Edward Said’s Orientalism

Edward Said’s Orientalism: Definition, Summary & Analysis


1. Edward Said’s Orientalism: Introduction

Edward Said’s Orientalism is his most celebrated work that hit the stalls in 1978. It has been influential in about half a dozen established disciplines, especially literary studies (English, comparative literature), history, anthropology, sociology, area studies (mainly Middle East studies) and comparative religion. In Orientalism, Said examines Western representations (fiction and nonfiction) of the Middle Eastern societies and cultures. The book won him universal recognition for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationship between texts—literary and otherwise. Said examines these works with reference to the social, political, and economic contexts from which they emerged. 

Edward Said, in his book, adopts a continental interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism, using the principles of phenomenology, existentialism and French structuralism to trace out the connections between literature and politics. His theories and methods have tremendously influenced American academic circles especially with regard to literary theory and cultural studies. 

Said’s central concern in Orientalism is the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language, and power. He attempts to show how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to build up a prevalent and hostile image of the Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate. He also attempts to show the extent to which these representations permeate the Western culture. The West exploited these representations to justify their imperialist policies in the Middle East. 

1.1. Explanation of Key Terms used in Edward Said’s Orientalism

In Orientalism, Edward Said has used various derivatives of the word Orient which literally means the East, the direction from which the sun rises. Geopolitically Orient signifies the Middle East, Asia and the Far East, territories that were once a part of one or another European Empire. Said uses the word Orient to signify a system of representation framed by political forces that brought the Orient or the East into Western Empire, Western learning and Western consciousness. The West uses the word in its relation to the East. It is a mirror image of the inferior, the alien (other) to the Occident (West).

Oriental’ is a noun-form which means an individual or people of the Orient. As an adjective the word qualifies anything belonging to the East e.g. Oriental landscape, literature, attitude, etc.

‘Orientalist’ means a person who studies or writes about the Orient.

‘Orientalism’ is used academically to signify Western doctrines and theses about the Orient

Said also makes it clear that he is not attempting to cover the whole area. He focuses on how American, English, and French scholars have approached the Arab societies of the Middle East and North Africa. The period he covers in his book extends from the late eighteenth century to the present. 

1.2. The Concept of ‘Other’ and ‘Alter Ego’ in Said’s Orientalism

Edward Said’s starting point in Orientalism is that the existence and development of every culture impels the existence of a different and inevitably competitive “other” or “alter ego.” Therefore, Europe, in attempting to construct its self-image, created the Middle East (the ‘Orient’) as the ultimate “other.” The Middle East (the ‘Orient’) and the West (the ‘Occident’) do not correspond to any stable reality that exists as a natural fact, but are merely products of construction. 

2. Orientalism: Definition and Explanation 

Edward Said put forward several definitions of ‘Orientalism’ in the introduction of his book Orientalism. Some of these are:

Firstly, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” Said argued that his distinction emphasized the supremacy of the Occident versus the inferiority of the Orient. Second, Orientalism is a field of academic research that includes everyone who teaches, investigates, and writes about the Orient. Third, Orientalism is a “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient” beginning in the eighteenth century. 

In short, Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Moreover, it is a way of coming to terms with the Orient (the East) that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western culture and experience. 

In the light of this perception, the Middle East is static, unalterable, and can’t define itself. Therefore, through Orientalism, the West took it upon itself to represent the Orient and by doing so opened it to exploitation. The very purpose of Orientalism is to take control of the Orient and take away from it any ability to speak for itself. Said maintained that it is the stereotypes and prejudices that determine the Western representation of the Orient. 

2.1. Edward Said’s Definition of ‘Orientalism’ as a Discourse

Edward Said also described ‘Orientalism’ as a discourse, a definition he takes from the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault. Foucault defined discourse as a system of thought that governs the knowledge obtained by a person. This knowledge is a paraphrase of preconceived notions and ideas. So, a discourse is the product of interaction between power and knowledge interconnected in a never-ending circle. In Foucault’s view, knowledge is power and also the way of gaining power. 

Edward Said, following the ideas of Foucault, focused on the relationship between power and knowledge. He argued that without examining Orientalism as a discourse, one can’t comprehend the hugely systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even construct—the Orient politically, militarily, sociologically, scientifically, imaginatively and ideologically during the post-Enlightenment period. 

