on October 26, 2001
This book and Edward Said in general seem capable of generating such intense controversy. Many reviewers of this book seem to forget actually to review the work and focus on attacking Edward Said as a person, many others still forget to review the book and proceed to speak for Palestinian rights and the negative western attitudes of Islam. I will attempt to present an actual review of this book based on MY own reading of it.
In Orientalism, Said sets about dismantling the study of the "orient" in general with primary focus on the Islamic Near East. Said argues that concepts such as the Orient, Islam, the Arabs, etc. are too vast to be grouped together and presented as one coherent whole, encompassing all there is to know about the subject. Said bases his view on the shear width and breadth of the subject, the inherent bias of conflicting cultures and more recently the role of the Orientalism in colonialism. It is indeed difficult to attempt to represent a book that is so focused on anti essentialism.
Said's research of western / occidental discourse was very thorough indeed and he does illustrate through repeated examples how misinformation sufficiently repeated can become accepted academic work. Said also presents an analysis of the causes and motives and theorizes about his findings. A lengthy and a times tedious discussion of the origins of Orientalism is rather repetitive and hard to follow for a non specialist like me.
Edward Said however seem to have fallen in the same trap he attributes to Orientalism, he has not attempted to explore Arab writings of the periods he discussed nor has he attempted to present (possibly even read) work by Egyptian and Arab historians of the periods he was addressing save for work carried out in the west and within western universities. In doing so, Said fails to see how the modern and contemporary "orient" sees itself through primarily "oriental" eyes such as Ibn Khaldoun, Al Maqrizi and also through the writings of orientalists like Lane. Said also fails to address the work carried out by orientalists based on many manuscripts of Orientals.
I particularly enjoyed Said's analysis of the strong ties that Orientalism has with power and colonialism. Said analysis of the diverging development of the British and French practice based on the latter's limited success as a colonial power was very enjoyable and very well thought out. The Orientalism Today and indeed the Afterwards section are also very informative and as these were more familiar areas for Said his presentation of ideas and thoughts came across more clearly and the writing was far less tedious than the earlier parts of the book.
Orientalism is not an easy read, it will challenge many established views, indeed it has already with a fair degree of success led to changes in the way the Near East is studied. To me, most of all I see this as a book that offers in part a largely coherent explanation for the on-going misunderstanding between the West and the Near East and in Islam. And while Occidentalism does not exist as a field of study in a place like Egypt per se, Said fails to see that the west is viewed largely in terms of its wealth, promiscuous habits, hypocrisy and anti Islam and thus fails to see it as 2 way street, albeit with unequal power.
This is by no means a the definitive correction of the history of the Middle East or Near Orient, it is however a very legitimate and serious study of a field of study that no doubt has a lot to answer for!
on June 16, 2000
When it was written, Orientalism administered a much-needed correction to the study of the Arab and Asian worlds. Any historian, social scientist or humanist working in related fields should own a copy.
The strength of Edward Said's Orientalism is its highlighting of the underlying assumptions of dominance and subjection in Orientalist scholarship. Said correctly points out that the British, French and United States have relied on the reduction of the Orient to an academic study backed by a mythical image of its inhabitants and cultures as more primitive, passionate, mystical and illogical. Complementing this has been a presumption of Western superiority that allows diagnosis of social ills and prescription of Western remedies for these ills.
Said also pointed out a secondary weakness in the Orientalist approach to its studies. If Westerners presume the Orient to be more passionate and mystical, they may assume that it provides absolute alternatives to the ills of Western culture and modernism. Thus the span of Western history scrutinized by Said has seen individuals and groups embracing ill-understood religions and cultural precepts. The anti-majoritan/left-leaning subcultures arising during the upheavals of the 1960's are particularly susceptible to this.
This leads naturally to Aijid Ahmad's primary criticism of Said. Orientalism doesn't consider the varied responses of the Orient/Third-World to its theories. In particular, Ahmad correctly points out that Orientalism over-focuses blames on the West and doesn't address the self-inflicted problems of "Oriental" societies. Based on this criticism, the proper approach is to balance the effects of Western Orientalism and the indigenous difficulties. Essentially, Ahmad advocates abandoning the simple depiction of the Orient for a complex and layered reality.
Orientalism's uncriticized weakness lies in its treatment of Europe. Said willingly admits his limited focus on Britain, France and United States may miss some important scholarship found elsewhere. This concentration has some logic to it. His trio of nations has been among the strongest if not dominant powers in the colonial and post-colonial world. A complete survey of European Orientalism could run for several volumes. Yet in this focus, Said misses those European nations who had had longer and more intricate relations with the "Orient".
Said mentions his lack of attention to German scholarship on the Orient. Beyond the loss in additional scholarship, he cannot take account of the direct influence of the German academic tradition on the rest of Europe and particularly the United States. Beyond this immediate effect, Said loses the transmitted experience of the German Reich's participation in the direct struggle against the Ottoman Empire. While he mentions the Medieval and Renaissance hostility to Islam based on direct threat and conflict, he ignores the extension of this conflict into the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet this conflict remained a dominant factor in the existence of the Austrian and Russian Empires. As long as the struggle continued, the Orient in the form of Islam would have a direct influence on the course of European history. The simple illustration of this is the European approach to independence for the Balkan states and occasional support for the Ottomans versus an opponent. While this support was partially based on the perceived weakness of the Ottomans and resultant manipulability, it also concedes the existence of some real and beneficial power.
Said's exclusion of other European states weakens his structure in a different manner. It's useful to consider the British and French perceptions of Austria and Russia. A simple interpretation of Orientalism presumes a unified Europe as opposed to the Orient. Yet this ignores the equally institutionalized denigration of Austria and Russia. We can refer to the image of the mythical Slavic province of Ruritania (cf. Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda), a den of intrigue and iniquity. Add to this Said's notes on the relative knowledge of the Near Orient versus the Far Orient. This suggests more of a subtle gradation in the construction of the Other than is represented by Orientalism's sharp division between Occident and Orient.
Other historical patterns also stress the need for the representation of a more complex Occident. For instance Said argues that European exploration and extension of trade routes to India and the Far East shows hostility to Islam. A simpler explanation may be mercantile concerns for lowering expenses and increasing profits. Direct trade was more profitable than relying on Arab middlemen. The Arab reaction to Portuguese penetration of the Indian Ocean reflected a concern with being excluded from the profits of trade with India rather than with the intrusion of a new power in the region. This concern with trade leads to different motivations for learning languages and examining cultures. A variety of motivations for scholarship argue for a more complex Occident. The need for more complexity does not necessarily invalidate Said's central points on the institutionalized domination common to Western European Orientalism. Rather it demands refinement of a useful critique of the study of colonialism.
on January 31, 2002
Public opinion has gone in and out like the tides on Said's book since I first read it some six odd years ago. It has been said that the primal characteristic of a truly enlightened mind is its ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time; in that context I find it odd that people can be so proud of their total discrediting of Said's work in favor of the preeminent and (seemingly) diametrically opposed Bernard Lewis. It is obvious to me that both men have something provocative to teach us about Europe and America's relationship with the Middle East (as it has been over the centuries and is reflected in culture and scholarship), and both need to be heard in that context.
It is not often that a brilliantly, exhaustively researched book on an alternatingly controversial and trivialized subject can engender an emotional response of the magnitude with which this work does--which usually means that it is worth reading. In documenting the psychological architecture of the western mind and its perspective on the East--or the "Orient"--he deconstructs it. The idea that it exists deconstructs it by nature; before reading this book you will swear that most of what we know of the Arabian East is the absolute truth, without even being aware that it's been either romanticized into impotence or isn't much of anything complimentary, let alone influential.
