keep calm and stop calling orientals ‘exotic’

August 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I decided to get a little head start on my school readings to avoid initial bombardment once the semester begins. Since I’ll be taking Intro to Post Colonial Theory, I’ve started Orientalism by Edward Said. What follows is just a rehashing of Said’s pioneering stance on and epistemological delineation of Orientalism and its complex impact on history, ideology, material realities, and contemporary issues—just a concise synthesis to keep my thoughts fresh as I wait for class discussion.
The most obvious question to begin with is what exactly is Orientalism? Said is so painstakingly precise, yet complex when he approaches this question; his explanation couldn’t be more lucid, yet I find myself overwhelmed with the question. What is Orientalism? “How can one describe it all together as a historical phenomenon, a way of though, a contemporary problem, and a material reality” (44)? Well, it’s complicated.
Briefly, Orientalism is a discourse the West (Europe and America) created, structured, restructured in order to understand and “manage” the East (India and the Levant—basically, the Middle East but China, Japan, North and South Korea, Africa can also be considered similarly). The East—its people and its geographical boundaries—is subsumed under the term “the Orient,” and the Orient, more specifically the attitudes, perceptions, assumptions that are conjured up when the Orient is mentioned, is not an inherent aspect of the world. But when we think of the East, the Middle East, the Orient we (“we” as in the Western world) tacitly understand that there’s a difference between the East and the West—“them” and “us”. Asked to describe the East, it seems natural—I don’t think anyone would argue that this is unfamiliar or far-fetched—to label the Orient as “exotic”, “mystic”, “fascinating”, “unfamiliar”, “foreign”, “alluring”, “bizarre”, “romantic”, “avant garde”…but where do these distinctions come from? Surely, one would never think to call America a land of mystery, a country laden with exquisite exoticness just waiting to be discovered and experienced; but it is not so difficult to see India through that lens, is it? Why does this difference between the East (the Orient) and West (the Occident) exist?
To believe that the difference between the East and West has always been “there”, that it happened naturally, is to be “disingenuous,” as Said says. “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (5). The late Renaissance was a period of “extraordinary European ascendancy,” a time where Europe experienced a surge of global power because of scientific, education, economic, and political advances. Out of this hegemony emerged a “sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world” was constructed and shaped, “first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections” (8). While this European power flourished and reached its peek in the late nineteenth century, that Western power, that assumed superiority over the East lives on and still pervades the present day. It is a power largely based on the production of knowledge, and this knowledge tells the European or American encountering the Orient (whether in actual life, in texts, in thoughts, etc) that his nationality comes first, his individual impression second (11).
Over the course of history, this production of knowledge—which is Orientalism—has injected a “geopolitical awareness” of the binarized East and West into all cultural and political institutions where at its core is the template of “the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (42), where “ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do” (12). It is a discourse that is structured in a way that always promotes “the differences between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)” (43). It shows up in literature (among the many authors Said enumerates as participating in Orientalism, he goes into specific detail with Aeschylus (56) and Dante (68)); in academic disciplines, in political and economic agendas/accounts (see accounts on Cromer, Balfour, Kissinger—Said bridges their Orientalist rhetoric in the political sphere past and present day).
Said cites three European projects on the Orient that officially created what he has been calling Orientalism. The first was by theoretician Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), who traveled to India where he translated a collection of Avestan texts, “opening large vistas” of Oriental vision for the Europeans to interpret for themselves. “For the first time, the Orient was revealed to Europe in the materiality of texts, languages, and civilizations” (77). The second of these projects was by William Jones, a poet, jurist, historian, and scholar who wrote, “it is my ambition to know India better than any other European ever knew it” (78). Leaving England to India in 1783, Jones embarked on a personal study of the Orient and documented his findings in to his work “Objects of Enquiry During My Residence in Asia”. In this written account Jones labeled, “codify[ed]”, “tabulat[ed]”, and compar[ed]” (77) the Orient to the West; he domesticated them, making it his goal to “rule and learn” (78) of them in every possible way for the benefit of the Europeans, so Europeans could better understand them, the Orient. Jones thus turned the Orient “into a province of European learning,” becoming the “undisputed founder of Orientalism” (78).
Most influential to Orientalism was the third project, Napoleon’s well known invasion of Egypt in 1798, where he installed French colonies and made Egypt an object of unlimited European study and inquiry, a “department of French learning” by bringing in travelers, scholars, conquerors to survey and write about the land (83). While this historical event has been well documented and studied by historians, Said makes the excellent point that Napolean’s interest in Egypt—the reason why he chose Egypt—was fostered and cultivated by “ideas and myths culled from texts, not empirical reality” (80). These texts were translated or written by European authorities—Orientalists—and therefore, prior to his arrival in Egypt, he already had specific expectations of the Orient, a vision of the Orient that was based off of European interpretation. Where is the Orient’s voice in all of this?
Although Napolean’s military occupation in Egypt failed, his invasion “gave birth to the entire modern experience of the Orient…what would happen as a continuing legacy of the common Occidental mission of the Orient would be the creation of new projects, new visions, new enterprises combining additional parts of the old Orient with the conquering European spirit” (87). From then on the Orient appeared to the world as an entity that always, inevitably harkened back to European powers; their history was not their own history but a history constructed by Orientalists.
That Said emphasizes the European encounter or experience with the Orient through texts is crucial, as it is most responsible for the dissemination of Orientalist vision. To begin, it is impossible for reality (Jameson’s the Real), the “swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live”, to be transmitted 100 percent accurately into a text: “to apply what one learns out of a book literally to reality is to risk folly or ruin” (93). Yet that is exactly what European travelers, scholars, historians, scientists, etc did to “prepare” for their real encounter with the Orient. They read books, telling them what to expect, what the countries are like, how the people are. When travelers, and this is perfectly applicable to present day, say their experience in a new country wasn’t what they expected, it means that it “wasn’t what a book said it would be,” testifying to that “greater authority” a text may have over actual reality (93). This is one of the two “textual attitudes” Said elaborates on, and his point is that texts carry an aura of expertise and authority; they “create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe” (my emphasis 94). This is exactly the way discourses, like Orientalism, are created: “In time such knowledge [in texts] and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is responsible for the texts produced out of it” (94).
For me, Orientalism was one of the hardest books to summarize! As I’ve already mentioned, Said’s language is so clear and well organized, yet there is so much to unpack. This book is truly a masterpiece and I’m afraid I didn’t do it any justice at all. I’ve left out so many points, so many important details. I am hoping that what I’ve gone over in this post will only guide me back to the other elements I’ve left out.


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