“…the generic term that I have been employing to describe the Western approach to the Orient; Orientalism is the discipline by which the Orient was (and is) approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery and practice”.
By this, Said is saying because we treated the East like a school subject, we have learned to treat the East as an inferior. Which has developed into something called Orientalism.
The poets, authors and statesmen of the nineteenth-century have made Orientalism every thing that it is. They started out with the intent of learning about a civilization of people that was extremely different from ours. Their intentions were academic and nothing more really. Unfortunately, their almost unconscious prejudices and fears of the unknown, led to the slow cultural and then political domination of the place referred to as the Orient. I agree with Said on the matter of knowledge leading to slow domination, but I think he needs to be much clearer on the fact that it was arrived at with good intentions. Our predecessors wanted to understand, unfortunately there were much too eager, and presumptuous.
In 1798, Napoleon invaded down through Syria. Although this was one of the first attempts to invade the Orient, two people were ahead of him. Both were scholars from Europe, Antiquetil-Duperron and Abraham-Hyacinthe. These men gave the first images of language, text and civilization to Europe. The started the fascination with the Orient, and Napoleon’s urge to dominate it. Out of his failed plan to take over Egypt, came more people who wrote about the Orient without experiencing it. Said called these authors “textual children”.
Said also goes on to describe the “textual attitude”; this mindset believes everything you read. In this case reading about places, and the generalizations made, and believing these simplifications of a rather complex area, to be the concrete truth. This is an attitude, which I personally believe exists. It is apparent in the Western world because an education is such a commonly valued, and widely available institution. A common phenonmenon has developed in the West, using our education as a barometer to measure our merit based on how much knowledge we can cram, and regurgitate. Although that phenomenon doesn’t have a name, it’s by-product would be the textual attitude.
Said reasons that the textual attitude comes from feeling threatened by the unknown, and formerly unattainable. With this I would have to agree. So many times in history, whenever the Europeans or even Americans, are threatened with change, or unfamiliraity we seek to dominate it. For example our first colonist landed in the United States because our freedome was being threatened by the Eurpeans, who were trying to control our beliefs. We, then take over the native’s land, the native himself, and proceed to oppress the Africans because they are different than us. Hitler oppressed the Jews, and other cultures because they were different than him, and the United States denies Communist countries because they choose to follow a different style of governing. By the look of history, we are afraid of what is different, Said argues that we battle our fear, with the ability to describe anything in text.
“The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”
To be evenhanded, we must also recognize the textual attitude as a generalization, and because of that it retains much less value. To be giving one culture stereotypes because of the stereotype it has given another culture, is the same as two wrongs don’t make a right.
Of course Said has another theory on the textual attitude. He argues that the thinking that books are always extremely accurate also comes from trial and error. He stated that if a book on lions and how they are fierce is read, and then the reader encounters a fierce lion, not only is the author believed, but encouraged to write more, and in turn will be read more widely. Edward W. Said’s theory is a profound one:
“books on fierce lions will do until lions can talk”.
As the world expanded, so did the practices of colonialism, and imperialism. Kipling’s poem about White Men “cleaning up” a land, it also states that without freedom, war will be the consequence. Said picked a wonderful poem to illustrate the Western man’s feeling of superiority. He feels that he is responsible for all men. Kipling also implies that the White Men will battle for their freedom, “freedom for our sons/And, failing freedom, War”. This is when I ask myself; How and where did the definition of freedom evolve into such a negative meaning? It is obvious that too much power and freedom has left the author of this poem with the idea that stealing freedom from one make you more free. Said does not mention that attribute, but he does make the connection to Darwinism and natural selection.
“There was a general agreement too that, according to a strangely transformed variety of Darwinism sanctioned by Darwin himself, the modern Orientals were degraded remnants of a former greatness…”
The strong will thrive, while the weak will struggle. I would add to that by saying that our culture tends to expedite that process, whether subconsciously or not, the history shows that we have followed the “might equals right” theory.
Our non-discretional use of weapons and force, and our oppressive nature is what Said says has lead to the West’s sustaining the Orientalist nature. Our culture has grown exponentially more violent and powerful, the East has remained focused on religion and living life accordingly. This has allowed the continuous oppression of Orientalist views.
I think Said could have been slightly more careful when it came to generalizing about the West. It does not take very long to figure out what side he is on, he does to almost seem to place blame. It begins to get touchy when explaining something such as this prolonged ethnocentrism. It is easy to start out explaining and end up blaming. I think it is important to recognize the fact that when Orientalism started it was an attempt to understand. Born from that was fear, and the fear was out of control. Fortunately now that we recognize this fear, it can hopefully be addressed with the same analytical and scholarly mindset that was applied in a negative way to the East originally hundreds of years ago.
About thirty years ago Princeton University was planning a reunion. Said paints a vivid picture when he uses the Princeton reunion costume plans (Arabian robes, headgear, and sandals). Ultimately the class did not wear these costumes, but the insult was still there.
“This is what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was the scope given to the Arab.”
He goes on to say that images just got progressively worse…
“Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently…their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that ‘Semites’ were at the bottom of ‘our’ troubles, which in this case was a gasoline shortage”.
In television and cinema, Arabs are disgraced also…Said infers that it has much to do with the oil boycott of 1973-1974, most people do not realize how much the boycott benefited western oil powers.
“He (the Arab) appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low…Most of these pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures…a fear that Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world”.
Said writes that Orientalism can be found in present day Western deifications of the area referred to as the Orient. I do see that everywhere, sadly along with many other cultures that we have either destroyed or controlled. It appears that the western culture has trusted in subduing other humans, in order to prosper. It is extremely disheartening to see the country that you have been taught (falsely) that your country is one based upon fundamental freedom, and equality, and the ingenuity of it’s forefathers. At the occurrence of comprehending you have been lied to by Mother culture, you understand that forefathers were not much more than greedy, sanctimonious animals. Who built this country on the bones of the slain, while their culture, now referred to as artifacts, sit in a European, or American museum. Said writes:
“For every Orientalist, quite literally, there is a support system of staggering power…To write about the Arab Oriental world, therefore, is to write with the authority of a nation…One would find this kind of procedure less objectionable as political propaganda—which is what it is, of course—were it not accompanied by sermon on the objectivity, the fairness, the impartiality of a real historian, the implication always being that Muslims and Arabs cannot be objective but that Orientalists…writing about Muslims are, by definition, by training, by the mere fact of their Westerness. This is the culmination of Orientalism as a dogma that not only degrades its subject matter but also blinds its practitioners”.
Not many things in this world compares to the weight of such knowledge. The occurrence of such ideologies and policies against the East from the West has deterred the development of a fundamental reverence between the two. It has infringed on the rights of the people of the East, and has deprived the West from knowing the true benefits of recognizing various cultures.
My generation has been exposed to many new technologies, and has seen great progression in the political world. Although Said makes a very good argument in every aspect on how Orientalism developed and matured, I do believe he takes a fatalist perspective. Considering how much times are changing. I theorize that years from now we can correct the mistake of the past, with plans of a harmonious future. Education, used properly and unbiased, is the key to many of this worlds unpleasant situations. Equality is the goal for the future.