Mormientalism April 1, 2010

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?

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