Reenchantment: From the Facts of Orientalism to the Sustenance of Storytelling

By Wendy Shaw

This article is part of the TRAFO Series  “40 Years After Orientalism”.

Facts cannot solve the problem of lies. Stories can.

The given wisdom of modern positivism has been that more facts amount to more truth. In line with the theory of homo economicus, it assumes that people make decisions rationally. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t. Or rather, perhaps we do, but reason doesn’t emerge simply from the sum total of information. What matters in reasoning is not facticity, but the power of the rhetoric that gives information form. Where rhetoric wields the power of logic, building on foundations of the accepted rather than the factual, it has the power to build apparent truth out of thin air. For this reason, no amount of true facts can alleviate a situation of public prejudice, such as that of Islamophobia. Only effective rhetoric – good storytelling – can.

In his 1978 work Orientalism, Said points to this conundrum in repeatedly remarking on the “exteriority” of what is depicted with reference to the Orient, on the centrality of representation over markers of supposed truth. In laying the groundwork for the discursive analysis of a discipline, he points to how each era of representing the Orient functions within a premise that an Orient exists, yet it lacks the agency to articulate itself and must be articulated from outside. This is why the epistemic cages for the Orient that he cites – “imperialism, positivism, utopianism, historicism, Darwinism, racism, Freudianism, Marxism, Spenglerism” – include, haphazardly, frameworks that appear both dated and undated. Positivism and historicism, to which we still adhere, appear as dangerous as imperialism, racism, and Spenglerism. There is no degree of facticity that exists without storytelling, and when we fail to address the power of narrative – the fact that we are not representing the Orient so much as bringing it into being through our descriptions – we repeat the dangerous deception that constructs “us” in opposition to (an imaginary) “them”.

How are we to solve this conundrum? Would it be better to not speak of the other at all, to leave it alone in ignorance and in silence? I suggest that once we know that the unfamiliar is there, to leave it utterly alone enhances alienation: it engenders a sense of the uncanny no less than the darkest recesses of a cave. Rather, we can engage in three practices: listen to the expressions of alterity without defining them either in relation to each other or repackaging them through our own epistemic lenses; foreground our own practices of representation as narratives rather than as truths; and replace the dull rhetoric of facticity connoting academic trustworthiness with multiple rhetorics enabling engagement and excitement. If every representation necessitates adultery, there’s something to be said for assuring its pleasure. 

Plato expresses the shortcomings of bald truth as a method of communication in the dialogue Phaedrus, and around two and a half millennia later we would still be wise to take heed.

“The person who means to be competent at rhetoric need have nothing to do with the truth about just or good things… for they say in the law-courts no one cares in the slightest for the truth about these things but only for what is convincing; and what is convincing is what is probable.

(Plato and Rowe, 2005: 59)

But this is not a problem only of antiquity. The legacy of sophistry – effective argumentation based on poor facts – structures basic tenets of our modern system of knowledge. Every time anybody utters the words “Western” and “Civilization” together, they repeat the prejudices built into G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of history, rooted not in documentation – as was famously promoted by his rival Leopold von Ranke – but in logic.

In his lectures on history, delivered in the mid-1820s and published posthumously from student notes, Hegel logically applied his modification of the Platonic dialectic, expressed in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), an “exposition of the coming to be of knowledge,” to the flow of history. According to Hegel, the Spirit emerged through a sequence of oppositions that, in subsuming their predecessors, led teleologically to progress, enabling the ideological liberation embodied in the French Revolution. In designating this model as the “dialectic,” he profoundly altered the methodological implications of Plato’s dialectic. For Plato, dialectic is the process through which knowledge emerges as perpetually living, perpetually answerable, assured through the process of dialogue. Rather than leading to a firm conclusion – a danger associated with the fixity of writing – dialogue remains potentially multivalent. There is no single outcome of the dialectic, so much as a perpetual renewal of truth that can only be assured through the perpetual possibility of questioning. As expressed in Socrates’ exposition of rhetoric in Phaedrus, speech associated with truth “is written together with knowledge in the soul of the learner, capable of defending itself, and knowing how to speak and keep silent in relation to the people it should” (Plato and Rowe, 2005: 63-64). Phaedrus confirms Socrates’ assertion by repeating it, saying, “You mean the living, animate speech of the man who knows, of which written speech would be rightly called a kind of phantom” (Plato and Rowe, 2005: 64). Socrates follows with a metaphor for teaching based in the concept of planting, sowing, and replanting a seed, “rendering that seed forever immortal” (Plato and Rowe, 2005: 65). As with Hegel, the Platonic dialectic describes a dynamic process, but not one that functions through stages with  firm outcomes indicating progress – the process itself, not the outcome, renders truth.

