Saturday, 20 July 2013

'Scientifying the Orient: Race, Gender and Sex in the Colonial Tropics'

The National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS), had organized a talk on “Scientifying the Orient: Race, Gender and Sex in the Colonial Tropics” by Samiparna Samanta. She’s an eminent historian who is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia, USA. The talk was scheduled in NIAS on July 19, 2013. Students and other professionals from different colleges and universities were invited. The postgraduate students of the Department of Sociology of Christ University attended the talk along with some of their faculty member.
The talk was based on the “Oriental” East. The focus was on constructivism as a historical approach. The other main arguments of the lecture were the Colonial Construction of race, sex and gender with respect to India, Africa and West Indies. The abstract for the talk is given below:
Abstract: Over the past decade or so, a growing number of scholars have argued that science is a social construct much like art or music. In light of this new development, concepts of race, gender, sexuality, and identity formation have undergone massive transformations as historical categories. Using this larger historiographical framework, my paper demonstrates how an ‘Orient’ came to be perceived and pictured in European imagination in the nineteenth century through the lens of ‘science.’ By drawing examples from Asia, Africa and Latin America, I show the varied ways in which the West often employed the legitimizing power of ‘science’ to romanticize, eroticize and at times demonize colonial cultures. But more importantly, I examine how nineteenth century colonial constructions of ‘race’ and ‘sexuality’ were used to project the relative backwardness of non-European cultures and societies and thus activate the tension between the “modern” and the “archaic.” The paper thus attempts to problematize the construction of colonial knowledge around ‘thuggee,’ ‘criminal communities,’ ‘prostitute,’ Hottentot Venus, among others to show the power of nineteenth century race science. An exploration of the multiple portrayals of ‘Orient’ also manifests within itself a larger, crucial theme ---- the power of representations, and the way that can form a dominant trope for subjugation of a colonized people. In the course of this meandering trajectory however, I conclude that the colonized were not passive recipients of Western cultural intrusion. Rather, my own research on nineteenth and twentieth century dietary discourses in Bengal demonstrates how the colonized populations (for instance, twentieth century Bengali literati) in their understanding of diet, disease and germs, at times translated Western notions of science, sanitation, and medicine and imagined it in their own cultural contexts.
A key argument was on the social construction of science and its basis as being affected by culture and the social context of a society. It’s not a value-free knowledge.
The talk was interesting as it was based on fundamental ideas of how the Westerners have constantly ignored the East. As a result the non-westerners do not have an identity, a history and an existence of their own. Nineteen Century “Imperialism” was discussed in details and also the universalization of Europe. The essence of the paper lies in the statement by Karl Marx, “Asia fell asleep in history.”
The lecture covered important ideas of science as a dominant paradigm, imperialism, the Westerners as dictators, notions of race, gender and sex. A couple of questions and arguments followed the talk. Ideas were exchanged between the speaker and other students and scholar who raised important issues related to the topic.
On behalf of the students of Christ University I would like to convey my thanks to the Department of Sociology for giving us the opportunity for being a part of such an intellectual event.

Chandni Sarda

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