BOOK REVIEW - ORIENTALISM By Edward W. Said (New York, Vintage, 1979)

Following the capture of the US embassy in Teheran in 1979, the mass media in the US launched an all-out war of propaganda against the Iranian revolution. Leading newspaper? and magazines carried statements to the effect that "civilization is receding" (Wall Street Journal editorial) supported by quotes from rancorous Oriental authorities one of whom says that "the disorder of the Orient is deep and endemic"; the attempt was not only to discredit and/or deny that any genuine popular revolution had taken place, expressing protest against tyranny and the desire of a people to have a life of their own. Much worse, there was an attempt to justify the torture-regime of Moheza Pahalvi by drawing upon the prevalent notions of Iranian history: "it can be argued that he was entirely in the tradition of Iranian history " (Washington Post). Even if the preceding utterances were viewed as "normal", arising out of a sense of anger at an enemy, the trend of arriving at these opinions is significant viz. to describe the political upheaval and participants in terms of known and available notions of Islam and Muslims. These notions require no support from immediate factual evidence, as they fall back on a certain collective, inherited doctrine which provides them with strength and authority, to make them appear as statements of Truth. This doctrine is what Edward Said calls "Orientalism" and his book under review attempts, among other things, to provide a historical perspective on "Orientalism" within the general history of Europe, its nature and role as one of the dimensions of the larger Western Quite significantly, this book also attempts to show how the Orientalist images diffuse into the popular culture and how the scholarly Orientalism, itself a great body of enterprise, interacts and even shapes the (foreign) 'policy making apparatus of the Western nations.

'Orientalism' is divided into three long chapters and twelve shorter sub-units. The first chapter outlines the entire field of study, indicating the dimensions of it and its philosophical and political themes. The second chapter, somewhat chronological in nature, traces the development of modern (i.e. late XVIII century onwards) Orientalism by the description of a set of devices common to the works of important poets, artists and scholars, down to the period 1870. The last chapter is largely a description of Orientalism from 1870 till the end of World’War II, whiles the very last section of this chapter, considers the present phase of the Orientalism in the US.

While "Orientalism" is a general term covering roughly all the "Asian" cultures, Said's study of the Orientalist paradigm is based mainly on the European experience of the 'Wear Orient", "The Middle East" or the Arab-speaking world, largely Islamic. Such a limitation is a matter of contingency and according to the author is brought about by the sheer volume of material to be considered even when dealing with the Arab-World. Partly because of this, this review does not attempt g the book in its entire course. Instead, the attempt here is to focus on the set of generalizations which form the basis of this book relating to the power of the cultural domination of the West and Orientalism as part of this hegemony: Specifically, our interest is to highlight the functional use of Orientalism in expansionist politics and its authority within the general Western culture in shaping its experience of the Orient. At the academic level, "Orientalism" is less preferred today than "Area Studies", sustained primarily by specialists. At the other, more general level, "Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and "the Occident" (p.2). Thus, a very large mass of writers and thinkers who have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as starting point for building elaborate theories, will be accommodated in this kind of Orientalism - writers as diverse as Dante, Hugo and Marx (p.3).

Orientalism tends to acquire a more substantial meaning when viewed with XVIII century as the starting point. Since this period, Orientalism has acquired the shape and structure of a corporate institution of the West for dealing with the Orient - "for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient". It is to be viewed as "the whole network of interests inevitably for ought to bear on .... any occasion when that peculiar entity "the Orient" was in question; so much so that "no one, writing thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism" (p.3). The notion of the existence of a distinct "Orient" as compared to "the Occident" confers on "the Orient" a certain antiquity making it as old as "the West" itself. To the extent to which the West has a history, "the Orient" also history and a tradition of thought. In fact, the imagery of the Orient can be traced back to Homer (in his Iliad) who, in turn, relies upon some earlier utterance concerning the Orient (p.20). The images become more intensified in Dante in his Divine Comedy where he describes the punishment meted out to the Prophet Mohammed in hell for having been a "falsifier" (that is, for preaching false religion) (p.68-9). The indignation felt by an eminent cleric in XI century, the success of Muslim armies in Europe was expressed by drawing upon the reserve of 'Orientalist' feelings, that they had "all the appearance of a swarm of bees, but with a heavy hand they devastated everything" (p.59).

