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Why Orientalism still matters: Reading ‘casual forgetting’ and ‘active remembering’ as neoliberal forms of contestation in international politics



In 2007, the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (BJPIR) devoted an issue to gendering International Relations. It opens with Cynthia Enloe addressing the ‘politics of casual forgetting’. I investigate this notion of casual forgetting using a framework informed by postcolonial and feminist scholarship. Working with ideas drawn from critiques of Orientalism and neoliberalism, I examine knowledge practices that centre binaries as forms of objectivity that disembed phenomena from context, and as forms of over-simplification that flatten the appearance of complexity. Together, these practices have a depoliticising effect; they obscure contestation, situate hierarchy as natural, and separate analysis from its embeddedness in historical and political conditions, even in work guided by critical agendas. I trace these depoliticising practices in a conversation in the 2007 Special Issue of BJPIR and show that Enloe's comments present a push for critical analysis that was overlooked by the Special Issue's editors in their attempt to more clearly delineate the subdiscipline of Gender and International Relations (IR) as distinct from feminist IR. This article suggests that Enloe's plea is effectively one for ‘active remembering’ as a way to render visible the insidious forms of power that give a stable appearance to categories of social phenomena.



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1 Foucault, Michel, ‘The discourse on language’, in Michel Foucault, The Archeaology of Knowledge, trans. Swyer, Rupert (New York: Vintage Books, 2010 [orig. pub. 1971]), p. 229 .

2 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 328 .

3 Enloe, Cynthia, ‘Forward’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9:2 (2007), pp. 183–4.

4 Enloe, ‘Forward’, p. 183.

5 Nayak, Meghana and Malone, Christopher, ‘American Orientalism and American exceptionalism: a critical rethinking of US hegemony’, International Studies Review, 11 (2009), pp. 253–76.

6 Tickner, J. Ann, ‘Feminist perspectives on 9/11’, International Studies Perspectives, 3:4 (2002), pp. 333–50; Allison, Katherine, ‘American Occidentalism and the agential Muslim woman’, Review of International Studies, available on: CJO 2012 doi:10.1017/S0260210512000289 .

7 Chowdry, Geeta, ‘Edward Said and contrapuntal reading: Implications for critical interventions in International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations, 36 (2007), pp. 101–16.

8 Ling, L. H. M., ‘Said's exile: Strategic insights for postcolonial feminists’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations, 36 (2007), pp. 135–45.

9 Duvall, Raymond and Varadarajan, Latha, ‘Traveling in paradox; Edward Said and critical International Relations’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations, 36 (2007), pp. 8399 .

10 Biswas, Shampa, ‘Empire and global public intellectuals: Reading Edward Said as an International Relations theorist’, Millennium: Journal of International Relations, 36 (2007), pp. 117–33, 118.

11 Biswas, ‘Empire and global public intellectuals’, p. 118.

12 Duvall and Varadarajan, ‘Traveling in paradox’, p. 84.

13 Hall, Stuart, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Palgrave, 1978).

14 Enloe, Cynthia, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), p. 23 .

15 Said, Orientalism. In his first chapter, Said provides a sense of the scope of Orientalism. In his second chapter, he draws a picture of how Orientalism structures and restructures itself and its representational practices through legitimated speech and speakers. And, in the third chapter, Said depicts Orientalism as a discursive legacy underpinning contemporary politics.

16 Zalewski, Marysia, Feminist International Relations: Exquisite Corpse (New York: Routledge, 2013).

17 Foucault's discourse has been understood in a number of ways, and Foucault, himself, had many ways of discussing it. Here, I use a version adapted from Mills' Discourse and Foucault's ‘The discourse on language’.

18 Michel Foucault, ‘The discourse on language’, pp. 215–37, 229.

19 Mills, Sara, Discourse (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 51 . Mills' text offers a clear and concise reading of Foucault, ‘The discourse on language’.

20 Foucault, ‘The discourse on language’, p. 229.

21 Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

22 Mani, Lata and Frankenberg, Ruth, ‘The challenge of Orientalism’, Economy and Society, 14:2 (1985), pp. 174–92, 182.

23 Clifford, James, review of Orientalism, History and Theory , 19:2 (1980), pp. 204–23. Clifford's well-known essay dismisses Orientalism as sweeping, as ‘too broadly and abstractly pitched [and] … as overly systematic’ (p. 206) and as not critical enough of liberal humanism, a theory at odds with Foucault's thinking (p. 212).

24 Clifford, Orientalism, p. 212.

25 Mani and Frankenberg, ‘The challenge of Orientalism’, p. 181.

26 Ibid., p. 177.

27 Although this is indeed a component of the Other's construction of self within terms of a discourse that situated the Othered self as subordinate, as Fanon, examines in Black Skins, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008).

28 Said, Orientalism, p. 59.

29 Ibid., pp. 116–19.

30 Ibid., p. 204.

31 Said distinguishes between manifest and latent Orientalism (p. 206). The former composes ‘various stated views about oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology and so forth’ while the latter refers to the stable underpinnings of representations that might appear manifestly different (p. 206). These stable underpinnings ‘[keep] intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability’ (p. 206).

