Examine Said’s definition of Orientalism. Do you find any flaws, or loop holes, in his argument. Discuss.
1. Edward Said’s Orientalism
Edward Said’s Orientalism is his most celebrated work that hit the stalls in 1978. It has been influential in about half a dozen established disciplines, especially literary studies (English, comparative literature), history, anthropology, sociology, area studies (mainly Middle East studies) and comparative religion. In Orientalism, Said examines Western representations (fiction and nonfiction) of the Middle Eastern societies and cultures. The book won him universal recognition for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationship between texts—literary and otherwise. Said examines these works with reference to the social, political, and economic contexts from which they emerged.
Edward Said, in his book, adopts a continental interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism, using the principles of phenomenology, existentialism and French structuralism to trace out the connections between literature and politics. His theories and methods have tremendously influenced American academic circles especially with regard to literary theory and cultural studies.
Said’s central concern in Orientalism is the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language, and power. He attempts to show how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to build up a prevalent and hostile image of the Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate. He also attempts to show the extent to which these representations permeate the Western culture. The West exploited these representations to justify their imperialist policies in the Middle East.
1.1 Explanation of Terms used in Edward Said’s Orientalism
In Orientalism, Edward Said has used various derivatives of the word Orient which literally means the East, the direction from which the sun rises. Geopolitically Orient signifies the Middle East, Asia and the Far East, territories that were once a part of one or another European Empire. Said uses the word Orient to signify a system of representation framed by political forces that brought the Orient or the East into Western Empire, Western learning and Western consciousness. The West uses the word in its relation to the East. It is a mirror image of the inferior, the alien (other) to the Occident (West).
‘Oriental’ is a noun-form which means an individual or people of the Orient. As an adjective the word qualifies anything belonging to the East e.g. Oriental landscape, literature, attitude, etc.
1.2. The Concept of ‘Other’ and ‘Alter Ego’ in Said’s Orientalism
Edward Said’s starting point in Orientalism is that the existence and development of every culture impels the existence of a different and inevitably competitive “other” or “alter ego.” Therefore, Europe, in attempting to construct its self-image, created the Middle East (the ‘Orient’) as the ultimate “other.” The Middle East (the ‘Orient’) and the West (the ‘Occident’) do not correspond to any stable reality that exists as a natural fact, but are merely products of construction.
2. Orientalism: Definition and Explanation
Edward Said put forward several definitions of ‘Orientalism’ in the introduction of his book Orientalism. Some of these are:
Firstly, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” Said argued that his distinction emphasized the supremacy of the Occident versus the inferiority of the Orient. Second, Orientalism is a field of academic research that includes everyone who teaches, investigates, and writes about the Orient. Third, Orientalism is a “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient” beginning in the eighteenth century.
In short, Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Moreover, it is a way of coming to terms with the Orient (the East) that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western culture and experience.
In the light of this perception, the Middle East is static, unalterable, and can’t define itself. Therefore, through Orientalism, the West took it upon itself to represent the Orient and by doing so opened it to exploitation. The very purpose of Orientalism is to take control of the Orient and take away from it any ability to speak for itself. Said maintained that it is the stereotypes and prejudices that determine the Western representation of the Orient.
2.1. Edward Said’s Definition of ‘Orientalism’ as a Discourse
Edward Said also described ‘Orientalism’ as a discourse, a definition he takes from the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault. Foucault defined discourse as a system of thought that governs the knowledge obtained by a person. This knowledge is a paraphrase of preconceived notions and ideas. So, a discourse is the product of interaction between power and knowledge interconnected in a never-ending circle. In Foucault’s view, knowledge is power and also the way of gaining power.
Edward Said, following the ideas of Foucault, focused on the relationship between power and knowledge. He argued that without examining Orientalism as a discourse, one can’t comprehend the hugely systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even construct—the Orient politically, militarily, sociologically, scientifically, imaginatively and ideologically during the post-Enlightenment period.
3. Edward Said’s Orientalism:
In Orientalism, Edward Said builds up his argument and analysis in three (3) long chapters. Here is a brief summary of all three chapters in Edward Said’s Orientalism:
3.1. The Scope of Orientalism
‘The Scope of Orientalism’ covers all the dimensions of the subject, both in terms of historical experiences and time period. Moreover, it also covers the subject in terms of political as well as philosophical themes. Said provides a review of pre-18th century writing on the Muslim near East, and socio-political impact of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. According to him, the East was viewed as a textual universe for the West. The European Orientalists had keen interest in classical rather than contemporary periods of the Eastern culture.
3.2. Oriental Structures and Restructures
In this chapter, Said traces the development of modern Orientalism by presenting a broadly chronological description. He also attempts to trace it by describing a set of devices usually common to the works of popular artists, poets, and scholars. Said presents a review of the French and English traditions of the study of Muslim Near East during the 19th century and further up to the world war I. For this purpose, his major focus is on the works of French Orientalists, such as Sylvester de Sacy, and works of English Orientalists like Edward Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836).
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