What changes did the rapid expansion (since renaissance)-and consolidation of European Power (in XVIII) century in a large part of the Orient bring about in the European attitudes toward the Orient? It resulted in what Said calls the Orient becoming "Orientalised". With the emerging power relationship of colonialism in the East, the Orient was not only perceived to be "Oriental" in "all those ways considered commonsensical by an average XIX century European, but it could be made Oriental" (p.6). But this perception of the Oriental backwardness in general is an outcome of the hegemonistic character of European Culture, which is rooted in "the idea of European identity superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures" (p.7). What emerges out of this hegemonistic culture and its conquest of the Orient is "a complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum,' for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe, for instances of economic and sociological theories of development, revolution, cultural personality, national or religious character" (p.8). Orientalism thus becomes not only a collection of text and information about the Orient but also a way of knowing about the Orient The authoritative position that Orientalism occupies in the Western consciousness arises from its capacity to form and sustain images, or representations of the Orient for the Occidental audience in an internally consistent fashion. To .the extent to which Orientalism fulfills this purpose, it is "a considerable dimension of modern political - intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with "our world" (p.12), or the present day West.

What is the role of Orientalist utterances (in a functional way that is)? While Said observes that Orientalism cannot be viewed as a mere structure of lies and myths calculated to benefit a certain end inspired by imperialism (p.6) he views it "more valuable as a sign of European Atlantic power over the Orient than... as a periodic discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be)" (p.6). Academic Orientalism is only a grid for "filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness". It is viewed mainly as a body of theory and practice, meant for achieving this end. As a Western doctrine about the Orient, it has less to do with producing a system of facts concerning the Orient, than with creation and sustenance of its images in the scholarly tradition and the general culture.


That much of the body of information collected on "the Orient" by way of textual studies, was put to the end of justifying colonial rule is perhaps an acceptable proposition today. What is perhaps not quite well known is the manner in which it was put to use to prepare in advance for colonial conquest. This sense, is one of the significant observations made in this book and is worth elaboration through a description of the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt.

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to invade Egypt partly because his conquests could not continue in Europe and also because he wanted to put himself across the British access to India. Also "Napolean considered Egypt a likely project precisely because he knew it tactically strategically, historically and.... textually, that something one read and knew through the writings of recent as well as classical European authorities. (For him) Egypt was a project that acquired reality in his mind, and later in his preparations for the conquest, through experiences that belong to the realm of ideas and myths culled from texts, not from empirical reality". For his Egyptian expedition, Napoleon enlisted the services of several "authorities" on Egypt, some of whom were members of the Institute d' Egypt which he had founded and which conducted studies on several topics related to Egypt. In addition, Napoleon had the benefit of reading an earlier work by one Volney, which had recounted, step by step, the obstacles to a French expeditionary force. In his opinion (he saw himself as a scientist) Muslims constituted the important obstacle, more than the British.

Once in Egypt (in the year 1798) Napoleon used a variety of Egyptian sentiments of enmity to certain sects and the newly found European concept of Equality, to wage a war against Muslims. Equipped with a team of Orientalists, "Napoleon tried to prove everywhere that he was fighting for Islam; everything he said was translated into Koranic Arabic just as the French army was urged by its command to always remember the Islamic sensibility.... When it seemed obvious to Napoleon that his force was too small to impose itself on the Egyptians, he then tried to make the local imams, rhytis and ulemas interpret the Koran in favor of the Grand Armee. This worked and soon the population of Cairo seemed to have lost its distrust of the occupiers" (p.82). Victor Hugo hailed this victorious expedition:

Sublime, he appeared to the dazzled tribes like a Mahomet of the Occident.

