Edward W. Said - Orientalism - 1978
Oct. 7, 1998
On Said's Orientalism
I did not get very far into the reading, but what I did read gave me much to think about, and I found that I was scribbling in the back of my book, trying to figure some defense for Orientalism.
I realize I am fighting a losing battle from the start. Yes, the views of a good number of early "explorers" and travelers are reprehensible, perhaps not in their time but most definitely in ours. I agree, Orientals were subjected to domination because European powers believed it was their duty, having already drawn their sketches of the land from a safe distance. Assumptions were made from limited information (Glidden's article with but four sources [p. 48]); even in the case of full cultural immersion these men would be quite outside the society, having not grown up in it, and be naturally apt to call it foreign and different, because it is.
Here is where I begin my argument. Said in his introduction states that Orientalism is "governed not simply by empirical reality," in essence negating the power of fact. To him, and to the study, the actual, accepted differences between cultures are not as important as how we view those differences, fueled by our own "desires, repressions, investments, and projections." (p. 8) I would say that, while fact is not necessarily the foundation for international relationships, it should not be so easily removed from the equation. Yes, Egyptians are different from the British, who are in turn different from Americans, et cetera. If we can not talk of differences or use categories to encompass abstractions in a highly detailed world, then what can we do? How can we speak?
Yet I recognize that Said is not attacking categorization itself, but rather how people use it. I was talking to a friend yesterday about my temptation to defend Orientalism, and she reminded me of her experiences in Zimbabwe, where she was assumed to be rich merely because of her nationality. She was "Occidentalized", and while she understood it intellectually, it was still difficult to live with, because people had drawn their conclusions, written them up in their heads, and closed the cover. The facts of her life were ignored. Granted it is true that she has more money than most of the people she was interacting with, but this was not how they formed their view of her. Instead they relied on their own general knowledge of Americans, which may very well be based on fact, handed to them through the cogs of society, leaving little room for individual differentiation.
Herein is the danger of generalization - its unchanging nature. People, and by this I mean all of the human race, are quick to delineate things in our environment so that we may more easily deal with them. Said would agree. The fact of, or rather tendency towards, generalization is made even more necessary as our environment expands. This is why explorers are so easy to berate for their inaccurate reports of "new" lands - they are fraught with generalizations. What is more, generalizations get bigger, more inclusive and broad, the further they get from the observer, the less fact which is available for use. Yet I believe that a single individual can serve to change the bounds of a category, at least in the mind of another individual. My personal interaction with a man in Central America could change how I see other Latin men. So why do I say categories are dangerously unchangeable? It is because most people to whom they are spread will never have the personal interactions necessary to mutate or unbound categories. Did Kissinger go to the Orient and sit down with a family, drink some local drink, talk about the weather? Probably not, but even if he did he might not be persuaded to change an easily understood and comfortable notion that he already had of the Oriental. So it seems Orientalism, or any -ism for that matter, is a perilous endeavor.
Yet I believe that all is not lost for those souls who wish to consider, study, perhaps visit and experience other cultures. I have traveled all my life, been to about a dozen different countries, and so perhaps I am defending my own lifestyle. In talking with my friend yesterday, and in reading Said and other authors, I realize how much I exoticize my own travels, how I am driven by romantic notions of foreign lands. From what I have seen, I can say that I believe some cultures have attributes that I admire or disdain. This does not, however, mean that I believe other cultures are better or worse then my own, only different. There factual difference, in terms of traditions or environments or beliefs, has never been in dispute. I do, as I am human, believe I have made generalizations of certain cultures, and speak freely of my love for the Swiss, my condemnation of the French, my admiration of the Nicaraguans of El Castillo. How can I justify my own exoticism? I do it in the name of learning, in the hopes that by experiencing something that is acceptably different that I can expand my own life experience and perhaps use it to some good end. I am an idealistic college student after all. I am able to do this because the categories I construct are not rigid (I am able to say this intellectually, although emotionally things are not so cut-and-dry) and are far from complete. Recognizing this is what fuels my own curiosity to study that which I do not fully understand. In the end this is mostly futile, since I can only be raised in a single or limited set of cultures, so my understanding will never be complete. If I let that argument win, though, then I might as well concede to the futility of life and give up, which I can not do.
This is why I defend exoticism on all levels - by recognizing things that are different from what we know, we spawn curiosity which leads to thought and action and a fuller life. It must, however, be undertaken carefully and with flexibility, otherwise it is not productive curiosity or learning at all, but some kind of voyeurism. If it were not for the desire to apply this kind of learning to other cultures, I would not be writing this paper for a department of Sociology & Anthropology - the study of other people. Perhaps Said's point is that we can not help but to study other people, we just have to do it responsibly, which seems to be the role of S&A.
As an epilogue: I am far from fully convinced by my own argument here, and believe I may have spoken without thinking things out fully. My own assurance would benefit from reading more of Said's book, which I intend to do. Perhaps I have missed something obvious or am too close to the subject? I am interested in your reaction to my reasoning (or lack there of), because I feel this concerns more than an academic exercise.