Josna Rege

399. East of What?

In Stories on May 18, 2022 at 10:59 pm

With the doubling-down on Cold War rhetoric since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “East” and “West” are being rehabilitated all over again. Although I wrote this piece five years ago, the need to resist the illogic of these terms is as urgent as ever. And so I ask again: East of what?

Tell Me Another

Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is…

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