In the mid 20th century, European colonial empires of the previous 400 years began to develop into disconnected and more abstract forms of colonialism. The modern era of Western dominance in the colonized world still prevails in the forms of Neocolonialism and Postcolonialism. Although some traditional structures of physical colonialism remain, the prefixes of the reconstructed “colonialisms” connote new change and consequential aftereffect. Thus, Neocolonialism refers to imperial control via capitalist systems of free market economics and the related concepts of globalization. Postcolonialism refers to a critical theory of analysis that is used to study various hegemonic structures of knowledge, and is the focus of this essay. In this theory, colonial control and subjugation is ideological. The hegemony of the colonizing power is instituted by the creation of knowledge that defines itself through the binary of an idealized Other. That is to say, an identity is constructed and perpetuated by its polarized relationship to something else. As a critical theory, Postcolonialism is a method of interpreting the consequences of historical and contemporary imperialism.
In 1978 the Palestinian-American academic, Dr. Edward Said, initiated the field of postcolonial studies with his book, Orientalism. The text is a critical investigation into the nature of historical representations produced by ideological systems of epistemic power. The postcolonial perspective began with Said’s divergent experiences growing up in the British Mandate of Palestine, Egypt, and later, the United States. He came to feel an incongruence in the representations of the Middle East as portrayed in the West. The individual experience coupled with an amalgamation of interpretative features found in Structuralism, Psychoanalytic theory, Feminism, and the work of Michel Foucault led to an inquiry into the documentation processes of history. The resultant theory of “Orientalism” is both an analysis of traditional orientalist studies that began in the 19th century and a model of analysis that examines the resultant effects of oriental studies on the West. It is important to note that Said’s use of the root “orient” in language functions in a variety of denotative and connotative fashions. As a noun or adjective, the words “orientalism” and “orientalist” can be employed in the same way “racism” and “racist” are used to denote discriminatory practices. In a historical sense, the term “oriental” is not the present-day pejorative phrase that refers to the Far East of Asia, but instead is used in its obsolescent context to designate the Near East or what is now called the Middle East, as well as North Africa and India. Said also uses the terms “Occident” and “Orient” to respectively signify the geographical West and East, and to connote the Western and Eastern worlds as seen from a Western perspective. The positioning and multidimensional use of these terms in Orientalism, attends to Said’s overall thesis that the West has produced hegemonic knowledge of the East, to construct and know itself through the mirror of the East.
Said postulates that Orientalism began with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798. This event as opposed to previous European conquests, was an intellectual undertaking that was conceived as a scientific examination and documentation of ancient Egyptian history. The invasion removed the sovereignty of Ottoman Egypt to allow for a French occupation and the creation of the Institut d’Égypte. Hence, “Egypt was to become a department of French learning” (Said, 83) and in the words of French historian, François Charles-Roux, Egypt was to be “‘restored to prosperity, regenerated by wise and enlightened administration’” (qtd. in Said, 87). However, Egypt’s former greatness was now curated by a Western imperial power. The event illustrates the Foucaultian aspect of Orientalist power.
In observing, documenting, and archiving ancient Egyptian history, France created a new history of ancient Egypt. Of course, the French may have had noble intentions in the sense that modern conservation was needed to preserve the history of a society that existed for 3,000 years, and 1,800 years prior, but in no way could this undertaking be done without bias. The bias is not merely the separation of time and technology, but rather the difference in epochs that produce systems of knowledge and belief. Power moves with knowledge, and the conceptual seat of power and overall zeitgeist in 1798 France would have been vastly different from the Egypt of 2,000 BCE. Power is the concern of Orientalism for the reason being, that 1798 France was able to do something that 1798 Egypt was not able to do. The geographical and historical relics do not matter as much as the interpretation of, and then subsequent reinterpretation of knowledge. It is not as if 1798 Egypt would have been better at interpreting the past, but rather the past was interpreted through a modern European power that exists within the current epoch of modernity. To see history as something that is inert and solidified is nonsensical, and should alternatively be viewed as an all encompassing discipline that insists that “ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied” (Said, 5). This first modern anthropological invasion of the Orient by a superior power created the foundation for the dissemination of discursive knowledge that is Orientalism.
