Mormientalism

Edward Said’s monumental book Orientalism (1978) chronicled the discourse about the “Orient,” specifically Islam, that imagined it as fundamentally distinct from the “Occident.” He suggested that the various disciplines built around Orientalism as a mode of thinking, including literature, history, philology, and religious studies. He argued that the West’s ways of thinking about and depicting the East were interwined with the imperialist aims of the West to dominate, and to justify the domination of the East. This “description” of the East was based on a subtle set of prejudices and assumptions about the East, and the scholarship produced was not “pure” knowledge, but political knowledge. The caricature of the East as essentially irrational, despotic, violent, and sensual served Western political interests.

The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal.” But the way of enlivening this relationship was everywhere to stress the fact that the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of his own, a world with its own national, cultural, and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence. (p. 40)

As is increasingly being studied, Mormonism has a peculiar chapter in the history of Orientalist discourse in the 19th c. Because of polygamy, Mormons were depicted as belonging to the Oriental mind, and exhibiting these backward characteristics. While I don’t think that the use of postcolonial theory is particularly apt for studying Mormonism, not least because of the radically different political context that this theory articulates than is useful for thinking about Mormonism, I do think there are some analogous situations and discourses discussed by postcolonial theorists.

Like the discourse of Orientalism more broadly, the “truth” about Mormons was secondary to the goal of distinguishing them from non-Mormon Americans, to secure their own identity as superior. This discourse took hold not only in terms of polygamy, but in terms of Mormonism’s counterfiet prophets, an understanding which was also implicit to any mention of “Mohammedism.” As with the European imperialism, 19th c. American imperialism drew on the same discourses about Orientalism to dominate, and justify the domination of Mormonism. Mormonism needed to be, and this need persists today, imagined as fundamentally different, as having a different mind altogether from the non-Mormon mind. Though Orientalism has fallen out of favor as a way of understanding Mormonism, the traces of these discourses remain, and the depiction of Mormons as irrational, despotic, violent, and sensual persist in the American vernacular, and continue to serve broader American cultural and political interests.

But, Said’s analysis has its limits, and the subsequent history of postcolonialism as a global intellectual movement significantly refine and alter the fundamental thesis about the West as an active agent and the East as a passive receptor of the discourses of Orientalism. While Said had understood Western discourses being laid on a mute East, this new turn sought to uncover the agency of the oppressed. In still another move in postcolonial theory, local agents have been seen as complicit in the discourse of Orientalism, enabling Western domination through collaboration.

To what extent is the discourse about Mormonism produced by Mormonism, and to what extent is it an external imposition? At heart is not simply a question of whether the discursive formation of Mormonism as a category reflects some “reality,” but to extent to which Mormons have produced this discourse, or utilized it for their own purposes. There is a degree of subtlety that I am not quite articulating well here, but I’m interested in what ways Mormonism has cultivated its own image as essentially irrational, despotic, violent, and sensual, either as a means of establishing and securing an identity which distinguishes “us” from “them,” (using the same rhetorical and epistemic repertoire of non-Mormon discourse about Mormonism), or as a strategic essentialism to advance our own interests. Do the means that Mormons employ of marking Mormons as essentially different from non-Mormons contribute to the production of the Mormon Other, both create the conditions for our own identity as well as our negative image?

  • TrevorM

    TT,

    This is certainly not an area where I have much knowledge, but perhaps this relates:

    I am aware of a certain subset of Mormon artists (playwrights, composers etc.) that decided that the way they could carve out an identity as both Mormon and artists by appealing to the extreme. Writing extremely dissonant and strange music, penning graphically violent and sexual plays etc. while attempting to maintain a stereotypically clean and “orthodox” Mormon profile. The goal being to be more violent, more wild, more graphic than those non-Mormons around them and at once be more straight laced and clean-cut than them.

    This artistic approach is perhaps 2 decades old, but may reflect on the ideas you reference.

  • David S.

    TT,

    Interesting post. Have you read Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth? I haven’t yet read it myself, but from what I know of it, it should be directly relevant to the questions you’re asking.

    TrevorM,

    Could you furnish some examples of the artists/works you’re describing? You’ve got me curious.

  • Secco

    TT, your post has a number of parallels with the NY Times Magazine article this recent week, “Can Animals Be Gay?” The author points out there, just as you do here, that inquiries about the other are in the end frequently simply justifications for answers that we already know we want to put forward in order to support our actions or opinions. Perhaps that’s a major message of postcolonialist analysis as well. My guess is we Mormons as a group actively still have this reflex, just as so many others do, be it on the topic discussed in the NYT article, Orientalism, or other topics…

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Dear all,
    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I’ve been traveling and generally up to my eyeballs, so forgive my tardiness.

    Trevor, that is a very interesting suggestion and I didn’t know about it either. Cool!

    David S., I think Given’s VotH is probably pretty close to what I’m getting at here by exploring the discourses of how the Other, in this case Mormons, is portrayed. I read it like 8 years ago, so if you reread it, give us a report!

    Secco, I think your analysis is right on!

    For all, one of the questions that I was interested in is the dynamic between how Mormons are presented and how Mormons present themselves. Surely, it is too simplistic to say (as Said’s thesis did), that the portrayal of the other is a purely one-sided affair. This is not to give legitimacy to the terrrible things said about Mormons (or that Mormons say about others), but that there may be ways that these discourses do shape our actions. I don’t have any specific ideas, or examples, but I thought it was worth posing the question.

  • SmallAxe

    Here’s my two cents. The Orientalist discourse can work many ways. It can be used as a tool to both reaffirm or challenge a particular power relationship. In Said’s case, it becomes a form of colonialism. In a different sense the construct of an Oriental East also became a tool of critique in the hands of the Transcendentalists. The East was a convenient “other” they used to highlight problems with the West. The importation (and growth) of Buddhism to the West by means of scholar/practitioners such as DT Suzuki provides an example of an “Oriental” leveraging the Orientalist discourse to make room for Buddhism in the West.

    My sense is that you are most interested in the last kind of example in the context of Mormonism. To me, this surfaces in circumstances where we embrace ourselves as the radical other. We are the outcasts, the persecuted, the rejected of the world; and at the same time we are the light of the world, and we will “bring the world his truth”. IMO, we muster the Orientalist discourse as a means of community formation and as a means of reinforcing our exclusive truth claims.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Smallaxe,
    That is exactly what I am interested in! Thanks for putting it more clearly.


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