- 20 Feb 2012
“Orientalism” is a book published in 1978 by Edward Said that has been highly influential and controversial in postcolonial studies and other fields. In the book, Said effectively redefined the term “Orientalism” to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East. This body of scholarship is marked by a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” He argued that a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for European and American colonial and imperial ambitions. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the US and British orientalists’ ideas of Arabic culture.
So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
(Edward Said, The Nation).
Said summarised his work in these terms:
“My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness….As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.”
Said also wrote:
“My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting.”
Principally a study of 19th-century literary discourse and strongly influenced by the work of thinkers like Chomsky, Foucault and Gramsci, Said’s work also engages contemporary realities and has clear political implications as well. Orientalism is often classed with postmodernist and postcolonial works that share various degrees of skepticism about representation itself (although a few months before he died, Said said he considers the book to be in the tradition of “humanistic critique” and the Enlightenment).
A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to “Western” societies. This discourse establishes “the East” as antithetical to “the West”. Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.
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. The work of another thinker, Antonio Gramsci, was also important in shaping Edward Said’s analysis in this area. In particular, Said can be seen to have been influenced by Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in understanding the pervasiveness of Orientalist constructs and representations in Western scholarship and reporting, and their relation to the exercise of power over the “Orient”.
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, 1571) 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.”
“Lakmé” is an opera in three acts by Léo Delibes to a French libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille. Delibes wrote the score during 1881–82 with its first performance on 14 April 1883 at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Set in British India in the mid 19th century, “Lakmé” is based on the 1880 novel Rarahu ou Le Mariage de Loti by Pierre Loti. The opera includes the famous and popular “Flower Duet” (“Sous le dôme épais”) for sopranos performed in Act 1 by the lead character Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest, and her servant Mallika. Another famous aria from the opera is the “Bell Song” (“L’Air des clochettes”) in the second Act.
Like other French operas of the period, “Lakmé” captures the ambiance of “the Orient” that was in vogue during the latter part of the nineteenth century in line with other operatic works such as Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and Massenet’s “Le roi de Lahore”. The subject of the opera was suggested by Gondinet as a vehicle for the American soprano Marie van Zandt.