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Orientalisms and Occidentalisms: a comparative approach

Orientalisms and Occidentalisms: a comparative approach


Michiel Leezenberg

Members of the research group

prof.dr. M. Kemper
dr. M.M. Leezenberg
dr. R.A.F.L. Woltering

Description of the research programme of the research group

Edward Said’s famous study Orientalism (1978) has spawned a vast amount of research exploring the relations between orientalist knowledge and imperial and colonial forms of power. Yet, this research is curiously imbalanced: relatively little attention is paid to the Russian case (which did not have an overseas colonial empire), even more importantly to the German case (where influential forms of orientalist knowledge were developed, but did not have any colonial project until late in the nineteenth century), and even to the Dutch case, which developed a substantial body of orientalist knowledge dealing with the Netherlands East Indies. In recent years, more studies on the Russian and German cases have been published; but much empirical work remains to be done, and the theoretical and conceptual implications still have to be gauged. on the theoretical side, most studies of orientalism tend to reproduce an image of a completely dominant or hegemonic Western discourse, and to depict the universalisation of the categories of orientalism (and more generally of the humanities at large) as a matter of the passive absorption by non-western actors, thus downplaying or denying any agency the latter might have.
This research group aims at redressing the balance by, first, exploring traditions of orientalist knowledge in areas like Russia/the Soviet Union, Germany, and the Netherlands; and second, by exploring non-western modes of knowledge both about local affairs (often reductively characterized as ‘internalized orientalism’), and modes of representing the allegedly hegemonic or dominant Western world (usually labelled ‘occidentalism’). In this way, the group aims at an empirically more solidly based and theoretically more sophisticated appreciation of the ways in which modern philological humanities knowledge was universalized, and of how non-western actors both produce their own forms, institutions and practices of knowledge and reproduce, transform, or challenge the knowledge of the Western humanities.
Kemper a.o.: Soviet Oriental studies: how has Islam been studied in the USSR, and in Russia today? How can Soviet/Russian Orientology be integrated into the broader history of Orientalism?
Woltering: Occidentalism in Egypt: The case of Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri
Leezenberg: Kurdish orientalism: changing perceptions and self-perceptions
Currently funded projects:
- “The Legacy of Soviet Oriental Studies”, N.W.O. Free Competition project, 2009-2013 (with Stephane A. Dudoignon, CNRS); three AiOs (one completed).
- “Observing Islam, Observing Each Other: Western and Soviet Studies on Islam in Eurasia”, Volkswagen-Foundation 2012-13 (with Stephan Conermann, Director Asia Center, Bonn University); second conf. Moscow, 23-26 June 2012, second volume in preparation, with Masha Kirasirova (NY University) and Vladimir Bobrovnikov (Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow) [first vol. Routledge 2011]).

Envisaged results

The research group will organize a workshop Comparative orientalisms, the results of which will be published in a collective volume, published in book form or as a special journal issue.
Kemper: see above
Woltering: Several articles in peer reviewed journals.
Leezenberg: several journal articles, culminating in a monograph, provisionally entitled Subaltern orientalism: Kurdology in Russia and the Soviet Union

Work plan and time schedule

(Indicate the planning of the programme as a whole and of its projects. You may do this in a summary fashion, while referring to the description of the individual projects for details.)
2013-2014 Workshop Comparative orientalisms
2015 publication of collective volume
In addition to the abovementioned collective efforts, individually authored articles or monographs are foreseen in the same field.

Societal relevance

In day-to-day parlance it seems unavoidable to refer to broad categories of East and West, and generic oppositions are easily reproduced. This does not mean these categories are harmless. Fortunately, it is possible to address their tendency to distort our view of the world if only the links between Orientalism, Occidentalism, empire and nationalism are properly laid out. The research group develops a critical language with which a new understanding is facilitated.

This research group is active the following constellations

Globalization and Migration