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Imagining the Transcultural

Multilingual Address and Counter-Orientalist Practice

English version
Thomas Lamarre
p. 56-57

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1In 2003, in a new afterword to Orientalism entitled “Orientalism 25 Years Later,” Edward Said noted that the general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam had not really improved in the intervening years. In the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 and Britain and the United States’s illegal invasion and imperial occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, representations of the Middle East bolstered the notion of an implacable clash of civilizations. Impossibly, ironically, Orientalism remained alive and well. And all the questions initially posed around Said’s work returned with new urgence. What exactly is the relation between representation and imperialism? Does imperialism rely so heavily on historically accumulated misrepresentations of its Others that imperialism cannot function without them? Will well-executed attacks on systematic mispresentations of the “Orient” — or that other quasi-fantastical discursive construct “Asia” — help put an end to empire?

2Although twenty-five years after Orientalism Said endorsed “worldly humanism” in opposition to imperialism (subtitling his afterword “Worldly Humanism versus the Empire-builders”), the original book offered a broader range of ways of thinking about Orientalism. Indeed some would say that it offered too many different approaches. For many commentators have stated, the book remains unable to decide whether Orientalism is (a) a systematic misrepresentation of a region, (b) an innately human process of ethnocentric “othering” (establishing a sense of self by inventing and categorically debasing an other), or (c) a historically specific formation of knowledge, that is, a form of disciplinary power. While acknowledging the moral force behind Said’s arguments, Aijaz Ahmad, for instance, wrote lucidly of how Said’s many takes on Orientalism resulted in a mish-mash of incompatible stances. It was as if, in his outrage over the continued abjection of the Arabs, Islam and the Middle East in the Western academy, Said had thrown the net so wide that almost any representation of any Other to the West at any historical moment appeared to constitute Orientalism.

3The vastness of Orientalism’s applications, its fluidity and capaciousness, continues to trouble some commentators. Some have argued that all the fuss over Orientalism is merely a way of pointing at a problem – that of power and representation — without providing any real insights into how power or representation operates (beyond a flattened self/other dialectic). Yet is the protean quality of Said’s analysis of Orientalism truly such a liability right now? In North America at least Said’s book has had an especially important and salutary effect on domains of the Academy, especially in so-called Area Studies. His questions about representation and power forced scholars to question academic strategies of representation and to think in terms of knowledge/power formations for the first time. This came as a revelation to many who had entered the field simply to generate positivistic data related to the study of a foreign country without any thoughts about the effects of the organization or disciplinary construction of knowledge.

4The vast critical net of Orientalism is, in effect, one of the points of departure for Transtext(e)s Transcultures, and for the exploration in inaugural issue of the problem of power and representation from a number of different angles, always with an eye to “Western” representations of others — or, more precisely, with an eye to how a modern history or a modern subject opens to alterity. What do we make of this repetition of the Orientalist problem and Orientalist effects in different contexts? Are we dealing with ethnocentrism in general, subjectivity in general, representation in general? Is there something specific to Western ethnocentrism that makes it into Orientalism? If so, when and how does it appear, and how does it transform?

5Such questions emerged in the wake of Orientalism, as scholars of Japan, Korea and China, for instance, recognized many of the same ‘Orientalizing’ operations at work in academic constructions of their Orient, that is, the region geographically known as Northeast Asia. While countries in that region had known Western imperialism and had been subject to analogous formations of “orientalizing” knowledge, the effects of Orientalism had been different. Or were there different Orientalisms ? Or was it simply that a country such as Japan produced a different response to Western imperialism, developing in turn its own “orientalizing” stance toward its imperial colonies in East Asia and the South Pacific ? Here the problem of Orientalism meshes with that of Western modernity, a process of rupture and reinscription. Here, too, the problem of power and representation intersects that of language and address. After all, what is the Orientalist effect but a mode of address that constructs a sense of being at home in language? As Said’s long chapters on the legacy of Orientalist philology attest, Orientalism assumes that homogenous languages preexist their actual usage or figuration, that those speakers were, are, and will remain at home in them — by force, if necessary.

6In Translation and Subjectivity, Naoki Sakai writes of a “heterolingual” mode of address. Heterolingual address — we might also call it “multilingual” address — is not a matter of engaging different audiences speaking or reading different national languages, say, English, Chinese, and French. It does not presuppose the preexistence of homogeneous national languages. Rather it addresses the discontinuity, difference, or alterity that comes into play within any language; it engages the multiplicity within language not the plurality of languages. Usually, the act of translation wipes away heterolingual address by creating the sense of two homogenous languages and a movement from one to the other rather than a movement within language itself.

7The challenge of Transtext(e)s Transcultures lies in its potential to disrupt the homolingual mode of address, thus opening the possibility of a counter-Orientalist practice. Of course, the presentation of texts in Chinese, French, and English will not in itself trouble anyone — not until the co-presence of those languages begins to disturb the homolingual mode of address. (While global English today guarantees the homolingual propriety and purity of national languages, and indeed the aspiration to whiteness implicit therein, one cannot say that French and Chinese do not operate in this way as well.) Which is to say, the challenge of this journal lies not in a simple plurality of languages, in a simple gesture of representation of differing language homes. Rather it is as readers and contributors start to read and write with a sense of multiple orientation in “their” language of address that the co-presence of different national languages will commence its work of disorientation, countering the Orientalist practices entwined with the imperialism that today would strangle the globe in its homolingual embrace.

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Thomas Lamarre, « Multilingual Address and Counter-Orientalist Practice »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 56-57.

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Thomas Lamarre, « Multilingual Address and Counter-Orientalist Practice »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Thomas Lamarre

Thomas Lamarre is Professor of Asian Studies at Cornell University. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he was subsequently Associate Professor of Japanese at McGill University. He is the author of Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Jun’ichirô on Cinema and Oriental Aesthetics (2005) and Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription (2000), and co-editor with Kang Nae-hui of Impacts of Modernity (2003).

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