This distinction is central both to the appropriation of antiquity as the property of “the West,” and to its capacity to designate units of information, rather than the flow between them, as knowledge. Hegel’s emphasis on each stopping point of the dialectic as an improvement on its precedents, as a step on the ladder of progress, enables the logic of an ultimate truth, governed by authoritative assertion, rendered as teleologically true. In contrast, the Platonic emphasis on flow valorizes a movement understood through analogy with speech, as with planting: knowledge is not a store of facts, but a process of how we plant and replant knowledge through the medium of rhetoric. Henri Bergson describes this Platonic approach in his concept of “duration,” a process of inheritance rather than heritage, through the metaphor of music:

Pure duration is the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states… [it] forms both the past and the present states into an organic whole, as happens when we recall the notes of a tune, melting, so to speak, into one another… [comparable] to a living being whose parts, although distinct, permeate one another just because they are so closely connected…

(Pearson and Maoilearca, 2014: 72)

Engagement with history rooted in this Platonic dialectic of duration rather than the Hegelian dialectic of progress involves incorporation instead of conquest.

Léon de Laborde, Voyage de l’Asie mineure. Paris, 1838. Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

We can witness duration enacted in the processes of recycling of objects and ideas alike, whether as the building blocks of buildings or of wisdom, since antiquity. In his 1838 Voyages de L’Asie Mineur, Léon de Labord both provides the only surviving visual record of the thirteenth-century Seljuk incorporation of antique spolia into the city walls of their capital city in Konya and criticized their ineptitude in preserving the works in a manner more effectively achieved by Raphael. [Figure 1] The accompanying illustrations demonstrate the distinction between the Seljuk and European norms of viewing. In the top panel, he records the Seljuk recontextualization of antiquity within a contemporary ideology that expressed dynastic might through a combination antique and Sufi concepts (Yalman, 2012). On the bottom of the same page, he segregates the objects, as would befit the more Hegelian historicism of his era that would soon give birth to modern art history. It reminds me of those entertainments for children that invite us to find hidden objects in a picture.

Far from normative, this segregation of past objects through historical musealization was a subject of debate even in France, where a generation earlier, in 1796, Quatremère de Quincy had bemoaned the musealization of artworks accompanying the French Revolution:

In vain do we convince ourselves that the antiquities taken from that city today can preserve their virtue. Everywhere else they are sterile, since everywhere else they lack the power deriving from their place; everywhere else they are disenchanted. They become images for which there is no mirror.

(Maleuvre, 1999: 13)

Unlikely as the analogy may seem, thirteenth-century Seljuk rulers and an eighteenth-century French intellectual share an approach to collecting that incorporates history within the world in which they live, sustaining earlier cultures within their own. By the time de Labord writes, this was changing: historicism rendered the past as isolated from the present, disenchanted, perhaps even dead. The more the past could be disassociated from the corruption of the present, the more accurate it became. And yet, I would be hard-pressed to suggest an increased accuracy of de Labord’s second image over his first. Rather, it is less complex. It envisions history less as movement across time that necessarily incorporates the present in the process of framing than as a process that fails to recognize its own participation. The Seljuks and de Quincy were right: the present is always unavoidable in how we articulate the past, even if that articulation consists of an attempt to distance ourselves from it. Scientific method recognizes this as the observer effect.

We can see this as well in processes of perpetuating wisdom in the form of stories. For example, the fables known as Kalilah and Dimnah became the first widely distributed non-theological book of the growing region under Islamic hegemony when they were translated from Pahlavi in the mid-eighth century simultaneously into Arabic, the language of the Muslims, and Syriac, that of the Christians, under the new suzerainty of the Abbasid Dynasty. The several forwards that precede the fables describe it as a book of wisdom in Platonic terms that compare text to medicine, as in Phaedrus, and valorize it through a sequence of translation from Indian sages. By the tenth century, the fables had also been translated into Greek and Hebrew, suggesting the high value placed on their wisdom enhanced not by identitarianism, but by cultural transfer – the stories had value beyond their own wisdom not because they belonged to “us,” but because they came from far away. Soon after the Catholic conquest of Mallorca in the thirteenth century, Ramon Lull became their first translator into Spanish, inspiring Raymond de Beziers to translate the work into Latin for Jeanne de Navarre (1273-1305) (Luyster, 2017). In the process, the prefaces conveying the legacy of the Islamic intermediaries were discarded, and the story was combined with a narrative of Christian inspiration. Cultural recycling was recast as cultural appropriation: wisdom could only be valorized if it became part of the legacy of self in the form of Christianity.

