We’ve talked, and you’ve read about, “Orientalism” as a category in the past days. On Thursday we’ll be working through what this term really means, and talking about its usefulness in understanding different moments in French history, as well perhaps as our own. To help with this, here is an excerpt from Edward Said’s classic book Orientalism (1979), which had a major impact on scholarship in a range of fields in the past decades. Get ready — the definition is rather long and complicated!
Here is how Said defines “Orientalism” on p. 12:
. . . Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographic distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of “interests” which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power culture (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power more (as with ideas about what “we” do and what “they” cannot do or understand as “we” do).