Whether any knowledge purports to be true or not, the repetition of a certain knowledge is what incorporates knowledge into fact. This is a self-propelling process where the information of knowledge is recycled and sustained into a permanence that eventually becomes commonplace. Said’s Orientalism in this sense, has appropriated Michel Foucault’s use of discourse. Orientalism is a discourse, in that it perpetuates its own design of knowledge that believes itself. Examples of orientalist discourse, on a contemporary level, are the notion that all the variations of Islam in the Middle East are hostile to the West, or that all Arabs want Israel eliminated. These broad assumptions would be supported by repetitive language, literature, media, entertainment, advertising, etc., that in time would produce new knowledge of what it originally set out to describe. In terms of 19th century Orientalism the orientalist work of Alphonse de Lamartine, Ernest Renan, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, and Edward William Lane (who also translated and censored One Thousand and One Nights into its English version, The Arabian Nights), influenced the high literary work of Gustave Flaubert, Benjamin Disraeli (he also served as British Prime Minister twice), Gérard de Nerval, and Sir Richard Francis Burton. Discursive knowledge becomes essentialized and regenerates itself into knowledge influenced by generalizations and stereotypes. Orientalist discourse is this knowledge multiplied into the West as culture, arts, language, and histories that crystalize into the mindsets of new generations. The lyrics to opening song of the Disney film, Aladdin, are:
I come from a land, from a faraway place where a caravan camels roam, where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense, it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home. When the winds from the east and the suns from the west and sand in the glass is right, come on down, stop on by, hop a carpet and fly to another Arabian night.
Orientalist discourse, whether it’s intended for children, readers of literature and journalism, or viewed as films, art, or television, is driven intertextually by any form of information dissemination.
The persuasive and authoritative power of Orientalist discourse emanates from the intertextuality of its sources. While the intertextuality of Orientalism from art to entertainment to journalism is somewhat broad, it can only occur in a contextual relationship to the West. This is the seemingly skewed dyadic of two unequal parties that was seen with the French occupation of Egypt. Yet, Orientalism became what it is, after that event. Consequently, there is no authentic East or Orient in Orientalism – there is only the West and its interpretative construction of a colonized place and its cultures. Hence, the breadth of Orientalism can seem expansive, but it can only ever exist within the confines of Western ideological control. To produce Orientalist art, entertainment, journalism, etc. is to operate, as Said claims, within a discourse that “is a regulated system of producing knowledge within certain constraints whereby certain rules have to be observed. To think past it, to go beyond it, not to use it, is virtually impossible because there’s no knowledge that isn’t codified in this way about that part of the world” (MEF, 10). In such a fashion, hegemony is real and the evidence is the internalized creative limitations of Orientalist representations of artists and audience. It is a system that Walter Benjamin has said “favors the overtaxing of the productive person in the name of a principle: the principle of ‘creativity.’ This overtaxing is all the more dangerous because, even as it flatters the self-esteem of the productive person, it effectively protects the interests of a social order” (Benjamin, 42). Such a system is normalized in the aforementioned intertextual repetition, as well as its condition as static and unchanging. The cultures of the Orient can be both backward and wise in inertia, because the conditions are needed as part of the authority of a normal or standardized entity to galvanize the reality of the Orient. Adopted Hindu and Buddhist wisdom, for example, are facets of Western culture because the West has the authority to present itself as tolerant and maintain its own versions of Eastern wisdom. Concepts like the “wisdom of the East” are a boon to authority in that they remain ancient and static, or synchronic, within and as a possession of a society that is diachronic, or constantly moving. They do not evolve, as the West contextually presents them, but rather function as orientalist representations. Thus, authority has given the West its identity. “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces” (Said, 20). The discursive power that can perform these functions, is a power that can construct binary identities that encourage superficial divides and polemical thinking.
Orientalism operates as a system of opposing binaries that create an idealized Self and Other. This is a relationship of difference. An Other cannot exist without a force to designate it as something else, as something that is not normal. This is ultimately how colonialism can establish a concept like race and how postcolonialism functions to preserve such a concept as an ideology. With the establishment of the Institut d’Égypte, the French began the process of ideologically colonizing the Other. Accordingly, Egypt became an object to study, judge, police, and reinterpret as something different. Through a taxonomy, an identity is created and then supported by the institutional structure of the authority. Validation of the Other, as to reify difference, comes with the highest form of authoritative truth; science. The reasons behind judgment become unchallenged and evolve into common sense, and into an area wherein, as Sut Jhally states, Orientalism can “present itself as objective knowledge” (MEF, 5). In this way, the universality of power has the ability to create racialized or orientalized subjects. This notion of Otherness, according to Said, was, and still is, supported by:
second-order Darwinism, which seemed to accentuate the “scientific” validity of the division of races into advanced and backward, or European-Aryan and Oriental-African. Thus the whole question of imperialism, as it was debated in the late nineteenth century by pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists alike, carried forward the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races, cultures, and societies (Said, 206).
