Orientalism: A Critical Introduction & Analysis

Synopsis: Edward Said’s groundbreaking work ‘Orientalism’ critically analyses the western construction and interpretation of the orient, its subsequent biases, and imperialist tendencies

What is Orientalism?

The orient refers to eastern (most often colonized nations), most notably the Middle East and all of Asia. Edward Said’s most prominent work ‘Orientalism (1978)’ which set the foundation for post-colonial theory, focuses mainly on The Middle East and Arab nations.

Said’s observations produced certain conclusions on The Orient, asserting that it could only be perceived as a European invention, a distant and antique land. Orientalism is the portrayal of the orient in a manner that romanticizes and exoticizes the culture while also feeding into negative stereotypes held by the west, ones that justify the orients perceived inferiority. The executive and the academic manifestation of colonial and imperial power, Orientalism looks to construct an idea of the orient, one that satisfies that stereotypes held by western society and justifies colonial dominance.

Although most oriental countries (save Palestine) have achieved colonial independence, Orientalism lives on academically through its doctrines and theses about the Orient and the Oriental. Edward Said seeks to construct a ‘backbone’ for the vague and general definition of orientalism as he speaks of the term in the context of ‘oriental’ discourse. He says that “Orientalism can be analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient (Said 3).” Said explains that his aim is to examine orientalist discourse in order to understand the framework employed by European culture “to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively (Said 3).”

Many Eastern customs, philosophies, and wisdoms were reduced and made digestible for local European use. As colonialism ended, the oriental perspective was able to manifest in newer ways such as the rise of yoga, zen Buddhism and the ‘hippie’ lifestyle in Western nations such as the U.S.

Benjamin Disraeli’s statement that ‘The East is a career’ allows for the understanding that interest in the east as a result of the way in which it was marketed almost, allows for passionate westerners to utilize their academic platforms to speak for Eastern cultures: each with their idiosyncratic histories, cultures and lived experiences, more nuanced that anything that can be observed and analysed in the west.

Said who noticed that academic renditions of life in the middle east was in stark contrast to his childhood there, laments that Western hegemony over the orient has allowed for the manipulation of oriental life, compartmentalizing and cherry-picking aspects of its culture to suit existing perceptions and stereotypes. He says that since western power has dominated the east through colonialism or imperialism, there has “emerged an Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum and for reconstruction in the colonial office (Said 7).”

Orientalism as an institution cemented by colonial and imperial power affords it the freedom to  “produce” the Orient. Thus, it becomes the gross habit of studying and speaking for the colonized world.

Ideas of East and West (approach to the ‘Other’):

The perceived polarity between the east and the west becomes materialized through orientalist discourse as Edward Said observes the ‘tendency to dichotomize the human continuum into we/they contrast and to essentialize the resultant “other”. The orientalist approach to the ‘other’ becomes one that is decorated with biases, producing work which is most often negatively connotated. The works which are positively connotated still produce images of the orient that can only be validated through western lenses and terms of acceptance. Islam’s close connection with the Judeo-Christian tradition mattered little to Orientalists who had already categorized the Middle Easter region as foreign. Another interesting phenomenon that looks into the divide between negative and positively connotated works of orientalists is that of ‘Indomania’ and ‘Indophobia’ as described by Thomas Trautman in his 1997 book, ‘Aryans and British India.’

Oriental Construction of Indian Culture:

The orientalist construction of Indian Culture begins with the British dominance over the Indian narrative at the turn of the 18th century. Continuing with the dichotomous theme of us vs them and positive/ negative perceptions, we look at the work of British Indomaniacs and British Indophobes in the late 18th to 19th-century orientalist writing.

  • Indomania:

Indomania refers to the enthusiastic approach to Indian culture. The work of Indomaniacs like Alexander Dow, Halhed and Jones portrays India as a reservoir of ancient paganism and wisdom. Their accounts show enthusiasm for Sanskrit, Astronomy, and religious texts. However, the ethnographic frameworks with which they perceived India, dominated their observations. They stated that Sanskrit literature is not an enemy but an ally of the Bible, referencing Noah and God to Karma and Vishnu’s avatars. Hindu texts were depicted as testimonials for truth in the bible. Thus, Indomania reinforces Orientalist ideas by validating religious texts through Christianity and the European belief system.

  • Indophobia

The more explicit rendition of perceived Indian inferiority and Western superiority is observed through the work of ‘Indophobic’ scholars like Charles Grant. Grant was of the opinion that Indians were deprived of any moral character and that their systems were despotic, corrupt, dishonest, and bad. He believed that the large armies, an abundance of jewels, effeminate finery, richly endowed temples of fine workmanship are not representative of the real India. He despised Hindus in particular saying, ‘The general depravity of the Hindus is a consequence of moral cause; government, laws and religion’ He says the cure for their disorders is communicating their ‘light and knowledge’ to the Hindus, who he claims are ignorant. He proposed that, ‘The Indians should assimilate to the ways of the British, but the British should take care not to assimilate to the ways of the Indian’ and that the two races must remain distinct. Grants views were especially dangerous because of his standing in the East India Company and its ability to influence policy. He was one of the founding forces of the East India College in England whose principal motive was to educate British youth and give them a ‘fortifying inoculation’ of European culture before shipping them out to India as soldiers or employees of the EIC. This education in European culture or indoctrination into a nationalistic pride was a result of the belief that it was of utmost importance to be ‘imbued with reverence and love for the religion, constitution, and laws of their own country’; an idea that Grant thought to be fundamental. Meanwhile, in Bengal, the College of Fort William was set up as a public space which was instrumental in restructuring the Bengali upper-class culture through the juxtaposition of British orientalists and Indian teachers. The goal as described by Thomas Macaulay was to create an elite class of Indians who were ‘Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, morals and intellect’. Indophobia was thus used by orientalists to justify British colonialism

Examples of Orientalism in Literature:

Orientalism survives through Literature and Media. Several books have been shown to comprise of orientalist ideas and negative stereotypes, some include Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ (1868) which details the story of a diamond brought from India by British soldiers. W.W. Jacobs ‘The Monkey Paw (1902)’ features a cursed and mummified hand of a monkey which was brought to England from India by soldiers. E.M. Forster’s’ ‘A Passage to India (1924)’ features British characters who are eager to meet and enthralled by Indians. This book places European protagonists in an Asian setting and presents Indian cultures and people through western eyes.

Each of these novels can be analyzed in isolation with the majority opinion agreeing on the orientalist trope in each of those novels but Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (1901) has been described as an authentic and objective representation of India, with many critics attempting to redeem it of its orientalist biases. This book describes the story of a young Irish man living in the British Raj. The audience marvels at the white child’s mastery of an exotic culture full of strange and seemingly ancient customs (Scott 2014). The novel contains a large number of negative stereotypes about the Orient which subtly reinforce the idea of European superiority. Kipling states that Kim can “lie like an Oriental” (Kipling 23) and that people of India are “eternally made foolish” because “the English do eternally tell the truth.” He says, “Where a native would have lain down, Kim’s white blood set him on his feet” (Kipling 42). Kim’s familiarity with the India he grew up in and the European culture he was socialized into, equipped him with the ability to move freely between groups and mold his identity according to his surroundings. This allows for the illusion of an objective voice that has enough experience in both cultures to allow for discriminatory remarks for they have been validated by Indian characters or the basically Indian Kim himself. Kim and his Sahib both call the Mutiny of 1857 a ‘product of a madness’ which consumed Indian soldiers. (Kipling 47) Kim’s hybrid identity as a white European born and raised in India allows him to present an inside view of Oriental culture and society while filtering it through the lens of Western ideals (Scott 2014).

Also Read: Indology

A critique of the consequences of Orientalism exists intricately within the definition itself, but the material and manifested consequences can be observed in the politic of the Orient. Each country reels with the consequences of orientalism be it through colonial policy or negative stereotypes placing barriers in global participation. These consequences are discussed extensively in post-colonial theory by scholars like Gayatri Spivak who reclaimed the conversation through her essay, ‘Can the sub-alter Speak’ and Homi Bhabha author of ‘The Location of Culture’. Orientalism persists through the Western spokespersons and cultural appropriation, its legacy survives through academia, media and literature and a comprehensive critique must look at all forms of its manifestations.

References

James Clifford, university of California Santacruz orientalism by Edward said, review, History and Theory , Feb., 1980, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), pp. 204-223

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Penguin Classics, 1987, Z Library, b-ok.asia/book/1090138/8c9035.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Penguin Books, 1978.

Scott, Nick. “The Representation of the Orient in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim.’” AAA: Arbeiten Aus Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, vol. 39, no. 2, 2014, pp. 175–184. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24329449. Accessed 18 June 2021.

Trautmann, Thomas R. Aryans and British India. University of California Press, 1997.

Shivanka Gautam is a student at FLAME University, studying Psychology and Literary & Cultural studies. She has a passion for Critical theory, Cultural Affairs, Political Philosophy and Academia.