Rachel Reads: Orientalism by Edward W. Said (Part 1)

Said’s Orientalism has been on my book list ever since I took a class called African American Contemporary Religious Thought. Said was referenced many times in one of my assigned books, Racializing Jesus by Shawn Kelley.

As a Christian noticing that Ramadan is happening, I had intentions on reading the book with others, especially in light of 45’s racialized comments about the Muslim holiday. I have a vague idea of what orientalism actually refers to, but 45’s remarks struck me as perhaps fitting orientalist discourse. I’m interested in seeing how the definition of “orientalism” that Said has constructed differs from the definition that I was gathering from the world around me.

edward said
This is the exact cover for the copy I am reading.

In addition, one of my professors (who isn’t actually MY professor, but a friend who IS a professor) also suggested that I blog about what I read. I’m sure that this will also help me in citing works in the future! So here we are! 🙂

Here a few quotes that stand out to me from the first half of the introduction (pages 1-14 in the 25th anniversary edition of the book). The literature is dense, so there’s a lot to choose from.

“I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either. We must take seriously Vico’s great observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entities—-to say nothing of historical entities—-such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.”

What I sense Said saying here is that the West as we think of it and speak of it would not be possible unless the West had defined the “East”. What I understand Said as describing as “the Occident” is what we often refer to as the West, specifically empires such as Britain, France and The United States. What do you think?

Said also offers a few qualifications to the above quote:

“It would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality.”

“A second qualification is that ideas, cultures and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied. To believe that the Orient was created– or, as I call it, “Orientalized” —and to believe that such things happening simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony… The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered common place by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental.”

In other words, the construction of “the Orient” or “the East” must be understood in relationship to how power is being wielded and who is dominating who. If I am reading Said correctly, orientalism is constructed by the West for the purpose of domination.

Said’s last qualification to the first-most statement is as follows:

“One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is a veridic discourse about the Orient…. Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.

What I believe Said to be saying here is that Orientalism attempts to stand in as actual wisdom, insight and understanding of the East. Orientalism is meant to be understood by the west as true knowledge about the East. Therefore, orientalism cannot be dismissed easily, it won’t just “blow away”.

Said also discusses the role that culture plays in creating and maintaining orientalism. Culture allows for orientalist ideas and vocabularies to have influence in society by being absorbed into persons. Said references Gramsci’s identification of hegemony. For something to have hegemony, or to be hegemonic, is for that something to have more influence over others, as is the case of Christianity in the United States over other religions. Christianity has a hegemonic presence in the U.S. in that it is the religion of main influence over many others, so much so that many of us take its influence for granted in our institutions and rhetoric about the United States. Some of mainsteam U.S. Christian assumptions are so hegemonic that they might be invisible to many of us. I sense that Said is arguing that Orientalism has a hegemonic, embedded and invisiblized presence in the culture of the West. Instead of having these ideas forced upon people by a political entity, Westerners simply accept (or in Gramsci’s words “consent” to) Orientalist ideas by absorbing it from culture and not questioning what they consume. I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing if I’m understanding and grasping what Said means.

Thank you for reading a little bit of Said with me. Let me know if you have any thoughts about what I shared or if you’d like to join me in reading this seminal work. I would love to hear what you think!

(Also, this ought to go without saying, especially in light of reading this: please do not call anyone, their possessions, or culture “oriental”. That’s racist.)

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