Week 4 – Notes on Orientalism 1

Please review the following notes after watching the video. You don’t have to memorize them! Just read them over and become familiar with them.


“Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab [and Asian] culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.” According to Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or “rescue”.

(From: http://www.arabstereotypes.org/why-stereotypes/what-orientalism)
The ‘Other’:
Someone who’s not in ‘our group’. Our group has power, based on our identity and social relationships: we are white, male, heterosexual, wealthy, etc. People in ‘The Other’ lack one or more of those qualities. Since they’re not like ‘us’ – and ‘we’ are powerful in some way – they’re different and weaker. We get to describe them how we like: strange, exotic, submissive, inferior, etc.
(More information: http://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources/)
Cultural Appropriation:
An unequal exchange between cultures. This could be:
  1. Taking aspects of someone else’s culture without respecting the history and traditions that create it;
  2. Taking one aspect of someone’s culture and claiming it represents all of them;
  3. Making fun of an aspect of someone’s culture.
Equal exchange involves learning about and respecting aspects of others’ culture. It means taking that culture seriously when you use it, not treating it as strange, weird or exotic.
Notes for understanding Edward Said’s Orientalism:
Said limited much of his study to the Orient of Near East or Islam as dominated by the European West (especially England and France) from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of WWII. He suggests, however, that after WWII the United States moved into a similar position of domination in all of Asia.
From Edward Said’s book, Orientalism (NY: Vintage, 1978):
  1. Orientalism “puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand. … The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part. … there emerged 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.” The idea of “an Oriental world emerged, first according to general ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to a detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by … [western] desires, repressions, investments, and projections….” (7)
  1. The problem is not that conversion takes place [between reality and our knowledge of it]. It is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist… strangeness [difference]; therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, as the way they ought to be. Yet the Orientalist makes it his work to be always converting the Orient from something into something else: he does this for himself, for the sake of his culture; in some cases for what he believes is the sake of the Oriental” (67).

That “something else” is the ‘Other’. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon … a distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) the “occident.”… novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.” The East/Orient is essentially different from the West/Occident. Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. For example, take a line from Rudyard Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West” a poem about India/the Orient in 1895: “East is East, West is West / And never the twain shall meet….”

Orientalism does not always mean disliking ‘Orientals’: they can be admired – think of Gwen Stefani and the Harajuku Girls! The point is that Asians are being created as an ‘Other’: an image that’s projected onto Asians. As soon as that act is made – ‘Othering’ – the potential for false images vastly increases. Imagine a film projector: the film is Orientalism, and the screen is actual people.
  • no real, actual Orient exists (only specific places). Yet the world becomes orientalized. Oriental ideas or myths become internalized: for example, all Asians are Confucian and need to be broken from that tradition through western culture. The idea that ‘you’ foreigners (non-Asians) cannot understand Asians stems from this too.
  • For example, in colonial India the caste system became more rigid and stronger under British rule; it was made into a legal system; and a defining feature of India/Hinduism. It became an “official’ part of the colonial system. And this gets incorporated into local laws and customs. Strict laws in India, Jamaica and Zambia against homosexuality were in fact introduced by the British.
  • The idea of the Orient and Orientals – while full of stereotypes, generalizations, falsehoods and so on — has real effects in the world. As Said put it:

“Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses … a mode of discourse [system of knowledge] with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.”

Orientalism has “very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its… durability. After all, any system of ideas that can remain unchanged … from the … late 1840s until the present in the United States must be something more… than a mere collection of lies.”
  • What does Orientalism do? It provides an excuse for colonial or imperial rule. It also helps Europe, by giving Europe something to compare itself to – the dark, mysterious, exotic ‘Orient’ against the light, clear, normal ‘West’.
  • Orientalism has more to tell us about ‘Western’ culture and society and history (e.g. Christianity, faith in modern progress, our exceptional status as a race or civilization or society, empire and colonialism) than it about the so-called Orient or a place/people within that. It lets the modern West see itself as the height of progress and civilization, a place that everybody else has to reach.

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