Examining Edward Said’s Orientalism as a seminal text in postcolonial thought, this essay seeks to investigate the shift towards a more critical and reflexive anthropology brought about by decolonisation. While Said makes no explicit mention of anthropology, Orientalism can nonetheless be taken as a postcolonial critique of the discipline in response to the “crisis of representation”. The text poses questions central to the work of anthropology, forcing the discipline to reckon with its colonial roots. This essay therefore argues that Orientalism’s emphasis on power reflects a shift in anthropological thinking from a focus on culture, representing a turn away from Levi-Strauss’ structuralism insofar as it questions anthropology’s claim to be an ahistorical, objective and scientific endeavour.
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Orientalism focuses on the structures of power underlying knowledge production, turning a critical gaze towards cultural representations. Said emphasises that we cannot ‘assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away’ (1978:14). That is, Orientalism is not simply an aesthetic fantasy based on epistemological assumptions, but a deliberate endeavour to maintain dominance and authority over the Orient that has enjoyed considerable durability and influence. Orientalist knowledge is therefore the result of a political and power-laden process of knowledge production. Said combines Foucault’s insights regarding the knowledge-power nexus with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to suggest that Western dominance enabled the production of knowledge about other cultures that, in turn, became an instrument of continued Western domination (Kandiyoti 2002:281). Consequently, ‘that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient’ (Said 1978:30) necessitating a historical anthropology that takes the cultural hegemony of the West as its object of inquiry (Kandiyoti 2002:284). Orientalism, taken as anthropological critique, thus encourages an anthropological analysis of Western thought and history since ‘its conceptual genealogy has profound implications for the ways in which non-Western traditions are now able to grow and change’ (Asad 1993:1 in Kandiyoti 2002:284). Where anthropology used to define itself unambiguously as the study of primitive societies, an acknowledgement of the power structures within which the discipline has taken shape has turned attention upon the West as an object of inquiry. Moreover, in debunking the assumptions that “true” knowledge is non-political (Said 1978:18), Said confronts the political circumstances, resulting from colonialism, informing anthropological knowledge and representation. The colonial power structure which made anthropological study possible had implications for the uses to which anthropological knowledge was put, and for the anthropologist’s claims to political neutrality (Asad 1973:91). This is significant since anthropology’s dependence on the continued economic and political support of the Western elites meant anthropological inquiry was oriented to their needs, being ‘objective (mystifying)’, ‘non-political (non-subversive)’, and ‘academic (elitist)’ (Gordon 1997:153 in Allen & Jobson 139). The elites who supported research thus expected a return on their investments which would legitimate their continued domination and exploitation over the Other, while confirming that the discipline has not turned to ‘the production of radically subversive forms of understanding’ (Asad 1973:91). Research is thus not an innocent or distant academic exercise, but an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions (Smith 2012:36). In confronting the power hierarchies inherent in knowledge production and cultural representation, and situated within the historical context of colonialism, Orientalism thus represents a shift away from the ahistorical, scientific and objectivist modes of thought in structuralism.
Furthermore, in acknowledging the political economy of knowledge production and the immanent power hierarchies within the discipline, Orientalism challenges the assumption of ethnographic truth and objectivity within anthropology. Said is intimately concerned with the production and dissemination of “authority” and “expertise” about the Orient, positing that ‘authority can, and must, be analysed’ through ‘strategic location and strategic formation’ (Said 1978:28). Said argues that ethnography is an act of colonial dominance as the West continues to speak for and represent the Oriental subject. Ethnography, then, cannot be truth since the ethnographer continues to maintain cultural control, and continues to be able to decide which voices should be included and excluded, in their presentation of a culture, not as it is, but as they imagine it to be. Ethnographic truths thus have to be understood as ‘inherently partial’ (Clifford 1986:7) since they are ‘constituted in and constitutive of larger relationships of power’ (Jordon 1997:57 in Allen & Jobson 2016:136). Echoing postmodernist critiques, Orientalism challenges the claims of anthropology to ‘speak with authority for others defined as unable to speak for themselves’ (Clifford 1986:10), emphasising the need for reflexivity in ethnographic work since ‘everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis-à-vis the Orient’ (Said 1978:28). The problematisation of the ethnographic experience thus suggests that the discourse of the cultural analyst can no longer simply be that of the external, objective observer. Said thus proposes a critical anthropology that re-examines the constitutive role of the ethnographic “I” to reveal the power hierarchies between anthropologist and informant, which he understands as rooted in the imperial relationship (1989:217). There is therefore a shift in anthropological thinking to recognise the centrality of the ethnographer’s personal experience to the research process, undermining the fantasy of the ‘eternal outsider’ (Marcus 2001:114). Said acknowledges how his identity as a Palestinian-American, and his experiences as an “Oriental” motivates and informs his writing, reflecting a turn in anthropology away from thick descriptions and blurred genres in favour of introspection and self-reflexivity in a bid for objectivity in discourse. Therefore, Orientalism challenges notions of ethnographic truth and objectivity, attempting to respond to the “crisis of representation” through a turn to reflexivity and attentiveness to the power relations underlying ethnographic work.
However, it must also be acknowledged that if Orientalism signifies a shift in anthropological thinking, it also maintains some forms of continuity with prior traditions of anthropological thought. In posing the argument that orientalism is an ideological construction that legitimises the colonisation and exploitation of the Orient, Said rejects the ethnocentric and essentialist discourses of the West that results in Eurocentrism, over-generalisation and reductionism. Despite writing Orientalism as a fundamental critique to Levi-Strauss’ structuralism, deeming it as an oppressive system of thought which is ahistorical and favours deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act, Said himself essentialises the very categories of East and West he seeks to criticise, treating them as static and timeless. In his bid historicise Orientalism, Said simultaneously constructs static conceptions of the Orient and Occident: ‘the West being inherently power hungry and the East being perpetually the innocent party’ (al-‘Azm 1981:7). This perception held by Said thus acts to reinforce the passivity of the Orient, portraying it as continually subject to the will of the tyrannical Occident. Accordingly, in arguing that Orientalism renders the Orient mute, Said ignores the variety of ways in which the Orient represents itself. Indeed, whether or not Orientals can speak, Said ‘does not allow them permission to narrate’ (Varisco 2007:141). In ignoring subaltern voices, Said fails to acknowledge the agency of these alternate voices in ‘gazing and talking back’ from their tenuous positions within the Western academy (Allen & Jobson 2016:133), ignoring how these voices serve as a counter-hegemonic force to Western cultural hegemony. The East was consequently held to be passive and incapacitated, paradoxically leading to the assumption at the crux of his critique: ‘that of an eternally distinct and less powerful Eastern region’ (Potter 2019). Moreover, I argue that Said’s exclusive focus on British, French and American imperialism ignores the different forms of colonisation and the ‘many different degrees, forms and histories of postcoloniality as a consequence’ (Moore-Gilbert 1997:12 in Kandiyoti 2002:294). This limited view thus fails to take into account the different forms of resistance and meanings of post-coloniality in various postcolonial contexts, serving once again to essentialise the experiences of the Orient. Orientalism therefore falls into the trap of essentialising the very categories of Orient and Occident it seeks to criticise, maintaining some continuity with the structuralist discourse it sought to reject insofar as ignoring the ability of people to act.
In the final analysis, in exposing the power hierarchies within the discipline, Orientalism seeks to undermine the Eurocentrism within the discipline, challenging the master discourses of European imperialism. Orientalism therefore represents a shift in anthropological thinking away from culture, and towards power and cultural representation. Where structuralism sought to define the world in binaries, Orientalism instead seeks to question and erode these ‘artificial bifurcations of the world’ (Said 1993 in Clair 2003:18) , undermining European narratives of the inferior Other. By challenging assumptions of ethnographic objectivity, Orientalism, having emerged from the “crisis of representation” poses questions that remain central to anthropology regarding who speaks, for what, and to whom. The text can therefore be said to signal a “coming-of-age” of anthropology as its grapples with threats to its relevance following the end of colonialism and the deaths of the grand narratives.
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- Potter, N. (2019). Orientalism: in review. [online] LSE Undergraduate Political Review.
- Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lseupr/2019/01/15/orientalism-in-review/ [Accessed 19 Oct. 2019].
- Said, E.W., 1978. Orientalism, London: Routledge and K. Paul.
- Said, E.W., 1989. Representing the colonized: anthropology’s interlocutors. Critical Inquiry, pp.205–25.
- Smith, L.T., 2012. Decolonizing methodologies research and indigenous peoples Second., London: Zed Books.
- Varisco, D.M., 2007. Reading Orientalism: Said and the unsaid, Seattle ; London: University of Washington Press.
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