In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said writes:
Unlike the Americans, the French and British… have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western Experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring Other.
Edward Said makes the claim that the whole of Western European (primarily the British and the French) and American (especially in the last 50 years or so) scholarship, literature, and cultural representations serves as a discursive formation that is a technology of power creating and reinforcing prejudice against non-Western cultures. Essentially, this discursive formation classifies those living in the Near and Far East as Oriental or Other. For Said, the only way to understand Orientalism is to understand the power relationship between the Occident (the West) and the Orient (the Near and Far East) and how the Occident (the West) continues to understand the Orient on its own terms. Said goes on to say:
The Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.
Edward Said’s premise in Orientalism is that the Occident has a long history of purposefully misunderstanding the Near and Far East. Our Western imagination of the Near and Far East is not grounded in reality but is instead, a discourse developed over many years through a variety of mediums to justify a political and economic course in pursuit of empire. In the book, Orientalism, Said claims that the first Orientalists were the 19th century scholars who translated the writings of the Near and Far East into English. These early Orientalists were supported by governments in Western Europe because the governments had the assumption that any effective colonial conquest required them to have knowledge of the conquered people. The central idea of Said’s critique of these practices is evident throughout the book – Said believes that knowledge is power and that those who control the knowledge are those who are in power and wish to stay there.
Said claims that because the Occident was able to know the Orient, it was also able to own it. The Orient became the Other and the Other was studied, seen, observed, and objectified. In contrast, the scholars of the Occident doing this research were the observers, the students, the subjects. While the Orient (and the Orientals) were passive, the Occident was active. Said writes:
It will be clear to the reader…that by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient–and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist–either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism.
Oriental Studies was an area of academic study during the nineteenth century. However, in order for this study to take place and this academic area to take shape, the Occident (or West) had to create the Orient (or East). Edward Said claims that according to the Occident, the Orient had no history or culture independent of their colonial oppressors. For Said, the area of Oriental Studies – Orientalism – tells us more about the power that the Occident has over its colonial possessions than it does about the Orient itself. Said sees the creation of the image of the Orient and the body of knowledge (discursive formations) about the Orient – systematically assembling the Orient – the Occident was also able to take control of the Orient economically and politically. Said writes:
Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes, transmigrations, specializations, and transmissions are in part the subject of this study, is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. . . . the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient … despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real” Orient.
Essentially, Said is saying that the scholars engaged in Oriental Studies constructed the Orient itself and that there really is no monolithic Orient to speak of. This is easy to see when Said points out that geographically the Orient spreads out throughout much of the world. Nearly all of Asia, the Middle East, and parts of North Africa are all considered to be “the Orient” by the Occidental scholars of the 19th century. By depicting this single Orient and attempting to study it as a monolithic whole essentializes an image of a typical Oriental – biologically inferior, culturally backward, and unchanging. In addition, both written and visual texts of Orientalism reinforce colonial notions of power and superiority. These notions were initially codified to help the Occident colonize the Near and Far East during its pursuit of empire and still, these notions continue to be perpetuated through a wide variety of discursive formations and technologies of power.
Because Said is a professor of Comparative Literature, it should be no surprise that he thinks that language is critical to the construction of the Other by the Occident. The discursive formations and the technologies of power within the discourse of Orientalism illustrates a feminine and weak Orient that, for its own good, needs to be dominated by the West. The Orientalist claims that the Orient is defenseless and unintelligent in relation to the Occident. For Said, the importance of such a construction is that the Occident is able to create a single subject matter – the Orient – where none had existed before. Because the notion of the Orient is created by the Orientalist, it does not exist in the Near and Far East. The Orient only exists solely for the Occident and its identity is defined by the discourse that gave it life in the first place. I think it would be fair to say that Said is encouraging the West to examine itself in terms of its own creation of Orientalism and that by deconstructing this discursive formation will tell us much more about the West than it ever did about the Orient.