Monday, November 3, 2008

Orientalism and Ideology in the Chess World

“…Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious ‘Western’ imperialist plot to hold down the ‘Oriental’ world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of ‘interests’…” –Edward Said, Orientalism, p12.

Orientalism, and its inherent colonialist and racist views, continue to be distributed throughout texts and activities (or perhaps we should say ideas, objects, texts, and “lived relations”) in both conscious and unconscious ways. One arena that has caught my attention recently has been in the chess world.

Jan Gustafsson in New In Chess magazine (2008/5, p16), gave an apparent quote, about the relationship between chess grandmaster Arkady Naiditsch and his second, where Naiditsch supposedly said, “Negro, you work for me. I call you whenever I want and you show up immediately!” Gustafsson, a talented grandmaster himself, wrote a letter apologizing two issues later, “…I quoted Arkady Naiditsch using the word ‘negro’ talking to his second. It has been brought to my attention that this word is used as a racial slur. I want to apologize to the readers of New In Chess who may have taken offence and especially to Arkady, who never said this in the context I implied.”

In this apology, we are given no real understanding about the original use of the word “negro” in the article, just that the “context” was not what was “implied.” The question then remains: In what context was it actually said? It doesn’t matter: It should not have been said. Such power structures as stated are abhorrent to begin with; to use any ethnically specific designation in such a way to show a particularly oppressive power structure relationship is just a furthering of the distribution, and the continuation of colonialist ways. Gustafsson’s “apology” is only pointed to those “who may have taken offence” when it should just be a flat out apology to all.

In the same issue that Gustafsson apologizes in, we see another example: Viktor Kortchnoi’s analyses of his drawn game against Wang Yue. Korchnoi was part of a losing team against Yue’s winning team. In fact, Yue scored a remarkable 8.5/10 at the tournament, and former world champ candidate Kortchnoi scored 2.5/10. One-half point of that 2.5 that Kortchnoi scored was the draw against Yue. During the analysis of the game New In Chess (2008/7, p82) after Yue’s 36th move, Kortchnoi writes, “A literate European player would never produce such an ugly move!!” (yes, two exclamation marks) and gave Yue’s move a question mark. It may very well have not been a good move, but in Kortchnoi’s framing of the statement we see the world clearly divided into two realms: “literate European player[s]” and Others. Somehow Kortchnoi’s half-point is better than Yue’s half-point? We see how such an Orientalist view by someone as Kortchnoi works to minimize the successes of such an incredibly talented player as Yue through the analyses and designation as not-European. And at the same time, such language attempts to minimize Kortchnoi’s failures.

It is time for the chess world to look at itself more closely and examine the ideologies it is suppporting and distributing.


Anonymous said...

i don't claim to know anything about the world of chess except a handful of players

but can still see this is an interesting application of Said's ideas. makes me want to break out my copy of orientalism (and Althusser and Eagleton too)!

thanks for visiting my blog! did you have the political posts mixed between the poetry and wine etc?

Anonymous said...

that should have been did you "find" the political posts...not did you have

CorpseBoy said...

Thanks! Chess is just one miniscule point, but I think it is an interesting example how ubiquitous the colonialist view is in Western European life.