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Norms of Identity

Neera Chandhoke

By Ian Buruma and Avaishai Margalit
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2004, pp. 165, Rs. 200.00


Edward Said’s work on Orientalism, which was published in 1978, effected a major transformation in the way we in the South understand our experiences of colonialism, as well as in the way we understand the lasting power of categories that were produced by colonial powers. Said gave to us a system which allowed us to deconstruct the tension-ridden relationship between the West and the Orient, a relationship that was marked by the systematic production of images and imaginaries through novels, plays, diaries of colonial officers, and related discourses. These served to cast the people of the colonized world in a particular mode, notably that of infantilism. The fact that these categories possess enduring power, and that they continue to shape the manner in which we in the South view ourselves till today, has given rise to a somewhat prolific industry in academia: the colonial discourse and postcolonialism. In effect Orientalism defined a new genre of thought, even if many works in a similar mode have proved tiresome. Lacking the sophistication or the erudition of the original, all that these studies of the colonial discourse give to us is a dismal picture of passive societies which simply lacked the capacity to mediate colonial categories of identification and analysis. Orientalism may have generated pale copies of itself but that it is a great book is undeniable.   Avaishai Margalit and Ian Buruma’s argument in this slim volume tries to replicate Said’s argument by deconstructing the discourse of Occidentalism or the processes by which images of the modern and urban western civilizations are constructed and reinforced. They argue that Occidentalism is the antithesis of Orientalism which made non-western people appear less than fully adult. But their own vision of Occidentalism is not too far from the Orientalism that they disdain as we shall see.   The question that is addressed by this slim volume in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Centre is deceptively simple; why do people hate the West? The question is certainly relevant, but the answer given to the question by the two theorists is problematic. For one, since the notion of the West is taken as granted, sometimes the West is taken as all those countries that adhere to the norms of liberal democracy and capitalism, and at other times it is identified solely with the U.S. What exactly constitutes the West, particularly these days when ...

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