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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056

The best-known and most controversial study of its sort, Edward Said’s Orientalism is a scholarly and polemic examination of how scholars and other writers in the West have long viewed the East. By “Orientalism,” Said means three things. First, he uses the term as an academic designation for the activities...

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The best-known and most controversial study of its sort, Edward Said’s Orientalism is a scholarly and polemic examination of how scholars and other writers in the West have long viewed the East. By “Orientalism,” Said means three things. First, he uses the term as an academic designation for the activities of anyone who teaches, writes about, or conducts research on the Orient or the East in whatever discipline. A second meaning Said finds in the term is the related but more general notion of Orientalism “as a way of thinking based upon a binary distinction between ‘the (allegedly inferior) Orient’ and ‘the (allegedly superior) Occident,’” which has served writers of all sorts as a starting point for theories, social descriptions, political accounts, and fictions about the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” and destiny. Said views Orientalism, third, as a corporate institution since the eighteenth century for dealing with and dominating the Orient. Despite the broad range of his definitions, however, Said’s own focus in Orientalism is specifically and almost exclusively on the Arab Muslim Middle East, which he presumably (and gratuitously) considers a representative case study illustrative of the situation throughout Asia.

Said develops his argument and analysis in three chapters, which examine chronological stages in the phenomenon of Orientalism, defined chiefly through the works and views of representative Orientalist scholars. Chapter 1, “The Scope of Orientalism,” reviews writing on the Muslim Near East before the eighteenth century and the significance of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Said argues that in this period the East was a textual universe for the West, with Orientalists interested in classical periods and not at all in contemporary, living Orientals. Chapter 2, “Oriental Structures and Restructures,” treats the French and English traditions of the study of the Muslim Near East during the nineteenth century and up to World War I. Said examines the career of the leading French Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy and such works as Edward Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) in endeavoring to demonstrate, among other things, how Orientalism has influenced and affected Western perceptions of the Arab Middle East and eventually Arab Middle Eastern perceptions of themselves. Chapter 3, “Orientalism Now,” characterizes Orientalism in the 1920’s and 1930’s, through a review of the careers of the leading Islamicists of the day, the French scholar Louis Massignon and the English scholar Hamilton Gibb. Said notes that the latter, who served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, lectured on “the Arab mind” and the “aversion of the Muslim from the thought processes of rationalism” and referred to Islam as “Mohammedanism.”

The concluding section of the final chapter of Orientalism is titled “The Latest Phase,” by which Said means the period after World War II, when the center of activity for the phenomenon became the United States and the American “area specialist,” trained in the social sciences, assumed the lead role from the earlier philologists. Said examines how such Middle East area specialists participate in and perpetuate the dynamics of Orientalism in their representation of Islam and Arabs in four categories. The first is “popular images and social science representations”; here Said argues that treatments of Arabs and Islam are predictably and routinely negative and derive from the transference of the popular anti-Semite animus from Jews to Arabs. Said asserts the existence of academic support for popular negative caricatures of Arab and Islamic culture. For example, the first president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America observed in 1967: “The modern Middle East and North Africa is not a center of great cultural achievement . . . [and] . . . has only in small degree the kinds of traits that seem to be important in attracting scholarly attention.” Said’s second category is “public relations policy,” by which, in Said’s view, contemporary scholars perpetuate such aspects of European traditions of Orientalist scholarship as the racist discourse and dogmas of Ernest Renan in the 1840’s. His example is the work of Gustave von Grunebaum, a prominent German Orientalist for whom the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles is named and whom Said characterizes as exhibiting an “almost virulent dislike of Islam.” Four dogmas implicit in the work of such scholars are the absolute difference between the (rational and superior) Occident and the (aberrant and inferior) Orient, the preferability of abstractions about the Orient to direct evidence from the contemporary Orient itself, the incapacity of the Orient to define itself, and the recognition that the Orient is to be feared and controlled. A third category of contemporary Orientalist representation Said calls “Merely Islam.” Here his focus is on the alleged inherent inability of the Muslim Near Orient to be as richly human as the West. As evidence, Said cites the view of a prominent political scientist, whose argument that all human thought processes can be reduced to eight includes the ancillary assertion that the Islamic mind is capable of only four. Another piece of evidence is the presumption on the part of the already cited president of the Middle East Studies Association that “since the Arabic language is much given to rhetoric Arabs are consequently incapable of true thought.” The fourth characteristic of Orientalist representation of the Muslim Near East is the attempt “to see the Orient as an imitation West” and encouragement to Easterners both to judge themselves by Western criteria and to strive to achieve Western goals. Said laments the consequent fact that “the modern Orient . . . participates in its own Orientalizing.”

Said’s concluding remarks briefly address the positive side to the problematic of reliable scholarship in the field. He argues that the best work on the Arabs and the Near Orient is (likely to be) done by scholars “whose allegiance is to a discipline defined intellectually and not to a ‘field’ like Orientalism defined either canonically, imperially, or geographically.” Said cites the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz as an example. As for scholars with Orientalist training, he sees Maxime Rodinson, Jacques Berque, Anouar Abdel Malek, and Roger Owen as freed from “the old ideological straitjacket.” Ultimately, however, Said views Orientalism past and present as an almost unmitigated intellectual failure, as an enterprise which has “failed to identify with human experience” and has “failed also to see it as human experience.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 87

Beard, Michael. “Between West and World,” in Diacritics. IX (Winter, 1979), pp. 2-12.

Brombert, Victor. “Orientalism and the Scandals of Scholarship: Orientalism,” in The American Scholar. XLVIII (Autumn, 1979), pp. 532-542.

Hourani, Albert. “The Road to Morocco: Orientalism,” in The New York Review of Books. XXVI (March 8, 1979), pp. 27-30.

Said, Edward. “Islam, Orientalism, and the West,” in Time. CXIII (April 16, 1979), p. 54.

Said, Edward, and Leon Wieseltier. “An Exchange on Orientalism,” in The New Republic. CLXXX (May 19, 1979), pp. 39-40.

Wieseltier, Leon. Review in The New Republic. CLXXX (April 7, 1979), pp. 27-33.

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