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Orientalism Explored

Orientalism Explored

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Orientalism Explored
Taylor Webb 2/1/2011

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The following essay is part of an independent study done through the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, for the Religious Studies department. It is a 3000-level study that received a B+ before corrections were made. This is the corrected copy that was also submitted. The purpose of publishing this paper is to give other students and prospective students an idea of what to expect as far as quality, subject, and quantity if they are considering a similar field or an independent study at the University of Lethbridge. This is the first of two essays that were researched independently for the same study. This work can be copied or reproduced in any way freely, however all regular plagiarism restrictions still apply. The main area of study is Edward Said·s book Orientalism which can be found free right here on scribd.

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Introduction Edward Said·s Orientalism is an immensely influential book because of its impact on the intellectual world. Through the articulation of a basic mode of human self-understanding and interaction Said touches on a common undercurrent in many disciplines while elaborating on only a single expression of the philosophy he explores. This paper will be an attempt to extract and understand the theory that Orientalism is based on and its application to the subject adopted by Said. I will proceed first through an extrapolation of the contents of the book, pausing where necessary to better define or outline important points. Having covered the content of the original book I will then discuss some of the many criticisms faced by Said and their bearing on his core ideas. It seems Orientalism has come to signify something much greater than originally intended. In his work Said defines the concept repeatedly in novel ways underscoring the vastness as well as the ambiguity of the term. This is not because he does not have a definite idea of what it is he is defining, but rather because he is defining for the very first time a concept that has existed unexpressed in the minds of men for generations. Said uses the example of orientalism as an academic subject, but his revelations touch on a broader undercurrent in human relations. By the time Said addresses his subject it already has had a tangible history for millennia. He repeatedly uses examples from ancient Greece to support his thesis, but the major part of his work is on

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´modern Orientalism,µ which occurs mainly from the eighteenth century onward. The term ´orientalismµ is taken from a very well established academic community and so Said must already work with a concept with specific, sometimes dogmatic, understandings and then redefine it according to a much more broad, and in many aspects opposing, view point. For these reasons orientalism as a concept becomes very hard to define in one brief sentence, and becomes even more difficult to deconstruct. Orientalism Said presents nearly an entire chapter of definitions and parameters for his idea, and is open about his broad definition, he says on the very first page ´It will be clear to the reader (and will become clearer still on the pages that follow) that by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent.µ1 Said later goes on to describe the hegemony involved in the propagation of orientalism, summed up very well in his phrase ´Orientalism lives on through its doctrines and theses about the Orient and the Oriental.µ2 This helps him to define more closely the nuances of the concept, and get to the conclusion, what the hegemonic method has created. He says ´because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.µ3 Through exploring and backing up this claim Said describes orientalism as a form of oppression, but at the same time he says ´European
1 2 3

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 2. Ibid, 2 Ibid, 3 4

Culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient,µ4 underscoring the oppressive nature of orientalism but also importantly highlighting the fact that Orientalism is a form of self-expression and identity creation for Europe. This was one of the most important claims that Said made, it was this claim that was adapted and re-adapted into hundreds of modes in historical analysis, and this was one of the most criticized and praised ideas in Said·s career5. Another very influential and important claim made by Said in the beginning of his book is that political entities supersede other categorizations. This implies that an American or British explorer of the Orient must understand the orient through an orientalist mentality first and foremost despite his personal goals or aims. This idea is expressed in no uncertain terms when Said affirms that ´all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact.µ This idea permeates Said·s concept of orientalism and wins him again a great number of critics. The implication that is taken from this is that no Westerner, Orientalist or not, can understand the Orient properly, and indeed their attempts to understand the Orient no matter how well-intentioned will almost definitely lead to the oppression of that Orient.

