Life as an Extreme Sport

Allopoietic Orientalism and Excluded Autopoietics

An old paper added, just in case I’m called out to prove the paper behind the excessive title exists, in a conversation over on Crooked Timber…

Allopoietic Orientalism and Excluded Autopoietics

Said’s conception of Orientalism is one of “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing the relative upper hand” (7). He sees the dominant discourse of the Occident creating the identity of the Orient, with the Orient (for a series of reasons that would please Jared Diamond) unable to escape from this hegemonic form of identity creation. Chakrabarty belongs to the “postcolonial project of subaltern studies” (1). This group of scholars is primarily focused on rethinking and rewriting Indian history, removing the Orient from the shadow of the Occident. In fact, these scholars pull a maneuver similar to what Stephen Greenblatt, in Marvelous Possessions, highlights Mandeville as doing. Mandeville shifted his history from the Dome of the Rock, the center of the world, to the outer edges of the sphere. Likewise, Chakrabarty, Spivak, and others shift from the “elite” center of Orientalism to the margins of the subaltern.

The problem with this subaltern take is that it is a reaction to the Orientalism Said describes, and in being a reaction ends up simply trying to co-opt the same Cartesian binary model of the power/knowledge dichotomy Orientalism and colonialism operates under. The focus on flipping who has the power in this dichotomous relationship ignores the inherent flaw in the concept of the relationship itself, which is that in any situation where you set up a Self and an Other, you are automatically excluding all that does not fall into either definition. I believe that Chakrabarty, et all, would attempt to argue that the focus of subaltern studies is the space between Self and Other, but that narrow space between the two is still excluding everything that falls outside. What is this outside, this excluded? In terms of Orientalism vs. Occidentalism, it can be those Muslims who live outside the immediate area defined as the Orient by Said (the Levant, Persia and India), such as the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africans who are Muslim and face the same prejudices of exoticism. It can be those in China who were also under the British colonial power, the pirates of the Barbary Coast, or the Barbary Coast itself. The point being, as excluded, it is something that can and often has an effect on the scenario being described, but is not itself being described.

It becomes useful to think of what both Said and Chakrabarty are talking about in terms of allopoetic systems, an other-made system that imposes form on it from the outside. Orientalism is allopoietic; it is a system of describing and interacting with the Orient created and imposed by the Occident. Likewise, the field of subaltern studies is an effort to co-opt and reframe this allopoetic system in a manner that, while rejecting a Western-dominated history, is still defined by it. (After all, they are opting to specifically reject something for another.) The problem with Said, Chakrabarty and allopoietic systems is that it’s a process; there is a beginning and an end. To take it from the abstract, it’s like an easy-bake oven; raw dough goes in, cookies come out. This allopoietic model doesn’t allow for a system of feedback, or anything except the raw dough and the oven.

If we switch instead to an autopoietic system, we break out of the model of Cartesian dualism and can begin to embrace a feedback system that allows for inclusion of the excluded third. Autopoietic systems are self-creating systems; crudely put, they are interactive systems that continually produce and maintain themselves and the bits and pieces that form their relationships. If we then reframe Orientalism and Occidentalism into an autopoietic system, they are two systems in a dynamic together that, while feedbacking to one another to continue their relationship, are also open to the feedback and input of unacknowledged forces. These forces can be the weather that determines the tea production, the demand for batik in the Caribbean, or the very language used to describe and translate the news. Autopoietic systems allow for temporary binary situations to exist, often nested within one another, while still allowing for an inclusive, non-binary system to encompass the whole.

Both Said and Chakrabarty are operating within the Foucaudian power/knowledge dichotomy and ignoring everything that falls outside the realm of the (British, French, and to a lesser degree German) Occident and the (Levant, Persia and Indian) Orient. Ignoring the excluded third of everything else is a way of seeing the world in terms of clashing allopoietic processes, rather than nested autopoietic systems that allow for temporary binary situations to exist while still creating an inclusive system that encompasses the whole. Which is, perhaps, simply a fancy way of saying that it’s turtles, all the way down.

Citations and References
Said, Edward. “Introduction” to Orientalism
Chakrabarty, Dipesh.
Maturana, Humberto R. and Francisco J. Varela


  1. Rather enjoyed this one, but I’ve always thought the argument can even go a notch farther. Like something out of Hegel, Said (and especially his successors) winds up taking on the system of Orientalism in an attempt to destroy it in an orgy of anti-essentialism, but winds up with the same power structure, but turned on its head.

    In that way, many post-colonialists wind up essentializing, dehumanizing, and marginalizing those whom they label as Orientalists (and the power to label and categorize is strictly theirs). And of course, anyone so labelled does not need to be read. Their voices are ignorant, oppressive, dangerous. We need post-colonial scholars to speak for them. They have Orientalized the Orientalists. Or, as you so rightly point out, they have simply turned the same old binary on its head, and (at least in the academy and certain activist circles) they are now on top.

  2. Yeah, one of the weakest aspects of the paper is that I was restricted to a maximum of three pages – so I had to go for brief, and assume that some context was known. I also had to limit it to authors we’d read in the course of the study (their way of limiting what we can draw from, to limit response paper length).

    I’ve thought it would be an interesting paper to expand on, but I’ve never had the time and am, at least for now, moving away from a direct study of autopoietic systems.

  3. Perhaps then is to study the knowledge of the self, rather than ever outward looking gaze to extract knowledge from elsewhere. Maybe autopoietic knowledge can be see in yoga systems (philosophy, asana, etc).

Comments are closed.