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Orientalism by Edward W. Said
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Orientalism (1978)

by Edward W. Said

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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.
( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
這是一本批判偏見如何透過科學的偽裝而成為「真理」的書。​Said 在書中對於英法美三國自拿破崙以來的東方學進行批判,指出其中的假科學,真偏見,並且指出這樣的偏見是怎麼​樣持續的自我繁衍。這本書的定位應該是給西方,尤其是西方的東方學精英閱讀的,在書中,他依據自己的論述而​隨之引錄各作家片段,其實頗像他自己所批判的「邊泌式全景塔」。對於這些作者不熟悉的讀者,其實很難去評斷​Said 在每一段並未做出明確的結論,而是描寫他所謂的東方主義如何呈現在這些作家、學者的文章之中。而主要的論點​,早已在緒論中就已經提出,使得整本書看似緒論的註腳。從一個習慣史學論文格式的人來看,​Siad的論述稍嫌混雜。 最後,整本書的翻譯其實大有問題。有不少標點更動(尤其是句號換成逗號,使得文意判讀上出現問題)、以及譯​者自己增補的情感論點(例如將提出意見改成提出異議,或者將原本作者加強的字眼漏掉,甚自己增添加強字眼)​。許多誤譯存在(當遇上加強字眼時更明顯),舉例而言,頁​345中「穆斯林一向把伊斯蘭視為阿拉伯的​ 聖地 」,原文為 genius loci,意為守護神或一地之風氣,此處明顯有誤。​ ( )
  windhongtw | Apr 3, 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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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 039474067X, Paperback)

The noted critic and a Palestinian now teaching at Columbia University,examines the way in which the West observes the Arabs.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:38 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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.… (more)

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