Frames at Play: Beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism

By Nora Fisher Onar, University of Oxford

* This memo was prepared for the “Islam and International Order” workshop, April 29-30, 2015.

The following condenses parts of the theoretical section of my monograph-in-progress entitled Acts of State. It aims to help open the fields of comparative politics and international relations to insights from the performative turn in the humanities and humanistic social sciences via Turkish and Middle Eastern studies.

The Middle East is in turmoil. This fact raises a multitude of questions: Why is the region so conflicted? Why do – indeed why should – we in the West care? And why do our responses so often prove not only inadequate but also counterproductive?

We can begin to answer this complex set of questions via the notion of frames. Frames, as Goffman showed us, are a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives that “organize experiences and guide the actions of individuals, groups, and societies.” Frames serve at least four functions: (i) furnishing our basic assumptions about the world; (ii) helping us to filter and organize vast amounts of information; frames thus (iii) shape our tools for action; and, as such, (iv) are not mere rhetorical devices but determine outcomes.[1] Frame analysis has been fruitfully deployed across the social and management sciences: psychology, organizational behavior, media and communication studies, sociology, and politics. The study of frames – and the conceptual apparatus from which they emanate – has considerable purchase in comparative politics (CP) and international relations (IR), but it is often only employed implicitly.

Orientalism and Occidentalism are among the most pervasive and enduring frames in the governance – and contestation – of world affairs. They derive from interactions over at least a dozen generations between peoples who, broadly speaking, originate from the northwestern peninsula of Eurasia and those who originate from the rest of the Eurasian continent. The Orientalist repertoire predates but also co-evolved with many principles of international order. These include notions like sovereignty and self-determination, civilization and progress, modernity and territoriality to name but a few.[2] As Said and others have shown, the Orient in general and Islam in particular served as a constitutive Other of Western modernity. Orientalism persists despite half a century of post-colonial critique and activism. It shape-shifts to fit the needs of diverse religious and secular, state and societal actors. Orientalist frames also evolve in response to changes in the regional and global balance of power.

Occidentalism arose in response to the encroachment of an expansive West. It builds on the same culturalist frame as Orientalism but assigns different values and hierarchies. Its strategies include inverse binaries, cherry-picking and selective synthesis (for example the adoption of Western modes of production but the rejection of Western ethical and political systems).[3] Societies are inevitably transformed by such processes, such that both Occidentalists and Orientalists have become eminently modern in outlook and toolkits.[4] However, a leitmotif of Occidentalism is the lauding of an authentic and spiritual East over a soulless and materialist West. Occidentalism too comes in religious and secularized, literary and political permutations.[5] Recent expressions include the civilizationalist populism of Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin. In some strands of Islamist and Orthodox Occidentalism there are eschatological overtones: a clash of universalisms vis-à-vis the West. In extreme variants, the moral claim to manifest destiny is used to rationalize violence.[6] Coercion, more often than not, is directed at vulnerable groups such as religious or sexual minorities within the societies rather than the still powerful West. Paradoxically then, Occidentalism can reproduce Orientalist denial of Eastern agency.

At a time of Western retrenchment driven by material as well as ideational factors, [7] Orientalist and Occidentalist frames that are blinded to the “grey zones”[8] are doing their four-fold work, that is, furnishing the assumptions, filters, and tools with which we act in the world. Groups like the Islamic State, for one, have masterfully “keyed” radical Occidentalism to the register of a hypermediatized era. In so doing, they have spurred the liberal secular West and its Christian doppelganger to vilify the Islamic world yet again.[9] Dissonant information is filtered: atrocities committed by Christian or secular Westerners are seen as aberrant, while jihadist violence is portrayed as the core of Islam. Such readings, in turn, shape Western tools of response. Examples include the ramping up of assimilationist laicism in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the unleashing of a military-bureaucratic juggernaut to combat violent extremism. This response has concrete consequences:[10] American-Muslim innocents are murdered in a small college town; the United States re-engages militarily in the Middle East. As Charles King notes: “In this framework, the Boston Marathon bombing becomes a national security problem, whereas the Sandy Hook massacre remains a matter for the police and psychologists – a distinction that is both absurd as social science and troubling as public policy.[11]”.

Frames then, at an admittedly high level of abstraction, account for why there is turbulence in the Middle East, why we care, and why our answers all too often exacerbate problems. However, there is one thing that Orientalism and Occidentalism fail to do: capture the lived realities of billions of ordinary people and their leaders. Their experiences, I argue, are an unplumbed resource for the study and practice of international relations.

