Orientalism and/as information: the indifference that makes a difference

Ali, Syed Mustafa (2015). Orientalism and/as information: the indifference that makes a difference. In: ISIS Summit Vienna 2015 – The Information Society At The Crossroads, 3-7 Jun 2015, Vienna, Austria.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/isis-summit-vienna-2015-S1005

URL: http://sciforum.net/conference/70/paper/2938


In a recent work inspired by Borgman's [1] approach to exploring issues at the intersection of information and reality, Chapman [2] outlined a framework for thinking about issues at the intersection of information and religion, viz. information about religion, information for religion, and information as religion. This framework might be complemented by another in which the same issues – that is, information and religion – are reflexively engaged, viz. religion about information, religion for information, and religion as information. However, irrespective of which framework is engaged, in attempting to consider such intersections there is a need to consider how terms should be framed – that is, what 'information' and 'religion' means in each framework.

In an earlier work [3] which introduced a reflexive hermeneutic framework wherein race is considered from an information-theoretical perspective and information is considered from a critical race-theoretical perspective, genealogical links between Bateson's [4] conceptualization of (a unit of) information as "a difference that makes a difference" and Kantian notions of difference were briefly explored. It was shown that a growing body of critical race philosophy scholarship has demonstrated, somewhat controversially, Kant's seminal contribution to what might be described as a modern 'scientific' concept of race. By way of reference to his writings on philosophical anthropology, which describe non-European 'races' in explicitly racist terms (as ontologically-inferior in some sense), it was argued that, insofar as Kant's thinking on race racism might not be accidental but rather essential to his philosophy1 – more specifically, his epistemology – it is possible that Kantian racism informs the Batesonian concept of information. For example, it was noted that Bateson’s concept of information, and Kant’s concept of aesthetic judgement which inspired it, are fundamentally teleological (or goal-oriented) in that they appeal to selection which is a purposeful act; in addition, attention was drawn to Bateson's assertion that difference entails classification and that all classification is hierarchic. This is significant since, as stated previously, Kant, arguably the primary genealogical source of Bateson's conception of information as grounded in difference, is also committed to a hierarchical conception of difference and, in his work on philosophical anthropology, to one in which difference is understood as 'otherness' or 'alterity', rather than change or alteration.

Perhaps most significant for present purposes, however, is Bateson's distinction between what he calls 'Occidental Epistemology' (or OE) and cybernetic epistemology (CE). While it might be argued that Kant’s epistemology with its connection to, if not grounding in, Eurocentric philosophical anthropology is a paradigmatic instance of the former, it was previously argued that this move is problematic on at least three counts: Firstly, Bateson nowhere explores the connections between Kant, epistemology, race and information, nor does he explicitly identify Kant’s epistemology as an instance of OE; secondly, Kantian epistemology is often appealed to in formulating cybernetic conceptions of knowing (including that articulated by Bateson himself, at least with respect to its informational aspect), which means that identifying it as an instance of OE, as against CE, is questionable; thirdly, Bateson’s distinction between OE and CE is itself contestable. In addition, the absence of explicit reference to the 'Orient' in framing the opposition between OE and CE is significant in that it points to what might be regarded as an 'indifference' or marginalization.

In this essay, and inspired by Chun's [5] "race and / as technology", I want to explore the Bateson-Kant – and thereby the information-race – connection further, but from a somewhat different perspective, viz. one in which 'race' and 'religion' are entangled2. Specifically, I want to consider the implications of what Almond [6] has referred to as Kant's Eurocentrically racialized marginalization of – or rather, his 'indifference' to – the (Islamic) Orient in his philosophical anthropology, and what this might mean for Bateson's conception of information. Extending the reflexive hermeneutic framework introduced in [3], I want to consider what it might mean to think about issues at the intersection of information and Orientalism, with the latter framed in terms of a race-religion entanglement; more precisely, I want to examine what it might mean to think about Orientalism from an information-theoretical perspective, and what it might mean to think about information in terms of Orientalism; in short, I want to engage with "Orientalism and / as information".

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