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Orientalism (1978)

by Edward W. Said

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4,299321,869 (3.91)91
The author presents a critique of the Western World's historical, cultural, and political perceptions of the East and Arab people. In this study, the author traces the origins of the West's concept of "orientalism" to the centuries-long period during which Europe dominated the Middle and Near East.
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English (27)  Swedish (4)  Dutch (1)  All languages (32)
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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. ( )
  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 |
I’ve been ashamed I hadn’t read Orientalism, and now I know I had reason to be ashamed. It’s rightly a classic. Though its ideas have seeped out so that much was familiar, there was a lot of clarity in going back to source.

I expected a more ‘pugnacious’ book, to use a word from the back cover. But it’s not pugnacious in style or content. Perhaps in the first shock of publication it seemed so. It’s a fair-minded book, ‘humanist’ in a word he refuses to relinquish (that wins my heart). His point is not to condemn or consign to oblivion the entirety of the West’s scholarship and art on the Orient. He just makes us aware of the structures of thought in place. When it came to figures I have an attachment to (T.E. Lawrence; his hero Charles Doughty; other travelers), I never felt Said was telling me I have to cease to read them. And I wasn’t disenchanted, because I knew these guys were riddled with Orientalism even if I didn’t have the terms (in fact, I’m stalled in Doughty from years back where he has an egregious instance; I’ll get over it and pick him up again, for his wonderful observation and the prose style Lawrence so admired). You cannot say fairer than what he says of Richard Burton, along with the useful analysis that only Said has said.

This book is a feat of thought that probably has its little inexactitudes as his detractors like to point out. It re-visioned things and has a larger scope than the still-contentious area of 'Islam' and 'the West' (still? I’m glad he’s not alive). He explains how scholarship isn't innocent of politics – not just in the case of the West on Islam, and not even to fault that case, because scholarship cannot exist in a safe bubble, away from the hustle and bustle of the politicised world around us. I think it is this which gets backs up, more than the charge that he is anti-West (he isn’t). I’ve seen scholars respond that they are indeed innocent of politics; but if I ever cherished that thought, too much reading history has ruined me. If I can tell a not-irrelevant tale: in my own research area, in Asia, in his Orient, as an innocent researcher who didn’t know much about historiography, I grew increasingly flummoxed and exasperated by the attitudinal problems in mainstream, prestigious histories. It turns out, the best thing I could have done in order to understand what I saw was wrong with Mongol history-writing, was read Said. Its applicability goes wider than Islam-and-the-West.

The only time I think he’s irascible in tone is in the 1995 Afterword, when he’s obviously been in a feud with Bernard Lewis. I’m sorry his book met hostility in certain quarters, because, as I say, it’s not damnatory of the tradition, and if Orientalists or their heirs don’t see there’s room for criticism, that’s sad. With his 2003 Preface – the year he died – he has returned to the serene tones of the main work, although, with the downturn in world events, he sounds a sadder and a wiser man.

The book was written as a classic ought to be, without the jargon of the day and a pleasure to read. It may become too detailed in its case studies for most people’s purposes; I used the skip button, but this is not my last encounter with Said’s great work. ( )
1 vote Jakujin | Sep 29, 2016 |
Said's critique of Orientalism as an academic discipline is too larded with pomo craziness, with too little analysis (one could say, none) of the actual consequences of regarding all of Asia, the Middle East, and Egypt as one homogenous conglomerate of racist stereotypes. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Reading Orientalism was sorta inevitable, as it cast such a long shadow over the social sciences in the 35 years since its writing. The subject sounds kinda baroque and obscure: how the West defined the Orient as a separate and opposite mirror to itself, the "Occident". But to his credit, Said pursues his thesis well, teasing apart the historical lineage of oriental studies, especially in Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the crossroads between the Orient and the West. For sure, Said's book was a large part of why you never really hear about "Oriental Studies" today at the university level.

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.
( )
1 vote gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
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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
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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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