Home Deliberation ‘Orientalism’ : Paving The Way For Post-colonial Studies

‘Orientalism’ : Paving The Way For Post-colonial Studies

According to Said’s view the ‘Orient’ is a product of the West. The West was formulating the Orient as part of creating the ‘Other.

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The book ‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said published in 1978 was a strong blow to the elite European consciousness. The book exposed the wrong perceptions of colonialism. It has been 40 years in 2018 since this book which paved the way for a systematic study of post-colonialism was published. Though 40 years is a period enough to alter the social, political, cultural, civilizational traits, the methodology of criticism of Said still has space for new readings. The significance of ‘Orientalism’ comes forth as it guided the de-colonial studies that had come up during this period. Said opened new doors of thoughts for his criticizers including his successors. Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ has played a significant role in equipping the third world writers to rise to the level of ‘writing back to imperialism from the level of simply listening to the arguments of imperialism quietly. Edward Said presented to his successors through the book the materials and ammunitions to psychologically deconstruct colonialism. He is regarded and revered as the founder of post-colonial studies.

Hamid Dabashi comments “Orientalism was the right book at the right time by the right author. Solidly established as the pre-eminent literary theorist of his generation, Said wrote many books and articles before and after Orientalism. But Orientalism hit the right note at the most momentous occasion when the postcolonial world at large most needed it – when the condition of coloniality needed a thematic and theoretical decoupling from the framing of capitalist modernity at large. We on the postcolonial edges of capitalist modernity needed a defining text, a totem pole, a worldly testimony, to bring us all together – and Said was born to write that text and build that edifice.”[1]

Edward Wadi’ (William) Said was born on November 1, 1935 in Western Jerusalem. He was later known as Edward Said. He grew up in Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon. His father was a Palestinian and mother Lebanese. As a token of appreciation of the services in the First World War, his father was given American citizenship. Edward Said’s primary education was in the British-American schools in Jerusalem and Cairo. Said who has an English name as well as an Arabic name and has an American passport and studies in an Egyptian schools recollects in his auto-biography regarding the identity crisis. He used Arabic and English interchangeably and began to see dreams in both languages. When he spoke in English, the Arabic language echoed inside him. Many of Said’s friends in Egypt became rulers of Arab nations. His family shifted from Jerusalem to Cairo in the background of the conflicts developed as a result of the formation of State of Israel. In 1951 he left for America. He joined Northfield Mount Herman School in Masachusesst. Following that he pursued Bachelors from Princeton University and Masters and PhD from Harvard University. In 1963 he joined Columbia University as a teacher in English literature. He was promoted in 1967 as Assistant Professor in English and Comparative Literature and later on became Professor. He continued in this position until retirement. He has also worked as visiting professor in Stanford, Yale, Johns Hopkins etc. He breathed his last on September 25 in New York City.

Said who took initiatives in fundamental research in the field of literature, music, culture, politics etc. led an active public life through his writings and lectures. The cultural criticisms raised by Said were indeed disturbing the sleep of the conventional thinkers and devotees of imperialism. The elite Western academic world in one instance declared sacrosanct against him. But these didn’t deter him from his thoughts or weaken his stands and opinions. He continuously questioned the logic of the imperialist colonialism. The cooks in the kitchens of imperialism didn’t have answers for them.

Orientalism is subjected to study

Critical studies of the research of West about the Orient had come up at different levels long before the book ‘Orientalism’ was published in 1978. These studies revealed that the efforts of the West to study and understand the Orient were not completely naive. The search and investigation of the Western scholars about the ethos of the African nations and their traditional monuments were part of the plans and strategies to create a power and control over the Orient. It was part of the well-planned colonial project. It was not the reflection of the pure thirst of knowledge of the West. This fact was indeed advanced by Norman Daniel before Edward Said in his book Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (1960), Abdul Latheef Tibawi in English speaking Orientalists: A critique of their approach to Islam and Arab Nationalism, Anwar Abdul Malik in Orientalism in crisis, 1963, Syed Hussein al Atthas in The myth of Lazy native, 1977 etc. A lot of articles and essays came out during the 60’s and 70’s.

