Orientalism (book)  

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“For any European during the nineteenth century – and I think one can say this almost without qualification – Orientalism was such a system of truths, truths in Nietzsche’s sense of the word. It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Orientalism is a 1978 book by Edward W. Said, about the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism, defined as the West's patronizing representations of "The East"—the societies and peoples who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. According to Said, orientalism (the Western scholarship about the Eastern World) is inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it, which makes much Orientalist work inherently political and servile to power.

In the Middle East, the social, economic, and cultural practices of the ruling Arab élites indicate they are imperial satraps who have internalized the romanticized "Arab Culture" created by French, British and, later, American Orientalists; the examples include critical analyses of the colonial literature of Joseph Conrad, which conflates a people, a time, and a place into a narrative of incident and adventure in an exotic land.

The critical application of post-structuralism in the scholarship of Orientalism influenced the development of literary theory, cultural criticism, and the field of Middle Eastern studies, especially regarding how academics practice their intellectual enquiry when examining, describing, and explaining the Middle East. The scope of Said's scholarship established Orientalism as a foundation text in the field of Post-colonial Culture Studies, which examines the denotations and connotations of Orientalism, and the history of a country's post-colonial period.

As a public intellectual, Edward Said debated Orientalism with historians and scholars of area studies, notably, the historian Bernard Lewis, who described the thesis of Orientalism as "anti-Western". For subsequent editions of Orientalism, Said wrote an "Afterword" (1995) and a "Preface" (2003) addressing criticisms of the content, substance, and style of the work as cultural criticism.



In his book Said suggests that all discourse, particularly discourse about other cultures, is inherently ideological. Therefore, regardless of the subject, any historical discourse must be situated within a particular framework with an overall structure that is necessarily ideological. Said situates his argument in the realm of Orientalism, particularly the academic study and political and literary discourse surrounding Arabs, Islam and the Middle East that originated primarily in England and France and later the United States. Said attempts to show that this discourse actually creates (rather than examines or describes) a palpable divide between East and West. It is this divide, through the examples he gives in the book, which situates the West as a superior culture to the East. This became politically useful, Said suggests, when countries such as France or England attempted to colonize and conquer Eastern countries such as Egypt, India, Algeria and others.

The discourse surrounding these countries is coded, Said says, by a superiority that is not necessarily reflected in the realities of the concerned countries. When people in the West attempt to study the East they typically do so within this already coded discourse. Therefore, Said says, the study of someplace called the "Orient" and of some people known as "Arabs" fails to take into account the reality of the area as being the same place as the West (i.e., part of the Earth). Other countries and other people are not seen as the same within Oriental discourse, however, and therefore a study of these "others" must inherently be one of studying an inferior culture when Oriental discourse is used to describe them.


Orientalism (1978), an academic study of cultural imperialism, by Edward W. Said, proved intellectually, professionally, and personally controversial. The thesis, content, substance, and style were much criticised by Orientalist academics, such as Albert Hourani (A History of the Arab Peoples, 1991), Robert Graham Irwin (For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, 2006), Nikki Keddie (An Islamic Response to Imperialism, 1968), and Bernard Lewis ("The Question of Orientalism", Islam and the West, 1993).

In a review of a book by Ibn Warraq, American classicist Bruce Thornton dismissed Orientalism as an "incoherent amalgam of dubious postmodern theory, sentimental Third Worldism, glaring historical errors, and Western guilt".

In the book-review article "Enough Said" (2007), about Dangerous Knowledge (2007), by Robert Irwin, in the preface paragraphs, Martin Kramer recapitulates the professional trials and tribulations of and repercussions to Orientalists caused by Orientalism (1978):

"the British historian Robert Irwin is the sort of scholar who, in times past, would have been proud to call himself an Orientalist ... someone who mastered difficult languages, like Arabic and Persian, and then spent years bent over manuscripts, in heroic efforts of decipherment and interpretation. In Dangerous Knowledge, Irwin relates that the 19th-century English Arabist Edward William Lane, compiler of the great Arabic-English Lexicon [1840], "used to complain that he had become so used to the cursive calligraphy of his Arabic manuscripts that he found Western print a great strain on his eyes."

