Edward Said, on ‘Orientalism’ (Bite-Sized Study Guide)

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Edward Said, on Orientalism

Edward Said is known mainly for his contribution to postcolonial studies on the topic of ‘Orientalism’ – this being a consideration of the many different stereotypes that are present in the representation and understanding of the many Asian communities. ‘The Orient’, of course, refers to more than a designated geographical region, and encompasses rich variations of cultural traditions, customs and languages, each with their own history and sociology.  However, through the emergence and maintenance of Orientalism, these heterogeneous societies have been singularised. By controlling epistemological perceptions within the Western world, the entire Oriental race is represented as being biologically, culturally and intellectually inferior.

This strategy for accumulating knowledge becomes a form of dominance over their chosen subject. There is an ever-present implication in the construction of the self/other binary opposition of the Orient’s innate inadequacy and backwardness in the face of the constant superiority of the Occident (i.e. the Westernised world). Said argues that the multiple inert assumptions we hold about their innate dissimilarities (referred to as ‘latent Orientalism’) manifest themselves in the political, literal and philological texts, leading to the portrayal of the Orient as subordinate and ‘lamentably alien’.

With this in mind, it is difficult to describe features accentuating Oriental ‘otherness’ or societal differences without adhering to Western stereotypes and methods of perceptive categorisation, even when aware of their racist undertones. Common associations include sensuality (e.g. perfumes, spices) and exotic mysticism (e.gs range from the Buddhist religion to fortune cookies), and willingness towards resignation, submission and outside influence (e.g. in dictatorship and dynasty).

Said has multiple critics. Porter concedes that Said’s text has value, insofar as it examines the relationship between manifest Orientalism and its latent, originating ideas about the Orient, rather than trying to consolidate the biased perception of Orientalism with historical and biological facts. However, he notes that it contains a fundamental contradiction in its basic structure. Said’s attempt to correlate two incompatible ideas – Foucault’s discourse theory and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony – leads to a somewhat dualistic and disjointed analysis of the relationship between ideology and truth.

Said adopts Foucault’s approach when choosing to overlook qualitative distinctions between text forms, historical contexts and intended audiences, grouping them as one unified Western discourse.  In making no contrast between ‘pure’ knowledge of the Orient and its political counterpart, he implies that no progression of thought is possible. In doing so, he fails to appreciate literature’s unique self-awareness and ability to conjure ‘counter-hegemonic voices’.

Porter argues that the presence of ideas opposing Orientalism within literature demonstrates that alternatives are not only possible, they already exist. Said, too, admits the presence of a real Orient, arguing in Gramscian tradition that Orientalism is merely circulated representations.  It must logically follow, then, that the truth is therefore knowable and distinguishable from hegemonic discourse.

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7 thoughts on “Edward Said, on ‘Orientalism’ (Bite-Sized Study Guide)

  1. Interesting, although I wonder how Orientalism has been affected in the US by the continued success, particularly in educational endeavors, of immigrants from Asia. Hard to argue for Oriental inferiority when the Asian kids win every national spelling bee.
    I anticipate your post on Antonio Gramsci, since in this case I’m not a pessimist of intelligence, but rather optimistic that you will have something on the great Italian Marxist.

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    • I could certainly put some notes about Gramsci together 🙂 You love your Marxists! I think that the main changes that have come about in recent years is the increase in a corresponding ‘Occidentalism’ (i.e Asian communities stereotyping and romanticising American and Western culture), and also the way that Oriental stereotypes have been built upon in marketing campaigns, etc., like Japan’s national brand, ‘Cool-Japan’. I do think that the sorts of westerners who generate and perpetuate these stereotypes are struggling to find things that the West are better at, but sadly, I don’t think that necessarily breeds understanding. I wish it id! I like the idea of the Orient reclaiming subsequent heterogeneous identities, though… When we realise that Japan and China are as different as England and France are (i.e. very!), for instance, we’ll finally be getting somewhere…

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  2. Ha! You know what I mean… I know people who refer to Thai, Japanese, Korean and Chinese food collectively as being ‘Chinese’, and often when considering their power in the global arena, Asian countries are usually merged into one big ‘superpower’, despite the fractured nature of some of the relationships between these countries. All I’m trying to say is that we wouldn’t group the nationalities of Europe, the USA, Australia, etc. into one homogeneous category that was fundamentally, all-encompassingly ‘Western’ or ‘white’ – the idea that the same can be done for the Asian communities is laughable, and yet stereotypes and clichés about the Orient remain.

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  3. Is the view of orientals from the late 1970s by Edward Said? They might not be as relevant as they are today with the changing world. Immigrating orientals make up a big number in Canada, Australia and USA, so it is kind of a blurred misconception of what oriental “intelligence” are at. Also, a lot of the Buddhist “true” orientals (living in traditional oriental ways) pursue life in a more spiritual way. They are very in tune with nature and progressing in a way the westerner world might not understand. Not to say all of orientals are Buddhist Tibetan monks either but the spectrum for what it is to be oriental is quickly dissolving and is now diluted to be just human beings or people in general. There is no race or face in a progression behind a new vaccine, or a new program, or new movie/video game. They’ve become a part of a force or collection of people as will the rest of the world when time allows it. And i have to argue that Japanese/Korean food is superior to the Chinese, even though Chinese food is also very good. And this is an unbiased opinion from a very Canadian born Vietnamese.

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    • I think you’ve got a point there – Said’s ideas are very much a product of his time. I do think it’s an interesting theory, but it can be reductive in it’s approach to Occident vs Orient – as, like you said, the lines between the two become more blurred every day.

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