The Israeli war of 1967 encouraged Edward Said to view the world in a new dimension. Said made his pen his sword against the cruelty of Israel against Palestinians with the support of the imperial powers. He prepares to search in and out of Orientalism so as to openly expose to the world how Arabs and Islam are presented in an ugly manner by the West. He realized that the colonial projects of imperial powers can only be understood by having a sound understanding of Orientalism. The books and articles mentioned above had already set the academic atmosphere for this purpose. Edward Said himself had authored before writing his book articles such as Shattered Myths (1975), Arab Islam and Dogmas of the West (1976).

The oriental studies developed in parallel to the assaults of the colonial powers in the Asian African countries in the twentieth century. The study of the Orient by the West had already started in the thirteenth century in relation to the crusades though it was mainly limited to the needs of the Christian missionary activities like study of Arabic language and translation of Arabic books. It resulted in the transmission of a huge chunk of knowledge. When Arabic studies departments were being set up in European universities in the eighteenth century the aim of the Oriental studies had transformed from missionary activities to colonialism. It was the need of colonialism to degrade Islam and Muslims so as to find reasons for their assaults. Like the missionaries, Orientalists too took up this responsibility. This is how the wrong representation of Islam and Muslims becomes an academic need and catalyst for Europe. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t any solitary scholars who refused to be the shovels of colonialism. But the public face of Orientalism was anti-Islam. The studies of Orientalism reveal the fact that the Orientalists didn’t show any compassion or kindness to Islam as they had showed to non-Islamic cultures. Norman Daniel, Tibawi and many others have explained various dimensions of Orientalism. At the same time they have also registered their thanks towards the good dimensions of Orientalism.

Said’s adaptations

Ziauddin Sardar has pointed out that before Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ was published the Orientalist criticisms encircled around the borders of different subjects like history, politics, social science, religious studies etc. Said was able to gain an upper hand above his predecessors in the arguments. The success of Said is attributed to the fact that he was able to bring the focus of the discussion to the point of ‘Orient’ and open up a strong face of debate. According to Said’s view the ‘Orient’ is a product of the West. The West was formulating the Orient as part of creating the ‘Other’. They saw Orient as an integrity which is subjugated under them and which is under their control. After creating two poles namely the ‘West’ and the ‘Orient’, Orientalism established ‘Orient’ as them and ‘West’ as us. This was necessary to theorize two such opposite poles so as to establish the fact  that we (West) are much more efficient and qualified than them (Orient). In this way ‘Orient’ is an alien entity created in a smooth manner. Following that Orient was marked as the opposite to the West. If the Western individual is decent, logically sound and civilized, the Orient is bad, superstitious and uncivilized. It is natural that the civilized has the responsibility of civilizing the uncivilized and immature. For this purpose control of power was necessary. This is the logic of colonial imperialism. It is the ‘burden’ that the white man has taken on his shoulders to conquer and rectify the Africans and Asians. Edward Said says that the functioning of the Orientalist prejudice can be understood by researching the two thousand year old history of domination of the West beginning from the Greek Civilization. Said asserts that if the Orientalist litigation methods are analyzed vigilantly, the thirst for the ‘Otherization’ immersed in them can be clearly seen.

Western Orientalists themselves took the authority to construct the knowledge on the East (Orient). Through this they decided what Orient is and what should be Orient. Imaginations and myths had more priority than facts in them. This proves that their objective was not to understand and learn about a civilization or a culture different from them and live in harmony and peace with them. Said calls the imaginations and dreams of the West about the Orient as ‘latent’ Orientalism and the knowledge that is produced from them as ‘manifest’ Orientalism. Racism and untouchability are the inner essence of latent Orientalism. This spoils the image of the West about the Orient. The example for this is the Indian History of Jaimes Mill. According to the definition of, Orientalism has sprouted from the Western experiences. Oriental studies as the name suggests is not Orient.

