Edward Said’s Orientalism
Table of Contents
Orientalism is an independent literary and art form. Its themes have appeared in Europe and represented the unknown, exotic Orient to the Western society (Donze-Magnier 2). Edward Said was the pioneer scholar who introduced to the literature theory the notion of colonial representation while organizing data and analyzing it in order to interpret Orientalism. Scholar’s work changed the essence of critical studies by developing and putting post-colonial theory at the center of attention. Said’s Orientalism presents a distinctive vision of relations between the East and the West, and how they influenced their coexistence that can be traced in the main characteristics of the work, interpretations of the Orient, and features of the Orientalist vision.
Main Characteristics of Said’s Orientalism
Orientalism can be interpreted and understood as three separate terms presented by Said. Firstly, this notion belongs to the academic sphere that incorporates all studies about the Orient. Secondly, Orientalism can be found in epistemological and ontological differences between the Occident and the Orient and generally viewed as a style of thought. Thirdly, the representation, description, and controlling of the Orient is the third dimension of the notion that is, in most cases, understood as the “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient” (Said 3). Thus, such gradation signifies the complexity of Orientalism.
Said is praised among many scholars as one of those rare American scientists who made a profound research on the Arab identity, and in a very sharp way described racism and imperialism of the West. On the one hand, the strong motivation for Said to write Orientalism became an incident in the Gezira Club. He was a secretary of this organization that predominantly consisted from foreigners, and one day he was not allowed to attend the meeting because he was Arab. Such form of segregation motivated the scientist to tell the truth to the broader audience (Marrouchi 3-6). On the other hand, the critic of Said’s work is also based on the facts about regarding his life and education. The central argument is that Said as a scholar became the part of Orientalist worldview himself and spread its dogmas after graduating from the Western institution and working in one of the most prestigious universities in the USA. Consequently, he lost all relations with the country of his origins and especially its traditions, and based his approach and thinking exclusively on Western culture views (Schickhaus 14-15). Thus, Said’s interest in the Orient was determined by his education and experience.
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While conducting a research about Orientalism, Said applied a distinctive methodology. In order to analyze Orientalism, the scholar referred to the idea of cultural hegemony of Antonio Gramse, the notion of discourse of Michel Foucault, and high humanism of Erich Aurback. These three theories became the foundation for his views (Said 3). At the same time, methods that were applied by Said were inconsistent. The contradiction of Aurback and Foucault approaches and ideas created methodological irreconcilability, because those concepts that were used by Said belong to different tradition (Al-Shamiri 271). Thus, Said’s methodology was contradictory in its nature.
At the same time, primary sources that Said analyzed and which laid at the foundation of his research described the experience of French, English, and American colonialists. The rootlessness of the writer himself made him more prone to writing more accurate assessment of colonialism because of his strategic location (Said 25). However, the limitation of Said’s work is directly connected with literature the scholar used for the research. He focused on the English texts while excluding materials written in other languages and by non-English writers (Donze-Magnier 4). Consequently, the focus on a certain type of texts makes the research less qualified.
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In general, the other two limitations of Said’s work are geographical and cultural. The analysis of the Orient and its geographical scope is limited by a Middle East and Near-East. The writer did not cover South Asia, Japan, and China in his study that made the work incomplete, and its conclusions cannot be applied to the whole East. Furthermore, the cultural perception of the East is in a unilateral and heterogeneous form that represents Western value standards (Donze-Magnier 4). At the same time, the paper lacks the opportunity to distinguish individuality from the mass in Orientalism academic terms. Said made certain assumptions and “flip-flop on who is a good orientalist and who is bad” (Donze-Magnier 5) Moreover, the vagueness of the vision of the Orient that is produced and managed by the West is confirmed by the fact that his vision was not true for the most part of the Middle East, Japan, and China (Donze-Magnier 5). Thus, cultural and geographical limitations are represented in Orientalism.
Despite the wide critic, Said’s Orientalism became very popular all around the world and was translated into many languages. Said by himself said, “Orientalism is about to appear in Hungary, in Vietnam, and in Estonia. These are all places that I have never been to and I know very little about. So you can see how uncontrolled all these interpretations can be. In that respect, I think certain kinds of distortions and deviations are inevitable” (Marrouchi 24). Consequently, such popularity shows a strong interest to Said’s work and the scope of its recognition.
Interpretation of the Orient
Special attention should be paid to the notion of the Orient and its role in the Orientalism formation and development. Said separately distinguished the Occident and the Orient by geographical criteria, where hegemony, domination and power prevail in relations between them (5). Said explained that Orientalism is merely a vision of the powerful Euro-Atlantic community placed on the Orient that is full of myths and lies that are organized in practices and theories. Moreover, the whole Orient’s identity relies on its interpretation by the West. Consequently, because Orientalism is founded on the principle of West’s superiority, it creates a situation when the Orient always completely depends from the West (Said 6-7). Thus, the Orient is described as dependent on the West.
