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Thursday, April 17, 2003
Orientalism: An Analysis

As promised, here are my initial thoughts on Edward Said's Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), whose 25th anniversary was celebrated yesterday, and which I just started reading.

3: I have found it useful here to employ Michel Foucault's notion of a discourse...

Uh oh. A bad start. See here.

7: can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.

But all major cultures - Islam, China, etc. - perceive themselves superior to others. And what does Said mean by "European culture" anyway? One of the main arguments in Orientalism is that there is no essential thing as Western or Oriental culture (see, for example, page 347: "cultures and civilizations are so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any unitary or simply delineated description of their individuality"). I don't believe in cultural anti-essentialism to the extent that he does, but I do think that speaking of a coherent "European identity" is problematic. Do the French, German, Dutch, and Spanish think of themselves as European? Have they ever? History suggests that Europeans spend more time worrying about other Europeans than Orientals.

11: ...for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second.

Again, this statement presupposes that a coherent European or American identity exists, something Said tries hard to repudiate. He also implies here that only Orientals can genuinely understand Oriental culture and Europeans European culture. That is, we are all trapped within our acculturated selves. Is this really true?

21: The things to look at are style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances, not the correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original.

Throughout the book, Said emphasizes that he is out to analyze existing representation of the Orient, not rehabilitate a more genuine portrayal of the Middle East. This strikes me as a problem, particularly when he attacks Bernard Lewis and other actual scholars of the Middle East. If Said has "no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are" (331), then how is he in a position to take on someone who has spent his entire life studying the Middle East? I don't understand why Said, in interrogating scholarly and not literary texts, should be more interested in literary devices than scholarly accuracy.

[skipping several hundred pages of frankly uninteresting textual exegesis]

342: As I suggest, European interest in Islam derived not from curiosity but from fear of a monotheistic, culturally and military formidable competitor to Christianity.

Here Said seems to ignore the crucial role the Arabs played in the transmission of knowledge. Without Arab translations of Aristotle and other great classical Greek thinkers, the Latin West might never have encountered them until the Renaissance. Medieval Europe was indeed very curious about Islamic culture, because it was superior to their own culture at the time. Whether the reverse was true is another question altogether: I am no expert on Islam, but I do know that one of the reasons China succumbed to European despite a huge head start was cultural arrogance. Even during the last years of the Manchu Dynasty (which wasn't even Chinese, strictly speaking), the Chinese continued to believe that their inherent superiority to Western barbarians would enable them to trump the Western imperialists eventually.

345: It is beknighted to say that Orientalism is a conspiracy or to suggest that "the West" is evil...

Sure thing, Eddie. Only America and Israel are evil. The only conspiracy around is that of Jewish neoconservatives to destroy the Arabs. And among these nefarious figures are men like Bernard Lewis and his pupil, Martin Kramer, whom you are more than happy to dismiss as Orientalists - without actually tackling the substance of their criticisms.