Rereading Orientalism: The Politics of Imperialism and Othering

Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, argues that the concept of Orient as being exotic, barbaric, uncivilized and irrational is a Western construct and it is represented through various vocabularies, doctrines, books, arts, literature etc. He challenges the very concept of Orientalism and the false demarcation of the West Vs the East. He is of the opinion that the concept of Orient is a mere construct. The latent motive behind doing so is to degrade the Orient while maintaining the Westerner’s superiority. The Westerners create the dichotomy between themselves and the Orient to create the “Othering” of representation while maintaining their unregimented “Self”. The relationship between Occident and Orient is asymmetrical one. The author believes the relationship between Occident and Orient is that of power, subjugation, dominance and hierarchy. He says the project of Orientalism is a systematic plan to justify the colonial motives of Westerners as a necessity. The Europeans defined themselves as civilized and superior and the Orients as barbaric and uncivilized. Thus, they said that it was their duty to civilize the uncivilized and barbaric world. This biased and prejudiced attitude of the Westerners stems out from their latent ego that they are the superior human beings in the world and they have the natural right to rule the inferiors. The very project of colonialism was founded on the basis of Orientalism. Edward Said says Orientalism as a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and (most of the time) the Occident” (p. 2). Said further says, “The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. The Orient is the integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles”(p. 2).

Edward Said draws references from the Foucauldian concept of discourse and Gramscian concept of hegemony to forward his argument. Being in the line of Foucault, Said says that the Orientalism is a discourse created by the West to represent the East. It means the Europeans create the discourse and represent the Orients in such a manner that it becomes universal. The knowledge power nexus is of importance for Edward Said. Said also draws reference from the Gramscian notion of hegemony to show the asymmetric relationship between the Europeans and the Orients. The concept of Orientalism operates in the line of hegemonic tradition. That is to say the Westerners think it to be their sole responsibility to speak on the behalf of the Orients because the Orients are not capable of expressing for themselves. The domination is achieved not always by the use of direct force. Sometimes, it gets operated through the soft means like the literature, arts, culture, books, travelogues, memoirs, research papers etc. Edward Said traces back the origin of Orientalism and says that late eighteenth century should be taken as the roughly defined starting point. Said links up the history and experiences with Political and Philosophical themes. He gives his own experiences of an Arab Palestinian living in the USA as very “disheartening”. The Oriental like him has to face the stigma and prejudiced attitude of the Westerners which comes in the form of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism and dehumanizing ideology. Then he goes on to provide evidences on how the Europeans started to demarcate between themselves and the Easterners. They thought themselves to be “Self” and the easterners as the “Others”. They said that since they were civilized and the Easterners were uncivilized it is their duty to civilize them. They created the negative stereotypes about the Orients. All the negative attributes were given to the Orients. The Westerners said that the Orients cannot run the government on their own. They also thought it to be their sole responsibility to represent the Orients because the latter can not represent themselves. It means they were “Orientalizing” the Orientals.

Orientialists represent the Oriental culture and religion in their own way and link it with their own culture. The Westerners call Islam as Mohammadism because the founder of Islam was Mohammed. Since they call their religion as Christianity for it was founded by Christ, they call Islam as Mohammadism, which according to Said is a total nonsense. Edward Said says, “Mohammedan is the relevant (and Insulting) European Designation; Islam which happens to be correct Muslim name, is relegated to another entry. The heresy which we call Mohammedan is caught as the imitation of a Christian imitation of true religion. Then, in a long historical account of Mohammed’s life, d’Herbelot can turn to more or less straight narrative.”

In the chapter entitled “Orientialist Structures and Restructures” the author shows the changing attitude of the Westerners towards Orientals as time passes by. The Orientals were represented in the West mainly through arts and literature. Oriental people, their culture and their characters were often mystified and romanticized. They were presented as being exotic. The Oriental people and their culture were very negatively stereotyped. But, there has been the change of attitude these days. These days the East is presented as being a unique culture which has its own importance. In the past, the Westerners misused the Darwinian biology to show their superiority by saying that they developed the nation before the Orientals. So, they had the natural right to govern them. The Westerners think that the Orientals can not know the evils inherent in their land. Therefore, the Westerners have to play the role of the saviour. They are supposed to save the Easterners from the naivety. Likewise, the Westerners gave the logic that as they discovered the Orientals, it gives them the natural right to rule over them. In this way they tried to generate the rationale behind their colonization over the Easterners. But, this perception is slowly and gradually changing these days. The Westerners consider the culture and land of Easterners as having some worth. They are fascinated by the rich cultural heritage and beautiful landscape of the Orient.

