I found this week’s readings very challenging because of the abundance of information they contain. However, reading them through their thematic connection made them accessible and comprehensible. For me, they all address the ways in which Western powers, during the colonization period, put to the fore a certain system of representations in order to legitimize their forms of discourses and knowledge that would support their intentions of colonization and control of other societies, not only geographically and politically but also culturally and intellectually.
Mitchell, for example, in the first two chapters of Colonizing Egypt shows that the colonial order has created a political subject in Egypt from whom reality can merely be seen through representation. By opening the book with a description of the visit of the Egyptian delegation to the World Exhibition in Paris and then to the Congress of Orientalists, Mitchell’s idea is to show how Europeans have tried to render things up to be viewed. In other words, by representing Egypt for visitors during exhibits, Europeans were constructing a way of modeling Egypt itself, the country and its people. Additionally, for Europeans, Egyptian realities and culture were complex and nuanced. Therefore, there was a need for reordering, disciplining, and enframing this society in order to make it comprehensible. He goes on in the second chapter to show how, through the process of enframing Egypt, Europeans attempted to modernize the country, as a way of attaching the future of the country to the European cultural colonization.
In the chapter on the Scope of Orientalism, Said attempts to show the scope of thought and action covering the concept of Orientalism, using the case of British and French experiences about the Middle-East, Islam, and the Arab populations. For him, modern Orientalism can be inscribed first and foremost in the colonial history. The developed colonial knowledge, particularly by French and British, is different from other forms of knowledge in that sense it establishes a systematic construction of colonized as subalterns. The Orient as that corpus of knowledge is profoundly modernized and institutionalized at the end of the eighteen centuries and the beginning of the nineteenth. He argues that the colonized are no longer subjects that can speak for themselves, the orientalist is now the one that can do it on their behalf. It is thus the domestication of the exotic, a process by which the truth comes to depend on the judgment of the scholar, rather than the subject itself (the Orient) whose existence now comes to depend on the orientalist.
Moreover, what was interesting in the first two chapters of Mitchell is the idea of exhibitions and the parallels drawn in Said’s Orientalism. Said shows, for example, in the Scope of Orientalism, that the construction of the Orient derived from the work of scholars who used texts and anecdotes to create a specific image of a being inferior as opposed to the Western, considered superior. Mitchell, on the other hand, shows that European cultures around the twentieth century focused on the idea of representing cultures through some sort of exhibitions as their main strategy to conceptualize the “other”.
Mudimbe’s introduction of the Invention of Africa was an interesting reading, though intense and hard to read. He offers us an epistemological discussion of Africanism, an assessment of the limits and validity of African tradition and cultural knowledge by focusing on the interpretations of African history and philosophy by Westerners. His idea is to understand Western rhetoric to occupy and construct the African continent. It is a set of questions about the power knowledge dynamic in the invention of the African continent. I think he is basing his argument on themes like the restructuring of Africa. He illustrates, for example, how the basis for conversations on the African continent derives from the genesis of ideologies denying or affirming discourse on Africa. In this discussion, he sees Africa as addressed from an imperialistic angle, i.e. Africans are seen as subjects of an imperialistic form of power. Colonization thus replaced the constructs of African from focusing to African culture to the promotion of a European culture that had to be implemented in the context of that invention.
Moreover, throughout analysis, Mudimbe shows how asymmetries in hegemonic encounters produce an ‘epistemological violence’ in which the dominant discourses and narratives of the world accumulate the symbolic power to map or classify the world of the others. By epistemological violence, in fact, I mean the ideological explanation for forcing non-Western into their (Western) system of representations, depriving them of their discursive power in order to legitimize the Western system of knowledge which is in an interdependent relationship with systems of power and social control. In other words, Europeans have denied to Africans any form of knowledge. For Europeans, there could not be any form of scientific or discursive knowledge in ‘primitive’ African societies to be accepted as originated from a specific African tribe, language, or society.
The same kind of rhetoric continues today to shape the place of the continent in the world system. It is important, for example, in the context of the invention of Africa, whichever theory is adopted, be it conspiracy, dependency theory or the resource curse, it is crucial to note the influence of tropes inherited from colonial past and the ways in which they still shape today’s representations, rhetoric and actions. These tropes uncover the conditions of possibility for the occurrence of foreign intervention, domination, exploitation, and brutality. They establish the process through which meanings are fixed in relation to different historical moments.