Animated Introductions to Edward Said’s Groundbreaking Book Orientalism

For a few years, many people—those who might these days be called a “self-sat­is­fied lib­er­al elite” (or some­thing like that)—believed that the argu­ments in Edward Said’s 1978 book Ori­en­tal­ism were becom­ing gen­er­al­ly accept­ed. Put broad­ly, Said argued that our con­cep­tions of cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences between “the West” and “the East” are pro­duced by Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­al and lit­er­ary tra­di­tions that have exag­ger­at­ed and dis­tort­ed such dif­fer­ences, cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive in which “the West” is civ­i­lized, dis­ci­plined,  indus­tri­ous, and enlight­ened and “the East” is exot­ic, back­ward, sen­su­al­ist, lazy, pas­sive, dan­ger­ous, irra­tional.…

The tra­di­tion of Ori­en­tal­ism—which stretch­es back into the mid­dle ages—came to jus­ti­fy colo­nial­ism, land and resource theft, slav­ery, and impe­r­i­al aggres­sion in the name of civ­i­liza­tion and sal­va­tion, Even where Euro­pean Ori­en­tal­ist schol­ars and writ­ers had a nuanced under­stand­ing of oth­er cul­tures, such nuance was lost in the pop­u­lar­iz­ing and instru­men­tal use of their ideas.

Said’s the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion into Ori­en­tal­ist dis­course showed us how the “clash of civ­i­liza­tions” trope that per­vades hun­dreds of years of inter­ac­tions between “the west and the rest” of the world itself has a history—as a ratio­nal­iza­tion for dom­i­nance and exploita­tion. The short ani­mat­ed Al Jazeera video above neat­ly sum­ma­rizes Said’s major argu­ments in the book, and asks us to “unlearn the myth.”

Cast­ing West and East as two dis­tinct civ­i­liza­tions makes lit­tle com­mon sense on its face. Chris­tian­i­ty, one key sup­posed bedrock  of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion, is an East­ern reli­gion. Aris­to­tle, a foun­da­tion of West­ern thought, was pre­served for many years by Islam­ic schol­ars, who were in fre­quent dia­logue with Greek thinkers, who were them­selves in fre­quent dia­logue with North Africans…. the inter­re­la­tion­ships and cor­re­spon­dences between con­ti­nents and cul­tures are innu­mer­able, the bound­aries between the cat­e­gories high­ly per­me­able. But with the rise of what we’re call­ing “pop­ulism” in the past decade or so, the nuances of intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry have been lost. Old false dichotomies, always haunt­ing the mar­gins, have once again moved firm­ly to the cen­ter.

In the realm of cable news pun­dit­ry, cor­po­rate secu­ri­ty con­fer­ences, and con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees not only do we rarely see actu­al schol­ars rep­re­sent­ed, but we almost nev­er see schol­ars like Edward Said, a Pales­tin­ian intel­lec­tu­al who spoke and wrote crit­i­cal­ly as a per­son from the Mid­dle East with exper­tise in West­ern lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry. This fact is itself cen­tral to the con­struc­tion of Ori­en­tal­ist dis­course, as Said wrote in 1978:

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.

We can accept noth­ing about “the East,” in oth­er words, unless it is first fil­tered through the lens­es of Euro-Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tive “experts,” who often have extrem­ist views, very lit­tle schol­ar­ly exper­tise, and whose ideas often still come direct­ly from Ori­en­tal­ist nov­els and philoso­phies.

Said’s the­o­ries in Ori­en­tal­ism have received ample crit­i­cism from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. He’s been cast by the right as a kind of reverse racist against “Cau­casians,” an anti-intel­lec­tu­al accu­sa­tion that dis­torts his views and makes ad hominem attacks. Said traced Euro-Amer­i­can colo­nial his­to­ry with a lev­el of depth that demon­strat­ed the remark­able con­ti­nu­ity in the way major Euro­pean colo­nial pow­ers and the U.S.—their suc­ces­sor by the late 20th century—constructed ide­olo­gies of excep­tion­al­ism and supe­ri­or­i­ty through very sim­i­lar rhetoric.

For a slight­ly dri­er overview of Said’s Ori­en­tal­ism, watch the short video above from edu­ca­tion­al com­pa­ny Macat, a self-described “glob­al leader in crit­i­cal think­ing.” Nei­ther of these explain­ers can sub­sti­tute for actu­al­ly engag­ing with the argu­ments in Said’s book. His his­to­ry of Ori­en­tal­ist fables is itself an adven­tur­ous tale. As a lit­er­ary prod­uct, “the Ori­ent was almost a Euro­pean inven­tion,” he writes in his Intro­duc­tion, yet as a region, it “is an inte­gral part of Euro­pean mate­r­i­al civ­i­liza­tion and cul­ture.” There is no one with­out the oth­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Edward Said Recalls His Depress­ing Meet­ing With Sartre, de Beau­voir & Fou­cault (1979)

Edward Said Speaks Can­did­ly about Pol­i­tics, His Ill­ness, and His Lega­cy in His Final Inter­view (2003)

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV, 1971

Mid­dle East­ern His­to­ry: Free Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bill W. says:

    …He’s been cast by the right as a kind of reverse racist against “Cau­casians,” an anti-intel­lec­tu­al accu­sa­tion that dis­torts his views and makes ad hominem attacks…

    But when an “Intel­lec­tu­al” (usu­al­ly minor­i­ty, or a self-hat­ing white) blind­ly accus­es whites of being inher­ent­ly racist…for hav­ing “priv­i­lege”, or by dis­play­ing any kind of ‘white pride’ (as oth­er races are per­mit­ted and encour­aged to do), THAT is Ok??? Inter­est­ing dou­ble-stan­dard. Noth­ing wrong with West­ern Civilization…Eastern Civ­i­liza­tion is just as f*cked-up as we are!

  • Bobby says:

    “The West” is so hate­ful. “The West” stereo­types entire pop­u­la­tions. “The West” should be ashamed of itself.

  • Nadeem says:

    The late Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm wrote beyond Said’s Ori­en­tal­ism: Ori­en­tal­ism and Ori­en­tal­ism in Reverse

  • Chris b says:

    There’s noth­ing “blind” about Said’s argu­ment. And if you’ve read the book, you’d know that.

  • Silvia Mendes says:

    I would like to know if the “East” calls itself the “East”…Actually, their East is… the USA.

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