Orientalism, in its heyday, was a branch of knowledge as demanding and rigorous as its near cousin, Egyptology. The first International Congress of Orientalists met in 1873; its name was not changed until a full century later. But there are no self-declared Orientalists today. The reason is that the late Edward Said turned the word into a pejorative. In his 1978 book Orientalism, the Palestinian-born Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, claimed that an endemic Western prejudice against the East had congealed into a modern ideology of racist supremacy—a kind of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Throughout Europe's history, announced Said, "every European, in that he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric."

In a semantic sleight of hand, Said appropriated the term "Orientalism", as a label for the ideological prejudice he described, thereby, neatly implicating the scholars who called themselves Orientalists. At best, charged Said, the work of these scholars was biased, so as to confirm the inferiority of Islam. At worst, Orientalists had directly served European empires, showing proconsuls how best to conquer and control Muslims. To substantiate his indictment, Said cherry-picked evidence, ignored whatever contradicted his thesis, and filled the gaps with conspiracy theories.|"Enough Said", Commentary magazine (March 2007)}}

Nonetheless, the literary critic Paul De Man said that, as a literary critic, "Said took a step further than any other modern scholar of his time, something I dare not do. I remain in the safety of rhetorical analysis, where criticism is the second-best thing I do."


In the book review, "The Mightier Pen? Edward Said and the Double Standards of Inside-out Colonialism: a review of Culture and Imperialism, by Edward Said" (1993), Ernest Gellner said that Said's contention of Western domination of the Eastern world for more than 2,000 years was unsupportable, because, until the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) was a realistic military, cultural, and religious threat to (Western) Europe.

In "Disraeli as an Orientalist: The Polemical Errors of Edward Said" (2005), Mark Proudman noted incorrect 19th-century history in Orientalism, that the geographic extent of the British Empire was not from Egypt to India in the 1880s, because the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in that time intervened between those poles of empire. Moreover, at the zenith of the imperial era, European colonial power in the Eastern world never was absolute, it was relative and much dependent upon local collaborators — princes, rajahs, and warlords—who nonetheless often subverted the imperial and hegemonic aims of the colonialist power.

In For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006), Robert Irwin said that Said's concentrating the scope of Orientalism to the Middle East, especially Palestine and Egypt, was a mistake, because the Mandate of Palestine (1920–1948) and British Egypt (1882–1956) only were under direct European control for a short time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; thus are poor examples for Said's theory of Western cultural imperialism. That Orientalism should have concentrated upon good examples of imperialism and cultural hegemony, such as the British Raj of India (1858–1947) and Russia's dominions in Asia (1721–1917), but he did not, because, as a public intellectual, Edward Said was more interested in making political points about the politics of the Middle East, in general, and of Palestine, in particular. Moreover, that by unduly concentrating on British and French Orientalism, Said ignored the domination of 19th century Oriental studies by German and Hungarian academics and intellectuals, whose countries did not possess an Eastern empire. Irwin's book was later criticized by Amir Taheri, writing in Asharq Al-Awsat, when he listed a number of factual and editing errors that Irwin makes in the book, also noting a number of prominent Orientalists left unmentioned.


In the article "Said's Splash" (2001), Martin Kramer said that, fifteen years after publication of Orientalism (1978), the UCLA historian Nikki Keddie (whom Said praised in Covering Islam, 1981) who originally had praised Orientalism as an 'important, and, in many ways, positive' book, had changed her mind. In Approaches to the History of the Middle East (1994), Keddie criticised Said's work on Orientalism, for the unfortunate consequences upon her profession as an historian:

I think that there has been a tendency in the Middle East field to adopt the word "orientalism" as a generalized swear-word, essentially referring to people who take the "wrong" position on the Arab–Israeli dispute, or to people who are judged too "conservative". It has nothing to do with whether they are good or not good in their disciplines. So, "orientalism", for many people, is a word that substitutes for thought and enables people to dismiss certain scholars and their works. I think that is too bad. It may not have been what Edward Said meant at all, but the term has become a kind of slogan. |"Said's Splash", Ivory Towers on Sand (2001)


