Edward Said: Orientalism – summary

Ideas created and presented in an academic context are often brilliant but hard to unwrap and digest. I’ve attempted to pull out some quotations from Edward Said’s Orientalism that I hope will help summarise some of its key points. (Page references in square brackets are from Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Penguin Classics, 2003)

What is Orientalism?

Orientalism is a body and tradition of Western representations of the Orient, created in the context of Western political dominance over the Orient, which understand and master the inferior, inherently opposed Orient, and which bear more relationship to each other as a discourse than to the real, diverse, experiences of people who live in the Middle East.

“from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the Earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it.” [41]

“Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” [204]

“It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts;” [12]

“so far as the West was concerned during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an assumption had been made that the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West. The Orient was viewed as if framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual. Orientalism, then, is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, judgment, discipline, or governing.”[40-41]

“Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” [3]

The division between monolithic West and Orient is man-made

“such … geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” [5]

“neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” [xii]

“The geographic boundaries accompany the social, ethnic, and cultural ones in expected ways. Yet often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is “out there,” beyond one’s own territory. All kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crowd the unfamiliar space outside one’s own.” [54]
“…We need not decide here whether this kind of imaginative knowledge infuses history and geography, or whether in some way it overrides them. Let us just say for the time being that it is there as something more than what appears to be merely positive knowledge.”[55]

Debates about identity are important. Identities create outsiders and enemies

“Debates today about “Frenchness” and “Englishness” in France and Britain respectively, or about Islam in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, are part of that same interpretive process which involves the identities of different “others,” whether they be outsiders and refugees, or apostates and infidels. It should be obvious in all cases that these processes are not mental exercises but urgent social contests involving such concrete political issues as immigration laws, the legislation of personal conduct, the constitution of orthodoxy, the legitimization of violence and/or insurrection, the character and content of education, and the direction of foreign policy, which very often has to do with the designation of official enemies. In short, the construction of identity if bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society, and is therefore anything but mere academic wool-gathering.” [332]

“A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible.” [301]

People are more diverse than this binary

“the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like “America,” “The West” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed,” [xxii]

Antidotes and alternatives to division and Orientalism

“critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow.” [xxii]

“Since an Arab poet or novelist – and there are many – writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, clichés, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented.”[291]

Be aware of differences; avoid sweeping groupings; look at mingling and exchange between groups. Look at individuals and their expressions of their own feelings and thoughts. Look at self-expression, art and literature.

Recommended works:
Amiel Alcalay’s Beyond Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture
Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Donsciousness
Moira Ferguson’s Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. [353]
“In these works, domains once believed to have been exclusive to one people, gender, race or class are re-examined and shown to have involved others. Long represented as a battleground for Arabs and Jews, the Levant emerges in Alcalay’s book as a Mediterranean culture common to both peoples; according to Gilroy a similar process alters, indeed doubles, our perception of the Atlantic Ocean, previously thought of as principally a European passage. And in re-examining the adversarial relationship between English slave-owners and African slaves, Ferguson allows a more complex dividing white female from white male to stand our, with new demotions and dislocations appearing as a result in Africa.” [353-4]

“My aim … was not so much to dissipate difference itself … but to challenge the notion that difference implies hostility, a frozen reified set of opposed essences, and a whole adversarial knowledge built out of those things.” [352]