Orientalism : The Theory


Part 1.1

Ten years after the demise of Edward Saïd, the maverick thinker remains one of the most cited and debated upon intellectual of the past half century. The thought of Saïd, and in particular his 1978 masterpiece, Orientalism, is generally perceived as initiator of what would become one of the most active fields of academic research and in some contexts, of activism: post-colonialism. Enumerable views and positions about Orientalism and Saïd have been submitted, and even his enemies have acquired fame through decades-long intellectual struggles. In this context, what would be the worth of a brief summary of what Saïd meant by “Orientalism”? The present space renders utopian the hope of bringing something new to the debate. However, it remains significative to clarify Saïd’s framework of analysis, as we move towards applying it to a temporally removed authority.

What does Edward Saïd mean by “Orientalism”? In Orientalism, Saïd collected and critically addressed numerous records and archives dated from the 17th century till now, to support his central hypothesis: that European colonialism was not only a political movement, based on force, but also an intellectual one, where knowledge became a source of direct power. The scope of invisibility of this power (until Saïd’s study) was only equal to its insidious force, affecting the colonies of North Africa, the Middle East and India arguably more profoundly than the official, and extremely conspicuous, foreground political and military presence. Ashcroft and Ahluwalia paraphrase the fundamental assumption of Saïd in Orientalism: “The essence of Said’s argument is that to know something is to have power over it, and conversely, to have power is to be able to know the world in your own terms” (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 2001, 81). In Orientalism, Saïd explores how the colonial project – and in particular the period spanning from 1814 to 1915, when Europe’s control of the world passed from 35 to 85 per cent (Said 2003, 41) – was also the product of an intellectual and cultural enterprise, that of knowing the Orient. Famously, Saïd argues that the Orient, on its whole, was an invention of Europe: the scientific powers of Europe conveniently labeled and reduced the entirety of their cultural and historical discoveries from a number of varied colonies into a single term, a single concept: the Orient. Thus was defined the ultimate alterity, the real Other. To the industrial, rational and humanist Occident was opposed the Orient, underdeveloped, led by passions and politically endorsing a belief in the survival of the fittest. Saïd insists, Orientalism is parallel to the political enterprise of colonialism, and it takes place at four different planes of action:

[Orientalism] is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do) (12, my italics).

In other words, for Saïd, Orientalism is fundamentally a discourse, that is, a corpus of positions and statements about a particular subject, of which the ultimate nature is precisely that of being described, discussed upon, and ultimately, mastered.

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Saïd uses the metaphor of the theater to describe the attitude of Europe towards the Orient, as Ashcroft and Ahluwalia summarize: “Where the idea of Orientalism as a learned field suggests an enclosed space, the idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. … They are also characters who conform to certain typical characteristics”.

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Orientalism is divided into three sections. In “The Scope of Orientalism,” Saïd details the theoretical project of Orientalism and its methodological tools towards a representation of the Orient. Analyzing the speech of ex-Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour to the British House of Commons on June 13, 1910, Saïd notices that the Orientalist discourse has three audiences (34). First is the direct audience of a particular national community, whether British, French, Belgian or Portuguese, fully supporting the colonial power. Second is the civilized world, the group of developed nations who share in common their participation in the larger colonial movement – a movement that, incidentally, also diverts their attention to the outside, therefore preventing enhanced internal tensions within Europe. And the third audience is the “Orientals.” Even though Balfour, along with the other Orientalists, does not address his speech to them directly, the very intellectual and scientific project of conquering not only the present but also the traces of the Orient’s past – textually or archeologically – allows the colonizer to “know what they feel” (34). Through this attempt to know the Orient, the Orient became what one judges, what one studies and depicts, what one disciplines, and what one illustrates (40). There was indeed a desire to organize and order any possible piece of knowledge emanating from the Orient’s majestic past, almost literally into the shelves of the Western libraries: “there is also the triumphant technique for taking the immense fecundity of the Orient and making it systematically, even alphabetically, knowable by Western laymen” (65). Saïd uses the metaphor of the theater to describe the attitude of Europe towards the Orient, as Ashcroft and Ahluwalia summarize: “Where the idea of Orientalism as a learned field suggests an enclosed space, the idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. … They are also characters who conform to certain typical characteristics” (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 2001, 58).

In the second section, “Orientalist Structures and Restructures,” Saïd studies how European traditions of philological and historical study, as well as fictional novelists, once in contact with the “Orient,” contributed to the imaginary construction of an Orient, before becoming, in turn a primordial tool for political control. Among such writers is Gustave Flaubert, whose journey stories have influenced generations of Western travelers. Like him, many artistic authorities visited the Oriental countries, hoping to adjust the clichés uttered on the matter in the European salons, but furthering the strangely tuned combination of romantic idealizations and racist belittlements. Writing from Cairo in early 1950 to his friend the Dr. Jules Cloquet, Flaubert explains that:

“In Europe we picture the Arab as very serious. Here he is very merry, very artistic in gesticulation and ornamentation. Circumcisions and marriages seem to be nothing but pretexts for rejoicing and music-making … The ‘most extreme excesses of our Press’ would give but a feeble idea of the buffooneries that are allowed in the public squares…” (Flaubert 1996, 80)

Such literary enactment of the Orient contributed to what Saïd saw as the four characteristics of Orientalism in the 19th century: expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy and classification (Said 2003, 120).

Saïd’s study is completed by a third section, “Orientalism Now,” where he addresses the question of surviving, if not enhanced, forms of Orientalism in modern times. Through this closing section, Saïd expressed his initial views on the final phase of Orientalism, exemplified in particular through American imperialism, before completing his own reflection primarily through two following volumes, The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981). Along with them, Saïd would further defend his arguments in nearly twenty other books, tens of articles and interviews, in the course of the two following decades. In the process, Saïd, initially a textual historian of the cultural aspects of colonialism, became a political activist, defending particularly the cause of his native Palestine. We must cut short this brief and necessarily arbitrarily selective discussion of Orientalism to look at Saïd’s intellectual influences in the making of this project.


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