Sunday, October 17, 2010

Introduction to the book Orientalism by Edward Said

With the publication of this book, Edward Said had an impact on fields ranging from literary studies to political science to postcolonial studies. Said, who died in 2003, was a Palestinian-American professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. In his later life, he became a controversial figure for expressing radical political views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He wrote Orientalism while at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford University in the 1970s.
 Orientalism examines the Western academic field of "Oriental Studies" in terms of how its discourses have shaped and structured a fictionalized and exoticized "Orient" that serves as the subaltern Other for the West. It states that Orientalist academic discourse served political and imperialist ends, despite its claims to "objective" neutrality. It specifically examines British, French, and American constructions of the Middle East and North Africa from the 18th century to the present, but is applicable to discourses on other parts of the Orient (China, India, etc.) as well. In Said's words, Orientalism is the Western "corporate institution for dealing with the Orient -- dealing with it by making statements about it, authoring views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short... a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (Orientalism, 1978: 3).
Key Terms used in Orientalism

Orientalism - A set of discursive scholarly and literary practices with political motivations that create an image of the mysterious, feminine "Orient" as the Other to the rational, articulate, masculine West.

The Orient - The "Orient" is less an actual geographical or cultural territory than a fictional construction of the Western world's subaltern mirror image, propagated by means of representations in various forms of media.

Knowledge as power - A concept from Foucault, implying that the production of bodies of knowledge acts as a site for power in its impact upon the world.

The "Other" - The oppositional image of the "foreign", i.e. the representation of
alterity that negatively defines an individual or culture's sense of "Self" by contrast.
Affiliated Discourses & Historical/Cultural Context: Some of Said's influences in this work include Foucault, Gramsci, and the French socialist author Anwar Abdel-Malek. He particularly uses Foucault's ideas about knowledge as a site for the production of power. Said writes from the starting point of the tradition of literary studies and criticism, but with an interdisciplinary perspective that covers representation in fields such as history, anthropology, and visual art. He writes with a stated personal interest in the issues at hand, as he identifies himself as occupying the dual identities of both an "Oriental" and a scholar within Western academia. The book is credited as a major influence on the burgeoning field of postcolonial studies that was prompted by the emergence of newly independent Third World countries in the mid-twentieth century.
Said's critique has a continuing applicability to the contemporary political and cultural scene, i.e. Western attitudes towards Arabs and the Middle East (or the Third World/Global South in general) as they show up in distorted media biases and pop culture depictions, political commentary based on stereotyping, paternalistic economic and "development" policies, and so on. The level of controversy that surrounded Said's political activism and the extent to which this was used to discredit him as a scholar is interesting as it relates to the questions he raises in the introduction to this book about the viability and truthfulness of academic "objectivity".

Earlier Orientalism
The first 'Orientalists' were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of 'the Orient' into English, based on the assumption that a truly effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. This idea of knowledge as power is present throughout Said's critique. By knowing the Orient, the West came to own it. The Orient became the studied, the seen, the observed, the object; Orientalist scholars were the students, the seers, the observers, the subject. The Orient was passive; the West was active.
One of the most significant constructions of Orientalist scholars is that of the Orient itself. What is considered the Orient is a vast region, one that spreads across a myriad of cultures and countries. It includes most of
Asia as well as the Middle East. The depiction of this single 'Orient' which can be studied as a cohesive whole is one of the most powerful accomplishments of Orientalist scholars. It essentializes an image of a prototypical Oriental--a biological inferior that is culturally backward, peculiar, and unchanging--to be depicted in dominating and sexual terms. The discourse and visual imagery of Orientalism is laced with notions of power and superiority, formulated initially to facilitate a colonizing mission on the part of the West and perpetuated through a wide variety of discourses and policies. The language is critical to the construction. The feminine and weak Orient awaits the dominance of the West; it is a defenseless and unintelligent whole that exists for, and in terms of, its Western counterpart. The importance of such a construction is that it creates a single subject matter where none existed, a compilation of previously unspoken notions of the Other. Since the notion of the Orient is created by the Orientalist, it exists solely for him or her. Its identity is defined by the scholar who gives it life. Contemporary Orientalism
Said argues that Orientalism can be found in current Western depictions of "Arab" cultures. The depictions of "the Arab" as irrational, menacing, untrustworthy, anti-Western, dishonest, and--perhaps most importantly--prototypical, are ideas into which Orientalist scholarship has evolved. These notions are trusted as foundations for both ideologies and policies developed by the Occident. Said writes: "The hold these instruments have on the mind is increased by the institutions built around them. For every Orientalist, quite literally, there is a support system of staggering power, considering the ephemerality of the myths that Orientalism propagates. The system now culminates into the very institutions of the state. To write about the Arab Oriental world, therefore, is to write with the authority of a nation, and not with the affirmation of a strident ideology but with the unquestioning certainty of absolute truth backed by absolute force." He continues, "One would find this kind of procedure less objectionable as political propaganda--which is what it is, of course--were it not accompanied by sermons on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists. . .writing about Muslims are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westernness. This is the culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners."
Said's Position
Said calls into question the underlying assumptions that form the foundation of Orientalist thinking. A rejection of Orientalism entails a rejection of biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious prejudices. It is a rejection of greed as a primary motivating factor in intellectual pursuit. It is an erasure of the line between 'the West' and 'the Other.' Said argues for the use of "narrative" rather than "vision" in interpreting the geographical landscape known as the Orient, meaning that a historian and a scholar would turn not to a panoramic view of half of the globe, but rather to a focused and complex type of history that allows space for the dynamic variety of human experience. Rejection of Orientalist thinking does not entail a denial of the differences between 'the West' and 'the Orient,' but rather an evaluation of such differences in a more critical and objective fashion. 'The Orient' cannot be studied in a non-Orientalist manner; rather, the scholar is obliged to study more focused and smaller culturally consistent regions. The person who has until now been known as 'the Oriental' must be given a voice. Scholarship from afar and second-hand representation must take a back seat to narrative and self-representation on the part of the '

