Today’s topic is Edward Said’s book Orientalism and how it exemplifies what cultural scholars, historians and so forth frequently describe as “othering” – the mechanism of defining who “we” are by defining who “we” not are – who is “the other”.
Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University and today counted among the founders of the field of post-colonial studies, published his book Orientalism in 1978. It deals with the representation of “the East” – the societies and people who inhabit Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia – in Western literature, media, and art. Specifically with how a specific canon of representation has evolved from the 19th century forward that constitutes a hegemonic discourse that constitutes in Said’s words “the ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”” and that has become both an instrument of domination and a defining feature of how “the West” defines itself.
Some long time readers of this feature might find terms such as hegemony and discourse already familiar – Said relies heavily both on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as well as on Foucault’s notion of discourse, which have been discussed before here and here.
The essence of Said’s argument in Orientalism is that the representation of “the Orient” in Western art, culture, and academia – the Western knowledge of the Eastern world – is not based upon an objective exercise of intellectual inquiry but upon a fictional depiction in the form of an intellectual exercise in self-affirmation. It is a system of thought that in the words of Said “approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing no less enduring Western essence”.
The examples he cites from Orientalist fiction, covering everything from travel literature of the 19th century to 20th century academic texts show the strong discursive tendency to exoticise the East, portraying it as irrational, psychologically weak, feminized, industrially backward, despotic and backward which is contrasted with both an implicit and often explicit portrayal of the West as rational, psychologically strong, masculine, and capitalistically developed.
The Orient that is reproduced in culture, academia and politics is a field of projection unto which the West throws the negative images of its own self-image. It is constructed both in a negative and imaginary frame: As a realm of despotism and backwardness but also as the abode of legend, fairy tales, and marvels; of senusuality and pleasure. It epitomized longing for a different option. Alongside alleged Eastern cruelty, the portrayal of the Orient also – through its relationship with the feminine – involved sensuality and being a refuge from the alienation of the rapidly industrializing West. As Said writes:
Scenes of harems, and slave markets were for many Western artists a pretext by which they were able to cater to the buyer’s prurient interest in erotic themes (…) Such pictures were, of course, presented to Europeans with a “documentary” air and by means of them the Orientalist artists could satisfy the demand for such paintings and a the same time relieve himself of any moral responsibility by emphasizing that these were scenes of a society that was not Christian and had different moral values.
But Orientalism entails more than mere projection. Like every comparison, it creates dichotomy and thus entails a power relationship. It works in a dialectical relationship with an alleged European mission to civilize and like every hegemonic discourse has a tendency to assert itself in a very real power dynamic. As Said asserts “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” It creates both the basis and the legitimacy for how scores of Western politicians, experts, and colonial administrators have dealt with the alleged Orient, from North Africa to India and thus has very real implications for the relations of power between the political regions of Europe and the US and the aforementioned regions of “the Orient”.
What Said has written about in Orientalism is of relevance to historians, even those who deal not with the Orient per se, because of the particular lessons it teaches that can be expanded beyond the particular example of the Orient:
The first one is the importance of the Other as revealing about the self. How past and present cultures and societies describe those they see as different is an important factor in revealing something about themselves. This concept of the Other was originally pioneered in the field of philosophy, by Edmund Husserl in his phenomenology and in the field of psychology with the Other being constituent for the self. In a more historical sense and following Said, given that the Orient is not real, not an inert fact of nature but rather a discoursive construct with a historical formation, we can glean more about those who define themselves as the West by reading what they have to write about the Orient than about the countries and societies that are the alleged Orient. This is not limited to that particular example: From the Roman and Greek writing about the Barbarians to the 19th century German discourse on Jews and Slavs, historians have learned and realized to examine these as more revealing to their authors than about their subjects.
Expanding this, historical discourses on the Other are almost always power discourses, meaning they have the tendency to assert themselves in concrete and manifest power relations. Here Said’s relevance for post-colonial studies comes into play for what kind of knowledge is produced about certain people can strongly influence the relations of power with them. Subjugation can justified this way, as can colonial projects and continued discriminatory measures. This reading is also one that can be applied in a fruitful manner by historians of almost every period and every region – seeing how not only identities of self are solidified through the Other but how they change and shape the relationship with the alleged other is a topic relevant from the beginning of antiquity to the present day.
In short: Said’s writings on Orientalism make interesting reading even for those who do not deal with the Orient for it exemplifies certain dynamics and relations that are relevant throughout human history and can help particularly those of us who are in academia take a critical look on what kind of knowledge we produce within the framework of its historical context. For more, read Said’s introduction to this book, where he also addresses criticisms here.
It is really striking just how much of our understanding of history and culture is shaped by this particular form of colonialist self-definition. My field, for one, thrives on Orientalism, and trying to let go of this worldview involves giving up a lot of the things we think we know.
The Greeks, of course, were the earliest people to “Orientalise”, in the sense that they created a negative stereotype of the Eastern foreigner that has much in common with the othering process described and criticised by Said. They often derided the Persians as effeminate, deceptive, physically weak, despotic, and decadent. But this was the product of their lived experience: a single enormous Empire dominated the East, and the Greek sense of self emerged in large part from the simple fact that mainland Greece had managed to resist Persian expansion. Recent scholarship has argued that the Greek identity itself rose from this act of orientalist negation: “Greeks” are those who are not like Persians, who fought the Persians and won. Many of the specific dimensions of their view of the East developed out of historical realities like the immense wealth of Persia.
But it is the more modern kind of Orientalism described by Said that has led to these Greek stereotypes remaining prevalent. Scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, strongly influenced by the Orientalist perceptions of their day, were unapologetically uncritical of the Greek narrative of Greek superiority over the feminine, irrational Persian. They were only too happy to repeat the Greek claims that supported their notion of a timeless, homogenous East. Stories from Herodotos and Xenophon and tales of court intrigue and royal extravagance found in Ktesias were such a perfect fit for contemporary Orientalism that they could be instantly transposed to the Ottoman Empire through a mere swapping of names. Greek prejudices helped shape Orientalism, and Orientalism in turn kept Greek prejudices alive.
The result is that much of what you read in all but the most recent textbooks about the Achaemenid Persian Empire and its conflicts with the Greeks is stereotyped nonsense. Invariably, the Persian court is sketched in terms that bring the dress and architecture of 19th century harem paintings irresistibly to mind. The Persian Empire is typically described as a power in terminal decline, ineffective in war, ruled by cruel despots, softened by luxury and decadent to the core. The battles it fought in the Persian Wars and against Alexander are almost always presented as foregone conclusions, in which the light-armed and cowardly Persians never really stood a chance of defeating the mighty, manly Greeks. And this is what goes for *scholarship.* When pop culture gets its hands on the Persians, sheer undiluted Orientalism runs wild, and the result is movies like *Alexander* and *300*.
It’s only in the last few decades that scholars have begun to become aware of the field’s prejudices, and to resist the clichés of Orientalism. With the emergence of the field of Achaemenid Studies in the 1980s, it became a goal to try to analyse the history of this empire without the Greeks’ orientalising goggles on. It is now, at last, increasingly recognised that the Greeks formed the western fringe of a deeply interconnected Levantine cultural zone that cannot justifiably be separated into “West” and “East”. But it will take many more years before wider audiences will be used to the idea of recognising the actual nature and achievements of the Persians, instead of mentally amalgamating them with everyone else we identify as “Oriental”.
In my graduate studies, Said’s work on Orientalism seems so foundational that to encounter a contemporary historical monograph that doesn’t reference the subject in some way is almost surprising. He joins the ranks of Foucault as one of those mythical figures of historiography, always worth paying respects to.
But given the prominence of his work, I wonder: do any professional historians encounter professional historical work that makes you think “Ah, this person didn’t read Said.” Or is Orientalism only really a discursive factor in non-academic spheres (i.e. film, politics, etc.)? Also, what are some of the common criticisms of his notion of “Orientalism”?
As an aside, did Edward Said coin the term “The Occident”, or did that exist prior?