Week 4 – Notes on Orientalism 2

ELC 352 Asia and its Other
Week 4, Monday, March 23, 2015
Orientalism
Knowledge about other cultures isn’t neutral.
19th century literature depended on ‘orientalism’, an organized body of literature that relied on a bunch regular images:
  1. a sensual woman that gets used by men
  2. a place full of secrets and monsters
  3. all ‘Orientals’ are the same
This should sound familiar! Just like East Asians are exotic and submissive, Arabs are frightening, mysterious, threatening. These are both examples of Orientalism.
“Orientalism” is an ideology that distorts Asian peoples and cultures, compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It calls Arab and Asian culture exotic, backward, uncivilized, and dangerous.
According to Said, Orientalism provided an excuse for European colonialism. The East was extremely different and inferior, and therefore the East needed Western “rescue”.
Power: The British and French conquered the middle east. They asked: how do we understand the natives we’re encountered, so we can conquer them more easily? Use large, abstract categories to explain people who look different. Europeans had the power to go to a country, and create knowledge about it. The Egyptians couldn’t do the same.
For example, Napoleon, French dictator, conquered Egypt in 1798. Rather than just stealing, he brought scientists to survey the country. The French produce knowledge about Egypt (a giant book 1 meter wide).
From Edward Said’s book, Orientalism (NY: Vintage, 1978):
  1. The orient wasn’t real. It was a fantasy, and like all fantasies, had more to do with western mental issues, what Said calls “desires, repressions, investments, and projections….” (7). All the violence and sexuality that westerners are afraid of, get pushed onto Asia. ‘We’re not sexual and violent; you are.’
  2. It’s not a problem to understand other cultures using your own language and knowledge. That’s natural. “Yet the Orientalist … [converts] 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).
So, Orientalists not only turn Asia into a fantasy; they can’t admit they’re turning Asia into a fantasy. They always say they’re showing Asia this way to ‘help’ Asians understand themselves.
Orientalism creates the ‘Other’. The East/Orient is essentially different from the West/Occident. 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. 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.
  • The idea of the Orient and Orientals also helps Europe, by giving Europe something to compare itself to – the dark, mysterious, exotic ‘Orient’ against the light, clear, normal ‘West’. The underlying message of orientalism is that Asia doesn’t develop; it’s always the same. It creates an ideal ‘other’ for Europe – and then Europeans can go and change it. So Orientalism is really about ‘western’ culture rather than Asia. It lets the modern West see itself as the height of progress and civilization, a place that everybody else has to reach.
Vocabulary
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.
Social Construction:
An idea that is created by society. It’s not natural; it has to be made (‘constructed’). Those people in power usually get to decide what’s constructed. Just like the video shows how Arabs are made. Arabs are not terrorists or violent; but they are socially constructed that way through the media and government.
Ideology:
A system of beliefs about the world that isn’t realistic or accurate for everybody. Instead, that system depends on being the member of a particular class, race or group. Think of ideology as a big framework for stereotypes.
Example – If you say Asians are all good at math, that’s a stereotype. But if you say that Asians are good at math because all Asian people love studying, because their families tell them to study, because it’s a Confucian value, because all Asians obey Confucius, so therefore Asians are obedient, submissive, and robotic… now we’re creating ideology. Ideology organizes stereotypes.
Problematic:
A false idea that harms someone else (noun). Or, a set of ideas that creates a thesis.
Lens:
A way of looking at a person, group or idea that has been socially constructed or shaped by ideology.
Discourse:
A set of ideas, and texts, that create a system of knowledge. And also, understanding how systems of knowledge are affected by powerful groups. (From Foucault).
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