In the article, "Edward Said's Shadowy Legacy" (2008), Robert Irwin said that Said ineffectively distinguished among writers of different centuries and genres of Orientalist literature. That the disparate examples, such as the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) who never travelled to the Orient; the French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) who briefly toured Egypt; the French Orientalist Ernest Renan (1823–1892), whose anti-Semitism voided his work; and the British Arabist Edward William Lane (1801–1876), who compiled the Arabic–English Lexicon (1863–93)—did not constitute a comprehensive scope of investigation or critical comparison. In that vein, in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism (2007), Ibn Warraq earlier had said that in Orientalism (1978) Said had constructed a binary-opposite representation, a fictional European stereotype that would counter-weigh the Oriental stereotype. Being European is the only common trait among such a temporally and stylistically disparate group of literary Orientalists.


In The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past (1988) O.P. Kejariwal said that with the creation of a monolithic Occidentalism to oppose the Orientalism of Western discourse with the Eastern world, Said had failed to distinguish, between the paradigms of Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and ignored the differences among Orientalists; and that he failed to acknowledge the positive contributions of Orientalists who sought kinship, between the worlds of the East and the West, rather than to create an artificial "difference" of cultural inferiority and superiority; such a man was William Jones (1746–1794), the British philologist–lexicographer who proposed that Indo–European languages are interrelated.


In the sociological article, "Review: Who is Afraid of Edward Said?" (1999) Biswamoy Pati said that in making ethnicity and cultural background the tests of moral authority and intellectual objectivity in studying the Oriental world, Said drew attention to his personal identity as a Palestinian and as a subaltern of the British Empire, in the Near East. Therefore, from the perspective of the Orientalist academic, Said's personal background might, arguably, exclude him from writing about the Oriental world, hindered by an upper-class birth, an Anglophone upbringing, a British-school education in Cairo, residency in the U.S., a university-professor job; and categorical statements, such as: "any and all representations ... are embedded, first, in the language, and then, in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer ... [the cultural representations are] interwoven with a great many other things, besides 'the Truth', which is, itself, a representation."

Hence, in the article "Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire", D.A. Washbrook said that Said and his academic cohort indulge in excessive cultural relativism, which intellectual excess traps them in a "web of solipsism", which limits conversation exclusively to "cultural representations" and to denying the existence of Template:Em objective truth. That Said and his followers fail to distinguish between the types and degrees of Orientalism represented by the news media and popular culture (e.g., the light Orientalism of the children's movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984), and heavy academic Orientalism about the language and literature, history and culture of the peoples of the Eastern world.

In the article "Orientalism Now" (1995), the historian Gyan Prakash said that Edward Said had explored fields of Orientalism already surveyed by his predecessors and contemporaries, such as V. G. Kiernan, Bernard S. Cohn, and Anwar Abdel Malek, who also had studied, reported, and interpreted the social relationship that makes the practice of imperialism intellectually, psychologically, and ethically feasible; that is, the relationship between European imperial rule and European representations of the non-European Other self, the colonised people. That, as an academic investigator, Said already had been preceded in the critical analysis of the production of Orientalist knowledge and about Western methods of Orientalist scholarship, because, in the 18th century, "Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti [1753–1825], the Egyptian chronicler, and a witness to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, for example, had no doubt that the expedition was as much an epistemological as military conquest". Nonetheless, George Landow, of Brown University, who criticized Said's scholarship and contested his conclusions, acknowledged that Orientalism is a major work of cultural criticism.


In October 2003, one month after the death of Edward W. Said (1935–2003), the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star recognized the intellectual import of the book, saying "Said's critics agree with his admirers that he has single-handedly effected a revolution in Middle Eastern studies in the U.S." and that "U.S. Middle Eastern Studies were taken over, by Edward Said's postcolonial studies paradigm", Orientalism.

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