More thoughts on Said's Orientalism

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Said’s claim essentially that the Orient as anybody in the West knows it doesn't exist is an interesting one epistemologically. "I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature." (71) The way this is phrased is certainly quite defensible. He elaborates "There were-and are-cultures and nations whose locations is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West." (71) So what then is the book about? "The phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism in the Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient… despite or beyond any correspondence or lack thereof with a ‘real’ Orient" (71). Said starts with the assumption that there is no such thing as "the Orient", though there are people and cultures in the territory traditionally so named, and then undertakes a study of how Europeans have constructed “the Orient”. So far so good. But there is a second part to Said’s thesis, a second set of assumptions that he combines with the first, namely that the entire construct of Orientalism is "more … a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is a veridic discourse about the Orient." (72) This set of assumptions each need to be examined closely. The first idea, that "the Orient" is a construct, is fairly incontrovertible. And it would be very interesting indeed to study how the construct of "the Orient" does or does not correspond with the peoples and cultures living in the territory designated as such. But that is not what Said undertakes. Instead he attempts to prove his second assumption, that Orientalism ipso facto does not represent the people in the Orient, but is rather a reflection of – and even tool of – domination over the region. There is always a danger with this type of writing, where the author attempts to fit the evidence to the thesis. The danger is that in trying to make the point well they introduce their own set of distortions into the subject of inquiry. Said is explicitly trying to prove that all previous Orientalists were tools of imperialism. This may be the case, but he may be mishandling them at least as egregiously as he accuses them of mishandling the Orient. Whether this is actually the fact is beyond my competence to judge, but the danger ought at least to be acknowledged. And Said’s point would be made best if he acknowledged this inherent danger and took steps to mitigate it. However, he appears not to of done this, at least if the basic claims of his critics have any credibility.

References:

Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Vinatage,1978.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel Hindes published on February 26, 2008 5:56 PM.

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