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Examining The Definition Of Western Orientalism Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2519 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Orientalism transfigures the study of Middle East. Edward Said defines, Orientalism as the ethnocentric way Europe approaches the Asian regions. Europeans looked upon the people of the Orient or the East and Arabic states as “gullible” and “devoid of energy and initiative.”  The invasion of European nations proved a radical decline in the natural prosperity of every nation they stumbled upon. The matters of the European sense of superiority and interest in control can also be seen in orientalist scholarship. Backward and barbaric, fundamentally incapable of social, political, or technological modernization, these were the descriptions of the non-western societies given to them by the people of west. Orientalism is the term that signifies the existing dislike and discrimination at the bottom of the political, economic, social and cultural discourses that were created to justify the imperialist West’s invasion and domination over the non-West. In other words, Orientalism was brought out as a matter of historical judgment. He illustrates Asian and Islamic Cultures during European imperialism and Europe’s goals of maintaining power and domination of non-Europeans.He argued that Europe used the Orient and imperialism as a symbol of its strength and superiority. “Said suggested that Orientalists are treated as others-in this case, Muslims and Asians-and as objects defined not in terms of their own discourses, but solely in terms of standards and definitions imposed on them from outside. Among the influences underlying these definitions was, in Said’s view, a long-standing Western concern with presenting Islam as opposed to Christianity.

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Said divided orientalism into two categories, one is the latent Orientalism which is the unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the Orient is. Its basic content is static and unanimous. The Orient is seen as separate, eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive. It has a tendency towards despotism and away from progress. It displays feminine penetrability and supine malleability. Its progress and value are judged in terms of, and in comparison to, the West, so it is always the other, the conquerable, and the inferior whereas manifest Orientalism is what is spoken and acted upon. It includes information and changes in knowledge about the Orient as well as policy decisions founded in Orientalist thinking. It is the expression in words and actions of Latent Orientalism.

Any humanist would see that before the west intervened, each individual culture followed to their habitat, past experiences, and past knowledge.  Even though they were not “modernized” they still would have survived on their own just as they had been doing it for centuries.   However, a race of people could not be heartless enough to admit their destruction with a clear conscious and no remorse.  They would not pack their bags and leave a deserted crippled country.

Orientalism and Western domination of the rest of the world.

Understanding Orientalism is useful in the context of South Asia, as it enables us to understand the relationship between political hegemony and knowledge. Said says Orientalism exposes ‘the European will to domination… to create an orderly discipline of study… a set of institutions, a latent vocabulary… a subject matter, and… subject races’. It represents ‘the power to make philological distinctions… and the institutional force to make statements about Oriental mentality, the inscrutable Oriental, the unreliable and degenerate Oriental’. The concept of Orientalism is useful in analysing prevailing literature, generalised and essentialised ideas such as ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Islam’. It is also important in understanding women’s movements and feminist discourses in South Asia. Many South Asian women used the criticism of Orientalism to criticise literature, imaginations and situations affecting women. Yet, the idea of Orientalism and the ‘Western imagery of the Orient’ can be used ideologically by extremist nationalists and fundamentalists who suppress the freedom of thought under the pretence of defending the Orient and fighting with the West. Misunderstanding the project of Orientalism may increase hostility between people and glorify myths such as West and Orient. It is no longer desirable, in our globalised world, to say that only South Asians can talk about South Asia, or only Hindu can talk about Hinduism and explain Indian religious traditions. For example, Tibetan Buddhism was scorned again during the Victorian period, when Buddhist studies were growing into an academic discipline. As depicted by Prof Lopez, The nineteenth-century constructions of Tibetan Buddhism are part of the heritage of Orientalism, described by Edward Said as a European mode for gaining authority over the Orient, a mode whereby Orientals were controlled–politically and epistemologically–by scholars in Europe and colonial officials in Asia. An important part of this scholarship was the self-aggrandizing ability of European scholars to write histories of Oriental civilizations that identified their origins, their classical periods, and their decline. The last of these (also called “the modern period”) was marked by decay and impotence. The modern period was also contemporaneous with European colonialism, one of whose products for the West was knowledge about the East. According to the exponents of this new field of knowledge, the facts and artefacts of the classical period were rescued by the emergent Western scholarship from the custody of the Orientals, who failed to recognize them for what they were and hence lost any right to them. The Orientalist would henceforth speak for the Oriental through heredity of scholarship whose task it was to represent the Orient because the Orient was incapable of representing itself. This representation of the East by the West carried with it the valuation of what was true and what was false, what was worthy and what was worthless. Furthermore, according to Edward Said’s Orientalism, the texts produced by European Orientalists had the power to “create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to define by delimiting the object of knowledge. Said argues that Orientalism also had more directly political effects: its representations of the Orient provided a justification for imperialism and a foundation for colonial policies and institutions. (Prof Donald S. Lopez Jr, 1994)

