You don’t need to be racist to take the piss out of dictators

by R.S.

Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978:

I have begun with the assumption that the orient is not a fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the accident itself is not just there either. We must take seriously Vico’s great observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is what is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entries—to say nothing of historical entries – such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “accident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the west itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and tradition of thought imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the west. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.

Having said that, one must go on to state a number of reasonable qualifications. In the first place, it would be wrong to conclude that the orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality. When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that , the east was a career, he meant that to be interested in the east was something bright young westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the east was only a career for westerners.

There were – and are –cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives, histories, and customs have a brute reality 0bviously greater than anything that could be said about them in the West. About that fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute, except to acknowledge it tacitly. But the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence, between orientalism and orient, but with internal consistency of orientalism and its ideas about orient(the East as career) despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real” Orient. My point is that Disraeli’s statement about the east refers mainly to that created consistency, that regular constellation of ideas as the preeminent thing about the Orient. And not to its mere being. As Wallace Stevens’s phrase has it.

A second qualification is that ideas, Cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force. Or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied. To believe that the orient was created= or, as I call it, “orientalized” – and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between occident and orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony, and is quite accurately indicated in the title of K.M. Panikkar’s classic Asia and Western Dominance. The orient was orientalised not only because it was discovered to be ” oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth – century European, but also because it could be – that is, submitted to being – made oriental. There is very little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the oriental women; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence. Or history, he spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was typically oriental ” My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between East and West and the discourse about the orient that it enabled.

This brings us to a third qualification. One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. I myself believe that Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European – Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the orient ( which is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be). Nevertheless, what we must aspect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted – together strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to be enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its redoubtable durability. After all, any system of ideas that can remain unchanged as teachable wisdom ( in academies, books, congresses, universities, foreign – service institutes) from the period of Ernest Renan in the late 1840s until the present in the United States must be something more formidable than a more collection of lies. Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism. As a system of Knowledge about the orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the orient into western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied – indeed, made truly productive – the statements proliferating out from orientalism into the general culture.

Or am I just not getting the joke?

(my apologies for the awkward formatting that muddle up sentence, but I’m sure you get the picture)