Postcolonial Text / Author

Book Review: "Orient Re-oriented"

Translating Orients: Between Ideology and Utopia
Timothy Weiss
Toronto [Canada], University of Toronto Press, 2004.
270 pages, ISBN: 0802089585, US $60.00,

Reviewed by Atef Laouyene, University of Ottawa

In the introduction to what has by now become the cornerstone of postcolonial studies, i.e., Orientalism, Edward Said states that "the Orient is an idea that has a history and tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West" (5). In the book, Said retraces the long-lasting historical complicity between Orientalism and European imperialism - a complicity which he scrutinizes with no less wit and erudition in his later book, Culture and Imperialism (1993). Said's Orientalism and counter-Orientalism have engaged both admirers and detractors whose critical positions are as varied as their institutional affiliations, disciplinary practices, and political orientations. Most of this post-Orientalism debate, however, has revolved around three basic flaws in Said's thesis: its methodological infelicities, its essentializing pronouncements, and its failure to produce an alternative to that which it critiques.

Weiss's Translating Orients: Between Ideology and Utopia is a recent addition to the ever-increasing post-Saidian scholarship in postcolonial studies. Combining post-Heideggerian hermeneutics (Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Wolfgang Iser) and Husserlian phenomenology, Weiss offers an invigorating "translational approach" to culture and identity as a substitute for the "archeological-genealogical" approach of Foucault and Said. While Saidian discourse analysis follows a diachronic line of inquiry, probing the genealogies of power relations and knowledge production and transmission (Orientalism 5), Weiss's approach is essentially heuristic, aimed at uncovering synchronic, interdependent and shifting subject-object relations. To translate the Orient is thus to interpret it within complex textual networks and in terms of changing subject (and object) positions. According to Weiss's phenemonological-hermeneutic method, the interpretation of texts, Oriental or otherwise, implies first and foremost a transformative/"orienting" process wherein both subject and object depend on each other for the production and interpretation of meaning. Texts, and by extension cultures, are transformed, re-oriented, created anew, every time they are approached. This process, Weiss goes on to argue, takes place in and produces what he calls an "emergent reality" or a "liminal space," a space that is as diverse and unstable as its moments of enunciation. Within this space, not only can a wider variety of texts be accommodated, but also different and changing epistemological possibilities opened up (8).

In light of the elaborate theoretical scheme he has outlined in the Introduction, Weiss provides in the ensuing chapters insightful (con)textual analyses of selected works by Jorge Louis Borges, Paul Bowles, David T.K. Wong, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ricardo Piglia, and Salman Rushdie. The first chapter, "Borges's Search or the Bibliophilic Orient," introduces the reader mainly to the Orient of Borges's Historia universal de la infamia, an Orient that figures less as a geographical location than as an imaginative treasure house of fascinating philosophies and religions. The Borgesian Orient, Weiss contends, is conceived as "an impressionistic, poetic, imaginative landscape, rather than as something principally geographic" (21). Borges's translations of Oriental texts, particularly The Arabian Nights, are informed by his awareness of the universe as a seamless web of interrelated subjectivities (30). Truth is sought in inter-subjective relations, in the relatedness of people and experiences to one another across time and space, and Weiss's hermeneutic approach highlights the way this truth plays itself out in Borges's translated Orients.

While for Borges the Orient is essentially a rich collection of texts, an archive of mystifying scripts (20), for Paul Bowles, it is a lived experience. Borges re-writes, re-orients the Orient; Bowles experiences it (43). In "‘Without Stopping': The Orient as Liminal Space in Paul Bowles," Weiss examines the American writer's travel narratives in terms of their politics of anti-modernity and poetics of escape. For Bowles, the Orient, and the Maghreb in particular, represents both an escape from and a critique of post-WWII American modernity. "Africa Minor," for instance, resists the Orientalist formulae to which the Arab/Moroccan/Muslim character is frequently subjected in Western writing by offering ways of seeing the world from an un-American perspective. The essay's counter-Orientalist thrust thus lies in the creation of constantly recursive loops of interpretation and translation, of narrative spaces where multi-voicedness and dialogism are at play (71). What is more, Bowles's Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue (1957), a collection of essays he wrote during his sojourn in North Africa, articulates an interminable tension between representation and translation (59). As a piece of travel writing, Weiss remarks, the collection shows how the writer-traveller is frequently adrift between the desire to re-present and the fear to dis-orient. Ever anxious to steer clear of the Scylla of re-presentation and the Charybdis of dis-orientation, the writer-traveller is doomed to inhabit a liminal space, an emergent reality, in which translation is necessarily transformative, and re-presentation aporetic at best.

