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Orientalism (1978)

by Edward W. Said

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5,659411,773 (3.91)97
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.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
This book by Edward Said will open your eyes. I am unfamiliar with many of the authors he quotes. Yet, I could follow the argument. Most of us grew up accustomed to treating Western texts as gospel. These texts influenced generations of people from the Middle East to the Far East.
Reading this book, I realized the need to rethink my concepts and understanding of Western texts. It is difficult for a Westerner to write about 'The Orient.' It is difficult for us to write about 'The Occident.' We bring our prejudices to the table, something I did not fully realize until halfway through the book.
Read the book slowly: it demands patienc ( )
  RajivC | Dec 20, 2023 |
I'm not sure how this wordy book acquired such renown. It would probably be of interest to a college dean trying to design an Eastern or Near Eastern studies curriculum. Anyone else would want something more focused.

The word Orient has never had much specificity and remains vague despite Said's best efforts. Amazingly, he refers to "the Oriental Mind" as having properties, such as vagueness and lack of rigor. And yet much of our mathematics, science, and philosophy were developed in eastern lands. Go figure.

He also admits that the term Occidentalism would serve little function, since there's too much to encompass. Why wouldn't the same be true at this point with Orientalism? Eastern studies are doubtless much more developed now than they were in the late 1970's when Orientalism was first published. The book's relevance now seems questionable. ( )
  Cr00 | Apr 1, 2023 |
I'll come back to review this one another time. The following excerpt sums up the questions that Orientalism attempted to raise

"How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one's own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the "other")?
Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more; than socio-economic categories, or politicohistorical ones? How do ideas acquire authority, "normality," and even the status of "natural" truth? What is the role of the intellectual? Is he there to validate the culture and state of which he is a part? What importance must he give to an independent critical consciousness, an oppositional critical consciousness?" ( )
  meddz | Jun 11, 2021 |
Let me start off by saying that this is a vitally important book. This is not to say that I consistently enjoyed reading it, but that I understand the importance of the book to the world. I should have rated it higher if the review was related to the importance of the book to society. But instead, I rated it based on my experience of it. The book is insightful and hardhitting. It is rigorous and brilliant. It is not, however, accessible.

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.

2020 update: Tragically, an economic recession and the failure of liberalism to address either its causes or effects has birthed an epidemic of antisemitism. This isn't an indictment of the book or of my earlier review so much as it is evidence that antisemitism continued during the global war on terror formally with Islamophobia, which kept the disease dormant in its effects towards Jews until this recent outbreak. ( )
1 vote magonistarevolt | Apr 29, 2020 |
Edward Said's Orientalism is a magisterial survey of western texts' depiction of the orient, particularly the Middle East and Islam, pointing out their essentialist bias. As academic writing goes this was clear and relatively easy to read. Unfortunately I was unfamiliar with most of his sources so the impact of his arguments was not as great on me but that is my ignorance not his fault. I do wish he hadn't conflated the orient with Islamic civilisations in particular, as I am sure there is much to be said about the depiction of other Asian peoples and cultures from the western lens, but there is only so much you can do in one book. ( )
  judtheobscure | Oct 6, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Edward W. Saidprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gérôme, Jean-LéonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart
The East is a career. -Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred
For Janet and Ibrahim
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On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that, "it had once semed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval."
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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.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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