ as the preserver rather than creator of history. This contribution will map out these debates and consider their application to the environmental history of the Middle East. It will ask how the East-West binary has figured in narratives of environmental degradation and attending epistemic violence in the region. In addition, it will ask how far the category of ‘indigenous knowledge’ is tenable beyond this binary, especially through the lens of embodiment and practice. Finally, it will reflect on the political stakes of this conversation within the context of the global climate crisis. Does averting environmental catastrophe necessitate the narration of the West as environmental history’s subject? Does the category of indigenous knowledge offer a ‘strategic essentialism’ – as in the words of Spivak – to help decolonise environmentalism when it is most urgent to do so?
  • “Geography is Destiny”?: The Persistence of “the West” in Turkish Geohistorical Imaginaries In this presentation I take a single phrase, widespread in Turkish political and popular discourse in recent years, and use to it describe three perspectives on Turkey’s sociopolitical present, past, and possible future. The phrase, “geography is destiny,” is notable not only for its pervasiveness, but also for the way in which it is regularly voiced by Turks holding significantly different political positions to make distinct claims about Turkish history and contemporary society. I argue that these three perspectives—held respectively by many of today’s religious-conservatives, older generations of secularists, and younger Turks in metropolitan areas such as Istanbul—are premised on what I call a shared geographical picture, within which “the West” is a central coordinate for determining how modern Turkish history should be interpreted and possibilities for Turkey’s future aspired to or despaired of. Within this picture and its reliance on an distinction between West and East redolent of what Edward Said termed “Orientalism,” contests over Turkey’s history and future become framed through comparisons with the West, even while these comparisons are a source of widespread frustration and pain. To examine these dynamics, I summarize ethnographic findings and analyses of contemporary Turkish political discourse and political history. Finally, I conclude the presentation with brief theoretical reflections on both Edward Said’s concept of a “geographical imaginary” and Wittgenstein's concept of a “picture.” By indicating the way a geographical picture infects and inflects how the identity and the future of Turkey are imagined by Turks holding distinct beliefs and political commitments, I pose the question of the fatedness or fixity of this picture, its role in perpetuating certain impasses in Turkish politics and historical interpretation, and its utility for theorizing the relations between Orientalism and what Meltem Ahiska has called “Occidentalism” within Turkish society.