Orientalism | Edward W. Said

Summary of: Orientalism
By: Edward W. Said


Immerse yourself in the world of Orientalism, as author Edward W. Said explores how the Occident has portrayed and influenced the Orient throughout history. This book summary will take you on a journey through the complex web of representations, stereotypes, and power dynamics that have shaped not only perceptions but also actual events and policies. Discover how modern Orientalism continues to shape popular imagination, academia, and government policy in the United States to this day.

The creation of the East’s exotic image

The Orientalism theory emerged from Napolean’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. It defines the ‘Orient’ and shapes the Western perception of the Middle East, Asia, and the Far East. This Western lens presents the East as exotic and unfamiliar, with irrational and erotic people. These beliefs extended to travel journals, newspapers, and scientific publications. Harems became emblematic of Eastern eroticism, and passion was considered uncontrolled. The civilization was considered too backwards to be reasoned with. Western traits were directly opposed to Eastern traits.

Orientalism and Its Negative Impact

Orientalism, originally designed to improve our understanding of the Orient, instead became a tool to reinforce subjugation and domination in areas under scrutiny. The science was driven by economic and political interests in the form of the Egyptian expedition, and scholars spawned from this expedition became educators and advisors to colonial powers. These Orientalist scholars were able to establish themselves as authorities over the people in the Orient, by translating ancient hieroglyphs and revealing archaeological digs. Napoleon even enlisted local imams to interpret the Koran in a way that suited French interests. Consequently, Orientalism could gather support for French occupation and establish itself as an authority. Thus, Orientalism, which initially seems to be a positive study, yielded negative results instead.

Rethinking Orientalism

The concept of Orientalism, as a Western perspective on the East, has been disrupted by several factors in the 19th and 20th centuries. Firstly, the experiences of writers and social scientists no longer matched up with what was once recorded about the Orient, leading to a shift in understanding. Secondly, anticolonialist and independence movements in the East challenged Western views and gave the Orient more power to assert its own identity. Orientalists responded to this challenge in three ways: continuing to study the East as a static object, adapting research to the changing world, or giving up the study of the East entirely. The impact of these responses has shaped the understanding of the East in the modern world.

Expanding and Shaping the Orient

The book discusses how the West responded to the resistance movements in the East by expanding the geographical scope and entering into dialogue with the Orient. This expansion was facilitated by trade development, travel writings, scientific reporting, and exoticized utopian imagery. Additionally, there was an attempt to shape the Orient through dialogue, allowing for more open-mindedness and communication. However, the resulting findings were still used to advance the West’s colonial and economic presence. The efforts of Orientalism in the 18th and 19th centuries are explored.

The Flaws of Orientalist Linguistics

Orientalist scholars believed that the best approach to comprehend the culture of the Orient was by categorizing its inhabitants according to language. Silvestre de Sacy was among the first to pursue this approach, using language research to gain insight into the mentality of different cultures. However, his method was flawed, as he filtered Oriental languages through his French perspective, failing to consider linguistic variations within the Orient. His successor, Ernest Renan, continued this work but diverged by connecting language with race, ultimately reinforcing the idea of European superiority over Orientals. Additionally, Renan developed an Oriental stereotype, stating that their language hindered their progress compared to the West. The flaws in de Sacy and Renan’s work demonstrate how Orientalist linguistics perpetuated harmful stereotypes rather than providing a genuine understanding of the Orient.

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