Top positive review
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Seminal, engaging, fluid
on 10 March 2013
The Orient. Exotic, mysterious, ancient, savage. These descriptions of the orient are extant in our popular culture. According to Edward Said, they do not necessarily represent the orient as it really is. Instead, these descriptions are the products of a socially-constructed Western project, Orientalism, that described, catalogued, studied and represented the orient in the Western mind. Perhaps, most intriguingly, Orientalism served the power interests of the Western colonists. Yet, the protagonists in the project, mostly Western academics, have been unreflective about the role that they play in the West's subjugation of the Orient.
But what is the Orient? How can heterogeneous, dynamic societies such as India, China and the societies of the Middle East be reduced to essentialist categories? Said's book focuses on the near and Middle East and how this region of the world - with its diverse people and religion - have been represented since the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. The picture is not pretty. On page after page, Said demonstrates - with sublime rhetorical flourish - how academic study of the Near East was wedded to the political interests and social structures of nineteenth century Europe.
Said clearly respects the scholarship of Lane, Burton and Gustav Flaubert. Yet, he shows that these men - and they are mostly men - created an Orient to serve the colonial ambitions of their societies. Fast forward one hundred years. The Near East is still being studied and packaged for consumption by this same baronly class. Only this time, the words Islam, Arab, terror, and fatalism are used synonymous. Said critiques the orientalist project. He calls for self-reflection in the academy about the role that it plays in the service of power. Pretensions to scholarly detachments and suave ponderous accents do not objective science make.
Said argues his case with force and compulsion. He summarises his argument on page 333: 'My objection to what I have called orientalism is not that it is just the antiquarian study of oriental languages, but that as a system of thought, Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing but no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and from, so to speak, above'. It is impossible to sit on the fence given such a pungent criticism of an academic enterprise.
Orientalism is a must-read for any social scientist that works in the field of culture, anthropology, history and international management. It is a masterpiece written by a most talented thinker at the height of his powers. Almost thirty years after it was written, Orientalism remains an influential book - and rightly so.