Orientalism

OrientalismEdward Said ([1978] 1991)  Penguin

This is one of those foundational texts that I had never read and quite embarrassed about that and always meaning to get to next… Because this was so groundbreaking and has been used and quoted by so many others, it is hard now to fully grasp how challenging it must have been when it was published, and probably for that reason it also enters into an incredibly detailed engagement with a whole shelf of literature I am not sure anyone bothers much about today. They don’t have to, because Said did. I might have nodded off a couple of times, but these sections are worth the slog.

To do so he employs Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse (The Archeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish), a difficult task he does well I think, and not one many succeed in. I am mostly going to let him speak for himself:

My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand 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. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and tehrefore always involved in) any occassion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question. How this happens is what this book tries to demonstrate. It also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self (3).

And this:

To believe that the Orient was created — or, as I call it, “Orientalized”–and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony… (5)

I like Foucault all right, though I was happiest going back to Gramsci:

It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far. Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hays has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures … (7)

Following on from how categories of  ‘us’ and ‘them’ are created with one dominating over another, I think the below opens the door in an interesting way to think about racial hierarchies (which he doesn’t really go through, I think most of the work on that which has come long after Said wrote this):

In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand (7).

As a writer, and in thinking about other writers and their work, I am fascinated by this:

This influence upon culture is not to demean or denigrate, rather my whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not universally inhibiting. It is this idea that Gramsci, certainly, and Foucault and Raymond Williams…have been trying to illustrate (14).

I confess to have not really considered hegemony as productive, rather have only sought it in limits…limits are what you hit when you try and change things, make it better. (Said working more from Foucault, seems to have as default the opposite understanding, so he later feels called upon to clarify that ‘Orientalism is better grasped as  a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine’ (42). ) But when you try and create something…the danger is how your work shaped, produced through these dominant systems. More familiar again is the way that hegemony defines usefulness and quality:

In other words, Lane’s authority was gained, not by virtue simply of what he said, but by virtue of how what he said could be adapted to Orientalism (158)

Still, it is in hegemony’s productiveness that where we come from, where we stand is so important. Said brings to the intro a personal dimension, being raised in two British colonies, Palestine and Egypt, educated there and in the U.S. An amazing quote from Gramsci: ‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving and inventory’, but Said finishes this quote with the last sentence which had not been previously translated: ‘therefore it it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’ (26)

I like the idea of compiling such an inventory, as much as acknowledging the personal and the intellectual:

The nexus of knowledge and power creating “the Oriental” and in a sense obliterating him as a human being is therefore not for me an exclusively academic matter. Yet it is an intellectual matter of some very obvious importance (27).

How the ideological connects to the material, and the vastness of the colonial project — something that can never be forgotten:

The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it. Every continent was affected, none more so than Asia and Africa (41).

Why is Said beloved by geographers? The chapter called ‘Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental’ points the way, a critique of how our discipline has participated in this system of domination:

As a discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, Orientalism thus comes to exert a three-way force, on the Orient, on the Orientalist, and on the Western “consumer” of Orientalism (67).

Though I found later quotations about space more useful, like this one about the construction of colonial space:

In the classical and often temporarily remote form in which it was reconstructed by the Orientalist, in the precisely actual form in which the modern Orient was lived in, studied or imagined, the geographical space of the Orient was penetrated, worked over, taken hold of. The cumulative effect of decades of so sovereign a Western handling turned the Orient from alien into colonial space (211).

and this: ‘the Orient as a geographical space to be cultivated, harvested, and guarded.’ Said goes on to quote Leroy-Beaulieu on the true nature of the project of empire in space:

‘Colonization is the expansive force of a people; it is its power of reproduction; it is its enlargement and its multiplication through space; it is the subjection of the universe or a vast part of it to that people’s language, customs, ideas and laws (219).

Above all, reading this for me clarified the essence of what happens when we essentialise through a use and abuse of stereotypes that are wielded so casually, above all when this is connected to a larger project of domination:

Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into  a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia (96).

What I found to be the most useful definition of it is quoted from Anwar Abdel Malek:

a) On the level of the position of the problem, and the problematic…the Orient and Orientals [are considered by Orientalism] as an “object” of study, stamped with an otherness — as all that is different, whether it be “subject” or “object”–but of a constituitive otherness, of an essentialist character…This “object” of study will be, as is customary, passive, non-participating, endowed with a “historical” subjectivity, above all, non-active, non-autonomous, non-sovereign with regard to itself: the only Orient or Oriental or “subject” which could be admitted, at the extreme limit, is the alienated being, philosophically, that is, other than itself in relationship to itself, posed, understood, defined–and acted–by others (97, ‘Orientalism in Crisis’).

There is a critique of assembly, of the ways that this essentialising takes place through cobbling bits and pieces together into a new, more convenient whole:

Not only are Oriental literary publications essentially a lien to the European; they also do not contain a sustained enough interest, nor are they written with enough “taste and critical spirit,” to merit publication except as extracts…Therefore the Orientalist is required to present the Orient by a series of representative fragments, fragments republished, explicated, annotated, and surrounded with still more fragments (128).

I was glad to see an interrogation of Marx, the way modernist ideas of progress (even when sympathetic) folded in to a larger project of domination. This quote exemplifies everything that needs to be challenged in them

Now sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities…had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting toll of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? (Marx, Surveys From Exile)

It’s probably because I don’t have a background in Colonial studies that I wondered at Said’s not choosing more of the very obvious quotes about colonial power and white supremacy that I did not know but imagines must exist in abundance, but there is this poem by Kipling:

Now, this is the road that the White Men tread
When they go to clean a land–
Iron underfoot and the vine overhead
And the deep on either hand.
We have trod that road–and a wet and windy road–
Our chosen star for guide.Oh, well for the world when the White Men tread
Their highway side by side! (226)

Some disturbing quotes from Orwell I will hunt down, in an essay called ‘Marrakech’ when he finds it hard to feel that brown faces represent human beings. I liked how he traced the changing face of Orientalism over time, however. I think his argument that the new Orientalism from America based on strings of facts, statistics, which are disturbed by literary texts has some truth to it, though it seems that all of these ways of creating and imagining the other are currently at play side by side.

Here is a summation not so much of what has been argued as the where this book might be taking us. This is where I feel a little out of my depth and need more reflection about just how this fits in with a politics of liberation and a theory that supports it:

…as this book has tried to demonstrate, Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West–the real issue is whether there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, ans political ambience of the representer. If the latter alternative is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated. intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the “truth,” which is itself a representation (272).

8 thoughts on “Orientalism”

Leave a Reply