More than three decades after its first publication, Edward Said's groundbreaking critique of the West's historical, cultural, and political perceptions of the East has become a modern classic. In this wide-ranging, intellectually vigorous study, Said traces the origins of "orientalism" to the centuries-long period during which Europe dominated the Middle and Near East and, from its position of power, defined "the orient" simply as "other than" the occident. This entrenched view continues to dominate western ideas and, because it does not allow the East to represent itself, prevents true understanding. Essential, and still eye-opening, Orientalism remains one of the most important books written about our divided world.
Said's prose is pretentious and convoluted, and his rigid writing style gives the book the feel of a long term paper. The author sets forth his main argument within the first several pages, and the subsequent 300+ pages outline his supporting examples. As the book was written in the 1970's, and Said uses examples primarily from the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries, his argument ultimately fails to strike home and lacks relevance in today's society. He does, however, score some points against current "Orientalists" such as Bernard Lewis (which is very relevant today due to Lewis' impact on the Middle Eastern foreign policy and decision to go to war in Iraq during the Bush Administration). This fact reminds the reader that while the argument is less relevant today, the Orientalist mentality has not completely disappeared.
Said uses a caustic and condescending tone throughout the book, and many of his attacks are personal, and serve to both undermine the strength of his arguments, and to demean the author himself.
Overall, if one is a serious student of the Middle East and Islam, this book does provide one with valuable perspective on biases that may exist in other sources of information, both written and oral. However, for the casual reader, the book will be a difficult slog.
But Said's specific case also doubles to demonstrate one of his larger points, a big ambitious idea that becomes inarguable by the end. The trite quip about how the observer affects the observer is true—that culture, studies, and texts are used as tools of power, and often as an extension of efforts to subjegate the studied.
Now a weaker version of this hypothesis is pretty common-sense; we all know about explicitly political works, didactic fables, and the like. In a mildly more subtle fashion, we can also point to marxist/feminist/etc. readings of texts that expose the hidden assumptions, or we can recognize that culture was often funded towards explicitly political goals, such as the CIA funding the arts to demonstrate American superiority during the Cold War.
But even the academy was—and still is—infected by this same problem. Sciences were born under the assumption that we had to study and define cultures because the natives couldn't handle it themselves. Or even worse, we defined those cultures in our own minds *without* consulting the native peoples, as their input would surely complicate any self-satisfied narrative. Archeology was one tool, for sure, but it extended to where most of the "canonical" works that chronicle Asian, African, or South American cultures are actually written by outsiders.
In essence, Said is arguing for the importance of post-colonial fiction, a field that only started to cohere after he wrote *Orientalism*. More widely, it's a call to read more works in translation, to learn about cultures through the way they know themselves.
Now what I've typed so far makes the book sound great, right? But while Said's book starts out strong—explicating his thesis and making a case for its importance—after the first 100 pages it rapidly gets lost in the weeds. The problem is partially a function of his thesis, arguing that Westerners fell pray to useful simplifications that ignored the actual reality of the people in the "Orient". So to avoid biting that critique himself, Said needs to provide those very details to support his thesis. He can't afford to be too sweeping, since that's what he's warning against!
But the writing style, and the detail of the source exegesis, makes me think that the bigger obstacle is that Said's book was aimed at an academic audience. It's possible to be scholarly yet narrative, and there are any number of works that accomplish both. (My personal favorite: Caro's work on LBJ, which both tells an epic story and is supported by a mountain of original research.) But to put it frankly, Said's work falls flat after the first section, cataloguing endless previous works and name-dropping the hell out of scholars and gentlemen-adventurers who helped form the field of oriental studies.
In the end, I could only stand about 100 pages of the close-readings, eventually skipping large chunks in the hope that something—anything—would be worthwhile in the rest of the book. And to my dismay, there really wasn't. I should have been cautious due to Said's early-and-often asshole move of quoting French sources without providing any sort of translation, but quickly learned my lesson in trudging through the rest.
