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 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...
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