Orientalism, Intelligence, and Empire

January 7, 2011

It took me awhile to get a handle on this one. Imperial Secrets: Remapping the Mind of Empire, published by the  National Defense Intelligence College, cites Edward Said, Francis Bacon, Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham, T.E. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad just in the Introduction, uses the intelligence experiences of the Roman, Ottoman, and British Empires as its core focus, and includes chapters  headed “Thuggee”, “Barzakh”, “Rhizomes”, and “Boukoloi.” This is a book that challenges its readers.

My take is that Edward Said is the real intellectual godfather of this book. His Orientalism was and remains a brilliant exposition of the West’s perceptions of the “mysterious East”. Although like all seminal works, Said’s work has been challenged, and in some ways refuted, it remains a starting point for anyone in the many fields it touches.

Although Imperial Secrets is too rich and complex a work to summarize here, it proposes that the United States, although not a classic empire, can be viewed as such, from the perspective of knowledge gathering, or intelligence, in the lands over which it exercises “imperial” influence. In the chapter on Thuggee in the British Raj, for example, an age-old Indian problem of robbery carried out via the strangulation of victims, was transmogrified by the British imagination into an organized cult of religious stranglers. Informers and punitive laws  then were employed to eliminate this phantom cult. Imperial Secrets uses this narrative to demonstrate the way empires, when faced with unfamiliar social and cultural environments, use an Orientalist discourse to fit those environments into their own frames of reference.

Another interesting theme is the value of informal networks of information, whether through the Sufi lodges of the Ottoman Empire or the transnational Freemasonic lodges of 19th Century Europe. Related to these networks are attempts by empires to use their own agents (T.E. Lawrence or the remarkable American Josiah Harlan, who had at least a shot at becoming an Afghan prince in the 1830s) and the emotional and psychological stresses that influence, or even distort, these agents’ perceptions however deeply they have steeped themselves in the cultures they infiltrate.

As I said earlier, Imperial Secrets is too intellectually challenging to review in a limited space. I haven’t even touched on its examination of Flavius Josephus as the kind of marginal informant that can to some extent transgress the boundary between and empire and its subjects, or the situationist travels of the 16th century Turkish traveler and official Evliya Celebi and their relevance as an example of  detecting information in the empty spaces between intelligence sources. (I’m starting to sound like the book, which may mean that I’m getting the point!)

Imperial Secrets is not a quick read, but it’s a stimulating one. Bear with it and you’re likely to  reap its rewards. You can read it here, get your own copy, or find it in a library.

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