Edward Said defines Orientalism in three ways. First is the version of an academic subject and second as a style of thought and the third as a corporate institution. He points out that as an academic institution the emergence of Orientalism is in the eighteenth century. Its rise is in the form of different subjects and sections. This knowledge that has been created through translations, studies, articles, essays etc. are the foundations of the Orient modeled by the West. The academic Orientalism flourished along with the European imperialism in between 1815 and 1914. As a method of thinking Orientalism presented the East as substandard and West as superior. Said affirms that this mental attitude was present in all the scholars of Orientalism. Corporate Orientalism is the effort to establish and ensure political domination over the Orient. This definition of Edward Said gives a comprehensive picture of Orientalism as litigation. All the aspects including social, economical, cultural, political etc. come under this phrase. Following Michael Foucault Said connected and established Orientalism excellently with the power centers. He also says in relation to this that ‘Supremacy and the inequalities in power and money are always present in humanity in all periods’. This inequality based power relation by visualizing the West above Orient is what Orientalism is wishing. Said establishes that this is not a fairy tale and also that this is what they have desired for now and always.

Criticisms

There is no doubt that Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ when it was published was indeed an intellectual revolution. It gave the courage to the intellectual world to deconstruct the knowledge projects of Orientalism with a new vision insight. Though many thinkers had pointed out these facts, most of them were not able to present the facts with such vigour, clarity and with the support of theories as Edward Said did. It was natural that tough criticisms came from the West against Said. Bernard Lewis, the spokesperson of Western Liberalism titled Said as ‘Anti-West’. The criticism came up that Said was facing the Eurocentric stands and opinions with Occidentalism i.e. reverse Euro centrism. Mahault Donzé-Magnier says, “While it is undeniable that Said’s work in Orientalism served as a major entry point world of analysis of post-colonial ideologies, the limitations of his work render it more complex than simply being a linear and universally accepted theory on how the Orient is perceived and treated. Orientalism as defined and supported by Said remains an excellent theory to understand the past relations between the Orient and the Occident. It allowed for great discussions to finally take place between the (former) oppressed and their oppressors but lacks not only a distinction between certain aspects of Orientalism, such as institutional versus social forms but also promotes parts of the ideology it is fighting against.”[2]       

Ziaudin Sardar blames that Said ignored the criticisms against Orientalism raised by his predecessors. Aijaz Ahmed comments that others have deconstructed Orientalism much better than Edward Said had done. Said didn’t analyze Orientalism in the angle of race; Aijaz Ahmed says this while talking from the Marxist point of view.       

It is pointed out that one of the main disadvantages of Edward Said is that he failed to see the criticisms raised in the West against the model of approach of Orientalism. Another criticism is that while Said analyzed Orientalism he didn’t do much to defend its onslaught. He was also not able to suggest instead of Orientalism. A criticism has also been raised that the tuning of Said regarding East and West are uniform in nature. Said’s silence about the German Orientalism which hasn’t established colonies in the East and hasn’t joined the imperial powers has also raised criticism. Critics also say he mixed knowledge and ideology. His de-colonial critics think that he borrowed the Orientalist analytical options to analyze and scrutinize Orientalism.

Conclusion

Criticisms only raise the reading value of any book. Said has addressed about the criticisms while he was alive in the prefaces of the later editions. The books written after ‘Orientalism’ like ‘The question of Palestine’, ‘Covering Islam’, ‘Cultural imperialism’ can be considered as the completion of ‘Orientalism’. These books like ‘Orientalism’ too are milestones in the post-colonial studies.

Footnotes

[1] Dabashi, Hamid; “Edward Said’s Orientalism: Forty years later”; Al Jazeera, 3rd May, 2018; https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/edward-orientalism-forty-years-180503071416782.html

[2] Donzé-Magnier, Mahault; “Edward Said: Orientalism”; Research Gate; Feb 5, 2017; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313360730_Edward_Said_Orientalism

6 COMMENTS

  1. Good article. Though Id highly recommend Wael Hallaq’s Restating Orientalism, which might be the most definitive criticism (or more of an extension of Said’s project by transcending his limitations as a secular-humanist) to this date.

  2. It seems there is a mistake in this statement:

    “The oriental studies developed in parallel to the assaults of the colonial powers in the Asian African countries in the twentieth century”

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