Monthly Archives: January 2015

Edward Said’s Orientialism

Orientalism was itself  a product of certain political forces and activities.

Said wrote this in 1978, but fast-forward to 2015 and we can easily substitute Orient for Middle East or Islam or Arab. None of these terms point to an objective Truth; rather, they are the subjective signifiers of some “other” culture, whose only common definition among a random sampling of 10 people might be that they “aren’t us.” In the context of the humanities, Oriental art and literature are not some imperfect versions of European or American works produced people who are imperfect versions of “us” and need some kind of rescue.

It is an intellectual, rather than political, colonization of regions of the world we aren’t ready to admit we know a whole heck of a lot about. Said Said: “My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided [associated] the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (61).

Consider Nietzsche’s version of truth: ideas “which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people…illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” (60). In this case, it’s not a matter of forgetting, but never knowing. Students in world literature or art classes never knew a time in which Middle East or Islam or Arab didn’t have a mountain of obligatory ideas surrounding the terms.

In essence, it’s a system in which the identities of ours/us is always opposite theirs/them. Foucault contends that there is no normal without an abnormal; if we settle upon Orientalism being a way to comfortably label an “Other” culture, then we place ourselves in the realm of the normal. It is a refusal (whether intentional or not) to identify this culture with our own—to reduce a group of human beings to an idea that can be studied and dissected, rather than seeing individuals who do share common bonds with us.

Source: Said, Edward. (1995). Extracts from Orientalism. In A. Easthope & K. McGowan (Eds.), A critical and cultural theory reader (pp. 55-61). Toronto, ON: Toronto University Press. (Reprinted from Orientalism, by E. Said, 1978, New York: Random House.)