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.