32 Said, Orientalism, p. 210.

33 Harvey, Neoliberalism, p. 12.

34 Ibid., p. 47.

35 Ibid.

36 Ong, Aihwa, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

37 Fraser, Nancy, ‘Feminism, capitalism, and the cunning of history’, New Left Review, 56 (2009), pp. 97117 .

38 Larner, Wendy et al., ‘New times, new spaces: Gendered transformations of governance, economy, and citizenship’, Social Politics, 20:2 (2013), pp. 157–64, 158. See also, Larner, Wendy, ‘A brief history of neoliberalism’, Review, Economic Geography, 82:4 (2006), pp. 449–51.

39 Harvey, Neoliberalism, p. 13.

40 Siba Grovogui, Participant, Global Development Working Group. International Studies Association Annual Conference, Mustapha Kamal Pasha and Giorgio Shani, convenors, San Diego, 5 April 2012. This would seem to accord with Wendy Larner's arguments about how shifting practices impact ‘neoliberal’ from multiple sites, from the global south to shifting types of daily practices of ordinary people. See Larner, Wendy, ‘Neoliberalism?’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 21:5 (2003), pp. 509–12.

41 Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception, p. 3.

42 Mudimbe, V. Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988).

43 Ibid., p. 185.

44 Enloe, ‘Forward’, p. 183.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., p. 184.

47 Ling, L. H. M., Postcolonial International Relations: Conquest and Desire between Asia and the Rest (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002).

48 Ibid., p. 54.

49 Ibid.

50 Spivak, Gayatri, ‘Gender and international studies’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 27:4 (2005), pp. 809931 .

51 Spivak, Gayatri, ‘Scattered speculations on the subaltern and the popular’, Postcolonial Studies, 8:4 (2005), pp. 475–86.

52 Ling, Postcolonial International Relations, p. 19.

53 Ibid., p. 69.

54 Ibid., p. 61.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid., p. 21.

57 Ibid., p. 53.

58 Persram, Nalini, ‘Book Review: Postcolonial International Relations: Conquest and desire between Asia and the West’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 5:1 (2003), pp. 145–7.

59 Sylvester, Christine, Feminist Theory and International Relations in a Postmodern Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

60 Ibid., p. 13.

61 Ibid., p. 3.

62 Ibid., pp. 2–3, and ch. 5.

63 Ibid., p. 3.

64 Ibid., p. 2.

65 Ibid., p. 3.

66 Ibid., p. 215.

67 Compounding this, the practice of homesteading is simultaneously a practice in which one seizes power and excludes others from that power. With the idea that feminists should homestead IR, the danger is that differences between not just feminists, but all women are flattened in depoliticised categories of difference and multiplicity. See also Massey, Doreen, For Space (London: Sage, 2005). Massey argues against just such a conception of place. For her, place such that it ever appears as a thing is an outcome of meetings of complex trajectories and relational interactivity (and contestation).

68 Sylvester's recent work on experiencing war transcends these problems as does her work that analyses the role of emotion in feminist scholarship. Sylvester, Christine, ‘The Forum: Emotion and the feminist IR researcher’, International Studies Review, 13 (2011), pp. 687708 ; Sylvester, Christine, ‘Experiencing war: an introduction’, in Sylvester, Christine (ed.), Experiencing War (London: Routledge, 2011); Sylvester, Christine, ‘War experiences/war practices/war theory’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 40:3 (2012), pp. 483503 . In grounding her analyses in bodies, places, historical, political economic contexts, and war, Sylvester has moved to incorporate an analysis of the conditions of possibility for the everyday in complex ways. This complexity emerges clearly in a recent article in which she argues for approaches to studying war that address it as an experience of social relations which, moves away from the idea of multiplicity as a challenge to binary constructions of social phenomena Sylvester, ‘War experiences’, p. 484.

69 Sylvester, Feminist Theory and International Relations, p. 39.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid., p. 43.

72 Ibid., p. 12.

73 Tickner, J. Ann, ‘You just don't understand: Troubled engagements between feminists and IR theorists’, International Studies Quarterly, 41:4 (1997), pp. 611–32, 614.

74 Ibid., p. 621.

75 Ibid.

76 Marchand, Marianne, ‘Different communities/different realities/different encounters: a reply to Ann Tickner’, International Studies Quarterly, 42:1 (1998), pp. 199204, 200.

77 Ibid., p. 200.

78 Ibid., p. 201.

79 Ibid.

80 Ibid., p. 203.

81 Tickner, J. Ann, Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), p. 126 .

82 J. Ann Tickner, ‘Feminist perspectives on 9/11’.

83 Tickner, J. Ann, ‘On the frontlines or sidelines of knowledge and power? Feminist practices of responsible scholarship’, International Studies Review, 8:3 (2006), pp. 383–95.