Iraq is the ultimate illustration of how Orientalist conventional wisdom had it wrong.  Arguing that this Orientalism has driven America to contempt and discriminate against the Orient, and eventually to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as well as arousing certain public opinion against North Korea, may be criticized for its ignorance or exaggeration, especially when the world has observed the events of September attack (9/11) and the North Korean nuclear weapon issue.During the past two centuries Europe has ideologically constituted Asia in relation to itself with the purpose of putting its hand in it. In the past decade, Asian music and culture has spread throughout the West like poppies. The problem is that this Orientalism is still present, long after the imperialist invasions. Bush’s policies are the evidence for the existence of Orientalism. The Bush administration invaded Iraq claiming that Iraq had Weapon of Mass destruction (WMD) and that Saddam Hussein was an unforgivable dictator. As the supposed Weapon of mass destruction (WMD) have not yet been found and as Hussein was the representative of Iraq, chosen by its people, it is natural that the Iraqi people pronounce curse against Bush. With the amount of west intervention in Iraq, it was not possible for the US military force to occupy Iraq forever. During the Bush administration, he announced that the US military force will be withdrawn upon the establishment of a democratic government in Iraq, the US will probably still try to dominate Iraq in one way or another as long as they have an oil interest in Iraq. Their dominance, however, will not last for long, and the US army cannot help but leave Iraq. This is just a matter of time. Americans or people in the world felt over 9/11 attack. Nobody can deny that 9/11 was an atrocity that aroused anger around the world. The world, however, is aware that the broad antagonism of the west especially Americans against the Arab world was one of the main causes of 9/11, and that the terrorist Bin Laden himself was, in the past nurtured by the US to fight against the USSR. In other words, 9/11 was a trap set by the US themselves then. The war in Iraq, perceptions have proven particularly relevant to the conduct of military operations. However, because Western outlook of this critical region, and forming the personal collection of most Westerners, are predetermined by each individual’s experience within his/her culture. This experience is mostly shaped by the images, ideas and impressions retained from exposure to popular culture, media and more or less elaborate programmes or readings, and depending on one’s educational accomplishments, personal or professional interests. The common characteristic between all these individual experiences, as far as the Middle-East is concerned, is that they are all immersed in a predominant consensus or discourse about the representation of this critical region of the world. Likewise, the launch of the Arabic language Al-Jazeera satellite channel nearly ten years ago, transformed the television landscape in the Middle East. And over the past three years the channel has gained global reputation and became a name which governments and decision-makers across the world can hardly ignore. Even, In The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the costumes of the Haradrims, a human race who allies itself with the enemy, are Middle-Eastern in style. When children are fed this kind of negative bias against the Middle-East, the subliminal cultural consciousness of whole generations is enduringly and profoundly impacted. The “normality” of such bad depictions clearly illustrates what several Western intellectuals qualify at best as acceptable political in correctness directed against Middle-Easterner

The war declared on terrorism after the massacre of 9/11 in New York, with the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, revives this tradition of improving interventionism by carrying on the old orientalist-related topic. Far from destroying the Great Divide between the West and the Rest, the wars of a new type support and separate the division between civilized and barbaric in the era of “globalization”. The explanation of ideology of the American, according to which there would no longer be outside or inside, because no country would now be released from terrorism. What now prevails is a sober vision of globalization, that of a fight to the death between two worlds, extending over all continents, between America, and the Islamic terrorism. But this originality goes back to schemes that are as old as the United States itself, insofar as this self-proclaimed exceptional, autonomous and providential imperial republic has an idealistic or ideal component qualified as essential.

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Edward Said also refers to the media’s ability to control and filter information as an invisible screen, releasing what it wants people to know and blacking out what it does not want them to know. To accomplish his goal Said sets up a methodological argument within which he addresses three main concepts. First, that imperialism is not about a specific moment in history, but rather a continuing interdependent dialogue between subject peoples and the dominant hegemony of the empire. Secondly, through the production of popular western literature authors have maintained a sense of continued supremacy upon subject peoples. This theorization that postcolonial domination has been institutionalized within western literature is a reference to the idea of a continuing interchange of ideas between dominant culture and oppressed peoples. Lastly, Said’s comparison of colonialism to racism is integral to his argument about the continuation of oppression in a postcolonial environment. Throughout his analysis of culture, he focuses on the limitations of subjugated peoples within western culture and the reasons for their continued oppression. In Covering Islam (1997), Said postulates that, if knowledge is power, those who control the modern Western media (visual and print) are most powerful because they are able to determine what people like or dislike, what they wear and how they wear it, and what they should know and must not know about themselves. Said claims that untruth and falsehood about Islam and the Muslim world are consistently propagated in the media, in the name of objectivity, liberalism, freedom, democracy and ‘progress’


In this contemporary world, there is at least more than fifty percent intervention of the west towards the rest of the world. Edward Said argues in Orientalism, his landmark 1978 study of the relationship between the production of knowledge and the exercise of imperial power, the attitudes and images created by this tradition compose a closely bound system of created knowledge, “of willed human work”, about the Eastern “other” which the imperial powers of Europe and North America have historically used to invite and justify political and economic intervention and imperialism. Critics who have studied Orientalism in Europe, especially in nineteenth-century literature, have pointed out that there is much that can be learned about the West’s image of itself through the way Western writers have depicted the Orient. The influential popular magazine, The National Geographic, established in 1988 used to represent a window on the world for millions of middle class Americans at a time when movies and televisions were either not yet invented or in their infancy. The plain picturesque coverage of the Middle-East, by this magazine, showed the Arabs as exotic Orientals Mass media and movie industry developed throughout the twentieth century to become the main spreader of information, images and attitudes about the region to the public at large. The Arab Muslim progressively became a figure in American popular culture. No one can deny that orientalism has made great contributions to the study of Arab culture and history, and to the religion of Islam. Orientalists were and still are standing as experts in Arab-Islamic culture. They accumulated very rich knowledge and experience in this field of inquiry. In fact they made tremendous contribution to research, translation, and ultimately to the preservation and indexing of Arab-Islamic heritage.


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