I rate ORIENTALISM, for its effect on our psyche as Americans alone (regardless of race or assumed political leanings), as one of the most important books written in the last decades of the 20th century. The world looks the way it does not because of natural law, like the reasons why the Sahara has become a desert--or at least not by the natural laws we have imagined. Edward Said, regardless of the possibility of biases coming through his scholarship, regardless of the political realities he left out of his thesis, shows this in remarkable fashion to people--like myself--who never considered this fact's existence (let alone its influence on my perceptions of the Middle East in all their forms).
Be mature enough to accept that it is not the only educated opinion or set of facts about our complex world, and this book will be a great read and teach a great deal. I would suggest triangulating ORIENTALISM with Karen Armstrong's HOLY WAR and Moseddeq Ahmed's WAR ON FREEDOM, for a truly eye-opening experience of the Western psyche regarding the East.
on October 21, 2011
Like most anthropologists educated after the 1990's, I came up with the non-anthropological works of folks like Said, Foucault,Gramsci,etc... I have no problem with the holistic use of blending of the sciences and the humanities, but it was the uncritical incorporation of works like Orientalism that almost destroyed my discipline, and still threaten it today. Works like that also help to introduce a double-speak kind of language that adds unnecessary words to obscure meaning, rather than clarify. Like a cold-reading psychic, it just throws out words that are so generalist that they could apply to anything and anyone, and say very little concrete. I see the phenomenon of not questioning a thesis, because it tells us what we want to hear, and therefore not looking into the sources that it is built upon. For example, from the book:
"Thus out of the Napoleonic expedition there issued a whole series of textual children, from Chateaubriand's Itinéraire to Lamartine's Voyage en Orient to Flaubert's Salammbô, and in the same tradition, Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians and Richard Burton's Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah
and Meccah. What binds them together is not only their common background in Oriental legend and experience but also their learned reliance on the Orient as a kind of womb out of which they were brought forth. If paradoxically these creations turned out to be highly stylized simulacra, elaborately wrought imitations
of what a live Orient might be thought to look like, that by no means detracts from the strength of their imaginative conception or from the strength of European mastery of the Orient, whose prototypes respectively were Cagliostro, the great European impersonator of the Orient, and Napoleon, its first modern conqueror."
Ibn Warraq deconstructs this:
"What does Said mean by "out of the Napoleonic expedition there issued a whole series of textual children" except that these five very varied works were written after 1798? The pretentious language of textual children
issuing from the Napeolonic expedition covers up this crushingly obvious fact. Perhaps there is a profound thesis hidden in the jargon, that these works were somehow influenced by the Napoleonic expedition, inspired by it, and could not have been written without it. But no such thesis is offered. This arbitrary group consists of three Frenchmen, two Englishmen, one work of romantic historical fiction, three travel books, one detailed study of modern Egyptians. What on earth do they have in common? Said tells us that what binds them together
is "their common background in Oriental legend and experience but also their learned reliance on the Orient as a kind of womb out of which they were brought forth ". What is the background of Oriental legend that inspired
Burton or Lane? Was Flaubert's vivid imagination stimulated by "Oriental legend", and was this the same legendary material that inspired Burton, Lane and Lamartine?"
Now, I'm no fan of Ibn Warraq's equally troubling selective use of facts to make the "West" into a hero, just as Said attempts to make it into a destroyer. However, his facts are correct here.
I used to be a huge fan of Said, until I did just that. I wasn't until I actually started to do real-world field work that I found a disconnect between the simplistic and convenient paradigms of academia and day-to-day social phenomena. I gave the book 3 stars, because it gives a good explanation of Foucault's gaze, and Gramasci's hegemony thesis, but it then goes on to cherry pick historical people and facts, ignores others, and takes most of them out of context in order to present an argument that makes the same mistakes Said argues against. Rather than to fight against phenomena like Orientalism, he simply attempts to reverse it to produce an Occidentalism that seeks a new boogieman. On an academic level, the book doesn't pass scrutiny if you actually look into the facts, and on a political level it only seeks to produce a victim mentality which diminishes the agency of a huge socio-cultural group to refashion them into pawns, rather than active agents of history. If you've read or are reading this book, then you're probably at a University or have been to one. My advice is to visit their modern Oriental department, the Middle Eastern Studies department, and ask someone there about the book. They will be happy to point out all the historical fallacies in it. You'll find that there are more fallacies than facts. [...]
on May 17, 2014
In his seminal work Orientalism, Edward Said argues that western scholarship on the Arab and Muslim world and its history, culture, politics and institutions is tainted by subtle Eurocentric prejudices against Arab and Islamic peoples, whose world and culture are depicted as inferior to the West. For Said, western “pseudo-scholars” who report on the Arab world portray the Arabs as exotic, temperamental and irrational, presenting the Orient through the colored, racist lens of Orientalism.
Said’s work is weak in several respects, namely in its criticism of scholars who objectively depict the reality of the modern Arab world and in its use of unnecessarily complex prose that obstructs rather than furthers Said’s message.
(1) Said’s Critique of Scholars Who Depict Reality
Said may be disgruntled over how scholars of Middle Eastern studies depict and describe the Arab world’s modern state of disarray and disorder, but these scholars are doing nothing more than depicting reality. When scholars reference poor human development indices in the Middle East, high rates of illiteracy, political corruption, social instability, unemployment and economic underdevelopment, they are reporting on objective facts supported by institutions such as the World Bank. Oppression of minorities, violations of human rights and political freedom, usurpation of power by the use of armed force and political coups in the Arab world are not only well-documented by international human rights organizations, but candidly obvious to any objective observer. Therefore, when scholars depict these facts in their work, they are not selectively choosing that which most bleakly portrays the Middle East in order to justify a sense of Eurocentric superiority. Rather, they are depicting a political, economic and social reality.
If scholars of the Arab world were really out to discredit Arabs and Muslims, as Said suggests, then one would not find in their literature praise where praise is due. How then is one to explain, for example, Lewis’s praise on the learning, scholarship, tolerances and openness to scientific inquiry and invention that characterized the Muslim world of the Middle Ages? Lewis even points out that it was Muslim nations that welcomed persecuted minorities that fled Europe in the Middle Ages, including even Jews. Lewis cannot be so positive of the state of affairs of the modern Middle East. To do so would be to betray a reality of political violence, religious fanaticism and social and economic underdevelopment that cannot be denied by objective observation.
(b) Example: Said’s Critique of Bernard Lewis
As an example of Said’s misplaced critique of scholars for depicting reality, we can consider one of the book’s many attacks on Bernard Lewis. In one example, Said quotes Lewis’ essay “Islamic Concepts of Revolution,” which defines the Arabic word thawra (revolution), as follows (p. 314-15):
“The root th-w-r in classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghrabi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh century Spain after the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordova are called thuwwar (sing. Tha’ir). The noun thawra at first means excitement, as in the phrase, cited in the Sihah, a standard medieval Arabic, intazir hatta taskun hadhihi ’lthawra, wait till this excitement dies down—a very apt recommendation.”
Said mounts an offensive against Lewis, claiming that Lewis’s definition of the Arabic term is “full of condescension and bad faith” (p. 315). He continues (p. 315):
“Why introduce the idea of a camel rising as an etymological root for the modern Arab revolution except as a clever way of discrediting the modern? Lewis’s reason is patently to bring down revolution from its contemporary valuation to nothing more noble (or beautiful) than a camel about to raise itself from the ground. Revolution is excitement, sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty—nothing more; the best counsel (which presumably only a Western scholar and gentleman can give) is ‘wait till the excitement dies down.’”
