Orientalism summary, Summaries for History

Orientalism summary, Summaries for History

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Summary of Orientalism by Edward Said
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Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979)

Introduction Said starts by asserting the fact that the Orient played an instrumental role in the construction of the European culture as the powerful Other: “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.” (1-2) He then states that the research subject of his book is Orientalism, by which he understands a combined representation of the Orient in the Western culture, science, politics, etc. and, transcending the borders of all these field of knowledge, it becomes “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident,"” (2) and finally it transforms into a powerful political instrument of domination: “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (3) As Said is a Marxist, there is no wonder that it is this third incarnation of Orientalism, domination, that he cares most of all for.

In the Foucaultian tradition, Said suggests to look at Orientalism as a discourse: without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enonnously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage-and even produce-the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. (3) He then states that the Western image of the Orient—i.e. Orientalism—had little to do with the “real” Orient. What is more important, Orientalism is not simply the work of European imagination—it is all about power, domination, hegemony and authority. As such, Orientalism was not “simply” a collection of misrepresentations about the Orient in Europe, it “created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment,” (6) material investment here meaning academic scholarship, art, literature, political writing, common sense, etc. In this way, Orientalism in the European culture became an instrument for maintaining “content” (in Gramscian terms), i.e. voluntary reproduction by the subjects of the social reality desired by the power. In this way, Orientalism is a phenomenon of the same rank as the idea of Europe.

Said then ask how relevant it is on his side to consider as one phenomenon what was supposed to be, actually, two: individual writing (particularly in case of literary fiction) and hegemonic strategies. He then goes into a lengthy explanation of why he considers this to be relevant. First, he asserts that there is no “pure” knowledge, but rather all knowledge is shaped by ideological positions: No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society. (10)

The same, he argues, is the case with literature. The link between ideology and writing is not simplistic at all, but still it is unavoidable. He describes this link in the following way: 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, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political, <…> intellectual, <…> cultural <…> moral… (12)

Hence Said’s research agenda: to study Orientalism “as a dynamic exchange between individual authors and the large political concerns shaped by the three great empires-British, French, American-in whose intellectual and imaginative territory the writing was produced.” (15) His research question is, logically, “How did philology, lexicography, history, biology, political and economic theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism's broadly imperialist view of the world?” (15) as well as some other related to its evolution in time and the relationship between the individual effort and this collective project.

Said then discusses his methodology. He, first, claims that there was a need to specify the corpus of his sources, therefore, he focused on French and British, later American sources on Islamic countries, and provides a rationale for this choice, Britain and France as the most important imperial powers, the US as occupying their place after the WWII, Islam as the “Near Orient,” which has been in contact with Europe for over a century. As for his methodological focus, Said’s project is about fighting the dominant power: There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it established canon of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed. (20)

His technics of analysis involve strategic location, which is a way of describing the author's position in a text with regard to the Oriental material he writes about, and strategic formation, which is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres, acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter in the culture at large. (20) He explains that every author writing about the Orient must take a position vis-à-vis the Orient, which means that he or she should translate into his or her text the symbolic constructions created by Orientalism in its previous or contemporary incarnations: Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer) assumes some Oriental precedent. some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies. Additionally, each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, audiences, and some particular aspects of the Orient therefore constitutes an analyzable formation… (20)

Any text about the Orient is always exterior to the object it describes (i.e., Orient). Therefore, there are no “natural depictions” of the Orient, there are only representations of it. What is important in this observation is that “these representations rely upon institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding for their effects, not upon a distant and amorphous Orient,” (22) which means that Orientalist texts are always more about the West than about the Orient.

Chapter 1. The Scope of Orientalism

1. Knowing the Oriental Said starts by analyzing public speeches and writings of two British imperialists of the early 20th century about the Egypt, making an emphasis on how the stress that since the British imperial authorities “know better” their country, they have a natural right to rule it: British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour, and the burdens of knowledge make such questions as inferiority and superiority seem petty ones. Balfour nowhere denies British superiority and Egyptian inferiority; he takes them for granted as he describes the consequences of knowledge. (32) Any doubt in this right is dangerous, as it destroys the faith of both “Arabs” and colonial officers in what they are doing.

This mode of seeing the Orient turned into the dominant political vision: The most important thing about the theory during the first decade of the twentieth century was that it worked, and worked staggeringly well. The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was dear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must be dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power. (36)

Political domination had to be justified, therefore, in the course of the nineteenth century, a bunch of theories turn up which persisted into the twentieth century and which constructed the colonial subject as inferior to Europeans—in logic, culture, moral, etc. Many resources were invented in this vision of Oriental people, as it justified and legitimized domination: The Orient was viewed as if framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual. (41) The reason why this domination emerged was that at that time Britain and France, two leading colonial powers, divide between them (and other powers) the whole world, but only between them—Middle East. In a way, they cooperated to secure cultural domination over these lands: And share they <Britain and France> did, in ways that we shall investigate presently. What they shared, however, was not only land or profit or rule; it was the kind of intellectual power I have been calling Orientalism. In a sense Orientalism was a library or archive of information, commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held. (41)

This cultural and academic project of Orientalizing the Orient was institutionalized in learned societies, academic journals, conceptual views (like Darwinism or Marxism), etc. The link between them and the Orientalism as the phenomenon for which they all worked was double-folded: they drew on Orientalism and they gradually transformed it. That it was not a transformation of liberation, but the one of intensification and improvement, is proven, according to Said, by contemporary (1970s) speeches of American politicians who reproduce in their writing the same Oriental myth of the nineteenth century. These myths are represented to us as truth, and Said asks how this situation could emerge. The answer goes in the following sections.

