Edward Said; Orientalism

This is my second paper written for the low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Visual Studies Project
An Annotation of:
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.
By David Kutz
Submitted to VCFA Faculty Adviser Humberto Ramirez on Tuesday October, 14, 2014

The “East” as differentiated from the “West”, which includes the Middle East, Near East, Central Asia, South Asia and the Far East, is today top of mind with news breaking in a stream of anxiety, fear, economic and political pressures, social conflict, unrest and war. When one does a WorldCat.Org search for the keyword “Orientalism” one is presented with over 16,000 entries, including over 7,000 peer-reviewed articles. A Google search returns over 870,000 listings. Clearly, Edward Said hit a worldwide nerve when he published Orientalism in 1979.

Born in Palestine in 1935, Said was educated first in Jerusalem and Cairo and then at Princeton and Harvard. He joined the faculty at Columbia University as a professor of English and comparative literature in 1981 where he continued to research, write and teach until his death in 2003.

As one might expect from an academic whose discipline is comparative literature, Orientalism is a text-based analysis with many literary and historical references and quotations, some in French or German without translation. However, Said’s text is so richly defined, detailed and clearly written that the reader does not loose the core message because of a paucity of knowledge about referenced authors or the inability to fully understand the occasional multi-lingual presentation.

Orientalism is widely considered a seminal and foundational text for postcolonial studies, a discipline that has expanded to consider not only political systems of hegemony and imperialism, but also power structures and relationships in philosophy, literature, the arts and other fields.

Although one can absorb and reflect on Said’s message it would require considerable time to evaluate the veracity of his sometimes bold statements, or the negative and positive responses this book has received.

Said opens by defining Orientalism as three interdependent ideas. First he states, “The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one … Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient – and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist … is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism.” (p. 2)

Second, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” (p. 3) Here he presents a key duopolistic theme repeated and expanded upon throughout the book. Said’s third meaning, “which is something more historically and materially defined than either of the other two. … Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (p. 3) And with this third definition, Said references Michel Foucault’s ideas about discourse as a source of power, and how one can reveal the hierarchies of power structures through the analysis of texts. Knowledge is power, or if you’d rather, textualized discourse is power.

Said then makes a distinction between “pure” and “political” knowledge,” stating: “For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.” (p. 11) The core idea, that one can never escape one’s cultural baggage, is reiterated several times in Orientalism and in the closing chapter, Said states, “My principal operating assumptions were – and continue to be – that fields of learning, as much as the works of even the most eccentric artist, are constrained and acted upon by society, by cultural traditions, by worldly circumstances, and by stabilizing influences like schools, libraries, and governments; more over, that both learned and imaginative writings are never free, but are limited in their imagery, assumptions, and intentions.” (p. 202)

One can question Said’s position that one’s cultural background and the racial and social constructs they are raised with will always dominate how they experience or understand a foreign place or their perception of ‘others’, because Said fails to consider the possibility of a change in consciousness due to new experiences and knowledge. Surely one must always consider their own ‘position’ in life, their cultural baggage, but attitudes, relationships and policies do change both amongst individuals and societies. This change may be imperfect and have inconsistent results, but it does happen.

Said proceeds to outline his methodology for the book and adds a personal dimension, ending with a resonate statement, calling out his own secular humanism, “If this stimulates a new kind of dealing with the Orient, indeed if it eliminates the “Orient” and “Occidental” altogether, then we shall have advanced a little in the process of what Raymond Williams has called the “unlearning” of “the inherent dominative mode.” (p. 28) This aspirational desire that people can and should work to obliterate (or eliminate) the duopolistic and negative results of seeing the world as East or West, European or Asiatic, Oriental or Occidental, ‘us’ or ‘them’, is reiterated throughout Said’s text. It is a fundamentally important point, that one should keep in mind while reading his analysis, since it is a hopeful consideration that mitigates some of his harsher social criticisms.

Having established a definition of Orientalism, Said proceeds to provide a deeply detailed record of the development, evolution and impact of Orientalism. Although Said states early on that, “There still remained the problem … outlining something in the nature of an intellectual order within that group of texts without at the same time following a mindlessly chronological order” (p. 16) what follows, is indeed fundamentally a chronological review of Orientalist texts. However, each historical text is re-framed or oriented toward a discourse highlighting its impact on contemporary circumstances and understandings, and/or reiterating, emphasizing and expanding upon Said’s core definitions of Orientalism.

Before reverting to the origins of Orientalism during the European Enlightenment, Said presents excerpts from Arthur Balfour’s speech to the House of Commons in June 1910, defending Britain’s claims and obligations to remain as the colonizing power in Egypt. Balfour, a former Prime Minster of the United Kingdom (1902-1905), states, “Western nations as soon as they emerge into history show the beginnings of those capacities for self-government … having merits of their own. … You may look through the whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries — and they have been very great — have been passed under despotism, under absolute government. … Is it a good thing for these great nations – I admit their greatness – that this absolute government should be exercised by us? I think it is a good thing. I think that experience shows that they have got under it far better government than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of civilized West. … We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptian, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.” (p. 32-33) Said then makes the case that Lord Cromer, the British Consul-General in Egypt, utilized this Orientalist political, cultural and social framework of superiority to administer his rule over the Egyptians, and quotes from Cromer’s book, Modern Egypt, “Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, ‘devoid of energy and initiative’ much given to ‘fulsome flattery,’ intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals … Orientals are inveterate liars, they are ‘lethargic and suspicious,’ and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and mobility of the Anglo-Saxon race”. (p. 38)