Said’s argument is flawed in several respects. Lewis, in describing the verb th-w-r as meaning “rising up” or being “stirred or excited” is simply setting forth the various definitions of the term as recorded in any standard dictionary. For example, the Fourth Edition of the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic notes that the verb can mean “to stir, be stirred up, be aroused, be excited… be unleashed, break out; to revolt, rebel, rise … to rage, storm … to fly into a rage, become furious … to agitate, excite … to stimulate … to arouse … kindle … provoke … infuriate … stir up dust … incite ... infuriate” (p. 130). Said may not be happy that the Arabic verb for revolt is associated these other, base meanings, but for this he should direct his anger at the Arabic language, not at Lewis, who is merely presenting the facts.
Second, Said sarcastically attributes the recommendation to “wait till this excitement dies down” to a “Western scholar and gentleman,” as though it is the scholar Lewis who is recommending that Arabs not exercise their duty of resistance to bad government. Yet Lewis is merely citing the Sihah, a standard medieval Arabic dictionary written by Isma'il ibn Hammad al-Jawhari, of Turkestan, which was later incorporated into Lisān al-ʿArab by Ibn Manzur, of North African descent. If Said is not happy with what Lewis finds in Arabic and Muslim sources, he should direct his disapproval at the sources, not at Lewis.
(2) Unnecessarily Complex Prose
A second flaw in Orientalism and of Said’s work in general is the overly complex style of prose that Said is apt to adopt. While scholars such as Lewis employ flowing, eloquent language that clearly expresses their views that is also a pleasure to read, Said employs verbose, unnecessarily convoluted sentences and ambiguous phrases that often require his audience to read and reread them before deciphering their meaning. His complex prose thus impedes rather than furthers his message. This is perhaps why Said’s impact has been largely restricted to academia, while several of Lewis’s books reached broader audiences and went on to be New York Times or National Bestsellers.
c) Said’s Qualifications in Middle Eastern Studies
Said’s volume repeatedly assails the scholars of Middle Eastern studies. He writes of Lewis, for example, that his “verbosity scarcely conceals both the ideological underpinnings of his position and his extraordinary capacity for getting nearly everything wrong” (p. 342). Said goes even further, challenging the credentials and objectivity of these scholars. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Said claimed that Bernard Lewis “knows something about Turkey, I'm told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world.”
One is left wondering about Said’s own credentials in Middle Eastern studies. With a PhD in English literature, Said’s qualifications prove to be relatively thin. While Orientalism draws on Said’s knowledge of colonial literature, literary theory, and post-structuralist theory, it is questionable whether Said has the necessary training or credentials to approach Middle Eastern studies against scholars who have been specifically trained in the field. Lewis, for example, holds a BA and PhD from the School of African and Oriental Studies in history with special reference to the Middle East and Islam and a Diplôme des Études Sémitiques from the University of Paris and has had a prolific academic career spanning sixty years of specialization in Middle Eastern studies.
Furthermore, the reader may be left wondering whether Said, an American of Palestinian origin, is balanced in assessing the Middle East and the question of Palestine, or whether his writing perhaps suffers from a similar degree of bias as the Orientalists that he attacks.
d) The Book’s Failure to Discredit Scholars of Middle Eastern Studies
While Said’s Orientalism has had a major polarizing and ripple effect over academia, the book does not succeed in discrediting western scholars of Middle Eastern studies. Rather, it often leaves Said looking oversensitive, fastidious and overly eager to pick a fight.
on December 17, 1999
Whatever one may chose to believe about Said's methodology, one cannot question his vast erudition concerning Western literature about the Middle East. Said presents a rigorous and thoroughgoing exegesis of Western texts about the "Orient" and covers virtually the entire gamut in European letters, from Nietzsche to Karl Marx, from British colonialsim to American social science. His penetrating criticism of this material constitutes a significant contribution to the canon of literature.
One may argue against the merit of Said's more radical interpretation of these texts, namely, that the concept of the "Orient" is a sweeping generalization that lacks "ontological stability," and must be understood as a discourse of power in Western literature. This is a fascinating and intellectually pregnant thesis, although many may find it recondite and polemical.
on December 7, 2001
Compounded by debauched images like the one on the cover page of Orientalism, the collective Western sub-conscious in regards to Arab-Islamic culture has been undeniably clouded by a style of thought that harbors superiority. One need look no further than our most esteemed news sources. For this, according to Said, we have Orientalism to blame.
It is the contemporary backlash of Orientalist stereotypes turned prejudices that so disturb author Edward Said. In his view, the resulting legacy of fear and estrangement that characterize the socio-political status quo between the West and Arab nations (and Islam as an ethos) cannot be understated. The irony is that despite the fact that information is more accessible than ever, Oriental biases are being perpetuated more than ever, with shameless stereotypes of Islam being used as fodder on film and even mainstream news-media. This is exemplified by our modern coverage of foreign policy in the Middle East throughout the past century. Diplomatic hypocrisies are whitewashed by the media machine with latent, age-old stereotypes that surface when strategic interests are at risk. Following years of partnership (amidst ethnic-cleansing), the US media ?at the behest of the government ?suddenly saturated the public with the caricature of Iraq's Saddam Hussein as the crazed Arab. Though true, this was marketed at convenience (nevermind Halabja), with the inevitable cultural watershed going unquestioned in the long-term, reducing normal Arabs to "rag-heads?of the little value in the mainstream mind. Similarly in Iran, the US government's coup of the first-ever democratically elected government set the table for Khomeini's stringent Islamic regime years later. Anti-American images and rhetoric dominated our media while opposing motivations were never examined. Overnight, Iranians went from being civilized partners to a sworn enemy. As our media/ government would have us believe, it was only a matter of time before the "other?side lapsed into it's degenerate nature. Though rarely put so bluntly, this is what it is.
Because Orientalism is rooted in canonical history, literature, and art, its treatment is necessarily as exhaustive as the subject is vast. To more effectively address this breadth, Said makes three major claims in Orientalism upon which he builds his case against: that though purporting to be objective, Orientalism served political ends; that Orientalism helped define Europe's self-image; and finally, that Orientalism has produced a distorted and thus false description of Arabs and Islamic culture. In reading the text, one cannot help but appreciate the acute machinations of the author's mind at work, wielding insight that is both incisive and original. Often times, however, the language employed can be painfully esoteric, to the point that one is naturally inclined to grow weary, if not skeptical, of the substance behind the style. It is fair to say that if one read this book casually (though hard to imagine) without a critical mindset, the sheer pretension of the text might compel the reader to accept Said's theories wholesale. And yet while Said's conclusions and scope are revolutionary in themselves, and much of his argument plainly convincing, the case for Orientalism is not without flaws.
Although Said divides his argument three ways, the task of encompassing such a broad concept in a small volume is daunting. Many pieces of knowledge elemental to the development of his arguments are presupposed along the way i.e. historical figures, events, dates implying political context etc., etc. Though the book is supposed to be confined to the colonial era, Said strays as far as Greek history to explain antecedents of Orientalist philosophy, all the while dropping names like Flaubert and Dante as though they were next-door-neighbors. If one is not an exceptionally diversified historian, this makes for a rather fragmented understanding of the case. The need to investigate references on the side is almost certain, at the expense of Said's momentum.
Looking at the heart of his case, Said's assumptions of causality are largely insufficient. Early on he contends that "colonial rule was justified by Orientalism? a statement that is postured as fact though he fails to adequately support it with coherent evidence. A stronger case could be made for trade and military causes as being the main catalyst of the West's (primarily France & England) imperial agenda in the Middle East. Michel Foucault's theorem that knowledge always generates power is treated at length to bolster this claim. Nonetheless, ultimately one can only conclude that Orientalism gave the West a better grasp of Oriental culture accompanied by an unspoken sentiment of eminence, as colonial motivations and objectives are left unexplained. This pre-empts the question as to whether culture and politics are moderately interrelated, or one and the same. Said makes mention of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in a hollow attempt at illustration, arguing that "reading (the book) was a part of the European effort to hold on to, think about, plan for Africa? In effect he makes a presumption that can in no way be upheld or refuted by historical evidence and is thus weightless. Liberal assertions of this quality appear intermittently as the book progresses, at once logical and confounding to a student of history used to endorsing hard evidence rather than a good reputation.
