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Thread: Orientalism by Edward Said

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    Orientalism by Edward Said

    Orientalism
    Edward Said's evaluation and critique of the set of beliefs known as Orientalism forms an important background for postcolonial studies. His work highlights the inaccuracies of a wide variety of assumptions as it questions various paradigms of thought which are accepted on individual, academic, and political levels.

    The Terms
    The Orient signifies a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and Western empire. The Orient exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien ("Other") to the West.
    Orientalism is "a manner of regularized (or Orientalized) writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient." It is the image of the 'Orient' expressed as an entire system of thought and scholarship.

    The Oriental is the person represented by such thinking. The man is depicted as feminine, weak, yet strangely dangerous because poses a threat to white, Western women. The woman is both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic. The Oriental is a single image, a sweeping generalization, a stereotype that crosses countless cultural and national boundaries.

    Latent Orientalism is the unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the Orient is. Its basic content is static and unanimous. The Orient is seen as separate, eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive. It has a tendency towards despotism and away from progress. It displays feminine penetrability and supine malleability. Its progress and value are judged in terms of, and in comparison to, the West, so it is always the Other, the conquerable, and the inferior.

    Manifest Orientalism is what is spoken and acted upon. It includes information and changes in knowledge about the Orient as well as policy decisions founded in Orientalist thinking. It is the expression in words and actions of Latent Orientalism.


    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 Project
    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 'Oriental.'

    http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Orientalism.html

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    thanks bittersweet
    could you please recommend some sites ........ where i can get more information regarding edward said's orientalism

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    You CAN go Home Again Sindhu's Avatar
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    Check out
    www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/poldiscourse/said/orient1.html
    especially the pros and cons section. In my own research, I have found Said of seminal importance, but there IS overkill in his projects as he himself admits in "Orientalism Reconsidered". Other critiques of Orientalism worth checking out would be "Orientalism and its problems" by Dennis Porter and the ongoing projects undertaken by Homi Bhabha.
    Other sites worth checking out
    www.personal.psu.edu/staff/k/x/kxs334/academic/theory/said_orientalism.html
    www.clas.ufl.edu/users/grieber/projects/fontane/said.htm (interesting interactive site)

    www.suite101.com/article.cfm/17929/101685
    www.geocities.com/johnnymcdowell/papers/short_papers-Edward_Said_Orientalism.html -
    mural.uv.es/kelfa/esedward.html
    www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Orientalism.htm
    Some of these are purely informative, some more argumentative, but all I think are generally well presented.
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    Said's basic point in Orientalism is welltaken, but there is overkill when he says "Every European in what he could say about the orient was consequently a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric." This amouts to submitting to Orientalism completely, making escape or variation, by definition impossible, even unthinkable. Such sweeping condemnations (one of the best illustrations is Said's famous phrase about Marx "scuttling back to stand safely in an orientalied orient") are seriously problematic. In relation to Said's dismissal of Byron as an Orientalist, Harish Trivedi (in Colonial Transactions) flatly asserts "In this unsubstantiated assertion, Said's geography is vague, his chronology is shaky and he has got hold of the wrong man as well." Byron is just one example, the role of the individual mind has to be kept in focus even while accepting the "censor of orientalism", as Said himself grants in Culture and Imperialism.
    Secondly, Said overrates the power of Orientalism. The phrases "the internal consistency of Orientalism" and "the sheer knitted together strength of Orientalism" are very problematic. HomiBhabha and Gayatri Spivak among others have examined how the terrain of Orientalist discourse was a very fissured one indeed. (My own research deals with the ambivalences in Imperial/orientalist discourse and the amount of sheer selfcontradiction and amorphous rhetoric that is revealed is astounding)
    Third, coming to Said's point about essentialisation, even accepting for arguments sake that it is a henious offence, the fact remains that interaction between cultures or for that matter individuals would be impossible without some measure of essentialising. Even statements that merely state the race, gender, interests and orientations of a person are by definition essentialising statements and how is conversation to take place without these?
    Fourthly and finally, if there was an Orientalism, there was just as much of an Occidentalism.Achebe's famous essay where he labels Conrad a thorough going racist (as a piece of writing it is one of the most well written and intersting essays I have come across)is a pretty good example. No culture is "innocent" in it's depiction of the "Other" and this needs to be recognized, not so much as to soften the attacks on Orientalism, but because Occidentalism was often the most potent weapon of political fightback in colonized countries.
    I would like to add however, that the scales are not completely balanced between Orientalism and Occidentalism - in the Imperial age at least, Orientalism served to consolidate power, it was the dominant voice. Occidentalism, while having an equally "real" existence had by force of circumstances to be articulated from the margins and was more of a defence strategy than a controlling one.
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    Another aspect to be kept in mind- The issues of gender and class are completely elided when we talk of Orientalism in a totalising sense. Edmund Burke, for example, is a Conservative Tory, who can be classified as an Orientalist when he talks of "the native rabble" but in the case of the Indian elite nobility, tries to forge an alliance between them and the British landed gentry against noveaux riche "Nabobs" like Warren Hastings. The issue of gender is equally complicated.
    Gauri Visvanathan's piece, Beyond Orientalism
    www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/5-1/text/viswanathan.html -
    is worth checking out.
    And as another post colonial female critic, Rey Chow points out, too much of energy can be expended in trying to dismantle Orientalism incessantly:
    "All we would need to do would be to continue to study- to deconstruct the rich and ambivalent language of the imperialist! In the masquerade of deconstruction and 'difficult' theory is revived an old functionalist notion of what a dominant culture permits in the interest of maintaining its own equilibrium."
    There should be a limit to the energy that is spent on this, to qute Harish Trivedi, there is a need to investigate "the assimilative or subversive strategies through which "we" [orientals] coped with "their" "Orientalisms". These strategies are precisely what I would call occidentalism. Also, the plural "Orientalisms" needs to be noted. Orientalism never was nor could be a monolithic entity; it was inherently pluralistic and fragmented.
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    Check out
    www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/poldiscourse/said/orient1.html
    especially the pros and cons section. In my own research, I have found Said of seminal importance, but there IS overkill in his projects as he himself admits in "Orientalism Reconsidered". Other critiques of Orientalism worth checking out would be "Orientalism and its problems" by Dennis Porter and the ongoing projects undertaken by Homi Bhabha.
    Other sites worth checking out
    www.personal.psu.edu/staff/k/x/kxs334/academic/theory/said_orientalism.html
    www.clas.ufl.edu/users/grieber/projects/fontane/said.htm (interesting interactive site)

    www.suite101.com/article.cfm/17929/101685
    www.geocities.com/johnnymcdowell/papers/short_papers-Edward_Said_Orientalism.html -

    www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postcolonism/Orientalism.htm
    Some of these are purely informative, some more argumentative, but all I think are generally well presented.
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    Another link which discusses key concepts in Orientalism:
    http://www.aucegypt.edu/academic/anth/anth400/orientalism.htm
    Feminist perspective on Orientalism at:
    https://mail.socsci.umn.edu/pipermail/pol-ftgp/2003-March/000024.html
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    My answer from the discussion in the Pynchon thread,

    "You are making perfect sense, and I didn´t know anything about this before. Now I have to buy the old Orientalism, and the new one. If I understood correct he wrote a new one recently? Well, I guess we can continue this discussing under the orientalism thread. I´m eager to learn more about this. I´ll copypaste this, and look forward to more information. "

    Have you read Freire and his work about cultural oppression ? It would be interesting to compare to Said. I´ll be back with a short summary of his theory if you (or somebody else) are interested.
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    You CAN go Home Again Sindhu's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Isagel
    My answer from the discussion in the Pynchon thread,

    "You are making perfect sense, and I didn´t know anything about this before.
    Thank God for that! I was really wondering if I was running around in circles! :P
    Quote Originally Posted by Isagel
    Now I have to buy the old Orientalism, and the new one. If I understood correct he wrote a new one recently?
    Not a book actually, but a pretty exhaustive essay"Orientalism Reconsidered"in 1985, 7 years afterOrientalismwas published. In both this and an earlier work Culture and ImpeialismSaid rethinks some of the concepts in Orientalismand though his basic position is the same, there are subtle variations.

    Quote Originally Posted by Isagel
    Have you read Freire and his work about cultural oppression ? It would be interesting to compare to Said. I´ll be back with a short summary of his theory if you (or somebody else) are interested.
    I have read only Pedagogy of the Oppressedhaven't been able to get hold of Pedagogy of Hope I would really like a discussion and would also appreciate it very much ifyou would post a summary- I don't have access to the book right now -and I'm sure others would be interested also.
    I have problems with Freire's theories- they have uncanny parralells with Gandhian thought and I have major problems with Gandhi too- but some of his ideas re extemely interesting and worth implementing.
    We can go into it in detail later, but I woud just like to point out that Freire underscores what I have been saying in the Pynchon thread that the power of the oppressor is not possible without the existence of the oppresed. The opressors/ imperialists therefore have a vested interest in ensuring that existence continues.
    For convenience sake, could we all decide to have this on one thread? we can't keep on switching between this and the Pynchon one- I vote we carry on here as it is imperialism and Orientalism we are talking about mainly.
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    Thanks!

