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Opinion, Reviews

Post-Orientalism

Perhaps no other work of modern literary theory has had such a deep and lasting impact on the fields of Near East, Middle East and Islamic Studies than Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said is arguably among the most influential public intellectuals of the late 20th century. Modern scholars of these fields have found within his work endless avenues for sanctimony about the plight of the colonial and post-colonial Orient at the hands of Western powers. Additionally, it has allowed those same scholars, if they originate elsewhere than the Orient, to identify with that plight and internalize it as a part of their course of study.

The work itself does have value as an exposition of literary theory regarding the intellectual production of those who studied the languages and cultures of places east over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. It demonstrates that this field of study has been particularly instrumentalized for the purpose of desensitizing Westerners to the actual mechanism of imperial hegemony, namely cultural hegemony. Said’s work also addresses that the 20th century, marked by what was thought to be the end of the colonial era, in fact saw the extension and reapplication of Orientalism for the purpose of a new type of post-colonial imperial hegemony. It could be argued that his exposition of 20th century Orientalist authors presages the modern intellectual war that is being waged against Muslims specifically and the East more generally, which Said described quite adeptly in his 1985 article “Orientalism Reconsidered”.1

Said synopsizes his entire book at the beginning of the last section in describing his “principal operating assumptions:”

“[F]ields of learning, as much as the works of even the most eccentric artist, are constrained and acted upon by society, by cultural traditions, by worldly circumstance, and by stabilizing influences like schools, libraries, and governments; moreover, that both learned and imaginative writing are never free, but are limited in their imagery, assumptions and intentions; and finally, that the advances made by a ‘sciences’ like Orientalism in its academic form are less objectively true than we often like to think.”2

These are fair operating assumptions. There is nothing particularly controversial about these points. Said is simply pointing out that within any field of learning, one tends to operate inside of a given intellectual superstition, which is in turn a product of one’s societal and historical circumstances. Further, he asserts that, “[t]he Orient is taught, researched, administered, and pronounced upon in certain discrete ways.”3 In other words, the Orient is packaged and peddled in a way that allows for it to be viewed as exotic, strange, antique and curious; in a word: other. This is the overarching point being pressed by Said throughout his work on the field of intellectual production which he has labeled Orientalism.

Without detracting from its merits, there are problems which can be observed within the work itself. There are several more with the manner in which the work has been utilized. It is, as mentioned above, a work of literary theory. Said overtly wanders into political and social theory, but the valuable aspects of the work are actually within his own discipline. As pieces of literature, some of the works which he critiques—such as Lane’s On the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians—do demonstrate a strong cultural bias. The author, whom we will use as an example, makes observations from the point of view of a curious alien. His writing exhibits that character. It is assumed, however, that they are entering this world with another bias already in place, that of the Orientalist. This bias is different in character. It exists largely, as Said discusses, to serve the material ambitions of the 18th and 19th century colonial powers as they expanded their authority throughout the Middle-East, Africa and South Asia. On close inspection of the work in question by Lane, the bias presented is that of complete ignorance of the places to which he traveled and the bias of environmental or geographic determinism, which held in the early 19th century, and has a provenance tracing to the ancient literary sources.4 This is perhaps what inspires Said to pose that Orientalism has its roots in ancient Greece. The conflation of ancient Greek civilization with that of the modern West has its own set of problems, not least of which is that the intellectual production of the former is not transmitted primarily by the latter, but rather by the Medieval Muslims who saw value therein.

Second, Said identifies that his two fears in writing Orientalism “are distortion and inaccuracy.”5 While he himself may have found a way to avoid these issues, he did not leave a great deal of advice for those who came after him about how to avoid the same. For this reason, perhaps, Orientalism is just as widely misused as it is used in modern scholarship. This is a problem of post-modern discourse in general. It is largely a discipline of scholarly name-dropping, with little in the way of critical analysis other than at the most abstract levels. As such, Orientalism has come to be a book which must be mentioned in any modern academic production on the Middle-East, Near East or Islam, whether or not that mention serves any other purpose. This particular feature is at the root of the nearly endless fruitless debates which occur over the topic of whether this or that scholar is an Orientalist or not and what that means with regard to the position of his work.