Politics at Play and the Eastern Question(s)

A robust body of social psychology research tells us that most people in most places do not embrace total social identities most of the time. Our identities are works-in-progress—plural, overlapping and contingent. We can capture this complexity by recognizing that frames are not just forms, but acts, special acts that “do things.”[12] Spectacle, after all, is among the earliest forms of governance (indeed theoria before Plato was the task of the mendicant thinker reporting back to his city on public pageantry observed abroad).[13]

The act of play is a promising point of departure, because it is universal – an intrinsic feature of the human condition that precedes culture – yet it complicates universalism – a culturally-infused view from somewhere extrapolated to everywhere. Play, as such, is valorized across ethical traditions.[14] As Huizinga put it: “You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.”

Play is nonetheless constitutive of ritual, culture and the social construction of meaning. In his seminal work Homo Ludens (from Latin ludere – “to play; to mimic; to mock; to deceive”), Huizinga suggested that play requires a separate sphere with its own rules into which players voluntarily enter. This enables, for the duration of the act, a new order in which extent frames and hierarchies can be contested and transformed.[15] Turner envisaged such space as liminal, a realm of “betwixt and between,” where hierarchical frames are inversed or leveled, and where hybrid and transgressive forms can be flaunted. [16]

In tandem with its expressive dimension, play has pedagogic and strategic functions. It enables learning as well as forgetting, self-defense as well as self-release. Goffman recognized this when he parlayed his everyday performances—with their intertwined emotional and calculated character—into the notion of strategic interaction. For example, on the stage of pan-Arab politics, as Barnett has shown, the symbolic resources of Arabism were channeled by self-interested leaders to achieve legitimacy and check one another’s authority.[17] Homo Ludens underpins game as well as performance theory. It holistically bridges interpretive and rationalist approaches to politics.[18]

On this basis, Acts of State proposes a theoretical framework for understanding the interplay between the political actor, audience, setting, scenario, and the mode of propagation. Actors and audiences are front-stage: the success of any political spectacle hinges upon their encounter. In the wings, but also key to understanding aspirations and interests, are producers and writers, choreographers and critics.

Structural features of performance inflect upon the picture. Settings – from specific stage (like parliamentary pulpit or diplomatic summit) to the theaters in which they are nested (like electoral politics or foreign policy) – determine the protocol of political displays. In our time of mass media and politics, the television set as well as the “street” – not to mention squares – are political stages. [19] This is as true in Ramallah as on Wall Street, of Tahrir and Taksim as of Ukraine’s Maidan. Actors with acumen mobilize these structural elements toward kairos: that “propitious moment”[20] in time “when an opening appears which must be driven through with force.”[21]

A gas-masked protestor interpreting the dance of of Sufi whirling dervishes (sema) during Turkey’s Gezi Park demonstrations of 2013.

For a kairotic political performance to endure, however, it must be absorbed into chronos: historical time. Turning to the literature on collective memory,[22] Acts of State shows how (re)enactments of iconic performances over time engender enduring imagery and tropes. These are propagated via multiple media by state and social actors. In the Middle East, for instance, notions like “nation” and “civilization,” “Europe” and “Islam” form a collective repertoire of adjacent and frictious yet overlapping meanings available for appropriation in familiar – but by no means fixed – configurations.

There is no monopoly on the uses and abuses of such scenarios. They may be deployed by political elites to inculcate social roles and hierarchies. Authoritative leaders like Peter the Great, Victoria and her viceroys and the Meiji emperor – not to mention Ataturk and the Assads – have scripted, starred in and paid for extravagant spectacle.[23]

However, the performances of ordinary people, as Bayat has shown, also can create a cascade, impelling change from below.[24] Recognizing acts like veiling[25] and the qat chew[26] as political (among other things) helps to register the acts of those denied a formal place in national and world affairs. Extraordinary displays by ordinary people, such as Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, can ignite revolutions, reminding us of the power of performance as a “sensational force that disrupts, [and] redirects…form.”[27] Indeed, the performative prism can help shed light on the multiple masculinities – youthful and vulnerable as well as paternalistic and powerful[28] – and the rare femininities that infuse Middle Eastern and international politics alike.

Moreover, marginalized perspectives are gaining traction in an era of new media. Political acts are choreographed for YouTube and Instagram to reach wider audiences than more traditional displays in D.C. or Davos. Scholarship that neglects this trend runs the risk of redundancy. It was those who saw that that the internet was enabling a new “Arab public sphere” who were equipped to account for the Arab uprisings and their consequences.[29] Savvy “marketing of rebellion”[30] helps explain the ISIS phenomenon. By staging a handful of horrific executions the group has garnered continuous coverage and goaded an otherwise isolationist U.S. president and public into re-entering the Middle Eastern fray. Acts of State accordingly traces evolving media and dissemination technologies and strategies vis- à -vis the Eastern Question(s) from the late nineteenth century (the Crimean War was arguably the first mass mediatized spectacle[31]) to the present. In so doing, it explores the impact on international politics of evolving modes of propagating political performance.

In short, if we take as our starting point not Homo Orientalis or Homo Occidentalis but Homo Ludens – man and woman as player – we wield an epistemology and methodology that enables a different praxis. The quite recent turn from History with a capital “H” to multiple historiographies has established a precedent: the power of frames notwithstanding, it is possible to systematize knowledge using pluralistic and mutable categories.

