Orientalism . . . or, What's in a name?
On the front door of what was the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Cambridge, I have just spotted a new notice. Next to the stern warnings about not leaning your bicycle against the windows (a hopeless prohibition in Cambridge), is the following equally stern announcement: “Name Change. We are now known as The Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies”.
I am sure that this has been the subject of long discussions. And I can see why they wanted to change. The word “Oriental” now reeks of unacceptable “orientalism”, a nastily Western construction of any culture slightly to the east: decadent, effeminate but at the same time slightly menacing. (It’s what the Greeks felt about the Persians, and the Romans in their turn about the Greeks, and so on westwards.) How, for a start, do you explain to a group of new first year undergraduates what an “Oriental” Faculty is all about, and why it doesn’t exactly mean what they might think it does? More to the point, how do you get them, in the first place, to apply to something with a name like that?
It’s a bit like having “Women’s Studies” being called the “Department of the Second Sex”.
All the same, I can’t help feel that it might have been more courageous and confident to sit it out with the old name. There would, after all, be some good company in that project. The Oriental Institute in Chicago shows no sign of turning itself into an Institute of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. And the School of Oriental and African Studies likewise seems happy enough with the title.
Wouldn’t the cleverer strategy have been to try to reclaim the adjective “Oriental” as an acceptable label again?
There are all kinds of example of this sort of problem. One recent commenter on this blog took me to task for using “BCE” instead of “BC”, and I must say I think he had a point. I’ve tended to fall into this politically-correct habit recently. But, no, “BCE” doesn’t honestly seems any less “Christian” in its emphasis than the old BC. If BCE stands for “Before the Common era”, then (unless you change the counting system) isn’t it simply admitting that Christian time IS the Common era. And why should that satisfy any other of the world religions?
In my defence, I’d like to say that haven’t given in with the word “pagan” – which I continue to use of traditional Greek and Roman religion, despite the fact that it was a disapproving Christian coinage hardly ever used by “civic polytheists” (as we’re supposed to say) themselves.
I haven’t got my head entirely in the sand here. It’s not that I think that the precise words we use are unimportant. But being blown by the political wind is not always the best political course of action. Isn’t it better, and smarter, to reclaim the language of oppression. Look at the word “black”. When I was a kid, you were told off fiercely if you were ever caught using it. Some version of “negro” was the order of the times…which would now sound like a terrible bit of colonialism. The same is true too for “queer”. When I was a student, it was enough to get you thrown out of the college bar. Now we all use “queer theory”.
So, wouldn’t it have been smarter to rebrand “Oriental”, not change the name into a temporarily acceptable periphrasis?