Orientalism Research Paper

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The 1978 publication of Orientalism, a pivotal and controversial study by Edward Said, redefined a term that originally meant “scholarship that pertains to the Orient (or knowledge of Oriental languages and cultures).” Said stressed that the Western perception of the “Orient,” itself an ambiguous term, depended on creating an image of the East as the “other,” and thus facilitated its colonialization and subjugation.

Few historical terms have been as central to attempts to explain the emergence of the modern world system as Orientalism—the Western study (and defining) of the East. Orientalism must be understood in the context of the global history of colonialism and imperialism. An examination of Orientalism in such disciplines as the study of “Oriental” literature reveals the desire on the part of European civilization to acquire an image of its opposite: the “other.” Postcolonial critics such as Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak have argued that literary texts dating from the colonial and imperial periods in particular can be exposed as claiming (Western) dominance over the rest of the world.

Edward Said and Orientalism

The American-Palestinian professor of English and comparative literature, Edward Said (1935–2003), said that literature, the arts, and politics were inseparable. His Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), a provocative and polemical study that received praise and controversy in equal measure since its first publication, redefined Orientalism, which originally meant simply scholarship pertaining to the Orient or knowledge of Oriental languages and cultures. For Said, Orientalism was the act, on the part of those in the West, of defining themselves by defining the “other,” the Easterner (or Oriental). He argued that this process told as much or more about the constructed self-image as about the other that the studies were theoretically attempting to define. What exactly comprises “the Orient” is not clear: for some it is the Middle East; for others it includes all of Asia. (This point can enhanced by looking at the opulent, exotic, and erotic scene depicted in Jean-Leon Gerome’s The Snake Charmer (c.1870), a detail of which graced the cover of the 1978 edition of Said’s book: Gerome paints with nearly photographic realism in this work, but the imagery in the scene is a pastiche of Egyptian, Turkish, and Indian elements.) A further dimension comes into the discussion with Western approaches to Africa. Yet this dimension has largely been ignored so far, not least by Said himself who emphasized the congruency of the orientalist debate, including the geographical East. Marxist scholars, by contrast, have pointed to a multiplicity of problems and differences evident from many disciplines and resulting from a multidimensional relationship between knowledge and power. Knowledge, in short, was neither scientifically innocent nor politically disinterested.

Knowledge and Power

According to Said’s Orientalism, knowledge of the Orient produced in the West helped European colonizers maintain their subjugation and exploitation of the colonized on the one hand and their pretence of objective and detached science on the other. Knowing and naming the other, they said, preceded control over the other. The consequence of linguistic, literary, philological and historical learning about Islam and Muslim peoples could be, for example, that it could be used as an instrument by the West to impose its worldwide superiority. Furthermore it was believed that Orientalism was also displayed in museums and in the academy as well as in biological and anthropological arguments.

In his History of British India (1817), the philosopher and historian James Mill (1773–1836) expressed the conviction that modernization was synonymous with Western imperial expansion, which, according to Said, also coincided with the Anglicization of the world. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), probably the most famous nineteenth-century English historian, suggested that the evangelical and utilitarian values that were generally predominant in his age were instrumental for the reeducation of the Indian subcontinent. In the eighteenth century cosmopolitan views had been possible, indeed highly attractive for many intellectuals, who experienced an openness that had made possible comparisons between the European and Asian civilizations, encouraging the mutual reception of similarities and common ground. But in the nineteenth century a more ethnocentric attitude became the norm, as typified by opinions such as that of the philosopher G. F. W. Hegel (1770–1831), who notably called Africa a continent without history. It was out of this sense of superiority that Orientalism emerged and upon which it was based. It reflected the conviction that the peoples of the Orient (whatever that comprised) were ontologically different and represented a different type of character.

Knowledge about the Orient was thus constructed by generations of intellectuals and writers, politicians and artists. It was part of a broader imperial culture relating to the Italian political thinker Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of cultural hegemony. The work of individual scholars spoke less for itself than for the uniformity of knowledge about the Orient as presented by the West. Thus nineteenth-century Western scholars were prisoners of their own academic world, unable to overcome the intellectual limits set by the methodology and the semantics of their approaches and thus following up an ongoing monologue on a subject about which they were not objectively informed. As Said pointed out, these scholars often did not even travel to the countries about which they wrote, and therefore they could hardly claim to be well and objectively informed. The West claimed mastery of a special way of knowing called “science,” a supposedly objective route to universal truths, but the omniscient attitude that went along with Western scientific inquiry was devoid of any experience of Oriental reality. The message of the Orientalist discourse was this: the East was purely receptive, a passive reactor described by adjectives such as “female,” while the West was the actor of history, structuring life and judging the other. This was the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, the ruler and the ruled.

Orientalism and Its Traditions

In the introduction to a later edition of Orientalism, Said claimed that in the last quarter of the twentieth century research on the Middle East, Islam, and the Arabic world had not developed much in the United States. Europe, by contrast, presented a better picture. A different perception of the East resulted from a different interest in it, whether political, economic, military, scientific, or cultural. Said suggested that the geographical proximity of Europe and the Middle East had been of great relevance for mutual cultural stimulation. He emphasized the impact of British and French writers but failed to mention German and East European scholarship.

