Saturday, August 25, 2007



One of the more influential works of the postcolonial historical approach is Orientalism by Edward Said. In his work, Said (who is of Palestinian origin and readily admits to wanting to compile "an inventory of orientalist traces and influences upon himself...") examines not so much the colonized as the colonizers themselves. Indeed, Said's definition of Orientalism, traditionally associated with the academic study of the Orient or as part of larger East/West dialectical thinking, becomes for him a representative organism of the west's hegemonic attempts at dealing with the Orient. As any organism, Orientalism is fundamentally "alive": it is actively shaped by western intellectuals for their ends but also develops to have agency of its own, as a perpetrator of ideology.

Said describes Orientalism as a functioning system, a science of representation that must be studied as a "live" discourse, one that is intimately connected to power mechanisms and that is self- defining and self-perpetuating (as opposed to a strictly utilitarian tool used by the power elite to obtain advantage); a self-delusionary yet wholly satisfying ideology agreeable with western imperialism that effectively institutionalizes the Orient as the "other," in a negative sense. Said went further by claiming that Orientalists represented the "other" (the Orient and its inhabitants) in their own image, a people and a culture who invariably aspired to Western standards and measures of progress and modernity.

Said's theories were self-admittedly informed from Foucault's analysis of relations between power and knowledge, and affirmed their inherent interconnectivity but nonetheless rejected Foucault's elaborations of omnipresent and mystified sources of power. Rather, Said reverted to a knowable and well-articulated power structure, giving back agency to the dominant orientalist discourse, one that, while was being manipulated by colonialists, was also a self-perpetuating and fundamentally repressive regime of representation that reinforces colonial perspectives. For Said, Western intellectuals had power and shaped the outlook of the Orient for their generations.

Why focus on discourse and representation of the Orient as opposed to the accuracy of the information that the British and the French were generating? Said acknowledges the material basis of Orientalism - of being rooted in real events in the region of interest - but argues that one must study the "exteriority of orientalist cultural output" because of "the reality of discourse; language is highly representative itself, an encoded and organized system" which transforms into a cohesive system that actively seeks to perpetuate itself.

Some criticisms can be levied against Said's conceptions of Orientalism as inherently a repressive and selfish tool. One can point to the breadth of British and French scholarship that portrayed the Orient in a variety of ways, ones that avoided Said's essentialist western characterizations of Orientals as being violent, exotic, static etc. Also, Said does not go into detail about why ideological constructions are made, whether they are necessary or necessarily negative. And what of the positive representations of the "Other" that Orientalists have produced?

One example is the British idealizations of the masculine and hardy Muslim in India as opposed to the effeminate and weak Hindu. Overall, Orientalism is a masterful theoretical abstraction of the ways in which knowledge can be appropriated and transformed into self-sustaining systems of power and end up furthering the Colonial hegemony, both for the object and the subject.

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