In the chapter entitled “Orientalism Now”, Edward Said tries to present the reason behind the formation of Orientalism as a discourse. The motive of colonialism led the Westerners to learn about the geography of the East. After the process of colonialism started, the Westerners assimilated themselves with the Orients in order to learn their lifestyle. In the past, the Westerners did not come in too much contact with the Easterners. The Westerners came in contact of the Orientals so that they can know them and rule them properly. Edward Said talks about the changing perception of the Occident towards the Orient after the First World War. After the First World War, the approach of Westerners towards the Orient became more liberal. But, their attitude towards the Muslim world did not change. The Muslims are still associated with terrorism and their religion as a very barbaric, impure and of mixed type. Said also talks about the shifting of Orientalism from Europe towards America especially after the Second World War. After the Second World War, the colonies began to collapse and the Europeans began to lose their hold over the Orient. Then America evolved as the centre for the Orientalism. Though the demarcation between the Orient and Occident is supposed to be blurred, there is still too much prejudice associated with the Orient. For example, Muslims are considered the terrorists; people of the Arab world are considered the cruel and violent people and so on. Then the author goes on to make the distinction between the Latent Orientalism and the Manifest Orientalism. By latent Orientalism he means “an almost unconscious (and certainly an untouchable) positivity” and by Manifest Orientalism he means “the various stated views about Oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology, and so forth”(p. 206). It means the unconscious desire to colonize is latent Orientalism and the apparent logic, excuses and reason they provide behind that colonization is manifest Orientalism which gets manifested through various means like literature, culture, books etc. In the end of the book Edward Said opines that the demarcation between the Orient and Occident should not be created and the Westerners should look after the Eastern perspectives too.

Stereotypes: The Flawed Mindset

Edward said in this book has given a very articulated view on Orientalism and its multiple facets. He critiques the biased attitude of Westerners towards the Easterners and has given a very well constructed response to the flawed mindset of the westerners regarding their view of the Orient. Now I come to understand the reasons behind the stereotypical representation of the Easterners in the Western movies, songs and literature. Before reading this book I had not given so much attention towards such representation. Few years back I had read the novel The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. In that novel the Africans are presented as a very animalistic and barbaric being. Such negative representation contributes to the formation of attitude, beliefs and mind set of people. They give a mental picture about certain things and in the course of time such representation becomes the universally accepted reality. No one cares about the hidden reality. Everyone sees what is apparent. Now I come to know the politics behind the stereotypical representation. I think what Edward Said said many years back is still relevant today. He said that the Westerners think the Orient as the place of “romance, exotic being, hunting memories and landscape, remarkable experiences”. The Occident thinks the Orient as being very unpredictable and irrational in attitude and behaviour. The Westerners think the quality of predictability as their property because it is the symptoms of civilized and rational being. During the Arab Revolution, many Western media reported that the revolution was unpredictable and they are shocked to see the sudden rise of the protests. The Westerners had for a long time internalized that the quality of predictability is only theirs. So, they said that they had not expected anything like that to happen. It means they wanted prove the Easterners as being irrational because they think that predictability is the sign of rationality which Easterners lack.

Edward Said is right in saying that the desire for democracy, equality, justice can not only be the trait of Westerners. People of all religion, language, geography, colour, and creed are fascinated by these things. So, the claiming of the desire for freedom as the exclusive trait of Occident is flawed. Said has very beautifully presented the relationship between West and the East and the problems in their relationship. The book is very much useful for the scholars and also for the common people to understand the dynamics of relationship between them two. The book is full of references and examples which help in making his argument clear. The language is tough and full of unfamiliar references and jargons which the common reader might find difficult. No work is flawless. This book is also not an exception. The author is not consistent with his theme all the time. He tries to organize the large body of thoughts and varieties of arguments at a time but can not link up them and ends up in a mess. He tries to present the broad domain of the field but moves towards conclusion without handling all of them properly. Sometimes he deviates from his main vantage point. The book is also overburdened with his overzealous arguments which are sometimes difficult to buy. Anyway, we can not undermine his contribution in the field of post colonial studies and cultural studies. He has left us the important piece of writing which will be useful for the generation to come. In a nutshell, borrowing his words what can be said is that we should not demarcate between the West and the East at the same time maintaining our own uniqueness.


11751132_857791500976017_1890949496_nBinod Dhakal is a guest editor at Kutniti. He is a freelance researcher and has interest in post colonialism and new historicism.

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