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Orientalism

Written by Khadija Kafeel 9:23 pm Book Reviews, Published Content

Orientalism by Edward Said

Orientalism, a seminal book penned by eminent writer Edward W. Said, is renowned across the globe for its overwhelming and perceptive critique of Orientalist discourse. Edward Said has delineated the West’s contemptuous and disdainful depiction of the East (Orient) as irrational, credulous, and exotic. The book vehemently censures the prevalent stereotypes, biases, and essentializations that have sculpted the Western outlook on the Orient. He alleges that the imaginative construction of “we vs they” has fulfilled the interests of the West, providing a rationale for western imperialism, despoilment, and cultural preeminence.
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About the Author(s)
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Khadija Kafeel is an inquisitive, self-driven, and meticulous student of IR from National Defence University, questing for opportunities to augment and acquire cognizance of global affairs and politics.

Author

Edward Wadie Said was a Palestinian-American scholar, intellectual, and literary critic. He is regarded as the pioneer and leading figure of postcolonial studies. Throughout his career, Said published myriad affluent books, including Culture and Imperialism and The Question of Palestine. He was an acclaimed flag-bearer of Palestinian rights and a vocal pundit of Israeli policies, accentuating the predicaments confronted by Palestinians. His autobiography, Out of Place, was published in 1999 – just four years before his death. In it, he sheds light on experiences and daunting challenges he faced as a Palestinian intellectual, and during his exile.

Theme

The theme of Orientalism is to unveil the covert castigation of the Orient. Edward Said was prompted by his desire to deconstruct and exorcise the rampant Western narrative of being superior, as he himself had unmediated acquaintance with the trouble of marginalization and social exclusion primarily because of his lineage. Edward Said has vehemently countered the bigoted and self-perceived construction of the East by Orientalists. The core of the book deals with intense scrutiny of how Western intellectuals, artists, and writers have sculpted a prejudiced and perverted conception of the Orient.

This foundation of preconceived notions and stereotypes about the East is purely premised on satisfying and comforting the West’s hoax of cultural primacy and political ascendancy. Orientalism accentuates the institutionalization of Orientalist thinking and its evident impact on literature, paintings, art, theories, media, etcetera. The author has denigrated the Orientalists on the grounds of manifesting subjectivity in their critique of examining the East and has called for a more inclusive, nuanced, and egalitarian approach, devoid of pejorative self-construction. He aims to create an understanding of the hybridity and intricacies of myriad cultures, particularly Eastern and Western ones.

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Central Arguments

The key arguments delineated in “Orientalism” are cited below.

Us vs Them

This distinction of “us vs them” was profoundly entrenched in Orientalist thinking. Orientalists have always construed the Orientals as exotic, inferior, illogical, and irrational. The West has created an imaginative and unique geography of “our land-their land” where “our land” epitomizes the familiar and beloved territory of the West and “their land” portrays the unknown exotic and barbaric world beyond that territory. The ulterior motive behind this subjective notion is the fortification of the Western agenda of vindicating itself from the heinous injustices meted out to the East, thereby justifying its domination over the East.

Knowledge-Power Nexus

Said contends that the knowledge-power nexus was innate in the very idea of Orientalism, elucidating how power and knowledge were complexly entwined in Western Orientalists’ mindsets and their bizarre portrayal of the East. The knowledge about the East provided the West with sufficient wherewithal for demonstrating, shaping, and controlling the knowledge procured about the East. This intricate nexus epitomized the idea that knowledge not only reflects power but is also an instrument for exercising power. The West projected its power when it was at the zenith of colonial vigor by determining what filled their lusts and interests, eventually defaming or quieting antagonisms.

Islam in Orientalism

Islam was emanating from a distinguished region in the Orient. Its ever-growing clout, prevalence, and transcension of other religions were interpreted as a threat to the West’s dominion. In the Orientalist context, Islam was viewed as an inanimate, monolithic belief inimical to evolution and modernization. It also became the victim of West’s imputation that it was “other.” Islam was portrayed as secondary, barbaric, and inferior to Western norms, values, cultures, and religious identities. The confrontations between the West and Islamic societies were keenly orchestrated by Orientalist discourse on Islam. Acquisition of cognizance about Islam and Arabic societies became the priority for apprehending the complexities, with the goal of administering and supervising them.

Stereotypical Depiction of the Orient

Orientalism, according to Edward Said, is nothing more than a contemptuous, stereotypical, and disdainful exhibition of the East. The heterogeneous cultures, miscellaneous histories, and varying identities of the Orient were homogenized by Orientalism. The Orientalist discourse glossed over the internal polarities and entanglements of the Orient and displayed them as unvarying, immobile, and sordid. This biased and stereotypical depiction is visible in the works of intellectuals, writers, and artists.

Romanticization of the Orient

The Orient is frequently characterized as exotic and surreal, filled with enigmatic lure, invoked with sensual pleasures, and other Orientalist tropes such as veiled women, sumptuous palaces, and swarming bazaars. This otherworldly representation contributed to inculcating exoticism and skewed ideologies about the East as stagnant, backward, and uncivilized. Women are often associated with becoming subject to oppression, subjugation, and being constrained in harems. This defamation of the Orient was bolstered by the West’s enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, which called the West a bulwark for emancipation.