To possess ownership of the truth is to have the right to morally, spiritually, and intellectually decide what is correct, as well as to suffer at the hands the Other. However, a binary Other is a displacement of abnormality and the opposite of a Self that, is what it is not. In other words, the West projects itself onto the East, to create the Orient and the ideal Occident.
In Orientalism, the West is a reflection of its perfected self. It is the Self that looks to an Other to imagine what it is not. This is twofold by reason of the West’s fascination and subjugation of the Orient. In the former, the Orient is a place and attitude of exoticism. It is a mysterious land of scimitars, sensuality, Arabic music, flying carpets, veils, snake charmers, Rumi, belly dancers, fortune tellers, beautiful desert landscapes, Islamic calligraphy, camels, ornate mosques, etc. These were the great unknown qualities of the Orient that produced awe and curiosity. A desire manifested in the Occident for the Oriental dissimilarity. In this way, the Self recognizes itself in what it does not possess. As Jacques Lacan wrote, “man’s desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other holds the key to the object of desire, as because the first object of desire is to be recognized by the other” (Lacan, 58). In Orientalism, this desire is self-contained. This is how the Occident comes to construct the Orient in its own contrasting unlikeness. Although the object, or idea in this case, can never be as it appears in the Self. Arjun Chowdhury asserts, “In Lacanian terms, this is a risk prevalent in all situations of desire: desire always misses its object because what one desires is not a concrete object or person but a certain fantasmatic structure” (Chowdhury, 7). This Self/Other binary necessitates the projection of power from the Self to abase the status of the Other.
The exotic, unquenchable Orient in Orientalism is still the opposite of a Western colonial power, but now the exotic is coupled with weakness. “The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal” (Said, 40). This is the reciprocating, love/hate relationship of West to West using the classical, static elements of Orientalism. Hence the East became a place that needed Western ideals of law and morality. “The white man’s burden” became the simple trope appropriated from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name to rationalize imperial conquest. Now with a physical Western presence in the East, the “Orientals were viewed in a framework constructed out of biological determinism and moral-political admonishment. The Oriental was linked thus to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien” (Said, 207). This is the projection that rids the real of the real, to become a simulacrum, to become the Occident divorced of the Orient.
Physically and ideologically, this is still the essentialized vision of Orientalism that dominates Western perspectives of the Middle East today. Said’s example of imperial France’s invasion and taxonomy of Egypt runs a direct course to the American influence in the Middle East today. As a postcolonial ideology, Orientalism is active in Western media and as America’s Judeo-Christian Other. In action films, and journalism especially, American-led support for Israel produces skewed depictions of Middle Eastern peoples as simple and violent adversaries. The Israel/Palestine conflict is inordinately portrayed as the Middle Eastern Other against Western morality. Through repetition and saturation, images of war and Islamic terrorism become synonymous with evil, as well as the direct opposite of what is portrayed as Judeo-Christian America. Essentialist stereotyping of an out-group becomes so prevalent and lasting that almost any terrorist act is labeled as a product of the Oriental Other. When, in 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing happened, it was assumed by many that it was an act of Middle Eastern terrorism:
[CBS News] Within hours of the explosion, local police and the FBI had issued the All Points Bulletin looking for three men believed to be of Middle East origin (MEF, 11)
[ABC News] The fact that it was such a powerful bomb in Oklahoma City immediately drew investigators to consider deadly parallels that all have roots in the Middle East. ABC News has learned that the FBI has asked the US Military to provide up to ten Arabic speakers to help in the investigation (ibid.).
Orientalist projections not only explicitly demonize people from the Middle East with xenophobic assumptions, but act too easily in a racist manner as they differentiate themselves from the Other. This phenomena is exactly what Orientalism describes and predicts in its model.
