Culture  /  Comparison

‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now

Edward Said's Orientalism is still with us forty years after his influential book’s publication, but it is not the same as it was.
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Orientalism is a work of intellectual history, based on readings of an enormous range of literary and scholarly texts. But, in essence, its thesis can be distilled to the proposition that Orientalism is, in Said’s words, “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient‘ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” He did not say that Orientalist depictions of the West’s Other were merely fictions. If they were, they would be much easier to deconstruct and dislodge. Quite the reverse, classical Orientalism drew upon elements of positive knowledge and scholarship, work that was often admiring of—at times, even besotted with—its object. The problem with Orientalism was not that it was false in some crudely empirical sense, rather that it was part of a discursive system of “power-knowledge,” a phrase Said borrowed from Foucault. And the aim of Orientalism as a system of representations, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, was to produce an Other, the better to secure the stability and supremacy of the Western self.

Orientalism, in Said’s description, is a discourse of the powerful about the powerless, an expression of “power-knowledge” that is at the same time an expression of narcissism. The syndrome is very much in evidence today. Orientalism is a foreign ambassador in an Arab city belittling popular concern about Palestine and depicting Arabs as a docile mass who only woke up in 2011, during the Arab revolts, and then reverted to being a disappointment to a benevolent West that merely seeks to be a good tutor. It is a Western “expert” reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated, then telling an Arab critic of the Westerner’s work that he is being emotional for objecting to a presentation purely based on scientific data, and finally flying into a rage at being misunderstood by this stubborn Oriental.

So, Orientalism is still with us, a part of the West’s political unconscious. It can be expressed in a variety of ways: sometimes as an explicit bias, sometimes as a subtle inflection, like the tone color in a piece of music; sometimes erupting in the heat of argument, like the revenge of the repressed. But the Orientalism of today, both in its sensibility and in its manner of production, is not quite the same as the Orientalism Said discussed forty years ago.