Said provides a detailed analysis of Balfour and Cromer’s speeches and texts, framing this moment, the peak of British colonial and imperial rule, as “the apogee of Orientalist confidence. No merely asserted generality is denied the dignity of truth.” Westerners, see themselves as, “rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion” and the Orientals are, “none of these things.” (p. 49) The introduction of Balfour and Cromer in Chapter One (The Scope of Orientalism) clearly shows how embedded Orientalism had become as the guiding principal and method for Europeans (and later Americans) in their relationship with the Orient. Said points out that in this period, the early twentieth century, Orientalism is a highly developed and powerful political vision that is the result of studies and texts, authored principally by white, European or American, Christian, Western men, that took several centuries to produce, to describe, define and suppress Eastern, Oriental, brown or black skinned, Arabic, Moslem populations.

An exceptionally interesting series of historic circumstances is presented as Said traces Napoleon’s incursion into Egypt in the late eighteenth century. Napoleon arrived on the shores of Egypt in his flag ship the Orient, with his Grande Armée and 167 Orientalist scholars (savants) in 1798. This may have been the first time the leader of an invading army deeply studied the foreign lands they were approaching through the work of scholars and their books, a primary characteristic of the Orientalist approach. Orientalism assumed that knowledge and control were gained not by direct or personal experience, but rather through the study of texts.

Napoleon, realizing that he did not have the military force to suppress the Egyptian people, used his Orientalist scholars (instead of his military officers) to not only negotiate with the local population but to assure that all his dictates were translated into Koranic Arabic. This was done to not only bolster Napoleon’s position that he respected Mohammed and Islam, but to further his claim that he was fighting for the Egyptians, as their liberator, not their conqueror. The Egyptian natives and of course Napoleon’s principal enemy, the Mamluk elite, did not accept this form of imperialism, which was informed by Orientalism. The French retained control of Egypt only until 1801. When Napoleon departed, he sent “strict instructions … to administer Egypt through the Orientalists and the religious Islamic leaders whom they could win over; any other politics was too expensive and foolish.” (p. 83) Although one might wonder if the America invasion of Iraq might have had a different result, if such a learned and respectful approach was used (instead of brute military force), it still presents as a continuation of the hegemony and the imperialist power defined by Orientalism.

A result of Napoleon’s campaign was that “everything said, seen, and studied was to be recorded, and indeed was recorded in that great collective appropriation of one country by another, the Description de l’Égypte, published in twenty-three enormous volumes between 1809 and 1828”. (p. 84)

The Description de l’Égypte is referenced through out Orientalism, along with the very many other consequential Orientalist texts, including the work of Silvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, Caussin, Carlyle, Flaubert, Disraeli, Kinglake, Lane, Chateaubriand, Curzon, Massignon, Gibb, T.E. Lawrence, Vico, Bernard Lewis and others. All were French, British or American white men.

In closing, Said raises and reiterates the critical questions presented in Orientalism. He says, “My project has been to describe a particular system of ideas, not by any means to displace the system with a new one. In addition, I have attempted to raise a whole set of questions that are relevant in discussing the problems of human experience: How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the “other”)? Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more than socio-economic categories, or politicohistorical ones? How do ideas acquire authority, “normality,” and even the status of “natural” truth? What is the role of the intellectual? ” (p. 325-326) These are all profoundly important and relevant questions and concerns for anyone living in today’s world to consider.

Since this paper is being written in the context of a graduate program in the visual arts, it seems necessary to remember that Orientalism is a text-based project. Said hardly mentions how the term has long been used in the study of art history. The Orientalist work of certain nineteenth century European painters runs fully parallel to Said’s analysis, as stated even in the dedication to the book where Said quotes Karl Marx, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”. European paintings of Asiatic or Eastern or Arab or Moslem subject matter illustrate the same issues and concerns analyzed in Said’s book. However, the contention that Orientalist art is in the same framework as Said’s Orientalism, like many of his other interpretations, can be disputed. For example, John MacKenzie is quoted in Ali Behdad’s paper, Orientalism Matters, who states, “there is little evidence of a necessary coherence between the imposition of direct imperial rule and the visual arts. … Orientalism [in art history] celebrates cultural proximity, historical parallelism and religious familiarity [with the Middle East and North Africa] rather than true, ‘Otherness'”. (p. 51) Behdad further argues “that Orientalism should not be understood merely as an ideological discourse of power, nor as a natural art historical term, but rather as a network of aesthetic, economic, and political relationships that cross national and historical boundaries”. (p. 711)


End Notes:
Other readings by the author prior to the submission of this paper:
• Quandt, William B. “Book Review: Orientalism.” Foreign Affairs. 76.5 (1997): 232-233. Print.
• Butterworth, Charles E. “Book Review: Orientalism.” The American Political Science Review. 74.1 (1980): 174-176. Print.
• Berkowitz, P. “Answering Edward Said Defending the West: a Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism by Ibn Warraq.” Policy Review Washington. (2008): 75-81. Print.
• Trinh, T M.-H. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Print.
• Trinh, T M.-H. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

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