Vol. 4 Num 130 Sat. October 04, 2003  

Orientalism: A Quick Look
Yet none of this Orient (European construction of the East) is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of Europe's material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse, with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles."

---from Orientalism by Edward Said

The Terms

The Orient signifies a system of representations framed by political forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and Western empire. The Orient exists for the West, and is constructed by and in relation to the West. It is a mirror image of what is inferior and alien ("Other") to the West.

Orientalism is "a manner of regularized (or Orientalized) writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient." It is the image of the 'Orient' expressed as an entire system of thought and scholarship.

The Oriental is the person represented by such thinking. The man is depicted as feminine, weak, yet strangely dangerous because poses a threat to white, Western women. The woman is both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic. The Oriental is a single image, a sweeping generalization, a stereotype that crosses countless cultural and national boundaries.

Latent Orientalism is the unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the Orient is. Its basic content is static and unanimous. The Orient is seen as separate, eccentric, backward, inscrutable, sensual, and passive. It has a tendency towards despotism and displays feminine penetrability--thus the inroads of colonial armies--and supine malleability.

Manifest Orientalism is what is spoken and acted upon. It includes information and changes in knowledge about the Orient as well as policy decisions founded in Orientalist thinking. It is the expression in words and actions of Latent Orientalism.

Earlier and Contemporary Orientalism

The first 'Orientalists'--including the ones in Fort William College in British Bengal--were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of 'the Orient' into English, based on the assumption that a truly effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. This idea of knowledge as power is present throughout Said's critique. The Orient became the studied, the seen, the observed, the object; Orientalist scholars were the students, the seers, the observers, the subject. The Orient was passive; the West was active.

One of the most significant constructions of Orientalist scholars is that of the Orient itself. What is considered as one unit, as the 'Orient', is of course actually a vast region, one that spreads across a myriad of cultures and countries. The depiction of this single 'Orient' which can be studied as a cohesive whole is one of the most powerful accomplishments of Orientalist scholars. Language is critical to this construction. The 'feminine and weak' Orient awaits the dominance of the West; it is a defenseless and unintelligent whole that exists for, and in terms of, its Western counterpart. The importance of such a construction is that it creates a single subject matter where none existed, a compilation of previously unspoken notions of the Other. Since the notion of the Orient is created by the Orientalist, it exists solely for him or her. Its identity is defined by the scholar who gives it life. It is a construction that still informs current Western depictionsin print, on TV, in electronic media, in letters, columns, book reviews, even in ordinary conversationof 'Arab' and 'Muslim' cultures. Every time we come across words like, say, 'Palestinian gunman', 'Islamic radicals' or 'Hizbollah extremists' (words which have also been uncritically absorbed into our own media lexicon) and concomitant images in Western media we come across a contemporary variant of an old imperial construct.

Reverse Orientalism

Here it must be added that Said took care to point out that Orientalism also represents a way of thinking, a process, which is not always a prerogative of the West, that when we non-Westerners use words such as 'Western' (as for example here) then we are also using our own particular construct, built on our own historic assumptions and experience about the 'Other'. The crucial difference here of course is that this construct is not the result of a systemic study over two hundred years that was an eloquent and eager handmaiden of colonization, manipulation and control. As Said says, there is no 'Occidentalism'. However, that does not mean, as Said also warns, that we post-colonials and inhabitants of the Third World should be unaware of a reverse Orientalism, that we should be sensitive to the number of different cultures, peoples and ideas that is crammed under the "falsely unifying rubric" of 'West' or 'Western.' To quote his own lucid words on the topic:

In the Arab and Muslim countries the situation is scarcely better. As Roula Khalaf has argued, the region has slipped into an easy anti-Americanism that shows little understanding of what the US is really like as a society. Because the governments are relatively powerless to affect US policy towards them, they turn their energies to repressing and keeping down their own populations, with results in resentment, anger and helpless imprecations that do nothing to open up societies where secular ideas about human history and development have been overtaken by failure and frustration, as well as by an Islamism built out of rote learning and the obliteration of what are perceived to be other, competitive forms of secular knowledge. The gradual disappearance of the extraordinary tradition of Islamic ijtihad or personal interpretation has been one of the major cultural disasters of our time, with the result that critical thinking and individual wrestling with the problems of the modern world have all but disappeared.

Orientalism as representation and a visual mode of discourse is also to be found extensively in European art of the colonial era. Here is reproduced Eugene Delacroix's (1798-1863) "The Fanatics of Tangier." Note the Orientalist assumptions in both the subject of the painting and its title: that Tangier is a hellhole where a few good white men (offstage) do their duty and hold a screaming, scraggly, dirty-robed rabble at bay. Note also that today similar images of Palestinians are used extensively in American media to portray them as stone-throwing fanatics raging against the coolly superior Israelis.

--Editor, Literature Page