Finally, the work is aging. As mentioned above, Orientalism does seem to have some predictive quality with regard to the intellectual war which is presently occurring. It did not, however, predict what the post-colonial effects of colonial imperial hegemony would be. There is no backlash against the West, except in speech. What we see today in the Middle-East, at the very least, is not the continuation of colonial imperialism in new forms, but rather the hungry uptake of a global (read Western) sense of modern cultural features on the part of those people living in the region. Pre-modern material culture is preserved only when Western initiatives fund said preservation. Identifiably Western companies are sought for setting up franchises throughout the Middle-East, typically controlled by a local majority share interest, as required by local laws. In states where the Western companies cannot or will not set up franchises—or where the laws permit gross violations of copyright and trademark—impostors fill in the gap.6

The modern Middle-East is marked by uneven development, poorly-applied, politically-motivated solutions to infrastructural problems and substandard education in local environments, all of which result in the contracting of foreign companies and individuals as a stopgap. The application of the theoretical points in Orientalism to the cultural hegemony present in the modern Middle-East fails, unless we can accept that billions of people have in fact been brain-washed into accepting global cultural norms for some nefarious imperial hegemonic material purpose. Even in this case, it is difficult to argue that there is now any alternative.

Notes:

  1. Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Cultural Critique, no 1 (Autumn 1985), 89-107.
  2. Idem, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Reprinted with new afterword in 1994.), 201-202.
  3. Ibid., 202.
  4. This is discussed in Claudius Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios as well as in many of the works by Plato, including Republic and Timaeus, to name a few.
  5. Said, Orientalism, 8-9.
  6. In Ramallah, there is a coffee chain called Stars and Bucks which utilizes every aspect of the marketing materials of the well-known chain Starbucks, right down to the logo and the interior décor of the coffeehouse locations.
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Discussion

13 thoughts on “Post-Orientalism

  1. I am responding mostly to the last few paragraphs of your piece, since for the most part you seem to have an accurate sense of Said’s work and what it has meant. I believe your main argument against Said’s work is that it is losing its relevance for today’s world but, you think it is still useful for looking at the history of Western-Oriental interaction. This is the main sentence of yours that troubles me: “What we see today in the Middle-East, at the very least, is not the continuation of colonial imperialism in new forms, but rather the hungry uptake of a global (read Western) sense of modern cultural features on the part of those people living in the region.” I think that you may be right that there is a hunger, not only in the Middle East but, everywhere to achieve global culture. I believe this global culture is a culture mostly of consumerism. It is many ways like the American dream: to have all the best stuff. While people in Middle Eastern nations may be yearning for Starbucks and designer clothing, it is important not to overlook the backlashes that have been taking place. In many Muslim nations, where women have adopted Western dress, there are many instances of certain groups choosing freely to wear or being forced back into traditional dress. I also think that this spreading culture of consumerism may be more political than one thinks. Business interests have always been intertwined with colonial rule just because these countries are no longer colonies, does not mean that outside businesses along with their governments no longer have a hand in deciding trade in these countries. You acknowledge that Western companies have been used to fill the gap because local businesses have not yet reached demands. It seems as if you may think that the acceptance of this global culture is inevitable. Do you view this as positive or negative? Is it unwanted? What are some options or ways that Middle Eastern companies compete with or keep out Western companies?

    Posted by cassidylp | January 27, 2012, 4:25 pm
    • Thanks for your thoughtful response. I will address your questions first.

      “Do you view this as positive or negative?” with regard to the inevitability of global cultural hegemony.