In the end, Said's book constitutes a lovely forest, yet gets lost in telling us all about every single one of the trees. There's material out there for a great and fascinating book, chronicling how the assumptions continued to be expressed in "reputable" works of the present; it just isn't this one.
This book is for academics, and it is about the academy. It is assumed you know the names Flaubert, Renan, Dante, Schwab, Nerval, Goethe, etc, and can appreciate their works. The lessons are of course valid and extrapolatable to outside of the academy, however, the book relies fairly heavily on referencing these authors. This is of course natural. In addition to being a seminal work of postcolonialism, it is also a comparative literature book. The rating that I gave is due to my immense enjoyment of the former aspects and my ignorance of and indifference to the latter.
It is also assumed that you speak English (naturally) but also French and German. There are untranslated passages- sometimes mere sentences, sometimes several paragraphs- in the aforementioned languages. Had I read the book, rather than listened to it, I would have skipped over these sections. But since it was an audiobook, I just waited them out.
Orientalism is about how colonialism creates archetypes for entire swaths of unrelated peoples, and the political consequences of thinking this way. This has been done for hundreds of years, but it has much more dire political consequences in the age of unmanned Predator drones and resource wars. "This system now culminates in the very institutions of the state. To write about the Arab Oriental world, therefore is to write [...] with the unquestioned certainty of absolute truth backed by absolute force." Orientalism is an example of colonialist mindset. It "calls in question not only the possibility of nonpolitical scholarship, but also the advisability of too close a relationship between the scholar and the state."
The Arab Mind, Oriental despotism, Arabic sensuality, sloth, fatalism, cruelty, degradation and splendor, all of these are Orientalist myths that persist to this day, and shape how we have constructed this other, as a result of colonialism. Colonialism created a need to hate this enormous swath of humanity in order that they could be colonized without guilty conscience. In so doing, "Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience."
This colonialist mindset had incredibly serious consequences in shaping not only the attitude of the "West" towards the "East," but how the people who make up the "West" concieve themselves, and how they construct their own identities. "Debates today about Frenchness and Englishness in France and Britain respectively, or about Islam in countries like Egypt and Pakistan are part of the same interpretive process, which involves the identities of different others, whether they be outsiders and refugees or apostates and infidels. It should be obvious in all cases that these processes are not mental excersizes but urgent social contests, involving such concrete political issues as immigration laws, the legislation of personal condict, the constitution of orthodoxy, the legitimization of violence and/or insurrection, the character and content of education, and the direction of foreign policy, which very often has to do with the designation of official enemies. In short the construction of identity is bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society, and is therefore anything but mere academic wool-gathering."
Though it was not the purpose of the book, it also provided me some clarity on other, related subjects, such as Liberalism, and modern anti-Semitism.
Liberalism that accomodates Orientalism (soft Orientalism) is torn to shreds by Said, and in the process he exposes one of the most insipid weaknesses of Liberalism: the illusion of the independence of different thought structures of politics, economy, kinship and culture. A liberal scholar points to Islam's supposed totality (that it encompasses a culture, a religion, an economy, a politics, etc subordinated to one school of thought: Islam), and reveals the weakness in his own. These things are not only interdependent, but to consider them to be apart is foolishness. Consider capitalism, our current mode: can we honestly say that any deviation from the needs of capital are significant enough to render politics a separate sphere? How about culture? All of these things are contained within the totality of capitalism, because that is what capital demands. Liberalism insists on these things being separate because it is weak and wants to misdirect struggle away from the root of the problem. (And so, incidentally, how silly does it make the Liberals of the "ParEcon" gospel sound, when they want ParEcon, but also ParPolity, ParKin (??), etc?)
