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Edward Said's Orientalism

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Par   •  17 Novembre 2012  •  1 727 Mots (7 Pages)  •  505 Vues

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October 13h, 2012

Edward Said’s Orientalism

The theory of power that I chose to focus on is Edward Said’s Orientalism. This paper will define Orientalism and discuss its roots and its usefulness to Orientalists as a tool of power and domination. It will also provide a description of American Orientalism, and show how it is different from European Orientalism. This paper will then analyze the importance of Orientalism as a theory, and compare it to other theories of power such as Antonio Gramsci’s Hegemony, Andre Gunder Frank’s Satellite-Periphery, Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception, and the Amity Lines mentioned in Carl Schmitt’s book Nomos of the Earth.

Orientalism emerged in the 19th century by British and French writers, thinkers, artists, scientists, and military explorers, who took trips to the Orient (Said 22), which in Edward Said’s analysis refers primarily to Muslim majority countries. These European travellers reported back to their homelands with writings, oral accounts, and paintings that referred to the Orient as a mysterious place inhabited by populations that are characterized by their inferiority to the West, by their savage customs, and by their lack of development and civilization. That collection of knowledge didn’t reflect the Oriental’s reality but rather the ego and the sense of superiority with which the European perceived himself (Said 6). That collection of knowledge fulfilled the European’s need of an “other” that could serve as a market, as a resource, and as an enemy into which internal frustrations and failures can be dumped and channeled. Orientalism fulfilled its initial objective of European colonial domination in the 19th and 20th centuries, and provided Europe, through its presence in the Orient, with countless opportunities, thought art, literature, media, and sometimes science, to further develop the Orientalist ideology and embed it into Western cultures (Said 7).

Orientalism is essentially about power. It is not only, as I discussed above, an intentional attempt to dominate and exploit culturally and economically, it is also a manifestation of power. In that sense, Edward Said explains that Europeans were able to produce Orientalist knowledge because they had the power to be in the Orient and to describe Orientals in ways that fulfilled Europe’s imperialist aims (Said 5-6). 18th century Moroccan or Palestinian explorers, for example, did not have the power, economic or ideological, to travel to France or England, gain access to their governments and people, and develop a subsequent ideology that would become dominant throughout the world. This lack of power on the part of the Orientals, according to Edward Said, is what enables Orientalism to sustain itself until this day. He argues that the lack of Oriental governments’ legitimacy and strength, and their dependence on European and American patronage, prevents them from mounting a critique of Orientalism and developing information policies that give a different picture of what their worlds are really like (Edward Said - On Orientalism).

Edward Said explains that unlike European Orientalism, which is based on first hand experiences that were solidified by a repertoire of information gathered throughout decades of colonialism in the Orient, American Orientalism is more indirect and based on abstractions. He explains that American Orientalism is very politicized due to the United States’ exceptional relationship with Israel, and the latter’s vision of Muslim majority countries as an evil enemy. American Orientalism is manifested and reinforced by the U.S. media and Hollywood, both of which portray Muslims and Arabs as human beings of a lesser breed whose violent cultural values are a threat to the United States and its allies (Edward Said - On Orientalism). Similarly to the European example mentioned earlier in this paper, the United States is able to portray Arabs and Muslims as it wishes because it has the ideological and the economic power to do so. The Orientalist ideology that fills U.S. media and Hollywood, and demonizes the Orient, then serves the U.S. government’s interests by legitimizing the use of military force on the Orient and justifying its economic exploitation by the United States. The U.S. war on Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent domination of Iraqi oil by U.S. companies (Kramer), is one example of the United States’ exploitation of the Orient. As we can see, American Orientalism is nothing more than a modern reproduction of European Orientalism. It emerged because of an imbalance in the power relationship between the United States and the Muslim world, and it justifies American use of force on Muslim majority countries.

Edward Said’s Orientalism is useful for several reasons. 1) It focuses on a limited area of the globe (Muslim majority countries), thus enabling itself to provide concrete examples, and making it easier for readers to grasp its rationale and link it to real life situations. 2) Edward Said’s Orientalism is useful because theories and writings concentrating on the origins of Islamophobia and Arabophobia are rare. Additionally, the fact that the theory of Orientalism comes from an American theorist and a renowned University of Columbia Professor, provides legitimacy and content to all of those who, such as myself, intend to build on Said’s work, contribute research to this field, and dedicate portions of their careers to raising awareness about


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