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Orientalism

By:
Edmund Burke
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Orientalism

Beginning as a field based on the study of original texts in Asian languages requiring a rigorous specialized training, Orientalism flourished in Western scholarship from the eighteenth century to well into the twentieth century. Through the critical philological study of cultural texts of Asian civilizations, it sought to uncover their allegedly essential features. Orientalism was not only a scholarly discipline deriving from European Enlightenment thought, but also an expression of the romantic exoticizing impulse of nineteenth-century European culture, which through its representation of other cultures permitted the exploration of other worlds, notably in art, literature, and music. This article is not concerned with Orientalism in this broader cultural sense.

Orientalism acquired a third meaning following twentieth-century movements of decolonization, when some scholars argued that the scholarly discipline of Orientalism could not be understood apart from the circumstances of its production, namely, Western imperialism. Thus was born the debate over Orientalism. This article cannot disentangle the multiple meanings of Orientalism; it can only suggest their many-layered intellectual and political realities. For these purposes, it is appropriate to first describe Orientalism as a product of Enlightenment thought, or, as it saw itself, as a science, and then to explain the debate over Orientalism. In fact, the epistemological relations of knowledge and power permit no such easy separation, for the reality is more complex.

Orientalism as a self-conscious scholarly discipline began to emerge in the eighteenth century as one stream of Enlightenment thought. Although Islamic science and philosophy attracted the interest of such scholars as Roger Bacon and Leibniz, earlier Western studies of Islam had been marked by Christian precommitment. Voltaire and Montaigne utilized Muslim locales to develop utopias and dystopias the better to criticize the European governments and propose reforms. But the field as an academic discipline centered on the philological study of allegedly formative texts of non-European cultures did not fully appear until the period of the French Revolution.

The Field and Its Development.

The first institution whose mission it was to study Asian languages and civilizations was the École des Langues Orientales Vivantes, established in Paris in 1795. French Orientalists developed linguistic expertise in Arabic and other Islamic languages, and methods of instruction in Arabic and other Islamic languages were systematized at this time. A major product was the twenty-three-volume Description de l’Egypte (Paris, 1809–1828), which represents the first systematic effort to inventory the historical, cultural, and scientific patrimony of any Islamic country. Analogous surveys were later undertaken in Algeria and Morocco.

The trend toward institutionalization increased during the nineteenth century. Under Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) and his students, the École became the leading orientalist institution in Europe, and philology attained the status of a science, the science of human culture. Its self-consciously secular object was to lay bare the principles by which civilizations operated: grounded in nineteenth-century empiricism, Orientalist knowledge stigmatized generalizations unsupported by the texts. Although Orientalist scholars often vaunted the scientific character of their work, at no point were they insulated from the historical currents of their age.

Important figures in this period included the French scholars Armand-Pierre Caussin de Perceval (1795–1871), Étienne Quatremère (1782–1857), and Ernest Renan (1823–1892); the British Edward W. Lane (1801–1876), J. W. Redhouse, and W. Robertson Smith (1846–1894); the Germans Franz Bopp (1791–1867), Heinrich L. Fleischer (1801–1888), and Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918); the Austrian Joseph von Hammer-Pürgstall (1774–1856); and the Italians Michele Amari (1806–1889) and Leone Caetani (1869–1935).

Specialized journals, such as the Journal asiatique (1823), The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1834), and the Zeitschrift für deutsche morgenländische Gesellschaft (1845), were published, and official scholarly societies were established to further the aims of Orientalism in most European countries and the United States. Dictionaries, grammars, catalogs of manuscripts, translations and editions of important texts, and narrative histories provided basic tools for further study. Based on these strong nineteenth-century foundations, Orientalism retained its raison d’être and coherence as a discipline well into the following century.

In the twentieth century Orientalism reached its height in power and influence. The establishment of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1917 in Britain, and the establishment of new academic chairs and journals in France, notably at the École des Langues Orientales, the College de France, the Sorbonne, and the École des Hautes Études, inaugurated a new phase of brick and mortar Orientalism. In Germany, Russia, and Italy this period also saw the establishment of important new institutions of Orientalist scholarship.

At the same time, beginning in France where the emerging social sciences (which stressed precise observation of social phenomena) were furthest advanced, the Orientalist subject began to splinter as new disciplines emerged. An early publication that focused on the study of contemporary Islamic societies in implicit repudiation of Orientalist textualism was the Revue du monde musulman (1906–1923). It, however, succumbed to the increasing intellectual specialization and the professionalization of the field in the interwar period. The impact of the social sciences reached its height only after World War II.