      It is neither positive nor negative; it simply is. The present “modern” globalized cultural hegemony is an artifact of historical trends of colonial domination. It just exists now. There is no alternative. Any efforts or attempts at turning back the dial (as in the case of women’s dress, as you mention) are seen as ridiculous by a majority of actors in a given local culture. Further, this particular point is often utilized for diverting attention away from deeper issues so that they do not receive due consideration. In listening to discussions about the Egyptian revolution during the week of its anniversary and discussions of Islamists gaining ground in a number of Arab states, I noticed that the veil was the first point to be discussed when assessing what the societal impact of this trend toward rule by Islamic parties would be.

      “Is it unwanted?”

      In the case of the Middle East and Africa, the culture wars (if we wish to frame this highly abstract concept in this manner) were fought and won ages ago. This is most visible in the material culture. The present day scenario is nothing more than the aftermath. A wasteland of fast food and polyesther blends. The fabric markets in Cairo and Istanbul have seen the proliferation of Western-marketed goods, paid-for by Western corporations and produced in sweatshops in the third world, which in some places is not that far away. Anything that is local and good is exported. Turkish prayer rugs are impossible to find in Turkey unless you are willing to pay top dollar. Most of what you find in the markets (in Cairo as well) will have been made in China. I bought a very fine Turkish prayer carpet recently for next to nothing… in London!

      More examples:

      There is a single high-end retailer in Egypt that makes clothing using fine Egyptian cotton and flax linen. All of the rest of the cotton sold in Egypt is either imported from India or of a grade below what is considered valid for export. Egypt has, since antiquity, produced the finest romaine lettuce in the entire world. You cannot buy it in Egypt because it is exported to Europe. Instead, the Egyptian market imports iceburg lettuce from growers in South America, and that is what is available in supermarkets. It is only if you go to the poorest areas of the cities with market streets that you can find locally produced goods. No one else seems to want them.

      It doesn’t matter whether anyone wants it or not. They have it. Many believe that they do. Anyone making claims to legitimacy as “traditional” who still uses a mobile phone and drives an Audi cannot make that claim with any sustained veracity.

      “What are some options or ways that Middle Eastern companies compete with or keep out Western companies?”

      As mentioned, only in the poorest districts of cities do you find local culture. This is where you go if you want to sit in a cafe that isn’t staffed by people who speak English and cater to your every whim with bizarre reinterpretations of American and French food. This will eventually be eradicateThere is a price though. You will not find women in little street-corner cafes in poor districts, and the men who are there don’t take d from within as well. Many parts of Cairo, for instance, are considered “unofficial settlements,” which is a politically-correct way of saying urban squatter villages. These neighborhoods are presently being targeted in Cairo in a long-term modernization and relocation project. The people who live there wll be displaced and moved to “industrial cities” in the desert somewhere. This project, called Cairo 2050: A New Vision has it origins at th highest levels of the city and national governments and began prior to the revoution. It continued, with ever more gusto, after the revolution, once the military had secured power. The entire purpose of this project is to bring Cairo into a new era as a global city and tourist destination. These neighborhoods, which are typically in the midst of some of the most important aspects of the historical heritage of the city, will become the sites of new hotels and parks and shopping destinations. These are typically also the neighborhoods in which the local populations most readily align with the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Salafi Noor party. This is hardly a coincidence.

      In other words, there are no local efforts at competition. On the contrary it IS the local efforts that are moving toward the global trend, often at the cost of cultural and historical heritage on a grand scale.

      Posted by johndmartin | January 27, 2012, 5:28 pm
  2. Dear John, your analysis of Said’s Orientalism is insightful and enlightening. Your understanding of the subject swiftly submerges the reader into the troubling issues that Western cultural dominance represents for the East. Furthermore, your examination supports Said’s claims that Western research often generates biased and erroneous depictions of the East. Yet, your essay makes a shift from perceptive reflections to confusing arguments, which begin by suggesting that some of the works Said examined demonstrate a cultural bias (Lane’s On the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptian); yet, upon close inspection, “the bias presented is that of complete ignorance.” After reading Orientalism, can we safely conclude that Lane’s ignorance still managed to reinforced stereotypes about the Orient?
    Your next point suggests that Said left “those who came after him” in the dark, by failing to provide them with the necessary tools to avoid “distortion and inaccuracy” when writing on Orientalism. I believe Said’s description of his contemporary reality, explains how he was led “to a particular course of research and writing,” and also serves as a guideline for future studies (9).
    Lastly, your claim that Orientalism fails to predict the post colonial effects of colonial imperial hegemony since “there is no backlash against the West, except in speech” is troubling. Do you perceive Osama Bin Laden’s response to the incessant Western influence in the Middle East as a form of speech backlash?

