Edward Said and "Orientalism"
Léon Cogniet's 1835 depiction of Bonaparte's Egyptian Expedition expresses Western perception of "The Exotic Orient"
One of Edward Said’s central ideas is that knowledge about the East is generated not through actual facts, but through imagined constructs that imagined "Eastern" societies as being all fundamentally similar, all sharing crucial characteristics that are not possessed by "Western" societies. Thus, this ‘a priori’ knowledge set up the East as the antithesis of the West. Such knowledge is constructed through literary texts and historical records which are often limited in terms of their understanding of the actualities of life in the Middle East.
Before Said's work, "Oriental" was widely used to mean the opposite of "occidental" ('western').
The comparisons made between the two were generally unfavorable to the former, however, respected institutions like the Oriental Institute of Chicago, the London School of Oriental and African Studies or Università degli studi di Napoli L'Orientale, carried the term with no explicit reproach.
The word "Orient" fell into disrepute after the word "Orientalism" was coined with the publication of the groundbreaking work Orientalism by the American-Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the "Orient" was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture.
Although Edward Said limited his discussion to academic study of Middle Eastern, African and Asian history and culture, he asserted that "Orientalism is, and does not merely represent, a significant dimension of modern political and intellectual culture." Said's discussion of academic Orientalism is almost entirely limited to late 19th and early 20th-century scholarship. Most academic Area Studies departments had already abandoned an imperialist or colonialist paradigm of scholarship. He names the work of Bernard Lewis as an example of the continued existence of this paradigm, but acknowledges that it was already somewhat of an exception by the time of his writing (1977).
The idea of an "Orient" is a crucial aspect of attempts to define "the West." Thus, histories of the Greco-Persian Wars may contrast the monarchical government of the Persian Empire with the democratic tradition of Athens, as a way to make a more general comparison between the Greeks and the Persians, and between "the West" and "the East", or "Europe" and "Asia", but make no mention of the other Greek city states, most of which were not ruled democratically.
Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European, mainly British and French, scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, Said sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. Said's writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to studies of imperialist Western attitudes to India, China and elsewhere. It was one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993).
Many scholars now use Said's work to attempt to overturn long-held, often taken-for-granted Western ideological biases regarding non-Westerners in scholarly thought. Some post-colonial scholars would even say that the West's idea of itself was constructed largely by saying what others were not. If "Europe" evolved out of "Christendom" as the "not-Byzantium," early modern Europe in the late 16th century (see Battle of Lepanto) certainly defined itself as the "not-Turkey."
Said puts forward several definitions of 'Orientalism' in the introduction to Orientalism. Some of these have been more widely quoted and influential than others:
"A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience."
"a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'."
"A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient."
"...particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient."
"A distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts."
In his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Said also warned against the "falsely unifying rubrics that invent collective identities," citing such terms as "America," "The West," and "Islam," which were leading to what he felt was a manufactured "clash of civilisations."
The painting "Le Bain turc," (Turkish Bath) by J.A.D. Ingres
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