4 5

Ibid, 3 Gaham Hugan, ³(Not) Reading Orientalism´ Research in African Literatures 36 (2005): 125 5

A related and supporting idea would come up in the academic world a few years later through the avenue of Anthropology. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis includes the idea that ´The structure of anyone·s native language strongly influences or fully determines the world-view he will acquire as he learns the language.µ6 This theory seems to support Said·s assumption, especially considering the fact that much of Said·s sources are in fact examples of Orientalist literature, emphasising the role of language to form the perspectives of a culture. This would imply that the French, English and later American Orientalists were nearly incapable of understanding the Orient in any way other than the way it had been presented to them through the literature common in the era. Furthermore the Orientalists would also be rendered incapable of knowing that they were misrepresenting the Orient as any way of communicating this idea to them would have to be through the very languages that trained them to think that way. Even if the Orientalists took on the project of understanding their ´subjectµ cultures in their native languages they would still be educated through means that would lead to a distinctly orientalist flavour of the language7. Said discusses this later in his work at various points where he elaborates on the translation and language instruction principles of the time, and when he talks about contemporary understandings of the influence of language on culture.
6 7

Paul Kay. "What is the Sapir±Whorf hypothesis?" American Anthropologist 86, no. 1 (March 1984): 66 Some introductions into Oriental languages such as William Jones¶s translation of the Sakuntala were

very wide-spread and would have been read by both those interested in learning about the language and those simply widening their literary horizons. 6

The question of agency also challenges the way much of Western academic research is done, and the claims to objectivity that it holds dear. The implications of this forced and sub-conscious bias exclude the West from the ability to analyse and interpret foreign cultures within or outside the Orient and invalidate much of the scholarship that is foundational to Western hegemony. Said admits later that there were those engaged in the ´careerµ of the Orient during the publication of his book that quite agreed with him, however, the implications of what he was saying would lead to a significant devaluation of their professions were it to be accepted and so they attacked him in defence of themselves rather than in pursuit of the truth8. Aside from the academic world the implications of this statement become even more tangible when it is taken into diplomatic and political arenas. The challenge of the academic community to accept a new idea is great, but in the political sphere where ´tenureµ is much more precarious it can be an even greater challenge and much more dangerous to suddenly not know the world you are involved with9. For this reason the criticism of Said·s ideas must be very heavily scrutinized by those interested in what realities are imagined, which ones are not, and how they relate to one another. Furthermore it can easily be seen that there is a certain inertia to the intellectual world that tends to oppress change, even progress, in favour of the
8 9

Edward Said. "Orientalism Reconsidered." Cultural Critique, (1985): 99. This can be seen today as the politics in the Middle East are being re-written in a way that Orientalists

are having trouble adapting to. 7

status-quo. This too is an important theme of orientalism, it can be said that it is not because of the Orient·s inherent incapacities but rather because of the oppressive incapacitation of the Orient through Occidental hegemony that the reality described in Orientalist literature is realized. This incapacitation of the Orient provides a space for Orientalist academics to fit into and contribute to society, and once they are there they are quite opposed to re-evaluating the appropriateness or effects of their existence. A related and final elaboration that helps to outline the concept of Orientalism very well is that of agency. Said is careful to include in his definition of orientalism the concept that the oriental is incapable of defining himself or his history alone and is in need of the Orienatlist to define him. This occurs repeatedly through orientalist history as expounded by Said, but even comes up again after the publication of his book in the work of a critic, Daniel Pipes. Said is quick to use this opportunity to outline his theory even better when he says ´Here, of course, is perhaps the most familiar of Orientalism·s themes ² since Orientals cannot represent themselves they must therefore be represented by others who know more about Islam than Islam knows about itself.µ10 With this additional definition Said is able to paint a relatively clear and full picture of what the many things are that he means by ´Orientalism.µ To finalize a definition of Orientalism according to the interpretations of Edward Said: Orientalism is essentially a method used by European scholars
10

Said, "Orientalism Reconsidered," 97.

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to define and promote a certain European identity. This identity was created through defining Europe against the Orient, and therefore the hegemony of this identity creates a lens through which all Western scholarship must see the Orient. Because this lens is in fact a mirror, and there is very little of the Orient to be seen through it, Orientalists are not able to deal or interact with the ´realµ Orient in a meaningful way, but rather must attempt to deal with a fabrication of inferiority and chaos. Because of their subsequent methodologies and manners in dealing with the Orient it is oppressed, incapacitated, and loses its agency in the eyes of the Orientalist policy makers and overlords and is thereby oppressed, incapacitated, and stripped of its agency in reality through their policies and rulership. The history of Orientalism is described in detail in the later part of his book, serving to illustrate many of Said·s illuminating observations. Orientalism is then followed through many key players such as Renan, Stacy, Flaubert, Lane and others. As he states in the beginning, though, Said traces almost entirely British and French sources, concluding that any other sources were essentially secondary11. Said places the foundation of ´modern Orientalismµ around the beginning of the nineteenth century12 with Silvestre de Stacy in France largely because ´he was a self-aware inaugurator13µ of Orientalism. Said does not,
11 12 13