84 Tickner, ‘Feminist perspectives on 9/11’, p. 338.

85 Ibid., p. 347.

86 Ibid., p. 345.

87 This binary framing frequently emerges in colonial debates regarding the role of women, from the nineteenth-century Egyptian debate on the veil alongside British colonial control ( Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), to British women's suffrage and arguments regarding their imperial responsibilities ( Burton, Antoinette, Burdens of History; British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); el-Malik, Shiera, ‘Rattling the binary: Symbolic power, gender, and embodied colonial legacies’, Politics, Groups and Identities, 2:1 (2014), pp. 116 ), to the Indian debate on widow immolation and colonial discourse on tradition versus modernity ( Mani, Lata, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

88 Tickner, ‘Feminist perspectives on 9/11’; Margalit, Avishai and Buruma, Ian, ‘Occidentalism’, New York Review of Books, 49:1 (2002). The article ‘Occidentalism’ and the subsequent book of the same title have been solidly critiqued. My aim here is not to repeat this critique, but to address how work such as this operates at cross-purposes with the aims of feminist politics. See Bilgrami, Akeel, ‘Occidentalim, the very idea: an essay on enlightenment and enchantment’, Critical Inquiry, 32 (2006), pp. 381411 .

89 Margalit and Buruma, ‘Occidentalism’, section 5.

90 Bilgrami, ‘Occidentalism, the very idea’.

91 Tickner, ‘Feminist perspectives on 9/11’, p, 335, emphasis added.

92 Ibid., p, 339, emphasis added.

93 Ibid., emphasis added.

94 Tickner, ‘On the frontlines or sidelines of knowledge and power?’, p. 389, added.

95 Featherman, David and Vinovskis, Maris, ‘The growth and use of social and behavioural science in the federal government since WWII’, in Featherman, David and Vinovskis, Maris (eds), Social Science and Policy-making: A Search for Relevance in the Twentieth Century (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 4082 .

96 Enloe, Cynthia, Morning After: Sexual Politics at the End of the Cold War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Enloe, Cynthia, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Enloe, Cynthia, Manoeuvres: The International Politics of Militarizing Women's Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press).

97 As part of this thick description, Enloe demonstrates that the teaching of appropriate gender relations was seen to be important for both the colonised and the colonisers. Enloe explains how this impacted the domestic arena with reference to British masculinity and the Boy Scouts. Robert Baden-Powell, the father of the Boy Scouts (he, along with his wife also pioneered the girl scouts), had a vision of the appropriate masculinity and femininity necessary to the continuation of British imperial hegemony (Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, pp. 49–51).

98 Enloe, Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, p. xiv.

99 Ibid., p. 195.

100 Ibid., p. 58. In fact when asked if she would study the effects of gender on men, Enloe responds with the comment that men do figure into her work and that the empirical referent is more complex than the question indicates: ‘Women and ideas about femininity are manipulated usually by political actors intent upon persuading men to behave in certain ways. Just think of all you learn about states' anxieties about masculinity from paying attention to military wives!’ See ‘Interview with Professor Cynthia Enloe’, Review of International Studies, 27 (2001), pp. 649–66, 663.

101 And she does this by looking at the silences: in this case, the women. Studying silences is different than attempting to open spaces for people to speak. It requires listening to them where they are. The scholar's responsibility is different in both cases. In the first instance, she controls spaces. In the second, she listens for what is said and what is not said, how a thing is said or not said and to whom. Enloe is preoccupied with the development of active criticism when she notes that ‘paying attention to consequences alone is useful, but too timid’ (Enloe, Morning After, p. 47).

102 Enloe devises an anti-imperial approach that incorporates capital, gender, and race. Her approach to empiricism relies on an ethics of listening in order to hear others working within the nexus of what we might consider the political economy of life and in order to challenge the empiricism that speaks for or over actors in perceptibly weaker positions.

103 Squires, Judith and Weldes, Jutta, ‘Beyond being marginal: gender and International Relations in Britain’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9 (2007), pp. 185203, 190.

104 Ibid., p. 191.

105 Ibid., p. 190.

106 Ibid., p. 189.

107 Ibid., p. 191.

108 Squires and Weldes do not specifically engage with the other articles in the issue.

109 Zalewski, ‘Do we understand each other yet?’, p. 308.

110 Ibid., p. 303.

111 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond being marginal’, p. 191.

112 Zalewski, ‘Do we understand each other yet?’, p. 305, emphasis in original.

113 Ibid., p. 303.

114 Squires and Weldes, ‘Beyond being marginal’, p. 192.

115 Ibid.

116 Ibid., p. 193.

117 Ibid., p. 194.

118 Ibid., p. 199.

119 Enloe, ‘Forward’, p. 194.

120 Ibid., p. 184.

121 Said, Orientalism, p. 328.

122 Enloe, The Curious Feminist, p. 1.

* I acknowledge support of an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Award and a Postdoctoral Fellowship. Special thanks go to Maura Conway, Rahel Kunz, and Jacob Stump for their generous readings, discussions, critique of this aricle, and literature recommendations. I also thank five anonymous peer reviewers at RIS whose comments helped me immensely.

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