Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Orientalism by Edward Said (Book Review)

Perhaps a groundbreaking book in its day, Orientalism now seems rather trite in its conclusion that intellectual schemas support the political and economic agendas of ruling elites and that the Western view of the Orient (and especially of the Middle East) has been ethnocentric and self serving.

Said says that to be an Oriental (Muslim) is to know certain things in a certain way (Said,195). At the same time he argues that Huntington’s thesis concerning the post-Cold War “clash of civilizations” (Western, Confucian, and Islamic) is far from convincing because of the interrelationships and interdependence of civilizations (Said,347). The whole premise of Orientalism rests on the notion that Western scholars have been representing the East in terms of its relationship to an expansionist, imperialist, messianic West. The East is something that is acted upon, or seen in relationship to the West. Certainly during the European colonial/expansionist period the interdependence of cultures did not prevent a clash of civilizations as the European powers systematically dominated the world politically and militarily. Different cultures have different values based on their historical development. Why should it be startling that these values might come into conflict? Said, laments that Arab intellectuals have done a poor job in establishing an intellectual superstructure to counter the dogmas of modem Orientalism (Said, 301), but even if they were to do so, would not this construct represent Muslim values (i.e. to be an Oriental (Muslim) is to know certain things in a certain way)? A clear articulation of Muslim value assumptions might be the starting point for a reconciliation of value differences with the West, however, as Said points out the Muslim world is not a monolith. There are a multiplicity of values competing in the Muslim world, just as there are a multiplicity of values competing with one another in the Western world. If differing values can lead to conflict within one’s own historical cultural group (e.g. the abortion issue in the United States) how much more irreconcilable must value differences between cultures be, even if precisely articulated and the differences rationally understood?

There is no reason to believe that a Muslim intellectual superstructure explaining the Occident will be any less ethnocentric or self serving to Muslim economic/cultural/political interests than Orientalism has been to the West. Scholars are products of their cultures and can only distance themselves so far from the values of those cultures. Even if one bold spirit were to be able to truly step outside of the culture, the critical mass of scholars would still be working within the value structures of their culture.

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1 comment:

Daniel A. Mong said...

Orientalism can also be applied to Asian Nations to justify their view of the West: