you're reading...
archaeology, commentary, egyptology, history


Cover of "Orientalism: Western Conception...

As a theoretical method of analysis, Edward W. Said presented the concept of Orientalism in the book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. His origins might seem to be central to his perceptions of some of the issues at stake in the confrontation between the West and the East. Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was born in Jerusalem, and his parents were affluent Palestinian Protestants who immigrated to Cairo in 1948-49. Said received his education in British schools before being sent to boarding school in the USA. After studying English literature at Princeton and Harvard, he was employed at Columbia University in 1963, and he later became a professor of comparative literary science and cultural studies at that institution. He was politically active, being a member of the Palestinian National Council for a number of years, but resigned after the Oslo-accords in disagreement with the results thereof. His views were unpopular on both sides of the conflict.

Orientalism (1978) tries to analyse how conceptions of Oriental culture as perceived in Western literature have been projected onto the Orient and been used politically to dominate it. The premise is that this perceived Orient is not purely imaginative, but an inseparable part of European material civilization and culture, and represents that part as a cultural and ideological mode of discourse. Therefore, in his view, Orientalism has various interdependent meanings. To begin with, there is the academic designation that is employed by teachers, writers and researchers with the Orient as their speciality, and this designation survives in the creation and perpetuation of doctrines and theses about the Orient and what could be considered to be Oriental. In addition to the above designation is a more general one that covers the existence of a distinction between the Orient and the Occident, and which is used by less specialized persons, such as poets, philosophers and colonial administrators, amongst others. This distinction is then similarly used to arrive at conceptions and theories concerning the Orient.

The final meaning of Orientalism that Said defines and which seems to be the primary focus of the book, is as a discourse that helps the West dominate, restructure and have authority over the Orient. In order to illustrate his contention that it is impossible to understand how Europe was able to control the Orient and create it as an almost abstract idea, a discourse of how the Orient was perceived, and which in its turn was used to control the Orient, Said employs Foucault’s methodology by analysing the practices and ideology behind the discourse, and uses sets of historical generalisations in order to do this.

It might be quite illustrative to attempt to reveal how the methodology works and some of the resultant conclusions arrived at by this form of analysis by Said, and to do so by reiterating some of his considerations concerning what could be seen as the first Egyptological book, Description de L’Égypte (1809-23), which was commissioned by the French government on the occasion of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.

According to Said, there was a vast amount of literature about the Orient inherited from the European past before the nineteenth and twentieth century, when in his view modern Orientalism in all its forms begins, but it was first with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and the Description de L’Égypte that various processes commenced that influenced the cultural and political perspectives of the relationships between the West and the East. Said contends that the book is a monument to the invasion and provides a ‘scene or setting for Orientalism’, and a view of Egypt that results in the Orient being perceived as a ‘live province, the laboratory, the theatre of effective knowledge about the Orient’. The Orient as a body of knowledge in the West is thus modernised and becomes a subject for academic investigations, and Said writes ‘that an Oriental renaissance took place’.

The analysis of the role of the Description de L’Égypte in the discourse of Orientalism begins by looking at the attitude behind the book, which is exemplified by an excerpt from the preface, which in two paragraphs from a historical point of view mentions Egypt’s geographical, cultural and scientific significance in relationship to the West, and that for this reason it ‘is therefore proper for this country to attract the attention of illustrious princes who rule the destiny of nations’. Perhaps not without cause, Said interprets this discourse in the preface of the book to have the implication that, because of its geography and history, the role of Egypt is to be the stage for actions of world-historical importance, such as Napoleon’s invasion, justified by Egypt’s own history of previous invasions, that Egypt’s destiny is annexation.

In Said’s view the preface implied that Napoleon by invading Egypt entered a history as defined by all the previous great figures that graced history, such as Caesar and Alexander, and that the Orient therefore only existed as a series meaningful contacts in a distant European past and did not have any value in itself in a modern reality. After examining a few more examples from the text, Said concludes by rephrasing the above, by stating that the Description de L’Égypte displaces Egyptian or Oriental history by identifying itself with world history, which is to say European history.

Orientalism apparently generated a lot of discussion when it came out, perhaps as a consequence of it never being pleasant to be made aware of the limitations of perspective or preconceptions of thought that underlie the conclusions about matters concerning the Orient, be they academic, philosophical, or political, and all of those that are addressed therein. There are many statements in the book that can occasion argument, and the following one could easily be one of the more provocative of them: ‘ To save an event from oblivion is in the Orientalist’s mind the equivalent of turning the Orient into a theatre of his representations of the Orient’.

