Orientalism by Edward Said | Definition, Characteristics, Analysis

Orientalism by Edward Said | Definition, Characteristics, Analysis



Edward Said

Edward Said was a great scholar and an important figure in Post-Colonial studies. He was a professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was also famous as an activist in Middle Eastern politics. Said was born in Jerusalem. Palestine 1935. His mother was a Lebanese and his father was a Palestinian book merchant. Edward had American citizenship and he went to Princeton University and studied English literature and history. Later, he studied at Harvard and wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Joseph Conrad. In 1967, Israel occupied the Palestine territories which forced Said to take political stance for the liberation of Palestine.

In 1975-76, Said was a fellow at the center for Advanced Study at Stanford University. He wrote ‘Orientalism‘ which made great impact on literature and political thinking. Said used his fame to further the cause of Palestine and advocate human rights. In 1991, Said resigned his position from Palestinian National Congress and broke with Arafat. He criticized the peace agreement between Israel and PLO at Oslo. In 1991, Said was diagnosed with leukemia. He wrote a memoir during this period. In 1993, he published his most comprehensive works on Post Colonial study Culture and Imperialism and Representations of The Intellectual.

Despite his illness, Said continued his activism for the peace, human rights and social justice. He died on 25 September, 2003 in New York at the age of 67. As an intellectual, he exercised tremendous influence on modern literature, criticism and political thinking.

What is Orientalism?

Orientalism’ by Edward Said is a canonical text in which he challenges the concept of Orientalism and the difference between east and west. He says that with the spread of colonization, Europeans came in contact with underdeveloped and undeveloped countries of the east. They found their cultures exotic and full of queerness. They established the science of orientalism from the western angle.

Edward Said argues that the Europeans divided the world into East and West (occident and orient). This was totally illogical artificial distinction. They made this distinction from their own point of view, dividing into us and them. Europeans claimed that they were a superior race to the people of the east. Thus they justified colonization and colonialism. They claimed that the aim of colonization was to civilize the uncivilized people of the East. The Europeans generalized attributes of the oriental people and began to portray them through their scientific reports, media sources and literary works. This created a certain fixed images about the orientals in the European minds. For examples, the Arabs are defined as uncivilized people, Indians as superstitious and beggarly and Islam as the religion of the terrorists.

Orientalism Definition

Orientalism thus can be defined as

“a manner of regularized writing, vision and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the orient.”

The western people thought of orientals as feminine, weak and yet strangely dangerous because they pose a threat to white, western women.

According to Edward Said, the knowledge about the east is generated not through actual facts but through imagined constructs. The Western people think that all Eastern societies are fundamentally similar sharing quite different and exotic characteristics. It is thus anti-thesis of the West. Such knowledge is constructed through literary texts and historical records.

In the introduction to ‘Orientalism‘ Said presents the definitions of ‘orientalism‘ in the following manner:

Orientalism is a way of coming to terms with the orient that is based on the orient’s special place in European Western experience”

“It is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the orient’ and the occident.”

“It is a western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient.”

“It is particularly valuable as a signs of European-Atlantic power over the orient than it is a verdict discourse about the orient.”

Orientalism Characteristics

It is distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts.

In the first chapter, Edward Said explains how the science of orientalism developed and how the Westerners/ Europeans started considering the orientals as non-human beings. They divided the world into two parts with the concept of ours and theirs. They drew imaginary geographical line to demarcate them. They regarded the orientals as backward, uncivilized and violent. They thought it was the duty of the colonizers to educate and civilize them. For them, colonization was a blessing for the orientals.

The most important aspect of orientalism was that the Europeans defined themselves by defining orientals. For example, they attributed the qualities like laziness, irrationality, uncivilizedness and crudeness to Orientals. By calling them so, they defined themselves as rational, civilized, hardworking and refined. They used western terminology to define the orientals. For example, the religion of Christ was Christianity, so they called Islam as Mohammadism. It was a completely western term to define Muslims in their own way.

In the second chapter Edward Said talks about structures and restructures of orientalism. They romanticized the oriental land and their behavior. They projected the orientals to the Western World in romantic and mythological manner. They said that the people of the East were too naive. They were not clever, witty, diplomatic or far-sighted like Europeans. They did not know how to deal with the cruel world. Therefore they required the fatherly role of the Europeans to help them. They also claimed that the orientals have not developed as a nation. Europeans thought that they were biologically superior to orientals. To justify these claims, they put forward Darwin’s theory of Evolution.

In chapter 3 of the book, Edward Said discusses “Orientalism Now.’ He starts off by telling how the geography of the world was shaped by the colonization of the Europeans. There was a quest for the knowledge of geography which became the basis of orientalism. The earlier orientalists were silent observers but the new orientalists took part in the routine day to day life of the orients. They lived with them as if they were the part of orientals. After World War I, orientalism took a more liberal attitude barring the Islam.

After the First World War, the centre of orientalism moved from Europe to the USA. During this period, transformation took place relating to philology and social science. After World War II, the European colonies were lost but the prejudice against the orientals continued. For example, they believed that Arabs were cruel and violent, Japanese were always associated with karate and Muslims were always considered terrorists. This shows that despite globalization and awareness about the world, the bias persisted among the people of developed countries.

Orientalism is Edward Said’s most influential work. It has been translated into 36 languages. It is detailed work that makes a tremendous influence on modern thinking and outlook about the orient. There were several critics and thinkers who criticized Edward Said’s contentions but he refuted the charges quite rationally.

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Said used the word ‘the other’ to describe the Western fascination towards the orient. He refers to Lacan’s terminology which describes the mirror stage of development. In this context, the Europeans define themselves looking at the mirror of the orient. They contrast themselves with the others, the orientals. Said suggests that the orient does not mean the same to American as it does to the European countries, Said says that orientalism refers to academic interpretation. It is the field of writing, research and teaching about the orient. Said also proposes a third definition of orientalism using an analysis in historical context. He seems to be motivated by Foucault’s notion of a discourse.

Edward Said agrees with Disraeli who said that East is something more than just an idea without corresponding reality. The study of orientalism is a part of colonial domination of Europe over the Eastern countries. Said distinguishes between pure and political knowledge. Said admits that his understanding of orientalism is based on personal dimension as he had witnessed the prejudices of the Westerners towards the orient. There is a long history of prejudice against people of Arabic or Islamic descent the struggle between the Arabs and the Israelis. The one sided struggle is mainly due to American identification with Zionism. Said claims that his analysis is quite objective and neutral. He tells the readers that the greater understanding of the topic can help in the unlearning of the processes of cultural domination and prejudiced stance.

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