    Posted by alfredo71 | January 27, 2012, 11:44 pm
    • Thanks for your response. You returned a few really good questions.

      First, Edward William Lane was writing in the 1830’s. He traveled to Cairo as a young man with the ambition of publishing on what remained of the ancient civilization which inhabited the Nile Valley. He posed as a young Turk and became caught up in modern life. When he returned he compiled his notes. Certainly there is a bias evident, but many of his observations were insightful, and perhaps are still. It is clear from his tone that Lane did not find in Egypt what he expected there. His nephew, Stanley Lane Poole, based on his uncle’s work, as well as that of his mother, Sophia (as well as some of Lane’s own work passed off as his sister’s) wrote works of considerably greater bias against the 19th Egyptian culture in Egypt, describing it as quite degraded. He was not the only one to do so. The Ottomans had ragaved the Nile Valley for resources and had left many of the institutions of learning there in shambles. It has been widely discussed that the Egyptian intellectual culture suffered until the establishment of educational programs for officers in the middle of the 19th century. Many of these sources are more nuanced that Said gives them credit for. Further they are a wealth of cultural and historical data if you can learn to read through biases that are present therein.

      Very good point about what led Said to his course of study. Thanks for that.

      The claim that I made should be troubling. It troubles me as well that this is the conclusion that I have come to based on my own observations. It is hard for me to figure out whether I am being unreasonable or just critical. Osama bin Laden is perhaps not the best figure for this argument because he is a perfect example of a someone whose persona has been used as a mass-manipulative tool in the West. Indeed, he has been dead for nine months and can still be invoked as an example of the stereotypical Arab Muslim terrorist, lashing out at the West. It’s still a fair point though.

      Posted by johndmartin | January 28, 2012, 1:38 am
  3. It does seem that Orientalism has become a staple for writers who address the topic of the Middle East or Islam. And, as you point out, this is not a unique phenomenon. The production of academic works today almost requires “name-dropping.” Scholars are expected to orient their study within the ongoing academic conversation. In doing so, they point out what their influences have been, who they disagree with, and where their work fits into the broader scholarly discourse on the topic. While this is often a helpful map for readers, it can also be used as a vague summary of how well-read and brilliant the author in question perceives himself to be. This summary may be helpful to readers who do know the material cited by the author and can judge how well the author understood the theories he comments on. However, to readers unfamiliar with the works cited, a distorted analysis of such work may only serve to unduly sway the reader. This orientation of scholarly work must be taken seriously then and scholars have an obligation to accurately present the theories on which they comment.

    This proliferation of “name-dropping” is interesting in another sense as well. Said’s analysis of Orientalism points out that one of the reasons such inaccurate portraits of the Orient endured was due to the cycle of scholars working with secondary sources rather than original ones. While scholars often seek original sources today, it seems that such sources are often examined through the various lens that are available to them. How can one get out such historical-cultural tunnel-vision? It seems impossible. Which is, of course, what Said seems to acknowledge even while asking scholars to do better.

    A question to consider: Has scholarship improved since Said’s work or has one interpretive lens simply been replaced by another?

    Posted by shannonwiese | January 28, 2012, 7:50 pm
    • On the contrary, I tend to think that scholarship has suffered since 1970’s. Said’s criticism, as you’ve characterized it, is inept. Many of the scholars who he critiques and criticizes were Arabists and Persianists. These folks knew their languages. They wrote exhaustive grammars and dictionaries. Edward William Lane wrote a massive dictionary of the Arabic language. Sir William Jones wrote a grammer of the Persian language, and had a working knowledge of 11 other languages beside. This was the heyday of Orientalist scholarship. It depended on utilizing primary sources and actually travelling to the regions where Muslims lived.

