Occidentalism and its Others

Review by

Christopher Alan Perrius

University of Chicago

Copyright (c) 1997 by Christopher Alan Perrius, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

Review of:

Occidentalism: Images of the West . Ed. James G. Carrier. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. 269 pgs. $18.95 (paper).


  1. This absorbing collection of nine essays arose from a session at the 1992 meeting of the American Anthropological Society. Each of the contributors is a professor of anthropology, and each essay displays expertise in its particular area of study and some degree of fluency with recent analyses of anthropological discourse. The pieces here can be loosely divided into two types: "primary" or field research into "non-Western" social systems and events that are affected by an operative concept of "the West" (Lindstrom, Carrier, Creighton, Gewertz and Errington, Thornton, Herzfeld, Spencer) and analyses of Western anthropological writing that construct an image of "the West" (Reed-Danahay, Nadel-Klein). The collection is most valuable for its examples of recent anthropological writing that takes into account the ongoing deconstruction of the notion of "the West." Its way out of these scare quotes is a proliferation of terms and models describing processes of othering between colonial and postcolonial subjects. Yet I still feel compelled to use them.

  2. It was only a matter of time before criticism began to name orientalism's other, attuned as we are to binarism. Occidentalism is glossed as "images of the West" in this collection's subtitle, but "images" would have to be stretched to include (meta)narratives in order to subsume the forms that occidentalism (like orientalism) takes. Of course, occidentalism is not a new concept--the crux of Edward Said's Orientalism is that Western scholars of "the Orient" have been engaged in a project of self-definition, constructing images and stories about "the West" through its characterizations of "the East." Thus, from its inception, the term "orientalism" has meant occidentalism, the creation of "the West" through the scholarly construction of its other. The shift to the term "occidentalism" may register the attempts of one scholarly community (here, U.S. anthropologists) to rid itself of orientalism, but anthropological practices are a secondary focus in this collection--most of the articles are concerned with the construction of "the West" by non-Western cultures.

  3. These two locations of occidentalism, in "the West" and in "the non-West," are not allowed total categorical significance in this collection. This may be due to the wide recognition that the geographical definition of "the West" is less useful than a concept of practices and affiliations of multinational capitalism found all over the globe. The focus in Orientalism on Western representations of its others rests on a theory of dominant Western imperial power and agency. Orientalism is also inseparable from the authority of a professional discipline--it denotes the practices of orientalists, which are inseparable from the political power of Western institutions. Strictly speaking, in Orientalism , orientalism is only possible in the West. In this collection, however, occidentalism refers to any logic of othering or representation in which an "image" of the occident is featured, and this diffusion of agency may well be its most distinguishing feature. Carrier's introduction acknowledges occidentalism's debt to Said, but it does not carry out a full investigation of the theoretical implications of occidentalism as orientalism's other. In fact, Carrier mentions only two types of occidentalism: the representation of the West by Western subjects, and that constructed by non-Western subjects. The dichotomy is not rigorously theorized in his introduction.

  4. The first essay complicates this model. Lindstrom lays out his terminology like this:

    I would like to ignore the slant of the historical playing field and use, instead, the term auto-orientalism to refer to self-discourse among orientals. In this scheme, thus, occidentalism is the discourse among orientals about the West. What Carrier and others have called occidentalism, I will call auto-occidentalism--the self-discourse of Westerners. . . . This terminology allows me several additional labels that are important for a reading of cargo cult tales. These include internal-orientalism . . . (the location of the orient [here, cargo cultists] at home); auto-Cargoism (an adoption of Cargoist discourse by Melanesians to talk about themselves); sympathetic-Cargoism (Western constructions of the Melanesian that permit a similarity between self and other); pseudo-occidentalism (or presumptions about what the orient may be saying about the occident); and assimilative-Cargoism (the erasure of boundaries so that stories of the oriental/Cargo other explicitly transform into stories of the self). The Cargoist archive is packed with internal-orientalist, sympathetic-orientalist, pseudo-occidentalist, and assimilative-orientalist elements that blur and even erase the boundary and the differences that separate us and them. (36-7)
    To what extent difference is erased is a crucial question, and the best of these essays, like this one, thoroughly examine the complexities of difference in terms of the specificity of its area of inquiry. But, on the one hand, the casual use of "oriental" and "Westerner" (why the imbalance in case? a small but not insignificant issue) leaves in place, despite the complications, an unexamined analytical binary. It may be valid, but I'd like to know exactly how these subjects are being differentiated. On the other hand, the final sentence indicates a desire to erase difference from subject positions, which could be viewed with alarm by postcolonial intellectuals who want to retain a strong concept of the West to account for geo-political structures of hegemony. However, some may find in this dispersal of power more openings for colonial agency. The final essay in the collection provides the most nuanced discussion of this problem.

  5. Spencer considers the essays in the collection in terms of the "problems with the rhetoric of historicist, anti-essentialist authenticity"(250). Carrier, in his introduction, points out that essentialism and totalizing concepts are not in themselves remarkable and cannot be evaluated without careful attention to their specific histories and the political stakes behind them. Spencer recognizes the importance of an essentialized notion of the West in the imagining of community in South Asia, and the importance of the notion of the West to anthropology--and these are of course very different notions. At the same time, he wants to avoid "homogenizing the post-colonial condition into an uncritical apologia for the 'strategic essentialisms' [Gayatri Spivak's phrase] of authentic postcolonials" (251). This is a difficult balancing act that most of these essays negotiate at some point.

  6. For Gewertz and Errington, "Shell money embodied the condensed orientalist and occidentalist essentialisms that comprised for local people a particular version of colonial history" (167). Shell money represents traditional values in opposition to the modern values of standard money, although of course this contest operates on an economic as well as a symbolic level. A similar simultaneity is in effect in the "fantasy encounters" with foreigners that Japanese television provides, which are discussed in Creighton's chapter. Images of white foreigners (gaijin ) serve "to affirm the homogenous unity and uniqueness upon which Japanese identity is largely based"(155). Not surprisingly, gaijin who appear on television "tend to be either objects of glorified attention or conversely a standard of negative traits. In either case they are often stripped of individual identity and their own personalities"(155). Creighton demonstrates that gaijin serve as vehicles for desires and behaviors that many Japanese do not wish to acknowledge even as they are being sold them, such as fashion individuality.

  7. Most of these essays deal with commodification of some kind, the homogenizing effects of which are not unfamiliar. In his chapter, Carrier seeks to smooth out some of the radical difference that has dominated writing on "gift cultures," resulting in "a distorted, exaggerated model of the alien society" (97). His analysis reduces the differences between so-called gift cultures and the supposedly more complex and rationalized commodity systems of "the West." Similarly, Reed-Danahay argues that Bourdieu's very different model of French society compared to his work on the Kabyle "depends directly upon an assumption that a different system exists in Kabylia, one with personal and direct forms of power. . . . He thereby underplayed the role of the state for the Kabyles and of day-to-day symbolic behavior among the French" (81). Reed-Danahay connects Bourdieu's inconsistencies to the French-Algerian colonial relation and particularly the use of education in cultural domination. Bourdieu's desire to locate a site of resistance to this symbolic violence led him to exoticize the Kabyle.

  8. Reed-Danahay briefly considers the problematic status of the terms (e.g., "the West") that all of these investigations are subverting. Each scholar is certainly aware of these terminological problems, but the focus here is weighted toward empirical investigation. This book's lack of a sophisticated theory of discourse, however, might be refreshing for many readers. The bibliographic apparatus is quite thorough, making it useful as a resource. All but the most theory-hungry readers should find it rewarding.

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