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The West claims to represent the Orient are based on the categories it uses to judge the Orient. The image of the Orient in Shakespeare and Milton’s works is the breakdown and loss that fill the emptiness. Such perception is the reason for intervention and colonial exploitation, which existed in England during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moreover, the Orient is described as such that does not have appropriate skills that are required to effectively rule its country, and that is why the Occident is there to lead and show the way for governing people (Said 42). Thus, the Orient is represented as inferior.
George Orwell’s description of oriental women in Burmese Days illustrates existing bias of Westerners and supports Said’s views. Orwell’s work itself portraits the period of British colonial decline during the period of 1922-1927, and while the writer opposes himself to the government and colonial administration, the vision of native people is full of prejudice. For instance, Burmese women are depicted as mistresses, and sexual, disenfranchised objects, whose only mission in life is to give birth to children. Moreover, there is a contrast in the description of English women, whose beauty can be seen only by looking at their faces, and native females, who are compared to animals and where more attention is paid to their body. It underlines Orwell’s attitude to the Orient (Shabanirad and Marandi 27). Moreover, English soldier, John Flory, treats Ma Hla May, his mistress, as his slave, and when an English girl appears, Flory treats Ma with cruelty and abandons her (Shabanirad and Marandi 28). Thus, the analysis of particular writer’s work clearly supports Said’s theory.
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At the same time, a certain kind of inconsistency in representation of the Orient exists in Said’s work. For instance, the scholar did not encounter contesting and alternate points of views, and the presence of information’s gaps (Al-Shamiri 271). Moreover, he did not consider the fact that the Orient had been developing under colonialism by its own way as well while having its own demands, ideas, culture, and ethics. As a result, during the decolonization period, phases of colonization that were introduced by Said’s did not appear (Al-Shamiri 272). Thus, the Orient’s vision is not overall.
Main Features of Orientalist Vision
The vision of Orientalism is directly connected with Said’s notion of “fierce lion” (Said 93). The scholar argued that during writing of the book, the writer would try to meet its reader expectations and often a central character, lion, moved to the background, while the topic of fierceness and its variations would prevail. Consequently, the desirable image of the reality was constructed in such way (Schickhaus 18). “For [Napoleon] the Orient, like the fierce lion, was something to be encountered and dealt with to a certain extent because the texts made the Orient possible” (Said 94). The whole perception of Orientalism is based on the romantic vision of the Orient that is founded on sensual and exotic connotation. Those features create a network of interests that make the whole vision of the Orient appealing to the Western society (Schickhaus 19). Thus, the Orientalist vision is based on emotions rather than reality.
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The contrast between the East and the West is a significant part of understanding Orientalism. In general, Said argued about West’s hegemony that created particular stereotypes of inferior barbarians. On the one hand, the West is characterized with such adjectives as moral, democratic, truthful, masculine, progressive, and rational. On the other hand, the East is views as lazy, despotic, voiceless, irrational, liar, and feminine. Such contrasts often exist in travel books, philological and religious studies, literature and political tracts. At the same time, the existence of stereotypical thinking leads to further discussions of its basis, and creation of other myths. As a result, Orientalism and the whole system of knowledge developed on its basis cannot be treated as truth (Said 147-167). Consequently, Orientalism can be seen as a European interpretation of the Orient.
The other important part of Orientalism is its vision of Islam. The Orient’s religion in Orientalism is criticized, seen as a fraud of its kind, or simply as an incomplete replica of Christianity. By this approach, Orientalism interprets the East as limited and, at the same time, connected with Europe, its culture and achievements. Moreover, Orient’s culture transformation leads to the formation of the West-like version that is still inferior. As a result, on one side, the West treats the East with sympathy and compassion, making attempts to understand it. On the other side, the Orient is required to stay objective and keep a distance (Said 236-37). However, while analyzing colonialism, attention should be paid to Islam and Arab nationalism as factors that influenced modern Orient. This issue was not encountered by Said. The author did not consider the fact that the East formulated its own myths and bias about the West. Moreover, the construction of the Arab world relied on its own traditions and values that were not eliminated by colonialism (Donze-Magnier 5). Thus, Islam has a separate place in the Orientalist vision.
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Said’s Orientalism made a huge impact on the Western perception of the Orient by unveiling myths and bias that exist. In his book, the author argues that the spread and popularity of Orientalism created a situation when people have started to accept its visions and ideas as the true representation of the Orient, and, consequently, creating bias among Westerners. Moreover, the scholar believes that such attitude managed to remain and still exist in the modern world. The truth that at some point the Occident used ethnocentrism, sexism, and racism in order to oppress and control the Orient is true. Hence, Said’s paper was a genuine revolutionary work in its field. However, Orientalism has its own limitations and prejudices. For instance, Said’s discourse and methodology is contradictory in some parts. The scholar excluded and did not consider various works that had been written on the subject, or geographical limits of his analysis. Moreover, the main features of the Orientalist vision such as emotional myths, contrasts between the West and the East, and Islam are complex and cannot be perceived only from a single point of view.