It is striking that Said’s impact on gender and literary studies, on discourse analysis and postcolonial critics, and on social studies and history has been predominantly in the English-speaking world while in Germany, for example, with its short colonial experience, Said’s Orientalist thesis has had a relatively lukewarm reception. The impulses feeding Orientalism, however, come from a wide spectrum of intellectual sources. For obvious reasons, the period from the beginning of the direct European colonial presence and the establishment of colonial rule in the second half of the nineteenth century to the age of decolonization and political independence was of central importance for the development of Oriental scholarship.

Said believed that the Orientalist discourse experienced its first heyday in 1798, with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The scholar and politician C.-F. Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney (1757–1820), who traveled in Egypt and Syria and became a prominent critic of the French campaign, nonetheless advocated forcibly changing the local government from religiously dominated despotism to republicanism. As Volney was also involved in the preservation of historical monuments, his attitude could be called an early version of mission civilisatrice—the civilizing mission—that manifested itself institutionally in the establishment of the French Institut d’Egypte in Cairo. The civilizing mission was an excuse for European cultural penetration of Oriental societies, legitimated by a belief in the supposedly passive character of Oriental peoples.

On the other hand, even in the earliest days there was an “Occidentalist” critique that shaped the understanding of how the West had projected its images of the “Other” and of how the East could reply by investigating Western cultural identity. Essentially this dialectic required not only investigation of how Orientalist and Occidentalist traditions were invented, but in particular against what and whom. To the same degree that Western attitudes toward the East were formed by the colonial relationship that existed between ruler and ruled, the converse was also true: a new Occidentalism was constructed in order to draw a line between the West and the rest, to challenge this distinction and to investigate divisions within societies.

Occidentalism, however, should not be mistaken for Occidental critique of Orientalism as an academic discipline. Here, as has been pointed out, two perspectives, the religious and the Marxist, are of particular interest, especially in the Arabic world. The Palestinian scholar Abdel-Latif Tibawi is of the opinion that until quite recently most Western academics dealing with problems of the Middle East were neither adequately trained in languages and social sciences, nor sympathetic to Islamic matters. Of even greater weight was the accusation that the scholarship of Orientalists was far from objective on religious questions. Indeed, it was suggested that it had helped to develop religious hatred between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Marxist argument also built on a picture of cultural confrontation, holding that Orientalism should have been overcome when former colonies asserted their political independence. It continued to exist, however, in the minds of those believing in the alleged passivity of “Orientals.” The Marxist perspective gave more attention than the religious perspective did to sociological and political concerns. Apart from recognizing the opportunity to marginalize Eurocentric worldviews, those taking this anti-imperialist perspective saw it as advantageous for promoting academic cooperation between the peoples of Asia, Africa, and South America. The Marxist perspective, in other words, is problem oriented and takes a comparative perspective on Third World countries, as opposed to being predominantly dichotomized and discursive, as is Said’s critique of existing Orientalism.

Orientalism, Said, and His Critics

Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism is frequently criticized for lacking a sense of history. It is also considered a failing that it gave so little weight to the religious motivations of Orientalists with Christian or Jewish backgrounds who write about Muslim peoples. Yet while both history and religion were certainly crucial to the nineteenth-century understanding of Islam and Muslims, criticism of Said’s thesis have come mainly from the fields of literary criticism, cultural studies, or feminism. (Feminist scholars have taken issue with the fact that Said presented Orientalism as the domain of white male scholars and writers without paying enough attention to its female aspects.) Above all, it remains questionable whether high literature, in particular, the novel, is a suitable medium for conveying the message of imperialism on a massive scale; possibly Said the professor of literature overestimated the influence of Dickens, Kipling, Conrad, and their contemporaries.

On the other hand, Said revealed that although literary texts such as travel reports and diaries were often fictional, they purported to reflect realistically on the Orient. But can literary works that deliberately painted a fictional image of the East be accused of Orientalism? Said’s critics claim that the converse was true with regard to the “Oriental discourse” of professional linguistics, for example, namely that their subject was certainly not Orientalist. Said did not discuss why in the nineteenth-century Western world it was above all professional linguistics that formed the core of the sciences of the Orient, while it was the relatively new disciplines of geography and history that exercised the greatest influence upon political decision making in colonial and imperial matters. This means that critics of Orientalism overestimate the impact of Orientalist scholars, while they underestimate the impact of those academic disciplines in which the Orientalist attitude was less visible, but probably more inherent.

Finally, critics of the concept of Orientalism have claimed that the idea of a culturally united West as suggested by Said never existed. While Said rejected the assumption that there was an entity such as “the Orient” constructed by Orientalism, he nonetheless had no reservations about speaking of a monolithic “West,” a single Western civilization able to dominate the world by every means, including cognitive and cultural ones. Given the actual intercultural relationships and transfers between the continents, his critics have considered Said’s model to be too strongly based on the idea of a monologue; they argue for a dialogue that will eventually bring the developing world back into the debate.

Notwithstanding the problematic character of many of Said’s generalizations, which his critics have pointed out are often oversimplifications, it remains a particular merit of Orientalism that it focused and intensified research on the delicate relationship between an academic discipline and imperialism. Sensitized by Orientalism, scholars have reformulated questions concerning representations of the “Oriental” and the “European,” intercultural communication, and the conditions under which knowledge about the other in opposition to the self can be gained.


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