    I think the book you are looking for is Pedagogy of freedom. You can get that on Amazon.

    "the power of the oppressor is not possible without the existence of the oppresed. The opressors/ imperialists therefore have a vested interest in ensuring that existence continues"

    What I found interesting in Freire´s work is how this power is not only strengthend by the power of the oppressor but also by the way in which the oppressor´s view becomes a part of ones own emotions towards oneself and how we keep and maintain the oppression within ourselves or find ways of coping and perhaps fight it.

    That process can be interesting compare to your quote by Harish Trivedi, when you wrote "there is a need to investigate "the assimilative or subversive strategies through which "we" [orientals] coped with "their" "Orientalisms". "

    Sorry - I should probably wait with further discussion until I´ve written that summary. Otherwise this might just turn into chaotic rambling.
    Now I´ll just have to try to translate some of the words he uses from spanish to english... Wish me luck. And I´m interested in what part of Freire´s theory you have problem with. So far I think I have liked it all, but perhaps you will make me see something in them that I haven´t .
    I´m really looking forward to it.
    "Man was made for joy and woe;
    And when this we rightly know
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    Quote Originally Posted by Isagel

    I think the book you are looking for is Pedagogy of freedom. You can get that on Amazon.
    I didn't even know about Pedagogy of Freedom- I thinkit's ben ublished inEnglish fairly recently, right? I had read Pedagogy of theoppressed and some reviews of Pedagogy of Hope. I'll check out Amazon. I'm all the more eager for your summary now!
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    thanks sindhu for the help
    your summary is really helpful.i am still studying .......the sites you mentioned .as i am new to this topic ..i am taking a lot of time.
    thanks again .......

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    Contemporary Orientalism

    I believe Orientalism is less accurate at describing the East/West situation today. This can be attributed to both imperialism and globalisation. A phenomenon I have recently noticed – which a shall term – imperialist polar-orientalism shows some areas of the Middle East to be ‘others’ and some less so. To understand this you need to look directly at the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. American/British representation of these people have considerably altered post-invasion. Any ideas to explain this occurrence?

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    Thanks so much! This has been incredibly helpful in providing me with a way in to this seminal work. Thanks again.

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    Quote Originally Posted by sharpe123 View Post
    I believe Orientalism is less accurate at describing the East/West situation today. This can be attributed to both imperialism and globalisation. A phenomenon I have recently noticed – which a shall term – imperialist polar-orientalism shows some areas of the Middle East to be ‘others’ and some less so. To understand this you need to look directly at the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. American/British representation of these people have considerably altered post-invasion. Any ideas to explain this occurrence?
    Orientalism as a political piece was apt for its time, when politically, it was somewhat cutting edge. IF I am going to begrudge the book anything, it is that the first 30 pages say essentially 90% of his argument and the style is dry.

    That being said, the view is still totally in place. Sitting in a contact zone, and understanding what people in both English and Chinese are saying about each other, it becomes very clear that an idea of "othering" or "essentializing" that the text wants to clear from is still in place.

    On the practical level, the assessment of much of European, particularly English cultural perception is quite apt - the darkness of cultural imperialism as a ghost behind art, scholarship, policy, and even views of people is still there today.

    Keep in mind though, the book is quite old now. There has been some progress, especially in academic perceptions, but any reading of travel literature will show that the same trends show up again and again. I do not think it is too much of a stretch to bring the text back up and apply it, for instance, to contemporary politics and world affairs, of which I will not do here because it is against the rules.

    In truth, Said himself wrote later in other books and in the afterword to the reprint that the taking of the book as a champion "for Arab rights" as victims of Western-European-American hegemony is not an apt reading, as he is as vocal against re-essentializing as he is about the original process. What argument is contained is that a metonym, "the oriental" becomes the representation for anything beyond a frontier, the same way "The Indian" becomes a stock representation, or "the Jew" or whatever.


    Honestly though, this book doesn't seem controversial at all anymore. It is so mainstream that I think anyone from political science, to culture studies, to area studies, and everything in between will sooner or later come across it in 2nd or 3rd year university, or just browsing, and read it, and to be honest, most people will be bored out of their mind, because the books idea, at least as theory are well distributed, just not well practiced as, beyond the theoretical level, nobody actually feels like changing. Nevertheless, the book remains a slow drag, as the same 3 or 4 points keep cycling and cycling.

    Works that apply his ideas to them though are often readable.

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