3. Edward Said’s Orientalism: Summary

In Orientalism, Edward Said builds up his argument and analysis in three (3) long chapters. Here is a brief summary of all three chapters in Edward Said’s Orientalism:

3.1. Chapter I: The Scope of Orientalism

‘The Scope of Orientalism’ covers all the dimensions of the subject, both in terms of historical experiences and time period. Moreover, it also covers the subject in terms of political as well as philosophical themes. Said provides a review of pre-18th century writing on the Muslim near East, and socio-political impact of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. According to him, the East was viewed as a textual universe for the West. The European Orientalists had keen interest in classical rather than contemporary periods of the Eastern culture.  

3.2. Chapter II: Oriental Structures and Restructures

In this chapter, Said traces the development of modern Orientalism by presenting a broadly chronological description. He also attempts to trace it by describing a set of devices usually common to the works of popular artists, poets, and scholars. Said presents a review of the French and English traditions of the study of Muslim Near East during the 19th century and further up to the World War I. For this purpose, his major focus is on the works of French Orientalists, such as Sylvester de Sacy, and works of English Orientalists like Edward Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836).

Furthermore, in this chapter, Edward Said endeavors to demonstrate how Orientalism has influenced and affected the Western perceptions of the Arab Middle East and Middle Eastern perceptions of themselves.  

3.3. Chapter III: Orientalism Now

This chapter of Orientalism begins at the point where its predecessor had left off. It means around 1870. This period is characterized with great colonial expansion into the Orient, culminating in the Second World War. The last section of this chapter characterizes the shift from British and French to American hegemony. It presents the current social and intellectual realities of Orientalism in the USA. 

Said begins this chapter with a discussion of Orientalism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. For this purpose, he reviews the careers of leading Islamicists of that time like French scholar Lovis Massignon and the English historian Hamilton Gibb. Edward Said takes note of the lectures of Humilton Gibb as director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University specially his views on the Arab Mind and the ‘aversion of the Muslim from the thought process of rationalism,’ referring to Islam as Mohammedanism

 Under the subtitle The Last Phase, Edward Said reviews Post-War II Orientalism as the United States came to be the center of activity with regard to the East. In this latest phase, the highly qualified American ‘area specialists’ took the lead replacing the earlier philologists. Edward Said examines the role of these ‘area specialists’ of the East. According to him, they helped to perpetuate the dynamics of Orientalism in their representation of Islam and Arabs in four categories. These four categories are:

  • Popular Image and Social Science Representation
  • Public Relations Policy
  • Merely Islam
  • To See the Orient as an Imitation West.

First Category: Popular Image and Social Science Representation

In this category, Said discusses the popular images and social science representations of the East. He argues that the treatments of Arabs and Islam by the ‘area specialists’ are predictably and routinely negative as they derive from the transference of the popular anti-Semitic animus from Jews to Arabs. Said asserts it is the academic studies that support these negative images. These images are actually the negative caricatures of Arab and Islamic culture. 

Second Category: Public Relations Policy

In the second category of misrepresentation of the Arabs and Islam, Said takes on the American public relations policy. It is this policy, by which, he says that contemporary scholars try to perpetuate the traditions set by European Orientalists. For example, the racist discourse and dogmas of Earnest Renan in the 1840s. He bases his argument on the work of Gustave von Grunchbaun. He was a German Orientalists who entertained an almost “virulent dislike for Islam”. Said finds the following dogmas implicit in the works of Grunchbaun and other such Orientalists:

  • Absolute difference between the Occident (rational and superior), and the Orient (aberrant and inferior).
  • The superiority of abstractions regarding the Orient against direct evidence from the contemporary Orient itself.
  • The recognition that the Orient is to be feared and controlled.

Third Category: Merely Islam

Said labels the third category of contemporary Orientalist representations as ‘Marely Islam’. He attacks the allegedly inherent inability of the Muslim near Orient to be as richly human as the West. He also cites the view of a prominent political scientist. According to this view, the Muslim mind is capable of only four out of eight human thought processes. To this he adds the presumption of the president of the Middle East Studies Association that “since the Arab language is much given to rhetoric, the Arabs are consequently incapable of true thought.”

Fourth Category: Orient is an Imitation West

In the fourth category, Edward Said places and takes on the contemporary western Orientalists’ presumption that “Orient is an imitation west”. He also highlights their efforts to encourage the Easterners to judge themselves by Western criteria and to work for achieving the Western goals. Said deplores that the modern Orient has fallen for the bait and is participating in its own Orientalizing.

Edward Said winds up his discussion of Orientalism by briefly addressing the positive side to the problem of reliable scholarship in the field of Orientalism. He hopes that the honest work on the Arabs and Near Orient is likely to be done by scholars “whose allegiance is to a discipline defined intellectually and not to a ‘field’ like Orientalism defined either canonically, imperially or geographically.”

 4. Edward Said’s Handling of the ‘Concept of Orientalism’ in his book, Orientalism 

In his book, Edward Said clearly stated that Orientalism was not the product of colonial rule. But, as a pattern of knowledge, it preceded colonialism. The vision of Orient, Said stated that, existed as far back as the ancient Greeks. However, prior to the colonial era, Orientalism was a literary discourse bound in a tradition of writers, texts, research, and conceptualizations. Said pointed out The Persians by Aeschylus as an example of early attempts to create an Orient. 

Nevertheless, Said stated that, it is fairly recent that Orientalism has become a ‘science’ or an extended body of knowledge and tradition. He mentioned two 18th century intellectuals who spearheaded the transition of Orientalism from literary to scientific knowledge. One is Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetile-Duperron and the other is William Jones. These two scholars took Orientalism out of its literary roots and supplanted it with a seemingly scientific and objective one. Their emphasis was no longer on the description of the exotic but rather on the comprehension of it. 

According to Said, the knowledge or understanding gained through the Orient’s scientific study leads directly to control and power over the Orient. He provided a clear example of this interaction by discussing Lord Balfour’s speech to the House of Commons in 1910. In this speech, Lord Balfour clearly justified Britain’s presence and involvement in Egypt. So, in a very basic sense, knowledge is power. It is powerful since it is privileged only to the European and not to the Oriental itself. 

The basic assumption is that the Orientalist ‘knows’ the Orient better than Orientals do themselves. This overwhelmingly paternalistic attitude leads him to the inevitable and logical conclusion of appropriating the Orient under his power. 

4.1. Edward’s Said’s Ideas of Orientalism

One of Edward Said’s central ideas in Orientalism is that knowledge about the East is generated not through actual facts, but through imagined constructs. These constructs imagined “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar and sharing the characteristics that are not possessed by “Western” societies. Thus, this ‘a priori’ knowledge set up the Orient as the antithesis of the West. Said argued that such knowledge is built through literary texts and historical records which are often limited in terms of their understanding of the authenticity of life in the Middle East.

Said also claimed a subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic people and their culture. He further said that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture has served as an implicit justification for Europe and America’s colonial and imperial ambitions. Also, Said denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the American and British orientalists’ ideas of Arabic culture. Although he restricted his discussion to academic study of the history and culture of Middle Eastern Africa and Asia, Said clearly asserted that “Orientalism is, and does not merely represent, a significant dimension of modern political and intellectual culture.”

4.2. Edward Said’s Discussion of Orientalism

Edward Said limited his discussion of academic Orientalism to late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. The first ‘Orientalists’—the 19th century scholars—translated the writings of ‘the Orient’ into English. These translations were actually based on the assumptions that a truly effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered people. This notion of knowledge as power and authority is present throughout Said’s critique. By knowing the Orient, the Occident came to possess it. The Orient became the seen, the observed, the studied, and the object. While the Orientalist scholars were the seers, the observers, the students, and the subject. The Orient (East) was passive; the Occident (West) was active.

Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as antithetical terms. The construction of the ‘Orient’ portrayed a negative inversion of the Western culture. It is because of Orientalism that the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. 

4.3. Orientalism and Domination

The theme that Said spent the most time developing and producing examples in Orientalism was the idea that Orientalism was not the objective field of study it claimed to be. Rather, it created a space in which justifications of the Occidental’s political and cultural domination could be imposed on the Orient. He attempted to ‘show how Orientalism came into being as the doctrine and corporate institution for exercising Western domination of the Orient.” The way in which the Orientalists accomplished this was to brand what they termed as Orientals as essentially inferior in culture and personhood to their European counterparts. The political powers picked up this thread and used it to justify their colonial expansion.

Said’s Distinction Between Pure Knowledge and Political Knowledge

For Said, as it was for Foucault, knowledge is power. The knowledge of the Orient, though flawed, provided the power base from which the colonizers set about their mission. Here Said made a distinction between pure knowledge and political knowledge.  An example of ‘pure knowledge’ is basic math. It was and is hardly possible for 2+2=4 to enable the domination of another group. Political knowledge, on the other hand, lent itself handily from specialist to policy. Said demonstrated how policy makers seek out the specialist, in this case the Orientalists, to shape their policies. These policies often involved the domination of those that the specialist studies and thus demonstrated Said and Foucault’s conception of knowledge as power.

Said’s first example of this was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1978. This invasion “set in motion… [processes]… that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives.” 

Said further described the process and ultimate goal of colonization:

“What the machine (the colonial power structure) branches feed into it in the East—human material, wealth, knowledge[…]—is processed by the machine and then converted into more power.”

Said then explained the role of Orientalism in the above process:

“The specialist does the immediate translation of mere Oriental matter into useful substance: the Oriental becomes, for example, a subject race, an example of Oriental mentality, all for the enhancement of the “authority” at home. “Local interests” are Orientalist special interests, the “central authority” is the greatest interest of the imperial society as a whole.”

Through the enabling of the Orientalist, the colonial power was and is able to transform the subjugated people, the subalterns, into mere raw materials that the empire consumed. This was another example of knowledge as power. The political knowledge of the Orientalists gave traction to the power of the subjugators. 

 4.4. Orientalism and Essentialism

The Orientalist enabled the transformation of people into materials by inscribing onto them essential qualities. These essential qualities were static, unchangeable and inferior to European qualities. Said quoted Paul Valéry as representative of this idea. Valéry said that while Europe owed its “heritage of the arts” and knowledge to the Orient, they were still “monsters”. Therefore, they had to be dealt with by “maintaining the power of choice.” This condition was timeless according to the Europeans. Said saw this as a grave error. Said stated this clearly in the afterword of Orientalism:

“…human identity is not only natural and stable, but constructed, and occasionally even invented outright.” 

Said noted that no one would dare form essential qualities of “the Negro mind” or “the Jewish personality,” however it was acceptable to form essential qualities of “the Islamic mind,” and “the Arab characters.” Such an essentialist view of the Orientals, of the Arabs, of the Semites, of Islam, therefore, is tantamount to racism. Even though the colonizers often thought they were bringing enlightenment to the uncivilized people, this paternalistic attitude was still as racist as the other forms of dominative theoretical frameworks.

4.5. Functionalist Racism and Said’s Solution

The false essentialism of Orientalism was and is inescapable for any scholar from the West. Said asserted, “No scholar, not even a Massignon, can resist the pressures on him of his nation or of the scholarly tradition in which he works.” Said, in step with his rejection of essentialism, did go on to say that one must allow for the possibility of an individual genius transcending one’s situation. However, this appeared to be highly unlikely, as no scholar had been able to do this so far. This subtle racism, like the violence claimed by the revolting peasants in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, is inherent in the system. 

Since it was almost impossible for any scholar in the West to break free of these bonds, how can one learn of other people’s groups? Said’s reply to this conundrum and to Spivak is that the subaltern could indeed speak. It was Said’s hope that his work would help break the bonds that Orientalism has held and is holding over the subaltern world. These bonds were to be broken by new studies of each culture’s history and experience by the respective cultures. 

5. Edward Said’s Major Claims In Orientalism

The four central claims that Said’s book makes are as follows:

  • First, while Orientalism presents itself as an objective field of study, it was used to justify the political domination of the East by the West.
  • Secondly, Orientalism was actually more about defining itself through the mirror of the East rather than it was about objectively studying it.
  • Third, points one and two are produced and reinforced by viewing the Orient as a homogenous group. This essentialist thinking was a false way of viewing people groups and their culture. Edward Said also rejects the validity of the terms Orient and Occident. Still, he employs them because this is how the argument has been framed by the Orientalists.
  • Lastly, the Orientalist scholars are the product of the system they come from. Due to this, they can’t help but to misrepresent the ‘Other’. Therefore, what we need is for the subaltern to speak for itself.

6. Orientalism by Edward Said: In a Nutshell

In summation, Said outlined a theory where Orientalism arose out of a need for the West to define itself as the opposite of a counterbalancing entity. Europe found this counterbalancing entity in the crusades to be the Orient. The West found itself in positions of political and military power over what it saw as the Orient and subsequently used this power to subjugate it. Developing alongside this power, giving legitimacy and traction, was the scholar of the Orient, the Orientalists. Once a tradition of superior values of the West and a static view of the Orient developed, the tradition crystalized. And it was and is nearly impossible to break free for any scholar inside the tradition. However, ‘[humans] make their own history” and every society is in a constant state of flux and development. 

Thus, what is necessary is for each people group to speak for itself and create discourses of its own history. They must share and dialogue with other people groups with the goal of true knowledge of the other and not merely political knowledge.

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