A similar logic of Christianization suffuses the thought of Hegel, who necessarily grounded his understanding of religion as a universalizing category on the Protestant Lutheranism with which he was familiar (Lewis:2013; Masuzawa: 2005). Giving the phrase, “Ex Oriente Lux” the magisterial weight of a maxim by quoting it in Latin, Hegel traces his geography of the “west” from Mesopotamia and Egypt across Greece and Rome to Germany (Hegel and Sibree, 2004: 99). What limited sources he had were Greek epic poetry and travelers’ reports from distant lands that were conservative and racist even in the context of his own times (Habib, 2017: 77). Folding patriarchy deep into our understanding of the nation, he compares the state with a father who rules over the family such that all its members willingly subsume their identities to his demands (Hegel and Sibree, 2004: 41). This is not the theorist of the early 1800s who used unflinching logic to modify the open-ended flow of speech in the Platonic dialectic into a teleological paradigm for progress; this is the stentorian voice of the elder stateman pontificating to his students slavishly writing down his every word, convincing them of the benevolent patriarchy of the (Prussian) State of which he was a loyal servant. What he says appears logical because it is founded on premises shared by his audience: a teleological geography of history that matches the areas his audience already knows through a combination of Christianity and ancient literature. They didn’t need facts; they needed affirmation. His satisfaction of this need for affirmation continues to be our modern truth, and it is based on absolutely no facts at all.

The strangest aspect of this regime of a-factual rhetoric is not simply its persistence among the general population, but among the more specific populations known as historians who, following in the legacy of Ranke, have become ever more creative in their ability to recognize sources and ever more critical in their interpretive approaches to them. Yet when it comes to basic global divisions, persistent in the structure of publishing as well as in the hierarchies of many history departments, the “West” remains a main story. Others are treated as immigrants to the realm of a proper history. All too often, the analytical limelight of academic positions and grants only shines on this supposed periphery when it interacts with the supposed center. If historians were to pay attention to documented history, they might come to realize that it is historiography rather than history that links any aspect of Christian modernity to the antiquity that preceded it, as it was actively suppressed and forgotten for around a thousand years (Appiah, 2019; Mas, 2015). If they were to pay attention to historical documentation, they might recognize that the drive to a “secular” understanding of history was profoundly informed by the interests of Northern European Protestantism, which advocated the privatization of religion against those wildly public practitioners of their faiths: Catholics and Jews. The framework of the “West” is less the recognition of a secular cultural geography than a legacy of the universalization of Protestant values through the occlusion of religion as a visible agent. Such ghosts may be the most difficult of all agents to battle, as they can always claim that they were never there.

Thus no facts are needed to declare one or another set of people as “others” to this thing called the “West,” itself already grounded in sophistry. No amount of true facts about something fictional like the “Orient” can counter a paradigm founded on choice bits woven together with the authoritarian hand of logic. This, Said already pointed out, is the danger of Orientalism: “One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away” (Said, 1978: 6). The Orient, as Said points out, is based not on a system of facts, but on a differential of power between those who have the right to know and thereby gain power about the other, and those who are known, but lack the capacity to have an overview of, and thereby know, themselves. Orientalism emerges not because its facts are true or false, but because implicit in it is the claim that the proper engagement with the rest of the world is that of learning about – explicating and dissecting the other.

Yet the critique expressed in Orientalism has often been met through recourse to an ever more detailed barrage of facts. By conflating the knowledge-as-power mode of scholarly Orientalism discussed by Said with the exotifying mode of Orientalism embodied in nineteenth-century Orientalist painting, world fairs, and endless modern regurgitations of Aladdin, those who study Near East have often aimed to resolve “misrepresentation” with increased accuracy. Nothing against increased accuracy – don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sophisticated discussions of critically analyzed and diverse sources – but this does nothing to solve the problem of power implicit in constructing the “other” through an edifice of facts. It does nothing to solve the even greater rhetorical problem of communicating about the world in a way that people want to listen. As scholars, we can be as accurate as we like, and it will never stop the Oriental dance theater, or the conversations about sand-N——, or questions about whether there are camels in Istanbul, or tut-tutting about the oppression of “their” women. The problem is not one of accuracy, but one of representation. Not one of truth, but of rhetoric.

In contrast to de Quincy’s derogatory use of the term, “disenchantment“ was valorized through a prospect of modernity predicated on rationalism which, as the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) explained, involves the disenchantment with the world – “die Entzauberung der Welt”. Through the rise of reason and science, he postulates that the world loses its faith in magic. It is robbed of its Gods. Disenchantment involves a regrounding in the world, a worldliness, that becomes institutionalized as Secularism. Recognizing the alienation from pleasure embedded in the bureaucratic divestment of knowledge from enchantment, he nonetheless codes disenchantment as not only inevitable, but value-free. Disenchantment has often been framed as a solution against enchantment, which becomes equated with Orientalism as a projection of a phantasm and projection. But disenchanted facts do nothing against the rhetoric of fantasy.