Indeed Said may have very well bit of more than he could chew. But to his credit, he made a bold case for himself in an area that most scholars would dare not approach. Methodological shortcomings aside ?specifically his assumptions of causality in history - Said's arguments in Orientalism spawned an intense intellectual debate spanning many fields of scholarship that has yet to lose any steam. He makes it clear that as humans we are apt to project, but must first attempt to search ourselves according to our varying identities. More importantly, Said articulates the plight of many disenfranchised people in a manner that demands attention and respect. So while the flesh of his case against Orientalism may be spoilt in some respects, the bones are in tact.
on April 11, 2013
Edward Said's Orientalism deals with the Western depiction of the Orient and argues that the West has constructed the Orient historically, politically and imaginatively. The book, first published in 1978, created a stir, as is mentioned by Said himself in the Afterword of the 1995 edition: "... the book attracted a great deal of attention, some of it (as was to be expected) very hostile, some of it uncomprehending, but most of it positive and enthusiastic" . The attention of which Said talks about is the Western reader's reaction to his book, including academics and general readers alike, who were given a fresh insight into how the West viewed and constructed the Orient and the people living in the Orient through the lenses of Orientalism. When Said mentions Orientalism, he refers to the enormity of academic, intellectual and imaginative work that had gone on for years and years to `create' the Orient.
While Orientalism existed since the days of Homer, Said argues that it only became a systematic discipline since the late eighteenth century when the European powers scrambled for territory across the world: "Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient. .... In short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient". Said in the Introduction to his book also argues that he uses Foucault's concept of the nexus between power and knowledge and Gramsci's concept of hegemony to theorize how the West has generated and produced knowledge about the Orient and the Orientals through investing military, economic and political power only to hegemonize over the Orient. Hence he is able to show that an unequal relationship has been created between the West and the Orient: "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self".
Said divides his book into three major sections, each section having subsections that elaborates on the main argument Said raises in a particular section. The first major section "The Scope of Orientalism" deals with how the concept of `Orientalism' was formulated to disseminate ideas and thoughts about the territories in the East: "The choice of `Oriental' was canonical; it had been employed by Chaucer and Mandeville, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron. It designated Asia or the East, Geographically, morally, culturally. One could speak in Europe of an Oriental personality, an Oriental atmosphere, an Oriental tale, Oriental despotism, or an Oriental mode of production, and be understood". What Said says here is that the concept of Orient that would transform into "the enormously 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" has a historical precedence; it can accommodate historically disparate figures like Chaucer and Bryon.
In the subsection "Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental" Said delineates the history of how the West has constructed the Orient and the Oriental by objectifying the East as subservient to "the European imagination ...". Such is the power of European imagination, Said argues in this subsection, that it incorporates Aeschylus and Euripides as well as Napoleon. Said continues to argue that there is a common thread that binds scholars like Edward Lane, Richard Burton, creative writers like Goethe and Hugo and politicians like Napoleon and Balfour: "It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator, whose life-giving power represents, animates, constitutes the otherwise silent and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries".
Said pays a lot of attention to what he calls the Orientalist construction of Islam, something that readers of the book in a post-9/11 world would want to focus on. He argues that the Orientalist construction of Islam had lot to do with the "trauma" Europe had about Islam. The reason behind this is "Until the end of the seventeenth century the `Ottoman peril' lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger...." (59). Hence Said says that Dante regards Muhammad, Islam's prophet as anti-Christian and even Napoleon in his project to conquer Egypt regards Islam to be the essential component to be conquered and subjugated politically and imaginatively.
