How do you represent peoples and cultures that you consider to be not of your own? Who is in charge of producing images of these mythical “others”? This post will briefly explore the role orientalism has played in this act of representing and the interests of power it has served both in the past and present.
Running the gamut of linguistics, philology (the historical study of literary texts), visual arts, travel books, political essays, and nowadays popular film and television, representations of “Eastern” peoples have long served the needs of power. Edward Said is one of many authors who have written on these dynamics in a postcolonial age, and posits this idea of orientalism as being part-and-parcel of colonialism. Whereas colonialism from the 18th to 20th centuries needed a supply of fighters, guns, and necessary violent death to come to fruition, orientalism was instead an intellectual enterprise which worked hand-in-hand with colonialism. Administrators had to know something about the people they were dispossessing of land, power, and autonomy. How did they speak, act, treat each other? WHat did they believe in? Said would argue that seeking answers to these questions was the intimate bedfellow necessary prerequisite to material domination. So what did this actually look like? While these thinkers and artists like Delacroix, Gerome, Renan, and William Jones transmitted their impressions about all of “the East”, Said focuses on their work on the Middle East and Arab peoples. They are portrayed as exotic and erotic, pioneering but ultimately backwards, and sometimes dangerous.
"The Harem" by John Frederick Lewis (1876)
“Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world's resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being” - Said
Then, so what? Orientalism doesn’t just describe these generalising attitudes, but is more about the power associated with the structures which give these stereotypes life. This process is about drawing the links between knowledge and power. When it comes to orientalism, Said maintains that this knowledge is not merely an instrument of the imperial machine, but rather is a form of power itself. Said, Foucault and others have called this a “discourse”: a system of opinions and knowledge production which ultimately creates subjects that can be dominated. The totalising effect of all the innumerable pieces of art, books on philology, travel accounts, among a huge body of other work was to deal with difference by defining it. Contrary to what many may have felt was entirely disinterested, in the name of neutral scholarly enquiry and perhaps only adjacent to if not entirely separate from the march of colonialism, these contributions formed the intellectual edifice which stripped these colonial subjects of agency, individuality, and ultimately their humanity as complex beings. There is nothing innate in an “oriental” being oriental, but they were made thus and made as inferiors by those travellers and imperialists. It is a whole body of scholarship and knowledge, and not just a few people here and there making generalising statements. Orientalism reflects the western intellectual’s insecurities, motivations, interests, and feelings of deep responsibility for their work. They felt it was their job to tell the story of the orientals. What they believed and said themselves was immaterial.
"The Snake Charmer"by Jean-Leon Gerome (1879)
“The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” - Said
This intellectual domination also leads to a split in everyone's heads between East and West. Nowadays, thinking about the world in terms of these two spheres is almost common sense and what many of us instinctively turn to when trying to make sense of the world outside our immediate surroundings. In completely false terms, orientalism creates subjects from these two halves of the world who, while sharing some characteristics, are so completely different in temperament, intellect, and self-restraint. Those in the West are ultimately superior and more refined in every respect. This matters because we can see its echoes in our present time. Listen in on tourists’ conversations when they come back from India, look at any number of TV programmes or films about places in “the East”, pay attention to how people feel their definitions of these cultures are sound and based in experience and you can see that these places in the East are seen as imminently knowable - and this gets to the heart of the issue. Do we imagine people from these exotic places have dedicated their own entire lives to understanding, say, the British mind in quite the same way as part and parcel of dominating Britain both materially and intellectually? Not quite. The East-West ontological split has usually worked in the interests of Western powers, and not the other way around.
"Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow." - Said
This matters when it comes to teaching and education for a few reasons. Principally, we should resist against any essentializing of cultures and peoples and jettisoning of notions of complexity and hybridity between them. Educators should instead maintain that blanket statements about cultures may lead to pernicious stereotyping and resultant discrimination. If we say we can measure and define a people we then deny them their humanity. We can see this in the most mundane of representations like celebrating minority festivals, or teaching about religion. Something else which must be a part of any educator’s philosophy is that knowledge and power are one and the same. This is the biggest lesson that postcolonial critiques of orientalism gives us: the power of discourse is quiet, mundane, incredibly durable and must be uncovered at every opportunity.