The cover contains a detail from the 19th-century Orientalist painting The Snake Charmer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).
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|LC Class||DS12 .S24 1979|
Orientalism (1978), by Edward Said, is a foundational text for the academic field of Post-colonial Studies. In it, Said analyzes the cultural representations that are the basis of Orientalism, a term he redefined to refer to the West's patronizing perceptions and depictions of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies—"the East". He contended that Orientalist scholarship was, and remains, inextricably tied to the imperialist societies that produced it, which makes much of the work inherently political, servile to power, and thus intellectually suspect. Said further denounces the social, economic, and cultural practices of the ruling Arab elites who, Said claims, as imperial satraps, have internalized the romanticized "Arabic Culture" created by British and American Orientalists. Grounding much of this thesis in his knowledge of colonial literature such as the fiction of Conrad, and in the post-structuralist theory of Foucault, Derrida and others, Said's Orientalism and following works proved influential in literary theory and criticism, and continue to influence several other fields in the humanities. Orientalism affected Middle Eastern studies, transforming the way practitioners of the discipline describe and examine the Middle East. Said came to discuss and vigorously debate the issue of Orientalism with scholars in the fields of history and area studies, many of whom disagreed with his thesis, most famously Bernard Lewis.
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Said is most famous for the description and analyzes of Orientalism as the source of the inaccurate cultural representations that are the foundation of Western thought towards the Middle East, of how The West perceives and represents The East. The thesis of Orientalism is the existence of a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture", which derives from Western culture's long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia, in general, and the Middle East, in particular. That such perceptions, and the consequent cultural representations, have served, and continue to serve, as implicit justifications for the colonial and imperialist ambitions of the European powers and of the U.S. Likewise, Said also criticized and denounced the political and the cultural malpractices of the régimes of the ruling Arab élites who have internalized the false, romanticized representations of Arabic culture that were conceived and established by Anglo-American Orientalists:
So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
In Orientalism, Said argued that much Western study of Islamic civilization was political intellectualism meant for European self-affirmation, rather than for objective intellectual enquiry and academic study of Eastern cultures. Hence, Orientalism functioned as a method of practical, cultural discrimination applied as a means of imperialist domination, producing the claim that the Western Orientalist knows more about the Orient than do the Orientals. Orientalism had an impact on the fields of literary theory, cultural studies and human geography, and to a lesser extent on those of history and oriental studies. Taking his cue from the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and from earlier critics of western Orientalism such as A. L. Tibawi, Anouar Abdel-Malek, Maxime Rodinson, and Richard William Southern, Said argued that Western writings on the Orient, and the perceptions of the East purveyed in them, are suspect, and cannot be taken at face value. Said argues that the history of European colonial rule, and of the consequent political domination of the civilizations of the East, distorts the writing of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning, and culturally sympathetic Western Orientalists; thus was the term "Orientalism" rendered into a pejorative word:
I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India, or Egypt, in the later nineteenth century, took an interest in those countries, which was never far from their status, in his mind, as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact—and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism.
Said argued that the West had dominated the East for more than 2,000 years, since the composition of The Persians by Aeschylus. Europe had dominated Asia politically so completely for so long that even the most outwardly objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias that even most Western scholars could not recognize. His contention was not only that the West has conquered the East politically but also that Western scholars have appropriated the exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves. They have written Asia’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Europe as the norm, from which the "exotic", "inscrutable" Orient deviates.
Orientalism concluded that Western writing about the Orient depicts it as an irrational, weak, and feminised Other, an existential condition contrasted with the rational, strong, and masculine West. This binary relation derives from the European psychological need to create a difference of cultural inequality between West and East; that cultural difference is attributed to immutable cultural "essences" inherent to Oriental peoples and things. The relation reinforces preconceived archetypes, constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East, that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another. In 1978, when the book was first published, with memories of the Yom Kippur war and the OPEC crisis still fresh, Said argued that these attitudes still permeated the Western media and academia.
Orientalism proved to be an intellectual document central to the field of post-colonial studies, its thesis being considered as historically factual, true, and accurate for the pertinent periods studied, and especially regarding the cultural representations of "Orientals" and "The Orient" presented in the mass communications media of the West. Nonetheless, Said's supporters acknowledged that concerning the German Orientalist scholarship, the scope of Orientalism is limited; yet, in the magazine article "Orientalism Reconsidered" (1985), Said said that no-one opponent provided a substantive rationale for claiming that the dearth of discussion about German Orientalism necessarily limits the scholarly value and practical application of the book's thesis. Moreover, in the Afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, Said presented follow-up refutations of the criticisms that Bernard Lewis registered against the first edition (1978) of the book. Orientalism is regarded as central to the postcolonial movement, encouraging scholars "from non-western countries...to take advantage of the mood of political correctness it helped to engender by associating themselves with 'narratives of oppression,' creating successful careers out of transmitting, interpreting and debating representations of the non-western 'other.'"
Moreover, his critics and supporters acknowledge the transformative influence of Orientalism upon scholarship in the humanities—the former say that is an intellectually limiting influence upon scholars, whilst the latter say that it is an intellectually liberating influence upon scholars. In October 2003, one month after Said died, a commentator wrote in a Lebanese newspaper that through Orientalism "Said's critics agree with his admirers that he has single-handedly effected a revolution in Middle Eastern studies in the U.S." He cited a critic who claimed since the publication of Orientalism "U.S. Middle Eastern Studies were taken over by Edward Said's postcolonial studies paradigm" (Daily Star, October 20, 2003). Even those who contest its conclusions and criticize its scholarship, like George P. Landow of Brown University, call it "a major work." The Belgian-born American literary critic Paul De Man supported Said's criticism of such modern scholars, as he stated in his article on semiotic rhetoric: "Said took a step further than any other modern scholar of his time, something I dare not do. I remain in the safety of rhetorical analysis where criticism is the second best thing I do." Post-colonial studies, of which Said was an intellectual founder and a scholarly reference, is a fertile and thriving field of intellectual enquiry that helps explain the post-colonial world, its peoples, and their discontents. Hence the continued investigational validity and analytical efficacy of the critical propositions presented in Orientalism (1978), especially in the field of Middle Eastern studies.