Consider, for example, the regurgitation of Jean-Leon Gerome’s famous 1866 painting The Slave Market on a 2019 election poster for the German far-right political party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). The painting has generally been understood within the broader context of Orientalist painting, which used visual verisimilitude inspired by photography, what Linda Nochlin calls “the effect of the real,” to produce fantastic scenes that simultaneously morally critique the Orient while reveling in fantasies of violence and the subjugation of women (Nochlin, 1989: 33-59). Thus the (presumed) male heterosexual European viewer of the scene could simultaneously disparage the “Orient” as primitive, authoritarian, and sexist, while also taking pleasure in the fantasy of being the buyer and possessing the slave woman exposed in the scene. The painting also needs to be understood in light of the legacy of Eugene Delacroix’ 1934 Women of Algiers [Figure 2] which, while far less salacious, offers a view on an (imaginary) Algerian harem that won the main prize of the Salon when exhibited in 1834, as a celebration of the French conquest of Algeria (Çelik, 1997: 190-192; Grigsby, 2001: 81). Political conquest was normatively understood through the metaphor of access to the other men’s woman. While slavery had long been outlawed in France and its territories, the painting was executed in an era of intense opprobrium against slavery, particularly in relation to the climax of the Civil War in the United States. In the meantime, efforts to end slavery in the Ottoman Empire, the largest contemporary power of the (Near) “Orient,” had been underway since the 1830s. In this context, the painting seems to shift the locus of slavery from the West to the Orient, ignoring the different forms of slavery in the different regions and casting slavery itself as part of the broader package of despotic injustice that magnanimous European colonialism (for the French, the mission civilisatrice) was supposed to cure.

Figure 2: Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement. 1834. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This rhetoric performs in the same way today. It transposes today’s dominant European discourse against female body covering, generally depicted as involuntary subjugation of (the Eastern) woman, into a fantastic exposure of (every) woman to the rapacious white male gaze. The power of its rhetoric emerges through the apparent contradiction of the metaphor: we censor Orientals because they subjugate women but resolve the problem by subjugating them ourselves. Yet this is no contradiction at all. Even if women often say they choose the veil, to allow for this would allow for female agency – a possibility disallowed under every patriarchal regime, including that of Europe. Their veiling thus necessarily indicates subjugation to patriarchy, but one not governed by European masculinity. The veil announces the possibility of a second patriarchy in competition with that of white European men. Women are mere pawns in a fight for dominance between Western patriarchy and an Oriental challenger, who indicates control over “his” women through public signs of their subjugation. This problem is resolved by the white man’s insistence on subjugating the Oriental woman himself, inserting her within his sole patriarchal gaze. He thereby erases the threat of Oriental patriarchy, much as Delacroix pushed aside the man of the Algerian harem when he offered a public gaze upon his women.

In the nineteenth century, as now, the painting announces colonial male privilege with a powerful rhetoric that functions not despite, but because it lacks veracity. Throwing facts at such rhetoric only fuels the pleasure of those who made it – look at how their feathers get ruffled. Look at what a ruckus we caused. What babies. What girls. The audience of such rhetoric could not care less if their politics is based on inaccuracy, because their moral compass does not point in the direction of some abstract, universally-applicable truth or equity, but in the direction of the inalienability of their power. 

Until we can face the rhetorical power of racist, sexist fantasy with equally powerful storytelling, those of us who want to reestablish the world as a conversation of equals will continually reproduce our own failure. To this end, we may not have to let go of facts so much as embed them in far more appealing rhetoric. But how?

We need to tell better stories. Yet if we tell better stories about the other, we will only repeat the differential of power. Stories need to come as the product of listening and responding: not a dialectic enforcing progress, but one that emerges between subjects. A practice of learning from rather than about. As Emmanuel Levinas points out, often the expressions of the culture of an Other can, at best, enter into a conversation with a culture we define as our own, thereby producing an ethical relationship, despite the inalienable boundaries produced between the analyst and the analysand.

To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression… It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of
the I… this also
means: to be taught.

(Levinas and Lingis, 1969: 51)

The true threat of the other, after all, is the possibility that it might pollute the age-old norms assumed to construct that other abiding fiction known as “the West.” The possibility that it might return the gaze. The possibility that it might have something to say: not only about itself, as a native informant, but as an equal observer, and critic, of you, the localized embodiment of “the West,” its seed, its spawn, planted over and over again.