Summaries

Chapter 1

This chapter begins with Arthur Balfour’s speech, who was an eminent personality in influencing Britain’s monarchical affairs. In his speech, he tried to justify British Imperialism by underscoring the Orientals as inherently illogical, gullible, credulous, barbaric, childlike, and inferior in contrast to the Occident. His speech depicted no mere military or economic dominance but rather knowledge ascendancy. This knowledge was mainly acquired through strength. He asserts that intervention in the East is necessary to tame them. The colonizers, for the sake of political and economic gains, sought to acquire cognizance about the lands they occupied, which ultimately augmented their knowledge about the Orient.

Balfour says that Britain’s personnel, when sent to an alien country, serve selflessly among tens of thousands of people with distinct castes, creeds, and lives, yet they don’t acknowledge the good Britain has done to them. The colonized think that colony administrators have gotten no support or sympathy from the home government and have lost their sense of order, power, and authority, which is the very basis of their civilization, and sweated for the betterment of the governed.

An Englishman’s mind is by birth skeptical, and he contemplates an assertion 1000 times before believing it. On the other side, an Oriental’s mind is abhorrent to knowledge, and during his conversation, he contradicts himself a hundred times. Moreover, Orientals were credulous, and they were unable to repudiate the assumptions that were being made about them. The Orientalists had created an imaginative geography of “us vs them” in their cogitations.

A prevalent notion was that there are Westerners and there are Orientals, the former must dominate and the latter must be dominated, which supplemented usurpation of lands, and properties, subjugation of domestic affairs in the Orient, and putting their treasures and resources at the disposal of one or another Western power. In addition, Islam was deemed a potential menace for dilapidating the West’s sway. Islam’s overt presence was palpable in Western compositions and powwows. The frequent confrontations with Islam made it pivotal for West to comprehend, control and transcend it. 

Chapter 2

This chapter deals with the exploration of the geographical prospects of Orientalism and how this has sculptured the Western perceptions of the East. It manifests the Oriental construction as “other” through Orientalist geographies. The path adopted by Orientalists for this is widely scrutinized and the role of myriad actors, factors, philosophers, and artisans in shaping and rejuvenating Orientalism is also expounded. Said says that the Western conception of “other” is mapped and instrumentalized by portraying them in the West’s arts, literature, perspectives, and philosophies as the exotic “other”.

The stereotypes about the Orient have fostered geographical and spatial alienation between the East and West. This chapter also sheds light on the differences in the demeanors of British and French Orientalists towards the Orient, proposing that British Orientalists being clouted by their elephantine empire and imperialism developed an instrumentalist, materialistic, and more authoritarian and dominating attitude towards the East. French Orientalists, however, dancing in the enlightenment ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality endorsed cultural, artistic, and traditional breakthroughs of the East.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3, “Orientalism Now,” discusses the contemporary advancements and developments in the field of Orientalism. Said argues that Orientalism has metamorphosed and evolved, and it proceeds to persevere, in spite of altering political panoramas. It also highlights the United States outlook on disseminating Orientalism and its conduct with the Orient and Orientals. By forming fallacious burlesques of Arabs, the United States, unlike Britain, has opted for a new approach to comprehending the Orient to augment clout and promote Orientalism, thereby fortifying its stance through soft power.

The existence of Western-oriented universities in the East inculcates Orientalist ruminations in the Orientals’ minds. The media also plays a cameo in strengthening contemptuous stereotypes by showing expurgated events of ubiquitous savagery, vandalism, oppression, despotism, and barbarianism, browbeating public stance, and rendering an absolute selfish and one-sided view. The chapter also sheds light on latent and manifest Orientalism which are the two different perspectives of Orientalist thinking.

Analysis

Edward Said’s “Orientalism” is an affluential book reputed for its plausible and logical critique of West’s self-construed ruminations about the Orient. This book has become triumphant in fracturing radical stereotypes by highlighting the deviousness behind the West’s imperialism, projected by its own rhetoric and tropes for acquitting itself and for justifying its interventions. An example of this can be seen in Balfour’s speech, cited in Orientalism. He states, “We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.“

The author’s reprimand of the West is righteous. For protracted history, the Orientalist discourse stayed irrefutable because of the success of the West’s deep entrenchment of its nefarious agendas. However, in Orientalism, Edward Said has rendered a meticulous critique of the close correspondence between knowledge and power. The rampant stereotypical Orientalist tropes’ debilitating effects on the Orient are deciphered by Said. His staunch contestation and challenge to the robustly established narratives about the East and accentuation of forming confusing narratives hold colossal preeminence.

By deconstructing Orientalists’ attitudes, the author has called for reevaluating the presiding narratives bereft of subjectivity and personal adjudications, which can assist in forming impartial perspectives and outlooks about a specific narrative. Absolute extermination of subjectivity, however, is nonviable as writing reflects the experiences of a penman. Therefore, the narrative building must be done in a prudent way to illuminate that it’s not the only narrative that exists hitherto

Conclusion

Edward Said’s Orientalism bestows us with an insight into East-West interrelation. The author summons a fair and just approach to studying and comprehending the Orient instead of relying completely on subjective analysis. Edward Said says that there is a dire need to engage in Orientalist discourses, challenging the stereotypes and biases embedded in them, thereby acknowledging the substitutive narratives. The hierarchical division of “us vs them” demonstrated by Orientalism must be transcended and an approach of reciprocity must be opted for, celebrating the disparities, hybridity, and complexities of both Eastern and Western cultures.


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