In the section "Orientalism Now" Said continues to explore the impact of British and French colonial discourse on the Orient, in particular Islam. Said introduces his reader to the terms Latent and Manifest Orientalism. He explores the `worldliness' of Orientalism, specially paying attention to the `construction' of Islam by Orientalists like Hurgronje, Gibb and Massignon. In the subsection "Latest Phrase" Said says that the political, imaginative and ideological construct continues to be relevant. Said focuses on the construction of the Arab-Muslim in the American media, policy strategy and political discourse and argues that they are viewed from the same Orientalist perspective from which Islam was seen during the Middle Ages, Renaissance and during the time of European colonization. While the references and examples presented in the book about Europe's view of the Middle East or the Near Orient seem more plausible, Said does not present the reader with ample example about the construction of the Far East in the context of Orientalism. This propensity to look into the European construction of the Orient through a greater focus on how the Middle East or the Islamic geography has been constructed by the Europeans exposes the book to criticism. Others have criticized Said for his binary approach. Nevertheless, the book since its publication in 1978 has continued to raise several critical questions regarding the European/Western conception of the `other' and continues to be a vital reference to those who are doing research on the European construction of `other' cultures.
on June 22, 2006
Given the amount that has already been said here about Said's `Orientalism', it is worth just summarising, as I understand it, what the book is about and the kind of readership it will be of interest to.
What is the book about? `Orientalism' deals with Western (mainly British, French and American) colonial representation of `the Orient' (mainly the Middle East). In other words, it is about how the West saw the East.
What are the book's arguments? Said demonstrates how Western representations of the Orient were not grounded in reality but were in fact constructed in opposition to whatever the West saw itself as - rational, liberal, progressive, dynamic. In the process, the Orient came to be represented as the irrational and decadent `Other' to the West. More controversially, Said contends that this was a means of imposing cultural domination on the Orient. Said uses Foucault's notion of discourse (an institutionalised way of thinking) to show how Western `knowledge' of the East gave it power over the East.
Why is the book significant? `Orientalism' has created shockwaves throughout academia and beyond since its publication in 1978. For one, it revolutionises the way we think about European empire - that imperial power was enforced not just politically or economically, but also culturally. The work has since spawned a whole sub-field of cultural studies on European imperialism, or more broadly, Western cultural influence. Said's textual deconstruction of colonial literature also paved the way various schools of postcolonial theorists concerned with colonial literary criticism. These ideas still reverberate with contemporary concerns, especially America's role in shaping in Middle East.
What are the books defects? Many of the shortcomings of the book have already been addressed here, but I shall highlight some of them briefly. Firstly, Said presents a monolithic picture of `the West' in the very same way he accuses them of representing `the East'; in reality, `the West' was and is of course far less homogenous that Said suggests and the discourse of the Oriental `Other' is but one of many other discourses. Secondly, he neglects to demonstrate how the Orient influenced the West as well; cultural influence was bidirectional. Thirdly, Said's personal engagement with the subject as a Palestinian living in America undoubtedly distorts or at least biases his judgements. These are amongst the reasons why I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars.
Despite these shortcomings, this seminal work is impossible to ignore and I would highly recommend it. I found the writing clear and forceful, and the arguments cogent. The extent to which the work has been cited, dissected and qualified is itself tribute to its immense influence, even twenty years on. A must-read.
on March 27, 2014
"Orientalism" was a very disappointing book--disappointing because it's an excellent and probably unprecedented topic; Said's approach however is woefully inadequate. He attacks the prejudices and inventions behind the conception of "The Orient" as referring to basically everything in Eurasia (especially the Middle East) that is not Western Europe. But while he insists that one should not write in such-and-such a way about these regions, his criticisms are devoid of any content. He criticizes the way Orientalists describe these regions, but he never shows how these descriptions are inaccurate. It would not have been hard for him to include counter-examples of what Turkey, the Arab world, Iran, etc. are REALLY like. But unless you are already aware of these counter-examples, he leaves open the possibility that Orientalist descriptions are true but we should avoid them because they are simply impolite.