A new field, Islamic studies, emerged in 1927 with the publication of the Revue des études islamiques, edited by Louis Massignon (1883–1962). This initiative was paralleled by the work of other scholars, especially Ignácz Goldziher (1850–1921), Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936), Carl Heinrich Becker (1876–1933), Carl Brockelmann (1868–1956), and Duncan Black MacDonald (1892–1925).

Following World War II, the rise of area studies (especially Middle Eastern studies) and the dynamic growth of the social sciences accelerated the transformation of Orientalism as an academic subject. Among the leaders in this process were Claude Cahen (1909–1991), Philip K. Hitti (1886–1974), H. A. R. Gibb (1895–1971), Gustave E. von Grunebaum (1909–1972), and Giorgio Levi Della Vida (1886–1967). Although contemporary Orientalist scholarship is still influenced by its philological origins, it has evolved in many directions in response to institutional, intellectual, and political currents.

Knowledge and Power.

The contemporaneous independence movements of the Middle East and North Africa—especially the Algerian revolution—provoked a debate about Orientalist knowledge in which the interventions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon were crucial. For Fanon, the anticolonial struggle was also a cultural struggle with liberation as its goal. The publication of Edward Said'sOrientalism (1978) recast the terms of the debate. Following Michel Foucault, Said portrayed Orientalism as not just an academic discipline but as an ideological discourse inextricably involved with European power. In the debate that followed, neither Said nor his critics were always careful to distinguish the elements of the critique or the complex epistemological issues involved: in part it is about the nature of Enlightenment thought and the epistemological underpinnings of scientific knowledge, in part about the connections between particular scholars and Orientalist institutions and imperialism.

Said argued that because all knowledge is the product of its age and necessarily contingent, there can be no knowledge unaffected by the auspices under which it comes to be. If this premise is accepted, it follows that there can be no knowledge that is fully objective: thus, Orientalism has no privileged claim to truth. However, Said and his allies go further, arguing that because Orientalism as a species of discourse was fatally entangled with imperialism, the knowledge it produced was inevitably distorted, if not willfully racist.

Although there is much truth to these observations, they are lacking in complexity. Certainly, Orientalism as a discourse could not but reflect the views of the ambient culture in which it flourished. Thus, some Orientalists did place themselves in the service of European empires; the fortunes of the field were frequently linked to imperialism; European assumptions of superiority to non-Europeans and of the progressive role of imperialism were widespread. However, it is important to note that some Orientalists opposed imperialism or manifested a favorable attitude toward Islamic culture and society; that some Middle Eastern nationalists were themselves inspired by Western Orientalist writings; and that nationalist and Muslim theological positions have their own biases and assumptions.

It is undeniable that as a species of Enlightenment discourse, Orientalism has been a carrier of basic Western notions of the European self and the non-Western other that generated unfalsifiable propositions about the superiority of Europeans to non-Europeans. In this way, Orientalists participated in the elaboration of modern European cultural identity. However, it is only as a result of the subsequent development of Western thought that it is possible to raise these criticisms.

We can now see that modernity was a global process rather than a manifestation of European genius. This does not mean that Orientalism's claim to scientific status is void, but that like other forms of human knowledge, it is both contingent and subject to constant critique and reformulation as a function of changing perspectives on the past. It is only through the evaluation of these issues that one can understand Orientalism as a form of intellectual inquiry.

Post–9/11 Perspectives.

Since the 1970s, the discipline of Orientalism as well as Middle East studies were transformed in important ways. Scholars now are trained in a wide variety of methodologies and disciplinary subspecialties. Knowledge of Middle Eastern languages, however, remains basic.

The interest in exotic themes has become integrated into modern culture everywhere as a result of globalization. We’re all the Other to someone else. Paradoxically, although post–World War II disciplinary transformations effectively ended classic Orientalism as a discipline, the importance of Orientalism as a political lens for viewing the world was greatly enhanced following the events of September 11, 2001.

By the 1970s, Cold War politics increasingly emphasized the intentional exploitation of religion and “civilization” by the eventual victors and their anti-Marxist allies around the world. Culturally, the decline of the Left and Marxism as political and intellectual framework for scholars around the world, already evident before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, has continued unabated to the present (winter 2008).

Since the 1970s (if not indeed before), “religion” has invaded the place formerly occupied by the left—religion as sincere belief, as badge of identity, and as a bundle of political nostrums. It has happened not just in the Middle East, or the lands of Islam, but throughout the world. The reemergence of religion, in addition to deriving from cultural factors internal to each society, was a complex response to (among other factors) massive demographic increase, the globalization of the world economy, the communications revolution of the late twentieth century, and the anti-Marxist politics of the last phase of the Cold War.

Since 9/11 and the dramatic emergence of jihādi insurrectionism, the position of scholars and others on the intellectual and political critique of Orientalism has become a Rorschach test for the intellectual and political standpoint of their position in the evolving debate.

Bibliography

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