Said's Orientalism

Anthropology Independent Studies
Prof. S. Errington
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier


Edward Said's seminal work discusses the scholarly view of Orientalism as created and perceived by the Occidental mind. According to him, Orientalism and 'knowledge of the Orient' demonstrates the isomorphism between 'the Orient, the Oriental, and his world' due to the creative and limiting discourse 'generated out of strength' by the 'Western gaze.' Orientalism is by its nature essentialist: since the Orient can be quantified and known, all Orientals must therefore be homogenous. By so creating the Orient, Said suggests the Occident thus oppositionally locates and defines itself as dominant and superior.

A brief history of how Orientalism was conceived of is given. It progresses through the fearful European view of the Orient as Islam (a threatening but bastardized form of Christianity) to Napoleon's unsuccessful campaign in Egypt, with its conceptualization of the Orient as a subject that could be, for management purposes, 'divided, subdivided, and redivided without ever changing its mind about the Orient as being always the same, unchanging, uniform, and radically peculiar object.' The ensuing textualization of Orientalism is covered, as well as the disappointment felt by those who visited the modern Orient after having read the 'ideological fantasies' of the 'old' Orient. The view of the Orient as repeatable and reconstructable, as being useful to the Occident in order to imbue it with new life, is discussed, as is the ensuing conclusion that it must be intellectually subordinate to the West. The creation of the philologist Orientalist is exhaustively examined -- that indisputable figure of authority speaking for the effectiveness and applicability of these interrelated fields of study. Finally the newly named (yet still retrogressive) field of 'Area Studies' is mentioned; a shift from an academic to an 'instrumental' or political use-based view. This is, according to Said, the most-recent, comforting, post-world-wars preservation of the 'unchanging Orient' as a passive subject of 'scientific' inquiry.

For Said, Orientalism is 'fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient's difference with its weakness.' He exemplifies it as an academic and political tradition of overlapping domains, describing the intellectual location Westerners call the Orient as a scholastically created 'imaginative geography.' The Western 'gaze' on the 'timeless' Orient denies significant historical changes or internal differences in this hugely varied region as mere inconsistencies. Instead, the Orient is seen as it is imagined: as a syncretized 'ideological fantasy' that defines, removes agency from, creates, and reifies the Orient for the amusement and understanding of the West. As a consequence such created 'knowledges' must be taken in their politico-historical context, rather than read as essential truths. In essence, Orientalism offers the Western man a 'scientific' basis for a racist, imperialist, and ethnocentrist viewpoint, with his own culture (of course) in superior contemplation and study of the Orient, or at best engaged in attempting to teach the concepts of liberty and freedom to the 'debased, degenerate Oriental mind.' The knowledge created in the 'study' of the Orient is of necessity constructed within and defined by the cultural observances of the Western viewer, and thus the study of Orientalism speaks most strongly of and to colonialism and the Western mind. One is ultimately left with the realization that one can make no universal statements about the Orient, due to the very heterogeneity of the varying cultures it purports to encompass. Geographic borders, power, and culture in the 'Orient,' as in the West, are intermixed, frequently diffuse, and constantly being re-negotiated and resisted, by individuals as much as by states.

Unfortunately, I must admit that while I happen to agree with much of what Said discusses, I was ultimately left feeling somewhat unsympathetic towards him. His points are frequently repetitive and polemically presented, demonstrating a vaguely disturbing didacticism. Often, even as I was uncomfortably agreeing with his point I found myself (rather unprofessionally, I fear) not wishing to do so, or uneasily feeling there was surely a better way for him to have presented his arguments. This unease inclines one to pounce all the more gleefully on any perceived error. Two such were his frequent use of the phrase 'the West' in much the same fashion as he claims the West uses 'the Orient,' and my finding his examples occasionally unclear, or not concisely tied to the points he attempts to make. In short (much to my embarrassment) I found his book both exhaustively written and exhausting to read.


Last Updated: Wed, August 5, 1997