Author: Edward W. Said Publisher: Vintage Year: 1994 Orientalism by Edward Said is a cononical text of cultural studies in which he has challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west, as he puts it. He says that with the start of European colonization the Europeans came in contact with the lesser developed countries of the east. They found their civilization and culture very exotic, and established the science of orientalism, which was the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.

Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was totally an artificial boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us or theirs and ours. The Europeans used orientalism to define themselves. Some particular attributes were associated with the orientals, and whatever the orientals weren’t the occidents were. The Europeans defined themselves as the superior race compared to the orientals; and they justified their colonization by this concept. They said that it was their duty towards the world to civilize the uncivilized world. The main problem, however, arose when the Europeans started generalizing the attributes they associated with orientals, and started portraying these artificial characteristics associated with orientals in their western world through their scientific reports, literary work, and other media sources. What happened was that it created a certain image about the orientals in the European mind and in doing that infused a bias in the European attitude towards the orientals. This prejudice was also found in the orientalists (scientist studying the orientals); and all their scientific research and reports were under the influence of this. The generalized attributes associated with the orientals can be seen even today, for example, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people; and Islam is seen as religion of the terrorist. Here is a brief summary of the book, followed by a critique by Malcolm Kerr.

Chapter 1: The Scope of Orientalism In this chapter, Edward Said explains how the science of orientalism developed and how the orientals started considering the orientals as non-human beings. The orientals divided the world in to two parts by using the concept of ours and theirs. An imaginary geographical line was drawn between what was ours and what was theirs. The orients were regarded as uncivilized people; and the westerns said that since they were the refined race it was their duty to civilize these people and in order to achieve their goal, they had to colonize and rule the orients. They said that the orients themselves were incapable of running their own government. The Europeans also thought that they had the right to represent the orientals in the west all by themselves. In doing so, they shaped the orientals the way they perceived them or in other words they were orientalizing the orients. Various teams have been sent to the east where the orientalits silently observed the orientals by living with them; and every thing the orientals said and did was recorded irrespective of its context, and projected to the civilized world of the west. This resulted in the generalization. Whatever was seen by the orientals was associated with the oriental culture, no matter if it is the irrational action of an individual.

The most important use of orientalism to the Europeans was that they defined themselves by defining the orientals. For example, qualities such as lazy, irrational, uncivilized, crudeness were related to the orientals, and automatically the Europeans became active, rational, civilized, sophisticated. Thus, in order to achieve this goal, it was very necessary for the orientalists to generalize the culture of the orients.

Another feature of orientalism was that the culture of the orientals was explained to the European audience by linking them to the western culture, for example, Islam was made into Mohammadism because Mohammad was the founder of this religion and since religion of Christ was called Christianity; thus Islam should be called Mohammadism. The point to be noted here is that no Muslim was aware of this terminology and this was a completely western created term, and to which the Muslims had no say at all.

Chapter 2: Orientalist Structures and Restructures In this chapter, Edward Said points the slight change in the attitude of the Europeans towards the orientals. The orientals were really publicized in the European world especially through their literary work. Oriental land and behaviour was highly romanticized by the European poets and writers and then presented to the western world. The orientalists had made a stage strictly for the European viewers, and the orients were presented to them with the colour of the orientalist or other writers perception. In fact, the orient lands were so highly romanticized that western literary writers found it necessary to offer pilgrimage to these exotic lands of pure sun light and clean oceans in order to experience peace of mind, and inspiration for their writing. The east was now perceived by the orientalist as a place of pure human culture with no necessary evil in the society. Actually it was this purity of the orientals that made them inferior to the clever, witty, diplomatic, far-sighted European; thus it was their right to rule and study such an innocent race. The Europeans said that these people were too naive to deal with the cruel world, and that they needed the European fatherly role to assist them.

Another justification the Europeans gave to their colonization was that they were meant to rule the orientals since they have developed sooner than the orientals as a nation, which shows that they were biologically superior, and secondly it were the Europeans who discovered the orients not the orients who discovered the Europeans. Darwin’s theories were put forward to justify their superiority, biologically by the Europeans.

In this chapter, Edward Said also explains how the two most renowned orientalists of the 19th century, namely Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan worked and gave orienatlism a new dimension. In fact, Edward Said compliments the contribution made by Sacy in the field. He says that Sacy organized the whole thing by arranging the information in such a way that it was also useful for the future orientalist. And secondly, the prejudice that was inherited by every orientalist was considerably low in him. On the other hand, Renan who took advantage of Sacy’s work was as biased as any previous orientalist. He believed that the science of orientalism and the science of philology have a very important relation; and after Renan this idea was given a lot attention and many future orientalists worked of in its line.

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