Said’s Orientalism exposes the Eurocentric universalism built on a self-reflexive history in terms of the East. Said sets out to delineate the West’s supercilious stance and condescending conceptions of the East. Orientalism (1978) forms a trilogy with other works such as The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981), the first of the two that established his career. Said examines the interplay of dichotomies that has been built under the tutelage of the West. Critics like Joshua Muravchik assert how the phenomenon hailed a new era for leftism in which ‘people of color’ substituted the proletariat as the redeemers of humankind.
Said’s work Beginnings is seen to be the beginning of this academic enterprise: “To begin to write, therefore, is to work a set of instruments, to invent a field of play for them to enable performance” (24). Edward Said begins the Introduction of Orientalism paraphrasing the narrative of a French journalist Thierry Desjardins as he expresses his view of the present day Orient foregrounding the stereotypical representation of the Orient. The passage refers to the French romantic travel writings of Chateaubriand and Nerval and their construction of the Orient.This image of the Orient is much glorified in terms of the ones that created it, that it comes across as immaterial that the place itself was sociologically affected.
Americans have the Orient mapped with the Far East in their conception while the French and British’s formation of the Orient is deeply entangled with the Near East, as well its tradition and its indubitable place in European Experience. Said has been criticized for ignoring the domination of German and Hungarian scholarship in the context of Orientalism, though they did not possess an Eastern empire. Robert Irwin in The Lust of Knowing writes that Said ignored the domination of 19th century Oriental studies by Germans and Hungarians, countries that did not possess an Eastern empire (8). In Biblical times, the reference to the Three Wise Men ‘from the Orient’ alluded to Magi from “The East”, (relative to Judea), probably meaning the Persian Empire or Arabia. Later on as, they were acquainted with countries of farther East, the definition of ‘the Orient’ in terms of geography shifted eastwards to the Pacific Ocean, now what the Occidentals term as ‘the Far East’. Said asserts:
The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West). (Said, Orientalism 9).
Said employs the term the Other to foreground this surrogate self that is defined in terms of attributes that are in opposition to those that define the West. We find the Lacanian principles of psychoanalysis underlying the same in the mirror stage of development. The child begins the mapping operation in this stage by forming his own identity by separating it from a mirror image of himself. The self in the context of Orientalism is created through contrast as logical/illogical, rational/irrational, dominant/subservient, masculine/effeminate, active/passive, etc. Lacan’s concept of lack of functions significantly here as the West’s inclinations to appear complete are transposed onto the East. Derrida’s ideas also come into play as the Margin of the East helps define the centre of the West. However, Said here extends the same to real world politics from an exclusive linguistic focus (Leitch 1988).
The term Orientalism is utilized by Said in three senses: The first alludes to Orientalism as an academic discipline:”Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient-and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist-either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism” (Said, Orientalism 10). Said in his essay “Orientalism” states how it is is path-breaking to equate scholarly specialization with geographical field since “no one is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to it called Occidentalism” and “there is no real analogy for taking a fixed, more or less total geographical position towards a wide variety of social, linguistic, political, and historical realities” (Said, Orientalism 163) . Secondly, he designates Orientalism as a style of thought based on distinction between ‘the Orient’ and the ‘the Occident’. The third definition entails the historical and material consequences made the possible by the first two. In the third interpretation of Orientalism, we discern the influence of the Foucauldian notion of discourses, as described by him in Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. Foucault’s notion of how power is constituted in and through discourses is significant here as the image of the Orient is reinforced through numerous canonical and scholarly works. The analytical value of utilizing the Foucauldian notion of discourses is that it enables Said to encompass the wide range of scholarly corpus within a single critical framework (Pickering 152). However, in contrast to the Foucauldian impersonal use of discourses, Said attributes to it a humanistic imprint referring to the individual works of many writers (Leitch 1988). Foucault’s impression of how “the critical relationship under which the ontology of the subject and object come to be known and how these associations come to constitute knowledge” is significant here. Foucault in this regard speaks of three types of struggles between the subject and object: “either against forms of domination (ethnic, social, and religious); against forms of exploitation which separate individuals from what they produce; or against that which ties the individual to himself and submits him to others in this way (struggles against subjection, against forms of subjectivity and submission)” (Foucault 210):
To speak of Orientalism is to speak of a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in such disparate realms such as the imagination itself, the whole of India and the Levant, the Biblical texts and the biblical lands , the spice trade, colonial armies and a long tradition of colonial administration, a formidable scholarly corpus (Said, Orientalism 13).
In the second section, Said points out to three qualifications of the Orient: Firstly, the orient is not an inert concept of nature but a manmade concept just as the Occident is given reality by and for the West. Therefore just like the Occident, the Orient also is a concept with roots, tradition and history that is realized and attributed legitimacy by and for the West. Robert Young found Said to repeat the very structures that he censured (Young 127). Critics like Kejariwal accuse Said of creating a monolithic “Occidentalism” as opposed to the “Orientalism” of Western discourse highlighting how Said he failed to differentiate between the paradigms of Romanticism and the Enlightenment. Kejariwal points out that Said chose to relegate fundamental differences of opinion among western scholars of the Orient; and failed to acknowledge numerous Orientalists like William Jones, for instance, who was concerned with establishing kinship between East and West through the study of Indo-European languages rather than creating distinctions, and who had often made discoveries that would pave the foundation for anti-colonial nationalism. Indians at that juncture were just focussed on their past and not a history (Kejariwal 233). However, “Said replied with hauteur that he was under no obligation to include ‘every Orientalist who ever lived.’ But of course the real issue was whether the ones he included made a representative sample (and whether he presented them faithfully” (Muravchik).
Said asserts that when Disraeli meant in the Tancred that the East was a career for the West, he did not mean that the east was a career only in terms of raw material and empirical data.”Just as he stressed in Beginnings that “writing is a form of displacement’, so Said is suggesting that writing about the Orient has very little to do “with telling ‘the truth’; rather, in fact, writing attains the condition of a presence to the reader precisely by having displaced the empirical world” (McCarthy 75). What Said signifies is that the histories of both the East and the West are profoundly intertwined: cultures and histories that have a brute reality. Said ascertains that Disraeli’s statement refers to the created consistency of ideas about the Orient and not about its state of being as Wallace Stevens would put it in poems like “Of Mere Being,” or “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” where the refrain reads: ‘Let be be the finale of Seem.’ In Hamlet, the protagonist affirms ín a melodramatic stance that he is sad and does not seem so. The focus here is on the created perception of the East rather than its very state of being.
The second qualification is that ideas, culture and histories cannot be studied without analysing the forces and power that produced them. They were not produced in the long run as a consequence of mere imaginative free play. The relation of the Orient and Occident is one of complex hegemony as it works through manipulation and the implementation of ideas in a devious manner as outlined in K.M.Panikar’s classic Asia and Western Dominance. Said points out how the French novelist Flaubert makes a record of his travels in Egypt and the Orient in his letters. Regarding Said’s choice of writers, it is argued that Said made no conscious attempt to distinguish between different writers: Goethe (who never traveled in the East), Flaubert (who briefly toured Egypt), Ernest Renan (whose work is widely regarded as tainted by racism), and Edward William Lane who was singular being fluent in Arabic (Irwin, Edward Said’s Shadowy Legacy). Flaubert’s narratives produced a widely influential model of the Oriental. And further, though female objects are dealt with, Said himself does not address woman writers (Muravchik).
Said foregrounds the stereotypical woman Kuchuk Hanem in the narratives of Flaubert who never represented herself –her emotions, presence or history. The male spoke for her and represented her in opposition to himself. She emblematizes the Orient who is typified as effeminate. This theory was originally a corollary of colonial discourses that legitimized claims to moral superiority of the master race by foregrounding the image of responsible Victorian manliness – the white man who posed as the moral educator of the colonized man. This image later turned out to be ubiquitous after the nineteenth century. In order to carry this widespread rhetoric to its logical conclusion, there was the need of the effeminate Indian man to transform into manliness under the apprenticeship of the manly white mentor. The prospects of India achieving nationhood was therefore made synonymous with manhood (Banerjee 169). The man in Flaubert’s narrative was everything that Kuchuk Hanem was not. Lacanian principles again form the basis here as the woman is rendered without agency as she enters the symbolic stage where the phallus reigns supreme as the king of the symbolic domain. The man in Flaubert’s narrative is foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, rational, etc. and she functions in systematic opposition to the male. This dichotomy of male/effeminate: Occident/Orient also functions parallel to Julia Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic male and the symbolic female.
Thirdly, Said states that one should never presume that the Orient is a structure of lies or myths, though it does utilize representation to a formidable extent. “I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient then it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient” (Said, Orientalism 14). Moreover, this sort of cultural influence is essentially derived. This derivation is a result of civil society. As per Gramsci’s notion, the civil society as opposed to the political society is one in which the citizens are directly dominated by the state and imposed upon the state, the civil society premises itself on consent and works on the principle of hegemony works. It differs from Deny Hay’s “the idea of Europe” in The Emergence of an Idea as a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans as against all those non-Europeans, something based on inclusion or exclusion. Rather it operates on a strategy that Said terms flexible positional superiority which pits the Orient against the Occident is series of equations and relationships where the Occident always reigns supreme.”Despite his recognition of the flexible positionality of Orientalist strategy, Said assumes a single, systematic and homogenous colonial discourse rather than various discourses in circulation that related to colonialism and indigenous peoples” (Pickering 152). Ibn Warraq in his Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism criticized this sort of cultural relativism that had translated to academic orthodoxy (qtd. in Caschetta).
The representation, according to Said, is too dogmatic and may appear positive owing to overbearing and condescending attitudes. In such a context, he expresses his apprehensions that discourses on the Orient may be reproduced “by dogmatic and too positivistic a localized focus” (Said, Orientalism 8). The other downside of this depiction is that the Orient may stagnate as a statistical abstraction embedded in European doctrine and distortion. ”Such objectification entails the assumption that the Orient is essentially monolithic, with an unchanging history, while the Occident is dynamic, with an active history. In addition, the orients and the Orientals are seen to be passive, non-participatory objects of study” (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 62).
The third section deals with three aspects of Said’s contemporary reality that has led to the evolution of thought in the prescribed book, and outlines the methodological devices he has employed for the same. The first aspect discussed by Said is the question of distinction between pure and political knowledge that has led to the formulation of an approach in the prescribed book. Said ascertains how knowledge appears to be non-political in nature, and it would be problematic to make a clear-cut distinction between knowledge as pure and politically charged. It is inevitable while making any statement that one aligns himself in some way to the world he inhabits:
No one has ever devised a method for detaching a the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement(conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position from the mere activity of being a member of society. These continue to bear on what he does professionally and its fruits do attempt reach a a level of relative freedom from the inhibitions and restriction of brute everyday reality. (Said, Orientalism 18)
One naturally assumes that the work of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and Miller are not coloured with political overtones, while knowledge of contemporary China or the Soviet Union possess political ramifications. Nevertheless, the only difference between the seemingly innocent works and other works deemed political is that the former does not act directly on the political reality. In the former, the ideological colour has only incidental significance unlike the putative political work that has ideology explicitly expressed in the text. For instance, Wordsworth ideas of freedom in poetic composition may be influenced by the French Revolution’s echoes of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Said puts forward the instance of Noam Chomsky who studied the instrumental connection between the Vietnam War and the idea of objective scholarship. During the Vietnam War, the liberal intelligentsia were supposed to be objective in their approach. Nevertheless, they utilized ideology to legitimize U.S commitment to autocratic rule and intervention in China. Amidst other instances Said also alludes to the philosophy of the English Empiricists like John Locke, David Hume,etc. whose philosophy could not be divorced from their racial theories, justifications of slavery or arguments for colonial interpretation, as Henry Bracken had elaborated upon. English Empiricism as it is rooted in sense perceptions, cannot dissociate itself from what the senses perceive in the outside world, though the work comes across as seemingly apolitical. Said here puts across his own persona as a critic whose position in the world “is reducible neither to a doctrine or a political position on a particular question, and it is to be in the world and self-aware simultaneously” (Said, The World, the Text and the Critic 29).
The study Said finally adopts is a geopolitical one based on the marriage of one’s ideology and location. Said underlines his thesis as he asserts: ”Orientalism is a kind of human work” (15), and the association between knowledge and politics should be examined by adopting a study that addresses politics and culture. Said had praised Raymond Williams for his disregard for the boundaries of academic theory and historical experience as Williams relegated these boundaries to formulate an approach namely Cultural Materialism. Said further emphasizes that each humanistic study must be rooted in its specific context, subject and the historical conditions that shaped it. “Humanism, in Said’s terms, is a non-identitarian conception of human community which can be broadly characterized by the plurality of cultures” (Jahanbegloo).
Secondly, Said proposes his methodological devices that premises itself on the criteria of authority that defines the Occident’s relationship with the Orient. Writers who pen about the Orient must align themselves either with the Occident or the Orient, that lends singularity to the narrative voice, structure, images and motifs contributing to the sum total of representation. This constitutes what Said terms their strategic location. On the other hand, the strategic formation is the very basis or the sum total of intellectual perspectives that form the basis to express a standpoint. “Every writer on the Orient (and this is true even of Homer)
assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies” (Said, Orientalism 28). This stance comprises of pointers that allude to other referential works. For instance, Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan and Friedrich Schlegel’s 1808 work, Über die Sprache und die Weisheit der Indier was based on a journey and hours spent in Paris libraries. The German scholars refined and elaborated techniques whose applications to texts, myths, ideas and languages was almost gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France. Their strategic formation was based on the strategic formation of Britain and France from their direct colonial experience.
Said finally arrives at the conclusion that Orientalism is based on exteriority as it is nothing but representation as circulated in cultural discourses and exchange. Said has been criticized for ’excessive relativism’ and engulfing readers in a ‘web of solipsism,’ indulging only in representations without any claim to objective truth (Washbrook 607). According to Said, these far-fetched representations are legitimized by the writers in question by rendering them familiar. For instance, as early as in Aeschylus play The Persians, the Orient is transformed from a distant and often threatening otherness into figures that are relatively familiar. In Aeschylus case, grieving Asiatic women. Said asserts how Orientalism responded more to the culture that produced it than to its putative object which was also produce by the West. We find Althusser’s thesis as the basis of this statement: Ideology is the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (153). And, consequently, “we have a linguistic Orient, a Freudian Orient, a Spenglarian Orient, a Darwinian Orient,etc” (Said, Orientalism 30).
The final reality Said refers to here is the personal dimension that is self-reflexive and self-revelatory. For Conrad, and Said, writing emerged out of an existential fear of silence (McCarthy 8). Said quotes Gramsci as stating in Prison Notebooks:”The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and knowing thyself. As a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (33). This quote directly applies to Said’s conceptions of the private world and public world. Said was brought up in two British colonies (Palestine and Egypt), and was educated in the US. As Said affirms clearly in his book Representations of the Intellectual:
The pattern that sets the course for the intellectual as outsider is best exemplified by the condition of exile, the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives…Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others. You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home; and alas you can never fully arrive, be at once in your new home or situation. (qtd. in Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 45)
His perceptions as outlined in Orientalism are the result of his upbringing, as he witnessed prejudices against the East in the turbulent relationship with the West, and the consequent conception of the former as exotic and a menace to beheld at a distance. The bias against the Arab world led to simple perceptions of the Islamist world being magnified into exaggerated proportions with highly politicized and raucous overtones. Said states that three factors led to the same: the history of popular anti-Islamic prejudice in the West, the struggle between the Arabs and Israeli Zionism, and its effects upon American Jews and liberal culture; three, the almost total absence of any cultural position to identify with, or dispassionately to discuss the Arabs or Islam. It was a long history that began with the crusades, and the first encounter between European Christianity and Islam (Pickering 148).To cap it all, the representation of these bigotries have been underlined and propagated by stereotypical representation in the media. It has been argued that Said and his followers failed to discriminate between Orientalism in the mainstream culture, in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and academics and Oriental scholarship, both of which are dealt in the same vein by him (Kotwal).
Being subject to and an object of Orientalism, Said is the apt person to pen about the oriental experience. “Even more pressing is his sense of Palestinian identity which conflicts with the broad liberal intellectual consensus of sympathy with Zionism. Politically Palestinians exist, and when they are held to exist, it is only as Orients, or terrorists, or as irritants” (McCarthy 76). As he concludes, Said asserts that his study is not limited to sheer academics. His insistence on a humanistic study envisages the obliteration of the discriminative categories of the Orient and the Occident. This, he affirms, will aid in the unlearning of cultural domination that Raymond William has termed the “unlearning of the inherent dominative mode.” Said has taught us that cultures are not autonomous, and histories not singular (Pickering 154). Said was subject to both the worlds, one that taught him language, being born in a British Mandate territory and educated in Western Institutions; and at the same time situated him in an exilic position to curse. He asserts how the historical world “can be understood rationally according to the principle formulated by Vico in New Science, that we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made” (Said, Humanism 11). This was how Said’s private world was made, as he puts it across his public domain.
© Rukhaya M.K. 2015
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