"Orientalism" and other work by Said has sparked notable controversy in the academic community.
Ernest Gellner argued that Said's contention that the West had dominated the East for more than 2,000 years (since the composition of Aeschylus’s The Persians) was unsupportable, noting that until the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire had posed a serious threat to Europe. Mark Proudman notes that Said claimed the British empire extended from Egypt to India in the 1880s, when in fact the Ottoman and Persian empires intervened.
Another criticism is that the areas of the Middle East on which Said had concentrated, including Palestine and Egypt, were poor examples for his theory, as they came under European control only for a relatively short period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These critics suggested that Said devoted much less attention to more apt examples, including the British Raj in India, and Russia’s dominions in Asia, because Said was more interested in making political points about the Middle East. Islamic apostate Ibn Warraq was the most recent critic of Said's Orientalism in his titular book; Defending the West: a Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
Strong criticism of Said's critique of "Orientalism" has come from academic Orientalists, including some of Eastern backgrounds. Albert Hourani, Robert Graham Irwin, Nikki Keddie, Bernard Lewis, and Kanan Makiya address what Keddie retrospectively calls "some unfortunate consequences" of Said's Orientalism on the perception and status of their scholarship. Bernard Lewis is among scholars whose work Said questioned in Orientalism and subsequent works. The two authors came frequently to exchange disagreement, starting in the pages of the New York Review of Books following the publication of Orientalism. Lewis's article "The Question of Orientalism" was followed in the next issue by "Orientalism: An Exchange." Other scholars, such as Maxime Rodinson, Jacques Berque, Malcolm Kerr, Aijaz Ahmad, and William Montgomery Watt, also regarded Orientalism as a overly simplistic - or dangerous - account of Western scholarship.
Some of Said's academic critics argue that Said made no attempt to distinguish between writers of very different types: such as on the one hand the poet Goethe (who never even travelled in the East), the novelist Flaubert (who undertook a brief sojourn in Egypt), Ernest Renan (whose work is widely regarded as tainted by racism), and on the other scholars such as Edward William Lane who was fluent in Arabic. In Said's mind their common European origins and attitudes, overrode such considerations, these critics contend. Irwin (among others) points out that Said entirely ignored the fact that Oriental studies in the 19th century were dominated by Germans and Hungarians, from countries that, inconveniently for Said's purposes, did not possess an Eastern empire. Such critics accuse Said of creating a monolithic ‘Occidentalism’ to oppose to the ‘Orientalism’ of Western discourse, arguing that he failed to distinguish between the paradigms of Romanticism and the Enlightenment, that he ignored the widespread and fundamental differences of opinion among western scholars of the Orient; that he failed to acknowledge that many Orientalists (such as Sir William Jones) were more concerned with establishing kinship between East and West than with creating "difference", and had frequently made discoveries that would provide the foundations for anti-colonial nationalism. More generally, critics argue that Said and his followers fail to distinguish between Orientalism in the media and popular culture (for instance the portrayal of the Orient in such films as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and academic studies of Oriental languages, literature, history and culture by Western scholars (whom, it is argued, they tar with the same brush).
Finally, Said's critics argue that by making ethnicity and cultural background the test of authority and objectivity in studying the Orient, Said drew attention to the question of his own identity as a Palestinian and as a "Subaltern." Ironically, given Said's largely Anglophone upbringing and education at an elite school in Cairo, the fact that he spent most of his adult life in the United States, and his prominent position in American academia, his own arguments that "any and all representations … are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions and political ambience of the representer … [and are] interwoven with a great many other things besides the 'truth', which is itself a representation" (Orientalism 272) could be said to disenfranchise him from writing about the Orient himself. Hence these critics claim that the excessive relativism of Said and his followers trap them in a "web of solipsism", unable to talk of anything but "representations", and denying the existence of any objective truth. 

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