"But dealings with the Muslims were only part of Napoleon's project to dominate Egypt. The other part was to render it completely open, to make it totally accessible to European scrutiny.... The Institute, with its team of chemists, historians, biologists, archaeologists, surgeons and antiquarians, was the learned division of the army. Its job was no less aggressive: to put Egypt into Modern French.... Everything said, seen, and studied was to be recorded in that great collective appropriation of one country by another, the Description de Egypte, published in twenty three enormous vo(each page a square meter in size) between 1809 and 1828".

The aim of the Project, in the words of Jean-Baptiste Fourier, the Institute's Secretary, was as envisioned by Napoleon: "to offer a useful example to the Orient, and finally also to make the inhabitant's lives more pleasant, as well as to procure for them all the advantages of a perfected civilization". The appearance of the Description is in a sense the real triumph of the Napoleonic expedition*. With its appearance, the hitherto "closed" Egyptian society had been opened up while its own history and identity came to be comprehended only as part of a 'World" or European history. The conquest did the service of rendering any resistance to this onslaught absent, [thus making the Orientalist position somewhat invulnerable. Until that time, utterances concerning the Orient would be said to belong to the realm of the imagery but with the appearance of the Description, the very language of Orientalism changed radically. Its descriptive realism was upgraded and became not merely a style of representation but a language, indeed a means of creation the Islamic Orient would henceforth appear as a category denoting, the Orientalists power and neither the Islamic people as neither humans nor their history as history". What is said of Islamic people is true of any of conquered peoples (In India, the conquest had taken place earlier and the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal had been founded in 1784, well before the French Revolution).

In a direct sense, the purpose of Orientalism was political. But the interrelationship between the politics of imperialism and the culture of which Orientalism is a substantial part, goes deeper. While the political in relates to subjugation of the Orient, it is "the culture that created that interest, that acted along with brute political economic and military rationales to produce the Orient" (p.12). At the level of general culture, acquisition of an enormous quantity of Oriental information makers very little impact on alteration of the hegemony. If Europe had been ignorant of the Orient prior to conquest, the ignorance has only become more refined at the general cultural level.


In the post-enlightenment culture of Europe, the upgraded realism of the Orientalist discourse tended to acquire an increasingly authoritative position in matters regarding the Orient. Such authority was backed by the reality of an unresisting, subjugated Orient, which had started to diffuse into the general consciousness. Large number of writers, thinkers and administrators, who thought about Orient in different contexts, were well aware of ct of the European domination of the Orient. More than the political victory, it was the cultural hegemony, enriched by the Orientalist exercise of "producing" the Orient that contributed to the strengthening and reinforcement of the general Orientalist doctrine. Even as details of the Oriental culture flowed in, the Orientalist paradigm changed only its exteriority to suit the emerging culture of the late XVIII century Europe, moving from the free-floating Orientalism to textual isation.

While scholars re-represented the Orient in the newly acquired style of textualisation, writer’s poets and philosophers supplied the necessary colors. A large mass of creative writing of late XVm and early XIX century persistently depicts the Oriental from the ethnocentric perspective of Orientalism. Writers as diverse as Goethe, Flaubert, Scott and Dickens made use of the new exteriority of the Orientalist discourse to repeat the hegemonistic a centric view of Europe regarding the Orient and the Oriental. At another level, the Orientalist text served rival parties in philosophical discourse (for example, Voltaire's hailing of the "Ezourvedam" only to make the point that it disproved the Biblical great deluge). Or, Edward Schelegal's praise for the 'Vedantic" philosophy arose out of the concern for supplementing the perceived materialistic philosophy and way of life in the late XVIII century Europe and also because 'Vedantic" philosophy could be used as a point to downgrade "the Semitic" philosophies, to which Europe had been hostile traditionally.

The authority of Orientalism, in its imaginatively restructured form is brought out powerfully in the case of Karl Marx, who in his 1853 analysis of the British rule in India (p.153) "returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution".

"Now sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious, patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual member losing at the same time the ancient form of civilization and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Orientalism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.... England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

Then, whatever bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history, to exclaim with Goethe; "Should this torture then torment us since it brings us greater, pleasure? Were not through the rule of Timur Souls devoured without measure?".

