Edward Said’s Orientalism is a book that no one interested in the Middle East can avoid. It’s been subject to so much debate, with conflicting praise and criticism raising it up to legendary status in the academic world. Picking it up off the library shelf earlier this summer, I felt like I was holding something akin to the Holy Grail.
I’m currently two-thirds into the book. While I’m in no position to make any sort of “professional” critique of it (I don’t know anywhere near enough about the Middle East and literary criticism to do that), the book did spur some ideas, and opinions, in my head.
Said’s main argument is that Orientalism is the West’s vision of the East, or the “Orient” – a vision that is a flawed shadow of the East’s reality. In studying the Orient, Said asserts, Westerners mistook their understanding of the region for the region itself. How the West saw the Orient became the only way to see it. And since (again, according to Said) the West has long politically and culturally dominated the Orient, any Western idea or action regarding the Orient was tinged with Western superiority, imperialism and ethnocentrism.
I picked up Said’s book thinking it was going to be about somewhat tangible historical events. I realize now that it is all about representations, or how we see things.
According to Said, we all see the world through ourselves. We are all ethnocentric – perhaps a better term would be self-centric. That makes sense to me to a certain extent. Each of us, after all, could not experience the world if we had no self to experience it through. The self is our medium for experiencing the world. And obviously, one’s self is largely molded by the culture that surrounds it.
But while Said’s breakdown of the West’s views of the Orient is eye-opening, I think he puts too much emphasis on a particular culture’s domination of the individual. (By culture here I mean the “shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior ,” in both general societies and particular institutions like academic disciplines.) The culture a person is born into, as depicted by Said, becomes an inescapable cage. Any attempt at experiencing life from a different perspective can only go so far, because in the end that person cannot truly move past the parameters of her own culture.
If we take this foundation for Said’s thesis to heart, then no Western study relating to anything non-Western can be considered truly reliable or authentic. This includes Said’s own Orientalism. Because Said was, in the end, a Western educated Arab-American. He left the Middle East as a child, and most of his intellectual growth was based in the Western tradition. His Westernized upbringing, Western education and position in a Western university all made him an heir to what he believed was the West’s inescapable ethnocentrism.
I like to believe that people can move past their cultural boundaries. Maybe that’s naïve, a characteristic of my youthful idealism. But as an Arab American living in the Middle East, especially one who is studying the Middle East through the American university system, I need to believe it’s possible. But that’s a whole other discussion.
Till the next post!