      We now have available a wider array of better (older, dated, verifiable) and more accessible sources than ever before. We also have significantly better access to travel than we did two centuries ago. Even given these resources, there is an ever-heavier reliance on secondary sources, rather than devotion to developing the skills to access and analyze primary sources. There is also a seeming lack of impetus to travel and turn these far-flung studied cultures into something which is personally real to scholars. They are held at a distance and the same old problems of detachment and othering persist.

      Posted by johndmartin | February 22, 2012, 6:34 pm
  4. This was an interesting response to Said’s work. While I do not agree with the way you characterize this work, I can see that you have engaged it seriously. In this response, I will be focusing mainly on the third point you raise against Said, to which I take exception. You state that there has not been an anti-Western backlash as a result of neocolonial power structures, save in speech, but rather a ready acceptance of globalization and the Westernization of their society. This argument is problematic on two points. First, it does not seem that Said’s work is meant to provide a structure for predicting anti-Western backlashes by people who live in the “Orient,” but rather to explore the framework utilized by the West to legitimate the subordination of these societies through political and economic domination. The book is not about what happens in the middle east, but what happens to the middle east in the minds and imaginations of Western scholars and artists. Second, the denial of the role of political and economic power dynamics in the Westernization of these societies seems to contradict what many specialists in the social sciences and other disciplines argue is occurring in these regions. While it is true that certain groups in these societies have adopted western ideas and habits, it has been argued that this is an effect of neocolonial power dynamics that make it more advantageous to assimilate for greater financial success. The neocolonial power dynamic feeds off of the orientalist images in the minds of western politicians and financiers that the “orient” is backwards and stagnant and must adopt western ways in order to advance out of their current state. Members of these societies that readily adapt themselves to this vision for economic development are shown preference within this system. The presence of cultural, religious, and political groups that work against this assimilation argue for the creation of a new self-defined identity within the global system, demonstrate the reality of this oppressive power dynamic.

    Posted by woolmanjc | January 28, 2012, 11:47 pm
    • “The book is not about what happens in the middle east, but what happens to the middle east in the minds and imaginations of Western scholars and artists.”

      This is precisely my point. There is now seemingly a complete lack of interest to know what actually happens in the Middle East (or anywhere much further than the bounds of university campuses or newsroom floors, for that matter). If this book is about the latter, then why is it and has it been continually applied as an analytical tool for the former?

      Posted by johndmartin | February 22, 2012, 6:40 pm
  5. Your piece was a very interesting way of looking at and understanding Orientalism. It was much easier to understand what you were trying to say in class after reading, what you wrote. You express the idea of the Orient being “packaged and peddled away”(1) stating certain ideas, and qualities, but it is still a form of Orientalism. You make the point that Said’s analysis of one of the works shows a strong bias, but that they are viewing it with another bias in place, which is a problem. This is more confusing because before you quote Said discussing how we are precondition to have certain ideas, views and understandings based on our own backgrounds. So it can be assumed that there was another bias that this source had, besides just ignorance. But I do not understand why this is a problem because there can be multiple bias’ in a source? You make a valid point about Said connecting Orientalism with ancient Greece, but there is a certain amount of exploration and interaction between Greece and the east that has been documented. Due to this fact the roots of Orientalism may be founded on this assertion, but may not solely be based on this one idea. These aspects need to also be taken into consideration.
    The second point you make is that Said fears “are distortion and inaccuracy”(2) by writing Orientalism. This is a key point in any writing like this, but you make the claim that he does not give advice to others on how to use his work and so it is being “widely misused” (3) by modern scholarship. While this may be true in some respects, the influence it has had in developing new modes of thought, scholarship and knowledge about the Orient is vital and cannot go unacknowledged. The other point you make is that the work is aging and has no relevance in today’s world and the globalization occurring, unless we can accept that the world has been brain washed. Could globalization and what is occurring in the world today just be another development of Orientalism? Said writes, Oreintalism “involves the construction of opposites and “others” whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from “us.” Each age and society re-creates its “Others.” (4) Based on this globalization and accepting global cultural norms may be the next re-interpretation of the other and a new aspect of Orientialism.

