Concept Of Orientalism And Culture Cultural Studies Essay

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In our following sessions, we have tried and take a look at culture from the point of view of identity and postmodernism. We saw various interpretations of identity through the prisms of gender, sexuality and nationality. Some other important concepts that were seen were intersectionality and orientalism. This paper tries analysing the concept of Orientalism, as popularised by Edward Said's discourse on the same. The paper tries to see the theoretical background for this concept, the ramifications of Orientalism on mass culture and a case analysis of Orientalism and American culture


The first 'Orientalists' were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of 'the Orient' into English to ensure a truly effective colonial conquest thus leading to increasing institutionalization of scholarship in this field. French scholar Sylvester de Sacy, known as the father of modern Orientalism, advised the French government on Islam and the Orient while Dutch scholar Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) helped the Dutch government formulate and implement policy toward the Muslim population of its colonies in Indonesia. Russian Orientalists helped government formulate policies to control and assimilate the empire's Muslim subjects. As for the British, Orientalism was "a self-serving view of Asians, Africans and Arabs as decadent, alien, and inferior".

German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (17701831), and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), used the paradigm of the rise and fall of civilizations, developed by Ibn Khaldoun (1332 - 1406) to reduce the role of Islam to preserving and handing Europe the heritage of Greek and Roman civilizations

The Orient was passive; the West was active. What is considered the Orient includes most of Asia as well as the Middle East. The depiction of this single 'Orient' taken as a cohesive whole is a powerful achievement of Orientalist scholars. The orient is considered culturally backward, peculiar, and unchanging.

The discourse and visual imagery of Orientalism is laced with notions of power and superiority. The language is critical to the construction - weak Orient awaits the dominance of the West

In contemporary times, Orientalism can be found in current Western depictions of "Arab" cultures - irrational, menacing, and untrustworthy. Edward Said comments that Orientalists have a powerful support system of dominant power that provides them the authority and disposition to proclaim these ideological notions with unquestioning uncertainty.

said questions the underlying assumptions of Orientalist thinking by rejection of its biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and prejudices of race and religion. He also emphasises understanding of differences between east and west in an objective manner and focussing on smaller culturally consistent regions rather than making an overarching discourse


Said analyzed Foucault's arguments on power and proposed that there was a connection between the subjugation of colonies and knowledge production about the Orient.

Orient had symbols like merchants smoking sheesha, lavish clothes and harem girls. There was a creation and consumption of an exotic and imaginary world and the artists were intimately bound within this framework even though they personally would not have been privy to the whole colonization process.

The integration of orientalism into art and mass culture had more to do with the situations as In early 20th century Orientalist fine art and imagery was still developing but the rise in mass consumer culture led to the commodification of Orientalist imagery and now The 'Orient' had been incorporated into the language of mass culture. Photographs, advertisements, and movies became means of spreading orientalism and soon advertising business started using this theme to sell almost everything.

They further subjectified the Oriental and the fantasies and imaginations. With time Orientalism has come to define metaphors for mass culture - Harem pants in vogue, Middle-Eastern themed bars etc. But Kader Konuk terms this replication of an identity through clothes, looks, language or any other cultural components as "ethnomasquerade" - a situation where the dominant culture exercises yet tries to hide its hegemony over the culture of the colonized.

Therefore the West creates its own version about the "Other" which is incorporated into mass culture thus continuing to exist within the pervasive sphere of influence of mass culture.


Since the eighteenth century, American collective imagination was already permeated with representations of Middle-Eastern peoples conveyed either through European literary works or the accounts of American missionaries, merchants, and archeologists. For e.g Mark Twain's account of his passage to the Middle-East seethed with his biases towards the Arabs and Muslims portraying them as backward, servile, and untrustworthy.

By the late nineteenth century, the Tripolitan wars, the popularization of travelogues, and popular contemporary Christian attitudes about Arabs made "Orient" synonymous with romance, mystery, and barbarism. In wake of burgeoning consumerism, American vendors and businessmen took advantage of these aesthetics to encourage consumer spending and indulgence.

Mass media and movie industry developed throughout the twentieth century to become the main purveyor of information, images and attitudes about the region to the public at large.

For e.g. National Geographic magazine had in an issue an article entitled "Sailing with Sinbad's Sons" describing sailors of the Bayan by reinforcing classic Orientalist myth of the primitive, happy Arab native. The "Arab Muslim" thus came to be associated with notions like lechery, dishonesty, sadistic, treacherous and low again depicted through blockbusters such as The Sheikh (1921), The Thief of Baghdad (1924) and Beau Geste (1939). There was little domestic reaction against these stereotypes; however, as few Americans had actually travelled to the Middle East thus lacked the personal experiences necessary to combat these cultural generalizations

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a number of specific luxury items became intrinsically associated with the Orient - most particularly the cigarette. Producers saw the Orientalist aesthetic as the ideal forum for advertising their products, and launched the most sustained campaign to capitalize on oriental motifs which continues to be the same to some degree although some qualitative changes are taking place in the American culture's discourse on Orientalism which favour a much broader and holistic view about the "Other".