Said, Orientalism Ibid., 124. Ibid., 124 9

however, mean to imply that Orientalism was an ¶invention· of sorts by de Stacy. On the contrary Said explicitly states that his thesis in fact was that ´the essential aspects of modern Orientalist theory... can be understood... as a set of structures inherited from the past.µ14 He describes de Stacy·s Influence in France, French policy in the Orient itself, including very direct influence such as the contributions to the tableau historique15 but maintains the link to the earliest Orientalist sensibilities. Throughout his discussion of the history of Orientalism Said continuously re-defines what it is the Orientalist academics were doing. Through the practice of Orientalism Said shows the reader just how in many very specific cases the Orientalists were intentionally or otherwise oppressing the Orient. This background serves very well as an exposé of Orientalist thought, bringing the reader to a closer understanding of the very complex ideas that Said starts the work with. The history also sets up one of the principles that Said is very interested in exposing: the continuity between the religious and academic institutions of Europe. Through establishing a firm link with the past Said is able to continue with great continuity to the colonization of the Orient. In this way such conquests as Napoleon·s in Egypt do not seem sudden or out of place, but perfectly appropriate for an Orientalist state to pursue. Furthermore the power

14 15

Ibid., 122 Ibid., 126 10

structures that are set up in the Oriental colonies are quite easy to understand, and even more importantly, easy to see for what they are, for later when the current power structures of those colonies are discussed the reader has an appreciation for the history and ideals behind the manipulation of the Orient. This leads the reader to be more capable of understanding the complex links between Orientalist colonialism and Oriental power structures such as the contemporary Egyptian ruling class. Said·s last chapter is on the contemporary state of Orientalism, or orientalism as it relates to the twentieth century. He describes the various tensions that developed and changed as America came to power, as Turkey fell from power, and as the first and second world wars changed the world powers at large. Said expounds on the perceptions of anonymity and tendency toward collectiveness that are tacked on to the image of the typical ´Arabµ, and on how the mystique granted to the Orient helped to subordinate rather than empower it after it had to be realized and ´dealt withµ by the world powers. The final chapter is devoted to the post-war period and especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. The mystique and ambiguity of the Arab and the idea of a single ´formµ of Arab are shown to be drawn up from the turn of the century and adapted to modern Orientalist tastes. The idea of what an Arab is and the immortal and unchanging nature of this generalization are explored in great detail, and the follies of these interpretations are demonstrated in such a way as to expose and discredit the whole practice of Orientalism. Said spares no

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blows for example when he lashes out at the generalizations regarding the Arab language16, and even goes after Bernard Lewis for what he has left out of his literature as much as what he has in it17. In total the final two chapters offer as much insight in the two of them as the first one had alone, and much of it is repeated, though more carefully articulated and very well illustrated. This leads the reader out of an obscure and sometimes incomprehensible conversation based in epistemology and philosophy and into a much more practical application of the ideas in question where he can enjoy a relatively lucid and contiguous demonstration of very complicated concepts. Furthermore the history of Orientalism as interpreted by Said demonstrates the concepts he espouses very well, and outlines the traps and problems faced by scholars who may be involved with simply transmitting ´idées, recues.µ Near the end of the book Said states that it is not his project to attack the entirety of Western scholarship on Islam or the Orient in general, but rather it is his goal to bring to light the aspects of it which are not in fact borne out of an honest interest in the truth, but which are simply self-replicating and constraining ideas that he calls the ´straight jacketµ of Orientalism.18

16 17 18

Ibid., 320 Ibid., 318 Ibid., 326 12

Criticism Orientalism is Said·s most heavily criticized and discussed book for a variety of reasons. There are a few objections that are commonly made to Said·s work, and they seem to repeat themselves in the innumerable books and articles written about Orientalism in a context more familiar to each contemporary audience as time goes on. The sheer number and frequency of the criticisms against Orientalism show the great importance that the work has in many varying fields of study and many varying cultures. One criticism that turns up quite frequently is that Said was far too specific in his application of Orientalism19. The accusation is that Said was too narrow-sighted to realize the scope and impact of his theory, as he focused instead on a very specific context in which Orientalism existed. More importantly he focused only on that mode of Orientalism that was most connected to his own life and identity. This especially poses a problem because it seems to promote a sort of exceptionalism regarding the Oriental-Occidental clash20, possibly passing a very important value judgement on other civilisations and their conflicts.

