UNDERSTANDING ZEALOTRY:QUESTIONS FOR POST-ORIENTALISM

THE LYNCHING OF HENRY SMITH, at PARIS, TEXAS, 1 February 1893

MICHAEL ROBERTS

This horrifying picture depicts the lynching of a Black American named Henry Smith at Paris, Texas in 1893 as depicted in an explicitly racist book by Robert Wilson Schufeldt. Here, it is made one part of a series of pictures meant to accompany and complement the essay “Understanding Zealotry.” The picture series is presented at a separate site for technical reasons. All the other photos happen to be instances of pogrom and riot in Sri Lanka and India. Some are equally graphic and horrendous. The victimization of Smith serves to balance these others by revealing to the world that horrible acts are not confined to the ‘Oriental East’.

The two provocative essays (links below) are interlinked and serve as challenges to certain strands of  post-modernist writing that are inflected with the same failings as those whom they castigate, namely, a reading of the present into the past. This slant is exacerbated by (a) their either/or epistemology, itself an integral facet of modernism and (b) their imprisonment within written sources (a restricted view that is also common among some diehard historians).
These lines of challenge are cast within a particular framework: a clarification of my intellectual journey from1990 to the present day. This tale has two parts:

I. Understanding Zealots: Questions for Post-Orientalism (3,871 words);

II. Studying Collective Consciousness over time in Sri Lanka: Questions for Post-Orientalism (5615 words).

In summary let me note that the horrendous pogrom directed against Tamils residing in the south-central parts of Sri Lanka in July 1983 renewed my studies of Sinhala nationalist ideology and, within that frame, in 1990/91 I revived my researches in one expression of Sinhala nationalism, viz the pogrom directed against Muslim Moors in mid-1915. Seeking comparative insights I also began collecting secondary data on race riots in USA, pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and what is widely called “communal violence” in India during the late twentieth century.
It was in the midst of this empirical work that “Understanding Zealots” was composed for the IIAS Newsletter, winter 1995, as I was then benefiting from a fellowship at the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden. This essay was embellished by a picture of a mob of Hindu men roaming the streets during the Bhagalpur riots, 28 October 1989.
That image in turn was part of a process of image collection inspired by two horrifying pictures at Borella Junction in Colombo on the night of 24 July 1983, images captured by a brave cameraman, Chandragupta Amarasinghe. Such pictures are not only data; they have the potential to raise consciousness. Having encountered Sinhalese persons from older generations who seem to suffer from amnesia in recounting the recent political history of Sri Lanka and the place of the July 1983 pogrom in this story, I remain convinced that pictures are a possible antidote. Images are less easy to bury in the hidden recesses of the mind than printed text. It is for this reason that this Introduction has one instance of excess from USA, a lynching of a Black (known there as the species “Negro” or “nigger”), in its opening ‘burst.’ Other images from other quarters are part of the RR display.
The two essays, therefore, are not only about Sri Lankan history and its historiography, though that is the overwhelming focus. The essays are about the modalities of research and the interpretive schemes we deploy. It is an affirmation of the weight I attach to the embodied emotions of human beings, some on lines which impel the excesses of ethno-nationalism or religious hatred. It is also a criticism of the sterile intellectualism of some threads of post-modernism.
It is, therefore, a criticism directed against tendencies encouraged by contemporary literary theory. To quote my conclusion: “[literary theory has] paraded its theoretical virtuosity. It [has] built up its very own stratosphere among the cumulus and nimbus of academia. There, in the high stratosphere, these theorists [have begun] to feed off each other, live and squabble among their very own written texts. Many of them, though not all, [remain] firmly in aerospace, losing touch with oral communication, bodily emotions and the agency of ordinary folk. In thus vesting themselves with inscribed textualist suits of armour some scholars [have] lost touch with people present and past.”

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9 Responses to “UNDERSTANDING ZEALOTRY:QUESTIONS FOR POST-ORIENTALISM”

  1. […] The original article on zealotry has since been expanded and worked into two related essays with the same title that have been inserted in this web site. In […]

  2. […] insulting terms imaginable. Video clips from the film appeared specifically intended to provoke a violent reaction, and when they first popped up in Egypt last week, they inevitably spread fast across the Arabic […]

  3. […] “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I” Lines May-August 2006,  vol.5, 1 & 2, in […]

  4. […] far as I know, has deemed it a suicide mission. But given their distance from north western China the Xinjiang zealots were making their “statement” without an exit strategy. A few of them, including two of the […]

  5. […] Concerned with the Consequences on Human Lives: Epic debates, as between Arjuna and Krishna, codes of morality and theories of justice are ever present, throughout history, in diverse societies and cultures. As […]

  6. […] Michael 2006 “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I” Lines May-August 2006, vol.5, 1 & 2, in […]

  7. […] “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I” Lines May-August 2006, vol.5, 1 & 2, in http://www.lines-magazine.org. […]

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