The quotation which supports Marx's argument comes from Goethe's Westestostlcher Diwan and identifies the source of Marx's conception about Orient. That the lifeless Asia must be regenerated receptively is a piece of pure romantic even messianic Orientalism, which wins out over whatever sympathies Marx may have had towards the suffering humanity. Somehow the "vocabulary of emotion dissipated as it submitted to-the lexicographical police action of Orientalist science and even Orientalist art. An experience was dislodged by a ' dictionary definition: One can almost see that happen in Marx's Inclian essays, where what finally occurs is that something forces him to scurry back to Goethe, there to stand in his protective Orientalised Orient" (p.155).

In the later sections of the book, which cover the period roughly from mid-nineteenth century onwards up to the present times, Orientalism tends to focus almost exclusively on "the Arab World" (a term much deprecated by Said). The coverage and survey of scholars and literary figures involved is quite impressive, as also that of national traditions of scholarship. What in the earlier sections was subtle, impassioned sarcasm (see Said's account of Karl, Marx) I "upgrades" itself into abuse as the period closes in on contemporary developments (see, in particular, the vehement attack on the American academic establishment of "Area studies", expertise and its role in formulation of the US policy in the Middle East, pp.300-320). That the traditional Western scholarship in Orientalism has gradually transformed itself into offering more openly the necessary useful services for the power system is well brought out. But, the question is there an alternative to Orientalism? Said attempts to answer this question by pointing to the emergence of newer insights, concepts and methods in contemporary human sciences "that could dispense with racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes of the sort, provided during its historical ascendancy by Orientalism" (p.328).

In trying to view this critically, we shall take up a brief from H.A.R. Gibb, the British Orientalist of this*century, "surveyed" by Said. Gibb is, quoted as saying (in 1931) that the study of the Orient "for its own sake" will "assist" us to liberate ourselves from the narrow and oppressive conception which would, limit all that is significant in literature, thought, and history to our own segment of the globe" (p.256). This calls for a knowledge of the Orient "for its own sake", in diametric opposition to some of the earlier declarations (one quoted by Said is in 1899) on such knowledge and its direct usefulness to expansion of European suzerainty over "the Orient", and reflects, in Said's words (p.257), "the changed political and cultural realities of the postwar era" of Independence movements and political contests of European supremacy by the native peoples. Thus arises for the West the

"need of the Orient as something to be studied because it releases the spirit from sterile specialization, it eases the affliction of excessive parochial and nationalistic self-centeredness, it increases one's grasp of the really central issues in the study of culture. If - the Orient appears more a partner new-rising dialectic of cultural self-consciousness, it is/first, because the Orient is more of a challenge now than it was before, and second because the West is entering a relatively new phase of cultural "-- crisis, caused in part by the diminishment of Western suzerainty over the world."

The foregoing analysis is fairly accurate when applied to the system of inter-relationships between the West and the non-West today, in the post-second world war period. In *his * period of benign imperialism, the battle against "the Orient" is perhaps subtler, waged as it is with the falsely universal categories of the human sciences, which continue to emerge and which are looked up to with some hope in this book. Said sees the danger of "the Orientals" perceiving themselves as "Orientals" in contemporary world (p.322) but somehow fails in noticing the grave danger in viewing themselves through the 'universal' categories of the human sciences. To cite one example, apart from the dilettantism of developmental sociology and economics, accounts are constructed, with the aid of these, of "peasant state" as a political formation, only to enable their use in building a universal scheme of political formations that would accord the West the requisite supremacy. At another level, a set of computer men, all American could acclaim the "usefulness" of the syntax of Sanskrit language based on the system of Panini, while totally denying any merit to the host of its traditional commentators, using conceptual tools of contemporary linguistic and automata theory. The discourse of power between the West and the non- West (in the sense of Michael Foucault), does continue though the mode of assertion has changed. Thus, this book, though restricted in its appeal for action to certain types of scholarship in the West, nevertheless succeeds in powerfully challenging the classical Orientalism through a brilliant portrayal.

Author:V. Balaji


* Physically, the expedition was failure as the French army was defeated by Egyptians after the
departure of Napoleon.

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