19

C.F. Beckingham. "Review [Untitled]." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 42, no. 3

(1979)
20

Fred Halliday. "'Orientalism' and its Critics." British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2

(1993): 158

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Said does, however, recognize his narrow approach and he justifies it by saying that a broader approach is not possible due to the sheer volume of evidence available21. Even in his justification of such a narrow approach he does belie a very particular appreciation for the application of his idea only to the interaction between Europe and the Orient. No matter how broad or constrained, or how nuanced and subtle one makes these terms out to be they are remarkably specific compared to how immense the subject could be if it were applied (as it has been innumerable times since) to a situation outside the interaction between Europe and the East. Orientalism, the book, gets its name from the area of study that it critiques and opposes, however the underlying criticism and the epistemological impact of the realization of Said·s idea extends far beyond the constraints of ´the European idea of the Orientµ which Said states is his original ´guiding principal.µ22 The hegemonic domination of one culture over another is a characteristic in nearly every culture on the planet. Here in Canada we are no strangers to defining ourselves based on what we are not (American for example), and defining others based on what they are not allowed to be (good hockey players to continue the example). Said·s focus on the Oriental-Occidental clash is very illuminating, but the application of his principles to dozens of other disciplines, and their use as a tool in illuminating the conflicts and relationships of hundreds of other cultural exchanges illustrate that it was not his focus on
21 22

Said, Orientalism, 16-17 Ibid., 16 14

Orientalism that was his most valuable exploit, but the tools he created to better interpret and understand human power structures in a more general sense. Another critique regarding the imposed limits Said set on his study is in his deliberate exclusion of German literature23. This has little relevance on his core ideas, except that it displays again that his focus on a specific mode or historical occurrence of the power systems he is analysing is not as complete or useful as his comments on the broader principles that have been taken from his work. The various problems that have been picked over by critics in the method and historical nature of Said·s book could lead to the conclusion made by Manzalaoui that ´Inside this prolix and ill-considered book there is a slimmer and genuinely excellent one trying to get out.µ24 The implication, to me, is that if Said were to have written a short, general study of power structures and cross-cultural exchange illustrated and supported by the institution of Orientalism it would have been a much more concise and lucid read than his current book. Said does acknowledge the potential for adaptation of his idea later in his article Orientalism Reconsidered and he seems to approve of the very diverse fields in which it has been applied. He says ´There are many more examples that one could give of analyses and theoretical projects undertaken out of

23 24

Beckingham, ³Review [Untitled]´ Mahmoud Manzalaoui. "Review: [Untitled]." Modern Language review 75, no. 4 (Oct 1980): 837 15

similar impulses as those fuelling the anti-Orientalist critique.µ It is obvious then that Said realized the full potential of his critique after all, but since he claims no responsibility for the origination of the basic concept that has been so readily adapted and re-applied (that of the ´anti-Oriental critiqueµ) it follows that he may have felt that he was in fact simply contributing to an already existing academic tradition. The goal of Said·s book it seems was to criticize the practice of orientalism in following an academic tradition that already existed, hence his very simple title, however, the ideas that Said put forward were not after all only applicable to Orientalism, but to a large part of human interaction in general. Because Said wished to reveal the basic drivers of orientalism, from identity creation, to domination, to politicisation of perspectives, his book is justifiably constrained only to the practice of Orientalism, but because of the way Orientalism was exposed in Said·s work his ideas have become much more foundational to understanding inter-cultural relationships in general, thus creating a tension between the very specific content of the book Orientalism and the much more broad application of its principles. A further very common critique of Said·s work is that Said himself exhibits and promotes orientalism through the book that bears that name. This allegation of hypocrisy is based largely on conclusions about the agency of the Orient that Said makes. In claiming that the Orient is truly incapacitated by the Orientalists the implication is that Said himself is in fact contributing to the incapacitation of the Orient in the same way the Orientalists are. Said does not have a fatalistic approach to this concept however, just as his conclusions
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about the Orientalists· scholarship does not lead him to declare them completely incapable of academic contributions were they to address the faults inherent in their ideals.25 Said does, even in his rebuttal to his critics, tend to categorize others quite openly. He systematically categorizes the opponents of Orientalism in Orientalism Reconsidered by saying ´Some attack Orientalism as a prelude to assertions about the virtues of one or another native culture: these are the nativists. Others criticize Orientalism as a defence on attacks on one or another political creed: these are the nationalists. Still others criticize Orientalism for falsifying the nature of Islam these are, grosso modo the fundamentalists.µ26 He then excludes himself from any of these categorisations and says ´I have always tried never to forsake a critical sense or reflective detachment.µ27 This method of categorization and then implied selfexeptionalism seems to be the very root of the criticism Said lays against the Orientalists. Here again we see the implication of moral and academic inferiority of those who seem to hold opinions based on one of the constructed categorisations of the author, while the author holds himself up as largely untouched by those same categories, and capable by virtue of not being a part of those categories to impose his own unbiased interpretation. Instead of being based on a geographical and historical proximity as is the case with the study