    1 John, Martin. “Post- Orientalism,” Islamic Identities: Religion in the Public Sphere. Posted January 23, 2012.
    2 Said, Orientalism, 8-9.
    3 John, Martin. “Post- Orientalism,” Islamic Identities: Religion in the Public Sphere. Posted January 23, 2012.
    4 Said, Orientalism, 332.

    Posted by tealam12 | January 29, 2012, 1:15 am
  6. I will focus my comment on the first “problem” identified by the author of this post with Said’s work. It is unclear to me which of the following contentions is being made:

    (a) All knowledge of ancient Greek thought has been filtered through Medieval Muslims, or
    (b) Greek thought cannot be the origin of Orientalism, as the intellectual lineage (from Greek to Modern Western) was severed (or at least modified in such a way so as to remove the idea of geographic determinism or racism) by the Medieval Muslims, or
    (c) Said should have restricted his analysis to merely literary theory and avoided political and historical accounts altogether.

    If (a), it seems that the author is suggesting that Muslims are to blame for Orientalism, because the Muslims preserved the means for arriving at Orientalist biases – i.e. “the ancient literary sources” which advanced geographic determinism, which, in this post, is identified as Said’s account for the origins of Orientalism.

    If (b), Edward Said did not sufficiently research the history of Orientalist attitudes, and has misplaced their origins with the Greeks. I find this to be unlikely – Orientalism, in its entirety, seems to be a very thorough investigation of the origins, legacy, and form of Orientalist notions. I would not, without a serious amount of research (and certainty) claim my knowledge of the history of the transmission of Greek ideas and their effects on modern literature to be greater than Said’s.

    If (c), not only does my understanding of literary theory include political and historical analysis, but it seems to me that such a restriction would remove all of the useful insights that Said put forth.

    Posted by fetheras | January 29, 2012, 7:53 pm
    • A) I am certainly not blaming Muslims for Orientalist bias. Quite the contrary, I blame our present obsession with this text and with tertiary discourse for the continued “Orientalist” bias of the field.

      B) Edward Said himself states that his investigation is not thorough, but rather necessarily impressionistic.

      C) Precisely.

      Please see:

      Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasaid Society (2nd-4th/5th-10th c.) (New York: Routledge, 1998).

      Marshall G. S. Hodgson, Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam and World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

      Posted by johndmartin | February 22, 2012, 6:52 pm
  7. You raise some interesting points, although I am not sure that I agree with your characterization of the text as “aging.” While it is true that all texts are technically aging, you appear to be using the term as a way to dismiss its relevance. It is probably true that Orientalism is occurring less and less in the world of Western academia, however it is still strongly felt in popular culture. A couple of days ago, our classmate Alfredo offered me a piece of gum. I accepted, and after he handed me the gum package, I looked at it and noticing that it was called “Exotic mint,” I commented “Oh, look, Oriental mint flavored” as a joke. However, upon closer inspection, the gum was called “Exotic mint” because it contained cardamom. The description went on to explain cardamom as an exotic spice found in “India and Asia” (I hope that I don’t need to point out the irony in identifying India and Asia as completely separate entities). This happened after you posted your article, and I wasn’t actively looking for examples of Orientalism. If one was actually searching for these instances, I can only assume they would be relatively easy to find. The Orientalist attitude is still being marketed today, and I would argue that the average person who picks up this book and reads it seriously will gain a lot. If this book can be seen as applicable to the life of the average person, then it has not lost its relevance in the world today.

    Posted by drewcostello | January 30, 2012, 2:18 am

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