The scholarship of Said remains critically pertinent to and intellectually relevant in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies, notably upon scholars studying India, such as Gyan Prakash ("Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography", 1990), Nicholas Dirks (Castes of Mind, 2001), and Ronald Inden (Imagining India, 1990); and upon literary theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha (Nation and Narration, 1990), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 1987), and Hamid Dabashi (Iran: A People Interrupted, 2007). Said does not include Orientalist painting or other visual art in his survey, despite the example on the book's cover, but other writers, notably Linda Nochlin, have extended his analysis to cover it, "with uneven results". In epidemiological studies, Said's work is thought to be the first extended use of the system of analysis developed by philosopher Michel Foucault. Anthropologist Talal Asad argued that Orientalism is “not only a catalogue of Western prejudices about and misrepresentations of Arabs and Muslims”, but more so an investigation and analysis of the "authoritative structure of Orientalist discourse – the closed, self-evident, self-confirming character of that distinctive discourse which is reproduced again and again through scholarly texts, travelogues, literary works of imagination, and the obiter dicta of public men of affairs." The book describes how "the hallowed image of the Orientalist as an austere figure unconcerned with the world and immersed in the mystery of foreign scripts and languages has acquired a dark hue as the murky business of ruling other peoples now forms the essential and enabling background of his or her scholarship." His work continues to be widely discussed in academic seminars, disciplinary conferences, and scholarship.
Elswewhere, in and about Eastern Europe, Milica Bakić-Hayden developed the concept of Nesting Orientalisms (1992), based upon and derived from the ideas of the historian Larry Wolff (Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, 1994) and upon the ideas that Said presented in Orientalism (1978). In turn, the Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova (Imagining the Balkans, 1997) presented her ethnologic concept of Nesting Balkanisms (Ethnologia Balkanica,1997), which is theoretically related to and derived from Milica Bakić-Hayden's concept of Nesting Orientalisms. Orientalism has been used to draw attention to stereotypical portrayals of Russia.
Orientalism was not the first to produce of Western knowledge of the Orient and of Western scholarship: "Abd-al-Rahman al Jabarti, the Egyptian chronicler and a witness to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, for example, had no doubt that the expedition was as much an epistemological as military conquest." Even in recent times (1963, 1969 & 1987) the writings and research of V. G. Kiernan, Bernard S. Cohn and Anwar Abdel Malek traced the relations between European rule and representations.
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Orientalism and other works by Said sparked a wide variety of controversy and criticism. Ernest Gellner argued that Said's contention that the West had dominated the East for more than 2,000 years was unsupportable, noting that until the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire had posed a serious threat to Europe. Mark Proudman notes that Said had claimed that the British Empire extended from Egypt to India in the 1880s, when in fact the Ottoman and Persian Empires intervened. Others argued out that even at the height of the imperial era, European power in the East was never absolute, and remained heavily dependent on local collaborators, who were frequently subversive of imperial aims. 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 direct 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.
Strong criticism of Said's critique of Orientalism came from academic Orientalists, including some of Eastern backgrounds. Albert Hourani, Robert Graham Irwin, Nikki Keddie, Bernard Lewis, and Kanan Makiya addressed what Keddie retrospectively calls "some unfortunate consequences" of Said's Orientalism on the perception and status of their scholarship.[note 1] Bernard Lewis in particular was often at odds with Said following the publication of Orientalism, in which Said singled out Lewis as a "perfect exemplification" of an "Establishment Orientalist" whose work "purports to be objective liberal scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material". Lewis answered with several essays in response, and was joined by other scholars, such as Maxime Rodinson, Jacques Berque, Malcolm Kerr, Aijaz Ahmad, and William Montgomery Watt, who also regarded Orientalism as a deeply flawed 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 traveled in the East), the novelist Flaubert (who briefly toured 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. According to these critics, their common European origins and attitudes overrode such considerations in Said's mind; Said constructed a stereotype of Europeans. The critic Robert Irwin writes that Said ignored the domination of 19th century Oriental studies by Germans and Hungarians, from countries that 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 William Jones) were more concerned with establishing kinship between East and West than with creating "difference", and who had often 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).
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". 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"  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.
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
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- Martin Kramer in his article, "Said’s Splash" Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, Policy Papers 58 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) observes that "Fifteen years after publication of Orientalism, the UCLA historian Nikki Keddie, whose work Said had praised in Covering Islam, allowed that Orientalism was 'important and in many ways positive.' But, in an interview published in Approaches to the History of the Middle East (ed. Nancy Elizabeth Gallagher, London: Ithaca Press, 1994: pp. 144-45), Keddie said that she also thought Said's work on Orientalism had had "unfortunate consequences." She continued:
"I think that there has been a tendency in the Middle East field to adopt the word "orientalism" as a generalized swear-word essentially referring to people who take the "wrong" position on the Arab-Israeli dispute or to people who are judged too "conservative". It has nothing to do with whether they are good or not good in their disciplines. So "orientalism" for many people is a word that substitutes for thought and enables people to dismiss certain scholars and their works. I think that is too bad. It may not have been what Edward Said meant at all, but the term has become a kind of slogan."
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