Caro posted this in comments earlier today. I hope she’ll forgive me for turning it into a post.

The classic examples I think of when I think about “good” exoticism are things like World’s Fair pavilions and ’60s musical exotica — all trafficking in stereotypes and generalizations and even caricatures, but also, importantly, drawing on indigenous voices and crafting exotic representations that are, overall, positive, rather than dehumanizing ones. They can create interest in the outside world that’s a valuable counter to jingoistic tendencies.

So without intending any criticism of Nadim’s use of Said’s argument, I think that digging a little deeper into Said might be worthwhile, as it seems like we’re moving toward entrenched positions that really are more axiomatic than anything Said himself said. I take Eric’s point (and I don’t know for sure whether Franklin has read Orientalism or not) but it seems like he might find it more palatable than most French theory — Orientalism is from 1978, and it’s much closer to a traditional textual and historical treatise than the canonical works of poststructuralism or psychoanalytic feminism (and Said’s later work.) There’s a copy of the book online, and even skimming the introduction is valuable.

It’s also interesting to note that by the 1990s, in books like Culture and Imperialism (which were much more overtly theoretical than the earlier work from the late ’70s), Said was putting forth defenses of books like Heart of Darkness specifically on the grounds that Conrad was self-aware, that is, even though he couldn’t really think outside of the discourse of Orientalism, he perceived the places where it was insufficient, and that perception comes across in his writing. Said says:

What makes Conrad different from the other colonial writers who were his contemporaries is that, for reasons having partly to do with the colonialism that turned him, a Polish expatriate, into an employee of the imperial system, he was so self-conscious about what he did. Like most of his other tales, therefore, Heart of Darkness cannot just be a straightforward recital of Marlow’s adventures: it is also a dramatization of Marlow himself, the former wanderer in colonial regions, telling his story to a group of British listeners at a particular time and in a specific place. That this group of people is drawn largely from the business world is Conrad’s way of emphasizing the fact that during the 1890S the business of empire, once an adventurous and often individualistic enterprise, had become the empire of business. […] Although the almost oppressive force of Marlow’s narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

[…] Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so to speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else’s experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other, non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aestherica1ly but also mentally unassailable.

Conrad is so self-conscious about situating Marlow’s tale in a narrative moment that he allows us simultaneously to realize after all that imperialism, far from swallowing up its own history, was taking place in and was circumscribed by a larger history, one just outside the tightly inclusive circle of Europeans on the deck of the Nellie. As yet, however, no one seemed to inhabit that region, and so Conrad left it empty.

I think the important next question, therefore, is not whether Thompson’s Habibi traffics in orientalist stereotypes, since Thompson has acknowledged that and Nadim does a good job of highlighting them, but whether it does anything interesting structurally with those stereotypes, whether and how it deepens our understanding of them. His right to use them is rather besides the point, IMO. Of course he can use anything he wants, but is what he does with them smart?

I haven’t seen any arguments that he does anything particularly smart with these tropes, in the sense of the type of insight that Said identifies in Conrad. It seems to me, on the surface, that a “cowboys and indians” perspective isn’t all that likely to get to those types of profound dissections of the sociodynamics of Western prejudice. But that doesn’t mean he won’t surprise me! An argument that he accomplishes something that smart is what I’d like to see, from Thompson and people who appreciate the book, and it’s what I’ll be looking for when I read it.

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