Postcolonial theory has come to be recognized as a useful methodology to understand cultural, as well as literary and artistic endeavors. To apply any critical theory, is to analyze a phenomena through a specialized apparatus. Orientalism has been used in its original form to study the West’s relationship to the Middle East, but it can just as well be applied to any relationship involving an imbalance of power. Thus, Orientalism can be applicable to settler colonies, wherein the invading colonizers stay and subsequently construct internal colonies. The internal colonies are physical places that confine subjugated peoples to removed areas like reservations or urban areas like slums. In either scenario, there is colonial control and it is ideological, making it postcolonial.
One such internal colony is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation’s troubled history is fairly understood, but it’s current status is not as well-known. By employing Orientalism to analyze the current conditions of Native Americans at Pine Ridge, one can begin to understand the nature and strength of ideological domination. In this case, ideology is very apparent because there is no direct physical control. Rather, Oriental-like effects of power constructs can be recognized in the current state of health, of nearly 100% of Pine Ridge’s residents. The abysmal conditions of the reservation and its relationship to the US government are a fitting example of the effects of postcolonialism.
From the Orientalist perspective, the colonizer overly romanticizes the colonized into a distorted image of a fixed place in time. In this way, the modern Native American is only partially known to the “West” – the US government and most of the American population. Instead, the West experiences the Native American as the original inhabitants of the continent that look more or less, as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are strong warriors, nomadic, bear ornate clothing and headdresses, have a natural command over the fauna as well as ecology, speak in strange tongues, have eternal wisdom, and so on. The known modern view of the Native Americans is the solitary, sad and defeated alcoholic that is wasting away on a reservation. This perspective is true to an extent, but in the reality of Pine Ridge, the situation is a great deal more complicated. The romanticized classic plains Indian is the overall representation of Native Americans today. This is inline with the Oriental Self desiring the Other. The Western Self wants the simulacrum of that which it cannot have. The projected binary opposite of the least desirable aspects of the West are the disenfranchised, broken Indians, that are less seen in cultural representations of Native Americans. There is an unreality at work here as there is with the Orient and Occident dynamic. The classic Indian of the past and the American Western film genre is always of a lower caste than the colonizers even though the colonizer desires certain traits, and the defeated Indian is especially of a lower social rank. These images are the essentialized constructs of the binary that belies the true conditions that exist on Pine Ridge. What Orientalism is masking are some of the disquieting statistics of Pine Ridge:
· Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the lowest anywhere in the western hemisphere, except for Haiti... Life expectancy for men [is] 48 years, and for women it is 52 years.
· Native Americans’ rate of amputations related to diabetes is three to four times higher than among the general United States population.
· The suicide rate is more than twice the [US] national average.
· The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the [US] national average (RCIS).
When these facts are presented to an average authority of the West, the usual response concerns Native American’s laziness, that reservations are “nanny states,” alcoholism, etc. The Orientalist Native Americans are free people that were colonized and became victims of a problem, but then became creators of a moral problem. The colonized are now the burdensome derelicts of the modern West:
The earliest images of the native peoples in the European imagination reveal the projection of European binary alterity and ambivalence (Hulme qtd. in Duran, 118)... The imagery of the drunken native – violent, lawless, impetuous – emerges clearly in this analysis as one of the instruments which attuned Western collective consciousness to the notion of a North America awaiting the civilizing and rationalizing mission of European settlement (Duran, 118).
Orientalist Postcolonial theory is able to show the essentialization and subjugation of the modern Native American. Cultural discourse has portrayed the indigenous as romantic and broken, they have been infantilized to display native incompetence, and objectified into an Other. This becomes practical knowledge by virtue of tainted common sense and is used to understand or gain new knowledge with this hindered perspective. This is Postcolonial Orientalism and the power of its discourse.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print
Edward Said: On ‘Orientalism’. Dir. Sut Jhally. Media Education Foundation (MEF), 2005. Video.
Chowdhury, Arjun. “Shocked by War.” Orientalism and War. Ed. Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski. Oxford: Oxford Press Scholarship Online, 2014. 1 – 29. Web.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.
Duran, Eduardo, and Duran, Bonnie. Native American Postcolonial Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Print.
“Our Story – The Reservation – Red Cloud Indian School.” RedCloudSchool.org. n.d. Web. 24 March 2016.