Saturday, November 27, 2004

Orientalism - Edward Said (Sana)

Sana Haque

Text: Orientalism

Author: Edward Said

Publisher: New York: Pantheon, 1978. 368 pp.

With the publication of this book, Edward Said had an impact on fields ranging from literary studies to political science to postcolonial studies. Said, who died in 2003, was a Palestinian-American professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. In his later life, he became a controversial figure for expressing radical political views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He wrote Orientalism while at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford University in the 1970s.

Orientalism examines the Western academic field of "Oriental Studies" in terms of how its discourses have shaped and structured a fictionalized and exoticized "Orient" that serves as the subaltern Other for the West. It states that Orientalist academic discourse served political and imperialist ends, despite its claims to "objective" neutrality. It specifically examines British, French, and American constructions of the Middle East and North Africa from the 18th century to the present, but is applicable to discourses on other parts of the Orient (China, India, etc.) as well. In Said's words, Orientalism is the Western "corporate institution for dealing with the Orient -- dealing with it by making statements about it, authoring views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short... a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (Orientalism, 1978: 3).

Key Words/Terms:

Orientalism - A set of discursive scholarly and literary practices with political motivations that create an image of the mysterious, feminine "Orient" as the Other to the rational, articulate, masculine West.

The Orient - The "Orient" is less an actual geographical or cultural territory than a fictional construction of the Western world's subaltern mirror image, propagated by means of representations in various forms of media.

Knowledge as power - A concept from Foucault, implying that the production of bodies of knowledge acts as a site for power in its impact upon the world.

The "Other" - The oppositional image of the "foreign", i.e. the representation of
alterity that negatively defines an individual or culture's sense of "Self" by contrast.

Affiliated Discourses & Historical/Cultural Context:
Some of Said's influences in this work include Foucault, Gramsci, and the French socialist author Anwar Abdel-Malek. He particularly uses Foucault's ideas about knowledge as a site for the production of power. Said writes from the starting point of the tradition of literary studies and criticism, but with an interdisciplinary perspective that covers representation in fields such as history, anthropology, and visual art. He writes with a stated personal interest in the issues at hand, as he identifies himself as occupying the dual identities of both an "Oriental" and a scholar within Western academia. The book is credited as a major influence on the burgeoning field of postcolonial studies that was prompted by the emergence of newly independent Third World countries in the mid-twentieth century.

Said's critique has a continuing applicability to the contemporary political and cultural scene, i.e. Western attitudes towards Arabs and the Middle East (or the Third World/Global South in general) as they show up in distorted media biases and pop culture depictions, political commentary based on stereotyping, paternalistic economic and "development" policies, and so on. The level of controversy that surrounded Said's political activism and the extent to which this was used to discredit him as a scholar is interesting as it relates to the questions he raises in the introduction to this book about the viability and truthfulness of academic "objectivity".