Monday, June 29, 2015

Edward Said and Orientalism c. 1975



"From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing th orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”

Edward Said (1935 – 2003) was a Palestinian-American literary scholar who spent most of his career at Columbia University. His early work focused on Joseph Conrad and the literature of Imperialism, but he is best-remembered today as the author of Orientalism (1978.) Despite its controversial thesis and polemical, abstract, and frequently unclear language, Orientalism has had an immense influence across the humanities.

Said was outraged by the portrayal of Arabs in US media and scholarship, especially during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and set out to expose what he regarded as the thinly-veiled racism of American scholarship on “the Orient.” Drawing on postmodernist theories of power and knowledge, Said argued that “Orientalism” (or, as we call it today, Area Studies) was best understood as an extension of the imperial project into the realm of scholarship.

As British, French, and later American soldiers and interests dominated the Middle East during the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars portrayed it as a land of romance, exoticism, and imagination – a feminized “other” which ripe for domination by the masculine, familiar, rational, practical West. Thus it was no accident that “the Orient” was so consistently portrayed as a land of passive masses, mystic philosophers, religious fanatics, and cruel, effeminate tyrants. These peoples had been rendered temporarily defenseless by the industrial revolution, which gave Europeans the machine guns, telegraphs, and steam ships with which to conquer them. It was thus very natural for Europeans to portray them as people who not only could, but who should, be conquered, for their own good as well as for that of the Europeans. Thus the British and the French both told themselves, and anyone who would listen, that they were not in India or Egypt in order to oppress and rob the country, but in order to “civilize” and “educate” the poor benighted peoples of the East. No doubt they could point to ample evidence of mistreatment or folly on the part of the rulers of those lands; but then again, every country has its problems, and if people go looking for evidence of their preconceived notions, it’s not exactly surprising if they find what they’re looking for.

Once these tropes were established in their imagination, British and French schola

"From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing th orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.”

Edward Said (1935 – 2003) was a Palestinian-American literary scholar who spent most of his career at Columbia University. His early work focused on Joseph Conrad and the literature of Imperialism, but he is best-remembered today as the author of Orientalism (1978.) Despite its controversial thesis and polemical, abstract, and frequently unclear language, Orientalism has had an immense influence across the humanities.

Said was outraged by the portrayal of Arabs in US media and scholarship, especially during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and set out to expose what he regarded as the thinly-veiled racism of American scholarship on “the Orient.” Drawing on postmodernist theories of power and knowledge, Said argued that “Orientalism” (or, as we call it today, Area Studies) was best understood as an extension of the imperial project into the realm of scholarship.

As British, French, and later American soldiers and interests dominated the Middle East during the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars portrayed it as a land of romance, exoticism, and imagination – a feminized “other” which ripe for domination by the masculine, familiar, rational, practical West. Thus it was no accident that “the Orient” was so consistently portrayed as a land of passive masses, mystic philosophers, religious fanatics, and cruel, effeminate tyrants. These peoples had been rendered temporarily defenseless by the industrial revolution, which gave Europeans the machine guns, telegraphs, and steam ships with which to conquer them. It was thus very natural for Europeans to portray them as people who not only could, but who should, be conquered, for their own good as well as for that of the Europeans. Thus the British and the French both told themselves, and anyone who would listen, that they were not in India or Egypt in order to oppress and rob the country, but in order to “civilize” and “educate” the poor benighted peoples of the East. No doubt they could point to ample evidence of mistreatment or folly on the part of the rulers of those lands; but then again, every country has its problems, and if people go looking for evidence of their preconceived notions, it’s not exactly surprising if they find what they’re looking for.

Once these tropes were established in their imagination, British and French scholars repeated them endlessly. New information was gathered, to be certain, but it was always fitted within the framework developed by Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, and advocates of Imperialism. They did not necessarily do this out of dishonest or mercenary motives – the lesson of postmodernism is that what we think and what we do are inextricably caught up with one another. If knowledge is power, as Bacon said, then power is also knowledge. Thus it was the power of the West over the East that permitted its penetration by Western explorers, which shaped and colored everything they saw there, and which tempted them to imagine that the people who lived there secretly desired or needed the domination of the West.

American scholarship on the Middle East did not start from nothing – it was founded on British and French models, and followed in their footsteps. After the second world war the explicit racism of 19th century scholarship became implicit. Racist language was dropped, but the assumptions remained the same. The situation was exacerbated by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which gave the West a new imperial interest in the region. Thus the Israelis sought to portray themselves as great civilizers of a savage land, or, as they liked to say, as people who “made the desert bloom.” Massacre of the Palestinian people and theft of their land was simply ignored – instead, Arabs were discussed not as victims of Israeli aggression, but as hordes of barbarous fanatics from whom the Israelis were simply forced to defend themselves. So, Said argued, today, as in the time of T.E. Lawrence and Richard Burton, imperial fantasies continue to dominate the “West’s” conception of the “East.” The close alliance between the state department, the CIA, and Middle East Area Studies programs is no coincidence – they are complicit together in the production of knowledge for power, or, in other words, in the production of racist fantasies intended to deny the rights and humanity of people they want to exploit.

In order to understand the Middle East as it really is, Said argued, the slate must be wiped clean. The Orientalist scholarship of the nineteenth century was simply nonsense, and made no positive contribution to our understanding of the region. The first premise of any new study of the area should be that the people who live there have their own legitimate institutions, views, and aspirations. There is not, and never was, any such thing as “the Orient” – like “the West” it is an entirely fictitious category.

The targets of Said’s criticism did not take all this lying down – their response was forceful, vengeful, and contemptuous, to put it mildly. They pointed out embarrassing mistakes in scholarship, questioned the postmodernist theoretical foundations on which his analysis was built, ridiculed the pretentious language in which his book was written, and (perhaps most tellingly) accused him of doing to the “Orientalists” what he said they had done to “the Orient.” In other words, they claimed that he had constructed a purely imaginary enemy in his own mind, in blatant disregard for the facts of that scholarship itself. Although Said resisted the temptation to respond directly, he found many defenders who were willing to take up the fight for him. His work remains controversial today, but in general his opponents have gotten the worst of it. To a younger generation of scholars their work often does seem infected by a na├»ve racism which tends toward the uncritical defense of Israel, the support of illegitimate dictatorships, and the blanket dismissal of hundreds of millions of people as irrational fanatics. 

Biographical Information: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/sep/26/guardianobituaries.highereducation

Part of a Series on Postmodernism (XII of XVII)
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Modern-Intellectual-History/986713261343222

No comments:

Post a Comment