Edward Said’s ‘Orientialism: Western Conception of the Orient’
On recently looking through a list of books regarded as being the best non-fiction works written, I remember seeing Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ amongst them, and on reading his work it’s easy to see why. In around 350 pages Said criticises and makes apparent the inherent partiality of an entire academic subject, that up to the point his book was written, in its state was largely a respected field.
The book is split it into around three parts. The first explores the origins of Orientalism as a tool for imperial use by European powers in the late 18th to 19th century. The second part analyses the diversification of Orientalism and how it began to be used by a different style of ‘experiential orientalists’ such as TE Lawrence and Lane. This then leads up to, what at the time of writing, was the modern era, though it’s still highly applicable for us in this age now.
Said’s work is very pertinent for us now living in a post-9/11 world. Ever since 2011 there has constantly been a wave of media scrutiny and exposure on Muslim and Middle Eastern communities, in such a way that it would never happen for adherents of different cultural or racial backgrounds. Said’s book, I think, helps us to explain why this is. As he explains in his work, ever since the ‘west’ came into closer contact with the ‘orient’ it has always seen it with suspicion, considered it the ‘other’, the ‘outsider’. The imperial west looked upon its non-white colonial subjects with a myopic vision of their culture and inability to represent themselves to the world, out of this grew a biased academic subject known as ‘Orientalism’. Carrying on unchecked in its racist form, it continued to grow and flourish up until relatively recently in our time. Though the academics of orientalist subjects have now largely diversified and ‘multi-culturalised’, its effect upon non-academics and larger society has left us with people, who still see Arabs and Muslims as pseudo-savages.
One thing Said left out of his book was the medieval era. I don’t believe he discusses the crusades once, which I think is quite a significant thing to leave out. The prelude to a biased imperialist orientalism surely must lie in the effects of medieval European Christian diatribes against Islam. Another minor criticism I have of the book is its use of numerous untranslated passages from French literature. On writing the book Said had no idea of the wide number of people who would end up reading it, my assumption is he imagined it would only be read by a small circle of well educated academia, many of who would be able to speak French.
I won’t go into much detail of the numerous topics discussed in the book, but there are a large number of them: Attitudes towards to literary criticism, concepts of the ‘other’, the study of alien cultures in general and the implications of entering such fields, the effects of politics being mixed with academics. Said touches on a number of things that many people up until that point were unaware of. I read the 1995 edition which contains an afterword from the author concerning the impact of the book and the storm it produced within its field. As well as the continuing negative depiction of Arabs and Muslims in the media (It was still bad even before 9/11). It opens up a number of questions to do with the study of humanities in general, and asks how one can truly study a people and their culture with an open mind and without any bias. The book still remains useful to us today as I discussed, and is an eye opener for the normal Joe (if they ever wake up from their perpetual brain dead state and read such a thing) who’s been brainwashed in society’s depiction of numerous races.