Orientalism: An Overview

Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Orientalism: An Overview

By Hsu-Ming Teo

Australian Humanities Review 54 (2013)

Introduction: In mid-1982, an intellectual stoush broke out in the pages of the New York Review of Books between the British-born Orientalist and conservative political commentator Bernard Lewis and the Columbia University professor of comparative literature and pro-Palestinian activist Edward Said. In ‘The Question of Orientalism’, Lewis, an academic then based at Princeton University and a public intellectual who threw his weight behind various conservative American foreign policy decisions, charged Said and other anti-Orientalists with waging a defamatory campaign against Western scholars of the Middle Eastern and Muslim worlds. According to Lewis, the anti-Orientalists implied that the scholarship of Orientalists was a fraudulent conspiracy to subjugate the Oriental world, to justify historic British and French imperialism in the region, and to promote contemporary neo-colonial and pro-Zionist American foreign policies. Lewis focused his attack on Said, accusing him of factual errors in his criticisms of academic Orientalists; of arbitrarily selecting the works of French and British Orientalists which supported his argument while ignoring the works of German and Russian Orientalists which did not; of being ignorant of Oriental languages; and of neglecting the work of contemporary Arab and Muslim scholars. In short, Lewis contended, Said ‘knew little or nothing about the scholars and field he presumed to criticize’ and his thesis and accusations against the Orientalists were therefore ‘baseless’. The singling out of Said was not unexpected; Said (‘Shattered Myths’, Orientalism) had previously criticized Lewis as an example par excellence of an Orientalist scholar whose work was biased, misconceived in its premise and conclusions, and harnessed to the service of the neo-imperialist American state. In his response to the New York Review of Books, Said (‘Letter to the editor’) accused Lewis, who was Jewish, of being ideologically motivated by his Zionist sympathies, of ‘suppressing or distorting the truth’ about Orientalist scholarship on Arabs and Islam, and of ‘ahistorical and willful political assertions in the form of scholarly argument’. The attack had descended to the level of the personal as well as polemical; Lewis (‘Reply to Said’s letter’) rebutted Said’s response with the disdainful dismissal: ‘It is difficult to argue with a scream of rage’.

What motivated Lewis’s initial critique in his 1982 essay was not merely that Said had attacked him and his fellow Orientalists, casting doubt on their objectivity, political motives, and scholarship. It was the fact that the very meaning of the word ‘Orientalism’ was in the process of being transformed. Before the publication of Said’s highly influential and equally controversial book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), Orientalism had referred to the scholarly study of the languages and cultures of ‘the Orient’: a geographically nebulous region comprising North Africa and the present-day Middle East, ranging through South Asia and extending as far east as Japan. By the nineteenth century, Orientalism also denoted a particular genre of Romantic painting whose subject was the sensuous and exotic Orient exemplified by European artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Léon Gérôme, John Frederick Lewis and Ludwig Deutsch. After Said’s book, however, Orientalism became a pejorative term connoting false, prejudiced and totalising European representations of the Oriental world produced by Orientalist scholars specifically to justify and secure European colonial domination over this region, especially from the late eighteenth century onwards. In its new guise, Orientalism was a discourse constituted of the various statements and representations—religious, academic, political, literary, aesthetic, commercial and psychological—produced by the West about the East, sustained and circulated through Western imperial power and cultural hegemony. To Said, Orientalism was much more than false or negative images about the Orient. It was a process by which the West deliberately ‘Orientalised’ the Orient or made the region seem ‘Oriental’, representing it in such a way that a dizzying heterogeneity of countries, cultures, customs, peoples, religions and histories were incorporated into the Western-created category, ‘Oriental’, and characterised by their exotic difference from and inferiority to the West. Orientalism permitted Westerners to make sweeping negative generalisations about, for instance, ‘the Oriental character’, ‘the Muslim mind’ or ‘Arab society’, subsuming all differences into a monolithic and racialising fantasy.

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