Edward Said: On Orientalism

Edouard Richter:  Sheherazade
Edouard Richter: Sheherazade

I started studying Said’s On Orientalism as part of the process of understanding different kinds of representation of the “Orient” while exploring Roy’s The God of Small Things. This was back in 2006, when I had to write my final essay on literature at the Central University in Venezuela. Said’s views and critiques on the representations of the Middle Eastern countries became one his best known works, together with his approach of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. On Orientalism has stirred both critiques and enthusiastic support. My knowledge of the critiques against Said’s views of how the countries and cultures of what he calls “The Orient” are quite limited. I understand they’re related to the way his views of the “Orient” can be seen placed in a single tradition, and also how he concentrated only in the negative use that the West made of such images. In his doctoral dissertation, A Journalism of Hospitality Lokman Tsui says:

Said provocatively argued that the Western machineries of cultural information play a crucial role in sustaining a Western view of the Orient that is largely an imagined construct, facilitating a discourse he called Orientalism, resulting in the subordination of the Eastern world.

And I agree. I chose to include Said’s approaches to the ideas that back up this project because they’re clear exercises of thought about misrepresentations and misunderstanding of Others. Since the aim of this program is to open the conversation and debate about the complexities of the world, its cultures, and how little we know about them, the issue of representation, specially in media, has to take an important part. In the words of the author, On Orientalism is a book about “history, images and power”, images that are, also, “products of circumstances”.  On Orientalism also had a documentary made by Sut Jhally and the Media Education Foundation. Thankfully, it’s also available on YouTube: I’ve also found a not too pretty, but nonetheless pdf version of the book, downloadable here: Edward Said: On Orientalism More videos and comments on Saids’ Orientalism and other ideas are available on YouTube and other places of the Web. My favorite is probably this lecture he gave at Columbia University on 2003. These, I think, are some of the most remarkable ideas expressed in the lecture. I believe this lecture must have been among the last public appearances of the author:

There’s a difference between knowledge of other people’s and other times that is a result of understanding, compassion, careful study, and analysis […] for their own sakes… And on the other hand there’s knowledge, if it that’s what it is, that is part of an overall campaign self affirmation, belligerency and outright war. There is after all a profound difference between the will to understand for the purpose of coexistence and the humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion… 

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