Kalamazoo Medieval Congress 2017: Theorizing Orientalism in the Middle Ages: A Roundtable
When Edward Said rooted orientalism’s “formal existence [in] the decision of the Church council of Vienna in 1312,” he invited medievalists to investigate their corpus in an effort to theorize the origin point of his new theoretical paradigm. Since this claim, scholars such as Sharon Kinoshita, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Geraldine Heng, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, and Kim Phillips, among many others, have questioned the role of orientalism in discourses of alterity, colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, and cross-cultural exchange in the Middle Ages.
In the past three decades since the publication of Said’s Orientalism, scholars have employed, adapted, and contested Said’s formula of orientalism in analyses of medieval European-Asian relations. However, we remain conflicted on its relevance in this earlier period and it remains undertheorized in its medieval contexts. We continue to ask whether the Middle Ages is a site of origin for emergent ideologies of orientalism or a period whose absence of modern empire and colonialism renders it pre-orientalist.
The aim of this panel is to theorize orientalism in such a way that makes a space for the distinct, sometimes contradictory, orientalist narratives at work in the literature of the Middle Ages. Rather than developing a single theory, this panels seeks to theorize the network of orientalist attitudes in various, specific literary pieces. As such, we are interested in pieces that focus on orientalist attitudes, theories, or discourses in one or two specific works.
Key questions and ideas include:
- We tend to read orientalism as a sister to colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism. While this heightens the stakes of theorizing orientalism, it also means that if we find colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism anachronistic, orientalism must also be anachronistic. Are there ways of reading and studying orientalism in the Middle Ages without heavily relying on narratives of colonialism, imperialism, and nationalism?
- How does orientalism help us think through medieval European-Asian cross-cultural encounters? How does it restrict such readings?
- Do we still need to contend with Said’s formulation of orientalism, or can we move beyond it when we speak of orientalist discourse?
- Are there forms of medieval orientalism that shape European-Asian relations where religion is not a primary marker of difference?
- Is there a way to ever talk about the East, from a European lens, without being orientalist in one way or another? In other words, how does orientalism shape our own work as scholars?