Before Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978, the terms "Orientalism" and "Orientalist" had been used for centuries simply to denote the academic study of Asian and Middle Eastern language, history, and culture. For instance, a famous scholar of the eighteenth century, Sir William Jones, who wrote a grammar of the Persian language and translated legal documents from Arabic and Sanskrit, was widely known as "Orientalist Jones."
Said's book redefined the term "Orientalism" as something pejorative and patronizing. He wrote that the East, which appears in Orientalist discourse, was a series of racist, belittling representations of an exoticized "Orient" which had presented the Western world with stereotypes to justify its own Imperialism. Islam, for instance, had been depicted for centuries as "a threatening Other...fanatical, violent, lustful, irrational."
Said concludes that this paternalistic Western interpretation of "the Orient" meant that the Orientalist who regarded himself as a detached scholar actually only saw the object of study as an inferior opposite of his (and it generally was his) own culture:
The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.
Said's Orientalism concerns itself mainly with literature and the arts, but he is very clear that both the book and the term are political in nature, and he sees them as critiquing a political hegemony thinly disguised as academic study and aesthetic appreciation.
Edward Said uses orientalism to mean the way that people in Western cultures imagine and interpret the differences between themselves and people of Eastern cultures. They often see the Eastern culture as backward or not modern, which can lead to certain assumptions. He says that "I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience."
A lot of the issues of Orientalism stem from the way Eastern cultures are displayed in representative media. Said says:
Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the occident." Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted 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, "mind," destiny, and so on.
Said says that Orientalism began when Enlightenment Europeans colonized eastern parts of the world. They needed a reason to go in, take the land and change the culture -- and so they painted the people and culture as inferior and in need of outside intervention.
One example of this is France's colonization of Algeria from 1830 to 1962. A popular item that was sold at the turn of the century were photographic postcards of Algerian woman in exotic scenes that looked as if they'd been shot naturally. They hadn't been. Rather, they were staged by a photographer. These photos were used as evidence that Algeria and the parts of the world like it were exotic and strange.
The attitude that Said sees people who practice Orientalism take is a patronizing one. They look down on and instruct people that have a different history and way of life than they themselves do. They represent them differently in media, which influences the way people in the West imagine and interpret those cultures.
Edward Said used the term "Orientalism" to refer to the way in which westerners regarded the culture and people of the Middle East. According to Said, westerners used the concept of Orientalism during the period of colonization as a rationale for colonizing Arab lands, whose cultures they saw as decidedly backward.
The term originally referred to the scholarly study of the Middle East during the 19th century, when the region was known as the Orient. Said claimed that the scholars were in the service of colonialism and imposed stereotypes on the area that they studied. According to Said, western scholars and literary people characterized the whole region as exotic, picturesque, sensuous, feminized, ignorant, and backward. The narratives the scholars created served the interests of European imperial powers because the west was seen as superior to the backward Orient, and the Orient was regarded as requiring western influence to elevate it from its inferior state.
Edward Said describes "orientalism" as a process in which the Western and European countries have (through literary and scientific/anthropological texts and discourses) not discovered but "invented" the culture and people of the East ("Orient"). In so doing, the West has created biased depictions of Eastern people and culture. The West (Occident) has described the East not as it is but as it is from the West's perspective. Thus, the East has been described by the West in its orientation to the West.
I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience.
Said describes the Orient (the East) as Western European's "Other." To differ itself from the Orient, the West has focused on generalizing, stereotyping, and inventing depictions of the Orient that conform to this opposition of West and East.
Said writes that anyone who researches the Orient is doing orientalism. So, orientalism is a process. Said notes that the history of orientalism has been done, by the West, to establish the West's position of authority over the East (Orient); "in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient."