Edward SAID—Excerpts from ORIENTALISM [1978]—Outline/Handout 

• Note immediately Said's debt to FOUCAULT in the 1st paragraph: "My principle operating assumptions" are "that fields of learning . . . are constrained and acted upon by society, by cultural traditions, by worldly circumstance, and by stabilizing influences like schools, libraries, and governments"; also, both academic and "imaginative writing are never free, but are limited in their imagery, assumptions, and intentions; and finally, that the advances made by a 'science' like Orientalism in its academic form are less objectively true than we often like to think" (55). To clarify, Orientalism was an actual academic discipline in the 19th century. If you've read M. Shelley's Frankenstein, you might recall that Frankenstein's friend Clerval had plans to take up its study.)

• And so "Orientalism" as a Western discourse "has been sort of consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct" (55). (This, too, is straight Foucault, if you recall "The Discourse on Language" essay regarding what can be said, what is dans le vrai ["within the true"], etc.)

• DEFINITION: "Orientalism can thus be regarded as a manner of regularized . . . writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly[!] suited to the Orient" [that is, Asia, including the Middle East; note that Said is Palestinian]; it is "a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning" and "Western empire. If this definition seems more political than not[!], that is simply because . . . Orientalism was itself a product of certain political forces and activities" (56).

• Now Said appeals to NIETZSCHE: Orientalism's so-called "objective discoveries . . . are and always conditioned by the fact that its truths, like any truths delivered by language, are embodied in language, and what is the truth of language, Nietzsche once said, but . . . [block quot. from N.'s "Truth & Lies" essay, concluding with "'truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are [that is, cultural "lies"].'" At last, "Orientalism was such a system of truths, truths in Nietzsche's sense of the word" (56).

• More Foucault: "Orient[alist] idioms became frequent, and these idioms took firm hold in European discourse." These "idioms" included key stereotypes: "such essential[!] aspects of the Orient as the Oriental character, Oriental despotism [cf. S. Hussein!], Oriental sensuality, and the like" (56).

• ["Let's get (even more) political":] "For any European during the nineteenth century . . . Orientalism was such a system of truths . . . . every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric" (56). Said immediately offers a palliative, admitting that the Euro individual didn't have much of a choice, since such "advanced" (& colonizing!) cultures "have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism for dealing with 'other' cultures" (56-57). In short, "Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient" (57; the connotations of Nietzsche's "will to power" are certainly intentional).

Style, expertise, vision: Orientalism's worldliness*
* "worldliness" is Said's term for his perception that all discourse (incl. literature) is inherently embedded in the political and historical—the real world (a notion already readily available in Marxism [see Eagleton's introduction] and in Foucault).

Literary Example #1: Kipling's India poems were paeans to—what an awful, self-serving phrase—the "White Man's Burden." (And the poem excerpt quoted here is downright scary.) "Kipling's White Man, as an idea[!], a persona" entailed the "certain knowledge that he belonged to, and could draw upon the empirical and spiritual reserves of, a long tradition of executive responsibility towards the colored races." Of course this ostensibly benevolent paternalism had the back-up of military might: "Behind the White Man's mask of amiable leadership there is always the express willingness to use force" (57).

• HEGEL alert: Note especially how the colonizers define the "Other" in order to define themselves: it's a "self-confirming business," of their very "ontological status" [i.e., their reason-for-being, their self-existence] (57; of course, and oh-by-the-way: it's also a justification for racism and colonialism).

• Foucault encore: "Being a White Man was therefore an idea [a social construct] and a reality" (57). It was also a "form of authority" invested in/supported by "institutional forms. . . ." "Kipling himself could not merely have happened; the same is true of his White Man. Such ideas and their authors emerge out of complex historical and cultural circumstances" (58).

SELF v. OTHER: "Underlying" Orientalism, the categories of "race," etc., "is the rigidly binomial opposition of 'ours' and 'theirs'" (e.g., Self and Other). This racial binary, moreover, is one of those "large [cultural/ideological] generalizations," in this case, a racist division of "us vs. them," propped up by both racial Darwinism & the "high cultural humanism" of Matthew Arnold [see Eagleton 21-24], et al. (58).

• And note the Foucaultian emphasis on exclusion: such "cultural values excluded as much as they included"; for every gaudy ideal uttered, for "every idea about 'our' art, spoken by Arnold, Ruskin, Mill, Newman, Carlyle," et al., "another outsider was banished"! In 19th-century "Europe an imposing edifice of learning and culture was built . . . in the face of actual outsiders (the colonies, the poor, the delinquent)" (58). (Said's footnote to this passage, in fact, invokes Foucault's Discipline and Punish.)

• (Even more) Foucault, in terms of the rules of institutional disciplines (including "who can speak"): academic "Orientalism is a 'field'" that "entails peculiar modes, even rituals, of behavior, learning, and possession. Only an Occidental could speak of Orientals . . . just as it was the White Man who could designate and name the coloreds, or nonwhites" (58).

Literary Example #2: T. E. Lawrence (yes, the vaunted Lawrence of Arabia), who describes the Arabs as an "'old, old civilization,'" full of cultural world-weariness, of "'mental and moral fatigue, a race trained out'" (59)! [And likely stuck in Hegel's Symbolic stage of art!]

Literary Example #3: Gertrude Bell; Said's literary examples continue to be fairly damning, as Bell condescendingly concludes that—oh!—"'in all the centuries the Arab has brought no wisdom from experience'" (59; wow). "In such statements," Said contends, "we note immediately that 'the Arab' or 'Arabs' have an aura of apartness, definiteness, and collective self-consistency [i.e., a stereotype] such as to wipe out any traces of individual Arabs with narratable life histories. . . . what Lawrence fastens on is the Arab as if seen from the cleansing perspective of one not an Arab, and one for whom such "un-self-conscious primitive simplicity[!] as the Arab possesses is . . . defined by the [White] observer" (60).

Literary Example #4: Not W. B. Yeats!? (Say it ain't so!) Well, even "Yeats' visions of Byzantium" suggest an "Arab perdurability, as if the Arab had not been subject to the ordinary processes of history" (60).

• At last, the "Oriental" is a mere "collective entity" who forever "remains the same"; if "an Arab" has any individual life experience, it is "necessarily subordinate to the sheer, unadorned, and persistent fact of being an Arab[!]."

• Orientalism thus entails a primitivist projection [see Vizenor's essay] that "could only have been made from the outside." It is a colonizing discourse in which is "obliterated the distinctions between the type . . . and ordinary [individual] human reality"; ultimately: "Years of tradition had encrusted [such Orientalist] discourse" with disciplinary "legitimacy" (60). "Primitiveness therefore inhered in the Orient, was the Orient . . . as if . . . a touchstone outlasting time or experience" (60-61).

• I ask you now to rethink Said's ideas in terms of contemporary geopolitics—oh, say, U.S. policy towards Iraq, Pakistan, and the Middle East in general—and the ongoing political discourse of "(Western) civilization vs. barbarism." How about U.S. policy, historically, towards Native Americans?! (For starters, see our next reading, Vizenor's essay on Ishi, where Vizenor's notion of "manifest manners" is rather the American Indian version of Orientalism as another colonial/racial discourse of power and othering.)



Said, Edward. "[F]rom Orientalism." A Critical and Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan, U of Toronto P, 2004, pp. 55-61.

  —TCG, July 2016

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