Nora Fisher Onar is a research associate of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford and 2015 Transatlantic Academy Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States.


[1] These four functions correspond to the ontological, epistemological, methodological, and praxis dimensions of social scientific inquiry.

[2] See, for example, Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), Edward Keene, Beyond the Anarchical society: Grotius, Colonialism and Order in World Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), Jocelyne Cesari, When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton (Princeton UP, 2009); and Peter Katzenstein, Civilizations in World Politics: Plural and Pluralist Perspectives. (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Nora Fisher Onar, “Historical Legacies in Rising Powers: Toward a (Eur)Asian Approach, Critical Asian Studies 45.3 (2013): pp.411-430. See also, Nora Fisher Onar and Kalypso Nicolaïdis. “The Decentering Agenda: Europe as a Post-Colonial Power.” Cooperation and Conflict 48.2 (2013): pp.283-303.

[4] See, for example, Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989) and Alev Çinar, Modernity, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey: Bodies, Places, and Time. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2005).

[5] For historical and present day variations see Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and pan-Asian thought. (New York: Columbia UP, 2007, and John Owen, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010).

[6] Barak Mendelsohn, “God vs. Westphalia: Radical Islamist Movements and the Battle for Organizing the World.” Review of International Studies 38.03 (2012): pp.589-613.

[7] See, for example, Charles Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest and the Coming Global Turn (New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), and Amitav Acharya, The End of American World Order, (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

[8] Nathan Brown, Amr Hamzawy, and Marina Ottaway. Islamist Movements and the Democratic Process in the Arab world: Exploring the Gray zones. Vol. 67. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006.

[9] On the de facto coalition between the “new atheists” and neo-conservatives see Muqtedar Khan, “New Atheists and the Same Old Islamophobia” Islamic Monthly (Fall/Winter) 2014.

[10] Arguably, with sufficient data in cases like the Chapel Hill killings, one could use methods like source triangulation and process tracing to claim a causal relationship between Orientalist and Islamophobic frames in the media and the actions of a lone wolf racist. The point, however, is not to claim a mono-causal relationship between Orientalism/Occidentalism and a given outcome, but to show how frames define the parameters in which actions are imaginable.

[11] Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies: Why Flying Blind is Dangerous,” Foreign Affairs July/August 2015. Available at:

[12] J.L. Austin coined the term. Although my work is driven by Goffman and the performance studies approach to performativity, it perforce engages (post-)structuralist views on the notion associated with the linguistic and psychoanalytic readings of Austin, Foucault, and Lacan. I am nevertheless wary, among other things, of their tendency to trivialize agency.

[13] Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2011.) For an overview of the literature on spectacle as politics see Lisa Weeden in Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1998.

[14] For a sweeping overview see Bellah, 2011.

[15] For a brief discussion and critique of some of the more dated, Eurocentric inflections to Huzinga’s analysis see Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008).

[16] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1995).

[17] Michael Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics, (New York: Columbia UP, 1998). See also James Gelvin, Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkely: U of California Press, 1998.

[18] In this regard, Acts of State seeks to expand space for rigorous, analytically eclectic scholarship. See Rudra Sil and Peter Katzenstein. Beyond Paradigms: Analytic Eclecticism in the Study of World Politics. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

[19] See, for example, Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New Left. (Berkley: Univ of California Press, 1980).

[20] Oxford English Dictionary.

[21] E.C. White, Kaironomia: On the Will to Invent (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987), p.14.

[22] E.g. Halbwachs, Nora, Foucault, Connerton and the literature inspired by their anti-foundationalist approaches to history.

[23] See, for example, Richard Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000); David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002); Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1996); Nora Fisher Onar, “Echoes of a Universalism Lost: Rival Representations of the Ottomans in Today’s Turkey.” Middle Eastern Studies 45.2 (2009): pp.229-241; Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[24] Asef Bayat, Life as Politics, How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2009).

[25] See, for example, Nilufer Göle, “Islam in Public: New Visibilities and New Imaginaries.” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): pp.173-190, and Saba Mahmood. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011).

[26] Lisa Weeden, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[27] Elena del Rio, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2008).

[28] Michael Barnett, “International Paternalism and Humanitarian Governance” Global Constitutionalism, 1:13, (2012), pp.485– 521.

[29] See, for example, Marc Lynch, Voices of a New Arab Public, (New York: Columbia UP, 2006). and Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising, (New York: Public Affairs-Perseus, 2012); the role of the media-driven public spaces is also examined by Mohammed Ayatollahi Tabaar, “The beloved Great Satan: The Portrayal of the US in the Iranian Media since 9/11” Vaseteh-Journal of the European Society for Iranian Studies 1:1 (2006): pp.63-78.

[30] Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005).

[31] Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War. (London: Routledge, 2013).

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