Some of the critique of Orientalism has been gathered and analysed in Graham Huggan’s article (Not) Reading Orientalism, which also comes with a critique of its own when it states that Orientalism is a book of abundant subjects, methods and approaches that are not always compatible with each other. He then goes on to state that there are three broad patterns in the critical response, of which the first is a ‘de-Orientalization’ of Orientalism as a method, where geographical areas and historical periods that lie outside the scope of what is usually conceived as being oriental are analysed using Said’s methods. The contention is that this form of analysis is a possibility because of the large range that the book covers and the heterogeneity of the Orient itself, but the difficulty of this approach is that a dichotomy can arise between the western point of view of the analyst and the subject-matter under discussion, the very dichotomy that Said tried to expose in regards to the West and the East.

The second pattern of critical response that Huggan has drawn attention to, is what he calls the ‘re-Orientalization’ of Orientalism, where the tenets of Orientalism are reproduced when seeking alternative ways of viewing the same principles that Said arrived at. This pattern of critical response also includes what he calls ‘anti-Orientalist’ Orientalism, which is basically when the method is used from an eastern stance and viewed as a victim of Orientalism in order to point out currently unreasonable western actions or ideas. Said’s book has also been criticized for taking this view, and some critics have claimed that Orientalism is self-replicating and that the discourse in the book mimics the very one it is criticizing.

The last category of critical response to Said’s book mentioned by Huggan concerns the book itself and the argumentation it contains. These responses are Huggan’s view largely hostile, claiming that the book is Orientalist itself, because ‘it reproduces the enumerative, patiently cumulative and paternalistic methods of the ”master” Orientalists’, and that it uses broad cultural and historical generalisations as an ingredient in the method of analysis, and also that Said’s discursive methods are inconsistent by insisting that orientalism has an internal consistent discourse, a point of view which seems self-authorizing in the manner of the classical orientalism. A final critical response put forward is that the book assembles an array of textual material about the Orient with the intention to establish intellectual authority over it, much as the classical Orientalists did, though in Said’s case this authority does not have geographical or political ambitions.

Despite the controversy and criticisms, or perhaps precisely because of them, Orientalism as a methodical tool does seem to have the potential to expose points of view that are critical of the mechanisms behind the power structures in the Occident or the Orient, and perhaps even potentially foster self critical points of view in the very same people who have these areas of interest as their speciality or profession. The method possibly does seem to reveal some of the more innovative ideas and interpretative aspects that could not otherwise be attained, when subjecting Orientalist material to analysis, perhaps especially when attempting to uncover the more political aspects behind interpretations of how Oriental material is perceived, both historically or ideologically.

In considering the various criticisms and the debate that Said’s book has generated, it seems important to recognize that ideas put forward in a substantiated and logical manner, and which oppose the prevailing opinions on the subject, will always raise debate and come under criticism. It is perhaps also the debate itself, which in turn then possibly can create the most innovative ideas of all, besides the fact that because Said’s method of analysis is used by others than himself. This might be an indication that the result of this kind of analysis could be deemed a valuable tool.


Huggan, G.: (Not) Reading Orientalism (2005), Research in African Literatures 36:3, 124-138.

Said, Edward, W.: 1978 Orientalism (1978), Penguin Books, London, 368pp.

This is an extract from my latest paper, the references in the text have been removed… I wonder how long it takes before someone reposts this somewhere on the web without giving me credit for my work… So please post a link…


About archaeologicallinks

Glazed Composition Pectoral c.1250 BC New Kingdom/Reign of Ramesses II Glazed composition pectoral: in the form of a pylon, or temple gateway. It depicts the god Anubis as a jackal, with a winged ‘wedjat’, or sacred eye, in the upper left-hand corner. The colour blue connotes resurrection, as often remarked, and the colour yellow alludes to the sun, itself a powerful symbol of resurrection. (Source: The British Museum)


One thought on “Orientalism

  1. Said ws an intriguing man, with insights into Europe and asia. His unpopularity makes him a very valuable voice, especially with the ongoing discord in the Middle East. It is not just what he or others wrote, but the context. I often think of goethe: we see what we know. Europe has long been only able to see the rest of the world through their own eyes. good to see you back. cheeers

    Posted by Barb Drummond | December 22, 2012, 4:25 pm

Blog Stats

  • 4,276 hits since 8.Feb.2012

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 60 other followers

Top Clicks

  • None
%d bloggers like this: