Constructing the Other: Dangerous Easterns

A stereotype is produced in the moment when description meets the normativeness.

(I hope that few of the folks here will find this text useful only for facing their own fears and presumptions of the Other)

The following text is a part of the Maria Todorova’s book " Imagining the Balcans". Todorova is now a professor of history at the University of Illinois.

A specter is haunting Western culture – the specter of the Balkans. All the powers have
entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: politicians and journalists, conservative academics and radical intellectuals, moralists of all kind, gender, and fashion. Where is the adversarial group that has not been decried as “Balkan” and “balkanizing” by its opponents?
Where the accused have not hurled back the branding reproach of “balkanism”?
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe had added to its repertoire of Schimpfwörter, or disparagements, a new one that, although recently coined, turned out to be more persistent over time than others with centuries-old tradition. “Balkanization” not only had come to denote the parcelization of large and viable political units but also had become a synonym for a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian.

How could a geographical appellation be transformed into one of the most powerful pejorative designations in history, international relations, political science, and, nowadays, general intellectual discourse? This question has more than a narrow academic relevance. It is the story of (1)
innocent inaccuracies stemming from imperfect geographical knowledge transmitted through
tradition; (2) the later saturation of the geographical appellation with political, social, cultural, and ideological overtones, and the beginning of the pejorative use of “Balkan” around World War I; and (3) the complete dissociation of the designation from its object, and the subsequent reverse and retroactive ascription of the ideologically loaded designation to the region, particularly after 1989.
While historians are well aware that dramatic changes have occurred on the peninsula, their discourse on the Balkans as a geographic/cultural entity is overwhelmed by a discourse utilizing the construct as a powerful symbol conveniently located outside historical time. And
this usage itself is the product of nearly two centuries of evolution. There has appeared today a whole genre dealing with the problem and representation of “otherness.” It is a genre across disciplines, from anthropology, through literature and philosophy, to sociology and history in
general. A whole new discipline has appeared - imagology – dealing with literary images of the other. The discussion of orientalism has been also a subgenre of this concern with
otherness. Orientalism has found an important and legitimate place in academia as the critique of a particular discourse that, when formulated by Said, served to denote, “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short . . . a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Inspired by Foucault, from whom he not only borrowed the term “discourse” but the central attention devoted to the relation of knowledge to power, Said exposed the dangers of essentializing the Orient as other. He was also strongly influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between civil and political society, especially the notion of cultural hegemony that invested orientalism with prodigious durability. This is quite apart from how exactly Said’s thought relates to the general Foucauldian or Gramscian oeuvre. Predictably, the response
to Said’s book was polarized: it produced detractors as well as admirers or epigones. It
involved hefty criticism on the part of modernization theorists or from classical liberal quarters. It entailed also serious epistemological critique, an attempt to smooth off the extremes and go beyond Said, and beyond orientalism.

In a broader context, Said’s attack on orientalism was a specific critique of what has since become known as the general crisis of representation. More significantly, he posed the question not only in epistemological but also in moral terms: “Can one divide human reality,
as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” No other discipline has been as strongly affected by this crisis as
anthropology since the ontology of separateness, difference, otherness is its methodological
basis. Anthropologists have been long aware of what in physics is known as the Heisenberg effect: the notion that, in the course of measuring, the scientist interacts with the object of observation and, as a result, the observed object is revealed not as it is in itself but as a function of measurement. It is a problem that led anthropology as the par excellence discipline
studying the alien, the exotic, the distant in faraway societies and the marginal in nearby ones into its present deep theoretical crisis. It led it to the articulation of an often honest, but verbally helpless solipsism; as Wittgenstein remarked “what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it
cannot be said, but makes itself manifest.” But this need not be the case.
The realization of the limits of knowledge that accompanies the self-conscious act of acquiring it should not necessarily produce a paralytic effect. Carrier, who has focused on essentialization not merely as an unconscious attribute of anthropological studies but as an inevitable by-product of thinking and communication, sees the problem as a “failure to be conscious of essentialism, whether it springs from the assumptions with which we approach our subject or the goals that motivate our writing.” Maybe the feeling of philosophical impotence in anthropology and other disciplines affected by the examination of their own techniques will be dissipated simply by getting used to or learning to live with it: familiarity breeds a healthy ignoring of the final philosophical implications of theory, but by no means erases the necessity for rigorous and responsible adjustment of the methodology of observation the conventional division of Europe into East and West is a comparatively late invention of eighteenth-century philosophes responsible for the conceptual reorientation of Europe along an East-West axis from the heretofore dominant division into North versus South. This new division, although also spatial, began gradually to acquire different overtones, borrowed and adapted from the belief in evolution and progress flourishing during the Enlightenment. Because the geographic east of Europe and the world situated to the east was lagging behind Europe primarily in economic performance, East came to be identified more often, and often exclusively, with industrial backwardness, lack of advanced social relations and institutions typical for the developed capitalist West, irrational and superstitious cultures unmarked by Western Enlightenment.

And about the Beast

Unlike orientalism, which is a discourse about an imputed opposition, balkanism is a discourse about an imputed ambiguity. As Mary Douglas has elegantly shown, objects or ideas that confuse or contradict cherished classifications provoke pollution behavior that condemns them, because “dirt is essentially disorder.” These confusing or contradicting elements Douglas calls ambiguous, anomalous, or indefinable. Drawing on a general consensus that “all our
impressions are schematically determined from the start,” that “our interests are governed by a pattern-making tendency,” she holds that “uncomfortable facts, which refuse to be fitted in, we find ourselves ignoring or distorting so that they do not disturb these established assumptions.
By and large anything we take note of is pre-selected and organized in the very
act of perceiving.” Although Douglas recognizes the difference between anomaly (not fitting a given set or series) and ambiguity (inducing two interpretations), she concludes that there is no practical advantage in distinguishing between the two. Thus, ambiguity is treated as anomaly. Because of their indefinable character, persons or phenomena in transitional states,
like in marginal ones, are considered dangerous, both being in danger themselves and emanating danger to others. In the face of facts and ideas that cannot be crammed in
preexisting schemata, or which invite more than a single interpretation, one can either blind oneself to the inadequacy of concepts or seriously deal with the fact that some realities elude them.Everything is the exact opposite of what it might
reasonably be expected to be."
This in-betweenness of the Balkans, their transitionary reasonably be expected to be. I character, could have made them simply an incomplete other; instead they are constructed not as other but as incomplete self
Enlarging and refining on Arnold van Gennep’s groundbreaking concept of liminality, a number of scholars have introduced a distinction between liminality, marginality, and the lowermost. While liminality presupposes significant changes in the dominant self-image, marginality defines qualities “on the same plane as the dominant ego-image.” Finally, the lowermost suggests “the shadow, the structurally despised alter-ego.” The incomplete self.