Weiss's Heideggerian-Husserlian readings of the re-oriented Orients in the texts of Wong, Ishiguro, and Piglia are based on the methodology of geo-phenomenology according to which space and subjectivity are "consubstantial" and floating entities. Weiss reads place in these authors' works not as a geographical, material space, but rather as a deep sense of lived and shared experiences within a community (110), as a form of "consciousness" and "belief" (118). For space is a function of one's consciousness of that space. Weiss's next chapter, "The Living Labyrinth: Hong Kong and David T.K. Wong's Hong Kong Stories" explores the narrativization of Hong Kong as en emergent post-colonial space whose contemporary multi-cultural outlook is defined by the co-existence of both Eastern and Western values. Wong's collection of short stories, Weiss argues, translates Hong Kong in terms of an evolving "cultural imaginary" that reflects the city's Sino-Western history (97). In "Where is Place? Locale and Identity in Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans and Ricardo Piglia's La ciudad ausente," Weiss sheds more light on the triangulation of subjectivity, space, and narration and the translational process that enmeshes these coordinates both locally and globally.

The next chapter, "At the End of East/West: Myth in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh," focuses on the narrativization (translation/re-orientation) of myth and history in postmodern and postcolonial fiction. Rushdie's mytho-poetics, Weiss emphasizes, not only expands the semantic scope of language and narrative (149), but it also opens up history and historiography to unlimited narrative, hermeneutic and epistemological possibilities. For instance, in The Moor's Last Sigh, Rushdie re-historicizes the story of Boabdil, The Lusidas, and The Reconquista in such a way as to inscribe "emancipatory visions of the world" in general and to re-imagine Indian political history in particular (171). Rushdie's translational recuperation of these stories moves away from an "ideological" re-presentation of them and toward a "utopian" re-imagining of their liberating re-historicization.

In the last two chapters, Weiss re-directs his study toward a re-conceptualization of identity and citizenship in terms of a theoretical model that combines Buddhist philosophy with the work of a host of multi-ethnic writers/thinkers, such as Édward Glissant, Amin Maalouf, Paul Ricoeur, Tzvetan Todorov, Neil Bissoondath, V.S. Naipaul, Emmanuel Lévinas - to name but a few. The penultimate chapter, "Identity and Citizenship in a World of Shame," argues that (post)modern identity, as well as citizenship, should be perceived as a composite, heterogeneous entity, "a rhizomic tissue of cultural qualities and values that interact" (178). Notions such as Glissant's "creolization," Maalouf's "dialogics" of identity, Todorov's "transculturation", and Ricoeur's and Levinas' intersubjective consciousness - all provide possible paradigms for understanding the constant confluence and infusion of what Gayatri Spivak in another context describes as planetary, rather than global, collectivities (73). Weiss's Conclusion, "Neither Subjects nor Objects: In the Middle Way," draws further on Buddhist thinking and insists that "the dual challenges of fundamentalism and groundlessness" (208) that beleaguer contemporary societies can be overcome by conceiving a new conceptual framework wherein both subjectivity and cultural identity are allowed their global and constant state of "emergence" and "impermanence" (199). "[N]either subject- nor object-oriented," (208) the translational approach provides precisely such a framework.

Translating Orients: Between Ideology and Utopia is definitely worth reading, for Weiss's theorization of the Orient in terms of translational, re-orienting hermeneutics not only critically and profitably revises Saidian discourse analysis but also offers a cogent and promising alternative to the identity politics that still bedevils today's neo-colonial cosmopolitics.

Works Cited

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

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.