(Disclaimer, the author of this review is Jewish) Anti-Semitism seems largely to have disappeared as a major ideological motivation in the postmodern world. Or has it? Edward Said brings up some compelling evidence that the whitening of the people Israel (Jews inside and outside of the nationstate which shares its name) has merely shifted much of the Anti-Semitism to the Arabs, who are, after all, also Semitic. "By a concatonation of events and circumstances, the Semitic myth bifurcated in the Zionist movement. One Semite went the way of Orientalism. The other, the Arab, was forced to go the way of the Oriental." Jews by assimilating and accepting the wages of whiteness sidestepped their own identification as Semites, but the Semitic stereotype is kept alive in the depictions of Arabs. "[After 1973, c]artoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistantly. These Arabs, however, were clearly Semitic. Their sharply-hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders, to a largely non-Semitic population, that Semites were at the bottom of all our troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same."
This took a slight of hand from Jews as well, who strongly identified with the oppressors of the Arabs since the founding of Israel. Said describes a Jewish Orientalist named Bernard Lewis who describes an anti-imperialist riot against Israel in Cairo as "anti-Jewish." "Yet, in neither instance does he tell us how it was anti-Jewish. In fact, as his material evidence for anti-Jewishness, he produces the somewhat surprising intelligence that several churches, Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox were attacked and damaged." Finally, one can glean from the text that this escape from oppression is no escape at all. As Proust reminds us, when a Jew appears in aristocratic society, he is still a Jew: "The Romanians, the Egyptians, the Turks, may hate the Jews. But in a French drawing room, the differences between those people are not so apparent. And an Israelite making his entry as if he were from the heart of the desert, his body crouching like a hyenas, his neck stretched obliquely forward, spreading himself in proud "Salaam"s completely satisfies a certain taste for the Oriental."
The Afterword that Said includes is a true gift. There are a dozen amazing quotations I could pull from it, describing accurately our current situation, and the impact that his work has had in it, and the confusing situation we live under in these times. It was a fitting end to a challenging book.
Said goes on at some length about the aforesaid acquisition of the "Orient" as a means and forerunner to colonization. I agree. But this point seems to beg the question: what other option did scholars have except to describe and classify and interpret? Is this not the only way human's have of understanding anything? Now was the orientalists' enterprise--I mean the result, the scholarship--often poor? Yes. Was it racist? Yes. And this is damnable. But how else were those in the West to begin to understand the East?
Niall Ferguson writes in EMPIRE that the British Empire was certainly one of history's "Bad Ideas." I agree. The extent to which Orientalism gave the rapacious West an idea of how to proceed, to that extent it was also bad. But did not Orientalism lay the groundwork for our far deeper, more nuanced and richer understanding of the East today? Scholarship is after all a process. I don't see, and granted I have not finished the book, how Said can tar all of early eastern scholarship with that brush; for did it not in the end lead us to where we are today?
Someone on this page has written that ORIENTALISM is both "reductive" and "ungenerous." Yes. I look forward to finishing the book and these notes.
Since the book was written in 1978 one might expect it to be outdated, but the events of the past two decades illustrate that Western powers continue to attribute the actions of Easterners (especially Muslims) to irrational cultural attributes rather than to rational self interest.
It is interesting that the older portrayal of the Muslim male as lecher surrounded by multiple wives and lithesome concubines has been partly reversed to an image of Islam as anti-sex with morality police roaming the streets in search of a flash of ankle or strand of hair for which a woman can be whipped.
I recommend reading Robert Irwings "Dangerous Knowledge" after reading Said, if anone should feel persuaded by Said's manipulative book.
The Orient as it was, was thought of as such - in many ways- since the Crusades, perhaps before, and all the way up to the Ottoman Empire. But as the Europeans
Im curious over why the author omitted German sources, and possible perceptions of West v. East Europe - the multiethnic Habsburg Empire, and the Russian 'yellow peril'. Or of Wilhelm the Second's mad dreams.
And I am curious as to perceptions of the West by East, as well. was it always an overbearing threat?
This fiery criticism of colonial attitudes has more or less been integrated into modern post-colonial discourse. This is a seminal, if flawed work.