The other, then, cannot be encountered in the rhetoric of facticity, since that rhetoric of description and exposition is inherently mired in the position of authority grounded in an affirmation of the propriety of the modern. There is no way to use facts to better, more authoritatively, or more correctly define Islam or the Middle East or a nation, for to attempt to do so is to submit it to a regime of truth based in a fixity of categories that can only be perceived from outside. A regime of truth persists in its openness to dialectic, in the sustenance of its notes from one articulation to the next, in its capacity to replant its seeds and enable them to bloom, and rebloom, in new and fertile grounds. The moment we instead try to define what Islam, or anything else (me, for example, or you) is, is also the moment we freeze it in what it has been and let go of what it may become tomorrow.

The models for this revision of storytelling exist in popular culture: in the comedy of Idil Baydar or Müslim, in the rap music of Mona Haydar or the kletzmer redux of the Disorientalists, in the transnational popularity of TV serials like “The Magnificent Century,” in the recouping of early modern music culture of the Middle East by musical groups in Berlin, in the post-Orientalist works of artists like Taner Ceylan, Canan Şenol, or Shadi Ghadarian. We must discover the past in the present along with video artists like Jumana Manna or Wael Shawky. We need to reconsider the Goethe’s West-Ost Divan as an effort to learn from rather than about the Orient. Rather than whining about accuracy and misrepresentation, it’s high time that scholars learn from the rhetorical power of artists and producers of popular culture to do a better job framing our facts. If we want our facts to have any chance of surviving in the world – of transforming the world, of emboldening the world, of bettering the world – we have to plant them in a garden of rhetoric and water them with a reenchantment borne not, as with Weber, of a Christian legacy, but of a nondenominational one.

Reenchantment. Not disenchantment. Yes, facts. But not only facts. Stories. Listening, not describing. Retelling. Respecting. Rediscovering stories. Truth comes not in the fixity of facts, but in the motion our voices sing between them, like the notes that sustain in a song – even when the melody ends.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony, “There is no such thing as Western Civilization,” The Guardian, 6.11.2019

Çelik, Zeynep (1997). Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers under French Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Labord, Léon (1838). Voyages de L’Asie Mineur, Paris.

Grigsby, Darcy Grimalde (2001). “Orients and Colonies: Delacroix’s Algerian Harem.” The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix, ed. by Beth S. Wright. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Habib, M. A. R. Habib (2017). Hegel and Empire: from Postcolonialism to Globalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hegel, G. W. F., and J. Sibree (2004). Philosophy of History. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Levinas, Emmanuel, and Alphonso Lingis, trans. (1969). Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Lewis, Thomas A. (2013). “Religion, Reconciliation, and Modern Society: The Shifting Conclusions of Hegel’s ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.’” The Harvard Theological Review, 106:1, pp. 37–60.

Mas, Ruth (2015). “The Red Thread of Christianity,” Reorient 1:1, pp. 51-60.

Luyster, Amanda (2017). “The Conversion of Kalila and Dimna: Raymond de Bézeirs, Religious Experience, and Translation a the Fourteenth-Century French Court,” Gesta 56:1, pp. 81-104.

Maleuvre, Didier. Museum Memories: History, Technology, Art. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Nochlin, Linda (1989). “The Imaginary Orient,” The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Pearson, Ansell and John Maoilearca, eds. (2014). Henri Bergson: Key Writings. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Plato and Christopher Rowe, trans. (2005). Phaedrus. London: Penguin Books.

Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Yalman, Susan (2012). “ʿAla al-Din Kayqubad Illuminated: a Rum Seljuq Sultan as Cosmic Ruler,” Muqarnas 29, pp. 151-186.

Wendy M. K. Shaw is Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at Freie Universität Berlin. She works on the intersection between modernity, colonialism, postcoloniality, philosophy and art in the Islamic world through museums, art historiography, archaeology, religion, film, photography and contemporary artistic production. Her work features a regional emphasis on the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey within comparative perspectives with other regions of the global south and Islamic majority cultural legacies.

This article is part of the TRAFO Series “40 Years After Orientalism”. Further articles:

Schirin Amir-Moazami, Introduction: 40 Years After Orientalism, 7 May 2020.

Citation: Wendy Shaw, Reenchantment: From the Facts of Orientalism to the Sustenance of Storytelling, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.05.2020,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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  1. 11. May 2020

    […] The first contribution by Wendy Shaw, “Reenchantment: From the Facts of Orientalism to the Sustenance of Storytelling”, can be found here. […]

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