Rey Chow--Orientalism and East Asia

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

In the introduction to Writing Diaspora, Rey Chow reconsiders the limits of Edward Said's much criticized model of Orientalism by demonstrating the susceptibility of American academics to racist idealizations of the East Asian cultural traditions that they study. Employing a deft combination of poststructurist and psychoanalytic criticism, Chow offers three central arguments: 1) that the relationship between Western scholars and East Asia can be conceptualized in terms of Freudian "melancholia," 2) that the rise and fall of Chinese communism reflects or perhaps forecasts many methodological or pedagogical dilemmas of postcolonial scholars, and lastly 3) a characterization and contextualization of "Maoist" Western scholars whose "white guilt" renders them covetous of Third World struggles.

Chow illustrates the methodological irresponsibility of Western scholars by critiquing Stephen Owen's particularly mendacious review of Chinese poet Bei Dao. Owen, according to Chow, "attacks 'third world' poets for pandering to the tastes of Western audiences seeking 'a cozy ethnicity'" (1). Owen demonstrates the ways in which Western academics have come to lament the tenor of Eastern artists who--perhaps because of Said's lessons of Orientalism--have resisted portraying "authentic" Chinese experiences and instead have opted for more westernized motifs. In the following passage, Chow examines this phenomenon in light of Sigmund Freud's notion of melancholia--the complicated process whereby the ego mourns and in so doing incorporates or internalizes the "object cathexis" that has died or been lost:

This anxiety can be understood in part through Sigmund Freud's analysis of melancholia. For freud, we remember, the melancholic is a person who cannot get over the loss of a precious, loved object and who ultimately introjects this loss into his ego. . .Postcoloniality here offers a use of freud that necessitates a rethinking of his theory about the melancholic disorder. In the case of the sinologist's relationship with his beloved object, "China," melancholia is complicated by the presence of a third party--te living members of the Chinese culture, who provide the sinologist with a means of externalizing his loss and directing his blame. What Freud sees as "self"-directed denigration now finds a concrete realization in the denigration of others (4).

Chow's central argument is that although the western academic seeks to preserve the "presence" of East Asia, such a "presence" is not only essentialist in nature but also becomes a personal (and financial) issue for the academic herself; that is, the scholar of Eastern literature internalizes the East insofar as it provides her subject of study and therefore her way of life.

How might Freud's notion of "melancholia" enter into the portrayal of death in postcolonial literature. Following the Indian "Emergency" in 1975, how does Saleem Sinai in Rushdie's Midnight's Children incorporate or internalize the identities of his lost family?

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography