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Edward Said’s Orientalism

mai 18, 2012

Loïc Bertrand and Evan Fisher

A conventional assessment of Edward Said’s Orientalism reduces his entire thesis to the subtitle of the French edition : L’Orient créé par l’occident (The Orient created by the Occident). To summarize this point of view, Said ties Orientalism, that is the academic field, to colonization, registering them both in the same historical paradigm and, in one fell swoop, reproves an entire scholarly field. If this was really what he said, it would seem like a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say this right away, so there is no possible ambiguity. Said never claimed that the Occident created the Orient, that is, that the geographic and cultural area understood as “the Occident” invented the geographical and cultural area understood as “the Orient.” For Said, the Orient created by the West, is Orientalism. That is his thesis. Orientalism, born of the West, superimposed its own representations of the Orient, on the Orient.

In his summary of Orientalism, Edward Said, makes no attempt to be exhaustive; rather, he highlights the essential traits of Orientalism, in all its diversity. Because the first difficulty encountered when considering Orientalism, is the multiplicity and diversity of its output and quality. How do you develop under the same heading, an author’s travelogue from 1809, a soldier’s journal from 1840, a Jesuit’s report from 1870, and university conferences from 1883 and 1950, etc.?

Said’s analysis is based upon Foucault’s conception of the analysis of discourse. The postulate defended by Foucault is that a concept does not necessarily refine itself progressively. Used over time, it is activated and reactivated, its use changing according to the person exploiting it, the conditions that make this exploitation possible, and a larger historical context. The course taken by an idea through history, and the mass of texts associated with it, constitute a discourse.

The idea in question here is that of the Orient. Its use throughout history, and the texts attached to it, constitutes Orientalism.

Modern Orientalism

The use of Orientalism as a discourse, throughout history, to justify action in and on the Orient, political and religious, has remained a constant.  The acquisition of positive knowledge remained subordinate to this justification, and was therefore determined by an imperative of utility.  As this body of knowledge conditioned the available attitudes towards the Orient, artists and authors referencing Orientalists reproduce this same logic of domination. And they also give credence to, and dialectically reinforce, Orientalist discourse, by citing its authors and confirming their statements.

This outline suggests a division of Orientalism into three parts, each one complementing and supplementing the other two.  Their successive emergence suggests a historical progression, each step renewing and reinforcing both the tenants of Orientalism and the Orientalist’s role.

“In the beginning there was the Text, and the Text was with the Orient…

The first step to be taken in the construction of Orientalist discourse is the creation of a corpus, a body of texts, a set of references that touch on the idea, the Orient.  The birth of Orientalism as an academic field dates to 1312 when church fathers decided to set up chairs for the study of Oriental languages in European capitals.  This first period belongs to biblical scholars, approaching the Orient through the Holy Land.  With the Renaissance, and a new tradition of erudition, the field was transformed.

In 1697, the first comprehensive presentation of the Orient, using Arab and Persian texts as a principal source, was given by Barthélemy d’Herbelot and his  Bibliothèque Orientale, in which the area studied expands. The geographical confines of Orientalism extend from the Atlas Mountains to the Mongolian steppe, the period described starts with creation and ends in the 17th century; the topics covered are as diverse as geography and theology, dynastic genealogies and tribal customs.

Yet Herbelot is quite happy compiling information on the Orient.  He makes no attempt at analysis, even if criticism is implicit in his selection of texts, and explicit in his hostility towards Islam.  But more than anything else, the style he adopts is didactic.  However, in order to be able to teach the Orient, Herbelot must first create a finite and knowable Orient, he must tame dangerous heresy, domesticate the insane and transform entire continents and cultures into neat, sensible and essentialized encyclopedia entries.  Doing so successfully demonstrates the Orientalist’s power over the Orient, bolsters his position and adds weight to what he has said and will say.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt in 1798, with its division of scholars and scientists incorporated into the army, is the next gigantic act in the formulation of an academic Orientalism.  They applied new social theories to Egypt and reported on their “discoveries” in the twenty three volume Description de l’Egypte.  The approach was textual, meaning that the Orient was understood through the exclusive use of texts.  Napoleon prepared for the expedition by reading and studying, paying particular attention to Constantin de Volney’s Considération de la guerre actuelle des Turcs, which deals with complications and strategy tied to invading and colonizing an Ottoman province.  The expedition is a turning point because it allows scholars to work within the framework of occupation, associating military and cultural domination.  This determines a certain relationship to the Orient, and, above all, demonstrates that the Orient is attainable.

As the Orientalist is credible, his writings influence those who read them and then determine in part actual experiences. When amateur Orientalists start to travel to “the Orient” in the first half of the 19th century, their writings adopt, renew and expand Orientalist essentialism.  From writers like Lord Byron, and artists like Delacroix, to soldiers like Richard Burton, “the Orient” was again approached “textually.”  As such, these men continue to reference such stereotypes as Oriental despotism, luxury, cruelty and sloth.  Reality proved surprisingly easy to ignore and discrepancies between “the Oriental,” as he had been described, and actual Orientals met, were relegated to the realm of the exceptional and anecdotal.

…and the Text was the Orient.”

This does not mean that for Orientalists, and those that read and used them, that there was no such thing as a “good” Orient.  But the “good” was lost, a golden age, nearly mythical time and place peopled with Pharaohs and Muslim philosophers.  And there was of course a “bad” Orient too, the one they had in front of them.  As a result, there is nearly always talk of disappointment with “the Orient” and a preference for the “collective European daydream”, for the idea of a lotus and not a real lotus, which was, according to Nerval, a type of onion.  In their writings and paintings, they transmit once more these experiences, determined by Orientalist references.  They substantiate what had been said by their predecessors and add a new layer, a new level of complexity to the Orientalist discourse.

Throughout the first half of the 18th century, these encyclopedic sources of reference were used by writers and artists, furnishing their works with picturesque decors and a typology of possible characters.  In the second half of the century, empire and positivism do not so much as transform the field as they do update it, applying the foundations of Oriental discourse to a new world order, justifying domination and colonization.  The era of amateurs was over almost before it had begun. The French expedition in Egypt had been a failure, but the tone was set and the administrative needs of European Empire dictated a change in the field. Said says that, staring at this time, “an Orientalist was no longer a gifted amateur enthusiast, or if he was, he would have trouble being taken seriously as a scholar.” Administrators needed information on the present, and the Oriental past was no longer studied seriously, even if it was still used to dress a typology of Orientals (past and present).  Knowing the Oriental, for scholars and officers alike, was a means to an end; effective and profitable administration.

Once again, the belief in the fundamental difference of Orientals had been inherited from bygone days.  The question Said asks is what does “different” means exactly when stripped of the particle “from”? Unless the West is taken as the benchmark.

Cumulative Identity and Coherence within Orientalism

A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporate identity, one that is particularly strong given its associations with traditional learning, public institutions, and generically determined writing.

Said repeatedly redefines Orientalism throughout his work but the multiplication of definitions does not correspond to a refinement of one all-encompassing description.  Rather, all his definitions are equally valid, revealing the cumulative and corporate quality of Orientalism and reflecting its progression and renewal across the ages.

All of Said’s efforts tend to demonstrate that Orientalism, as a field of erudition, scholarship and European culture, has not perfected itself over time; rather, it has repeatedly restructured itself, following the evolution of the Humanities, and changing historical context, especially colonization in which Orientalism had an important role to play.  But, as a field, it has managed to conserve a set of references and representations, continuously reactivated and updated, but nonetheless a constant throughout the history of Orientalism.

This set of references is the keystone of Said’s work, and the key to his understanding of Orientalism.  His project is to “describe the economy that makes Orientalism a coherent subject matter.” His response is that it is this bank of available prejudices and beliefs, relayed from the end the end of the 18th century on, and reactivated throughout the history of Orientalism, taking on each time a new form.  This set of references represents a “second-order knowledge,” that permeates any positive knowledge on the Orient. Its source is in imagination and ideology, not in observation.  These references and representations, made available to all, are what make up what Said calls “latent Orientalism,” described as “a layer of doctrine about the Orient; this doctrine was fashioned out of the experiences of many Europeans, all of them converging upon such essential aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism, Oriental sensuality, and the like.”

These representations of the Orient, on which all writings converge, are the source of Orientalism’s coherence.  Produced and then confirmed by academics, popularized by novelists, politicians and artists, these representations seem permanent and intangible, like the set of a play that never changes though the acts and scenes continue to unfold.  In the academic world these representations had many uses.  They offered an epistemological framework for research and a connoted vocabulary.  They also served as a premise, allowing the use of notions with no corresponding reality.  Additionally, they presented the opportunity to reaffirm ideas about the Orient, outside of disciplinary rigor, in metaphysical demonstrations made possible by the connoted vocabulary and the repetition of empty, abstract phrases.

Orientalism is of course subject to History, but it is the status of Orientalists in Europe and the methods used that evolve.  Not how the Orient is presented, distilled into a set of ontological characteristics.

Orientalism’s Orient

As a judge of the Orient, the modern Orientalist does not, as he believes and even says, stand apart from it objectively; (…) his Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized.

Artists and travelers, colonial administrators and academics, all position themselves in relation to these representations, which they then confirm and feed. But never do they question them. “Nineteenth century Orientalism was the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient.”  Starting in the second half of the 19th century, “the Orient existed as a place isolated from the mainstream of European progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce ; (…) The very possibility of development, transformation, human movement – in the deepest sense of the word – is denied the Orient and the Oriental.”

Such a consistency was a form of cultural praxis, a system of opportunities for making statements about the Orient.

Orientalism’s Orient is an intangible idea. The Modern Orient is the disappointing heir of the Ancient, the essential subject matter of scholarly research in the first half of the 19th century.  After the 1850’s, with the urgency of formal colonial domination, it became necessary to write more about the contemporary Orient, but always in a utilitarian perspective of domination.

As such, the object of study is scorned.  In the context of colonization, the Orient is the irreducible Other.  But Orientalism rid the Orient of this difference by “[eliding] the Orient’s difference with its weakness. p. 201”  Once again, such essentialist affirmations as “Islam is really no more than a second-order Aryan heresy” see the light of day, presenting the Orient and the Oriental as fundamentally weak and static.

Starting with such a generic idea of the Orient, the crisis within Orientalism makes sense.  This crisis, beginning at the end of the Second World War, is the focus of the last part of Said’s book.   “Unable to recognize “its” Orient in the new Third World, Orientalism now faced a challenging and politically armed Orient. (…) To the Orientalist who believes the Orient never changes, the new is simply the old betrayed by new, misunderstanding dis-Orientals.(p. 104)”  The crisis, still operative in 1977 when Said finished Orientalism, was rooted in a new awareness of the disparity between texts and reality as the East emancipated itself.

The Orient created by the West is Orientalism.  By that, Said does not say there is a real and self-determined Orient, which we have yet to access.  Rather, he insists Orientalism has become, because of the representations it associates with the Orient, its principal agent, and in doing so has said less about the Orient than it has about the West.   Said ends with Orientalism’s triumph, showing the continued relationship between area experts and power, and the permanence of Orientalism’s representations of the Orient in the political, popular and academic spheres.

An implicit conclusion in Said’s work concerns the epistemological position to take when studying “the Orient.”  He ends up invalidating all of them.  Considering the Orient as the Other essentializes his characteristics, which are more decided than observed anyway.  Considering the Orient as the same means eliding its difference with its weakness, and making the Orient a backwards partner of the West, behind on some race towards civilization, also defined ideologically.  Letting the Orient go, forgetting the representations we have been fed, recognizing it as a notion whose appearance and evolution are tied to precise historical conditions, ultimately means discarding the Orientalist as the sole interpreter of the cultural phenomenon called “the Orient.”


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