25

Said, Orientalism, 326 Said, "Orientalism Reconsidered," 94-95
Ibid, 95

26

27

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of the Orient, Said·s categories are based on ideological and academic proximity. Indeed even the term ´Orientalismµ is questioned by Fred Halliday for possibly over-generalizing and ´[identifying] such a widespread and pervasive single error at the core of a range of literature.µ28 Again, it must be seen that Said does recognize repeatedly in Orientalism that the generalizations and categories used by all academics are full of holes, generally flawed, and are far from absolute. One can assume that the categories Said imposes are likewise generalizations, not restrictive and neither entirely inclusive nor exclusive of a whole group. There is still no method or language that academics can use to constructively talk about the world they live in without including some form of false category or generalization. Perhaps it is because of the effects found in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and we are restricted by our limited languages to speak in broad and inaccurate generalities, but regardless of why we do it, as Said himself says ´I would not have undertaken a book of this sort if I did not also believe that there is a scholarship that is not as corrupt« as the kind I have been mainly depicting.µ29

28 29

Haliday, ³Orientalism and its Critics,´ 148 Said, Orientalism, 326 18

Conclusion Despite the criticisms, attacks, and errors faced by Orientalism, the book has remained a foundational learning tool for decades. It often seems that Said goes out of his way to make his work inaccessible by failing to translate foreign phrases and repeating ideas in a language ever growing in complexity. Despite this inaccessibility, decades of scholarship have been put forward in an effort to understand it, challenge students and scholars by it, and adapt it to an every growing number of areas of study. The book recieves as much criticism or more than it does praise indicating that it is a challenge; a challenge to read, a challenge to the status-quo, and it would be a challenge to replace. Said has changed the academic world with this book, and it may be the perfect way for the current changes in the political world of the Orient to be understood.

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Bibliography
Arkoun, Mohammed. "Rethinking Islam Today." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (Sage Publications, Inc.) 588 (July 2003): 18-39. Beckingham, C. F. "Review [Untitled]." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 42, no. 3 (1979): 562-564. Halliday, Fred. "'Orientalism' and its Critics." British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20, no. 2 (1993): 145-163. Huggan, Gaham. "(Not) Reading Orientalism." Research in African Literatures (Indiana University Press) 36, no. 3 (2005): 124-136. Kay, Paul. "What is the Sapir Whorf hypothesis?" American Anthropologist (Blackwell Publishing) 86, no. 1 (March 1984): 65-79. Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West. USA: Oxford University Press, 1994. . The Muslim Discovery of Europe. New York: W.W. Norton $ Company, 1982. Manzalaoui, Mahmoud. "Review: [Untitled]." Modern Language review 75, no. 4 (Oct 1980): 837-839. Rice, James P. "In the Wake of Orientalism." Comparative Literature Studies 37, no. 2 (2000): 223-238. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Said, Edward. "Orientalism Reconsidered." Cultural Critique, 1985: 89-107. Turner, Bryan S. Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism. Taylor&Francis, 1994. Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the unsaid. University of Washington Press, 2007. Vtikiotis, P.J. Revolution in the Middle East, and Other Case Studies; proceedings of a seminar. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972. Warraq, Ibn. Defending the West. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

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