Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Penguin 1995) - Chapter One: “The Scope of Orientalism” [sect. I]

Bibliographical details: Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Penguin 1977) [rev. edn.] (1995), 396pp; with new afterword.

Chapter One: The Scope of Orientalism

[...] le génie inquiet et ambitieux de Europèens, impatient d’employer les nouxeaux instruments de leur puissance. (Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier, Préface historique, Description de l’Egypte (1806).

Sect. I: Knowing the Oriental
On June 13, 1910, Arthur James Balfour lectured the House of Commons on “the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt.” These, he said, “belong to a wholly different category” than those “affecting the Isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire.” He spoke with the authority of a long - time member of Parliament, former private secretary to Lord Salisbury, former chief secretary for Ireland, former secretary for Scotland, former prime. minister, veteran of numerous overseas crises, achievements, and changes. During his involvement in imperial affairs Balfour served a monarch who in 1876 had been declared Empress of India; he had been especially well placed in positions of uncommon influence to follow the Afghan and Zulu wirs, the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, the death of General Gordon in the Sudan, the Fashoda Incident, the battle of Oindurman, the Boer War, the Russo - Japanese War. In addition his remarkable social eminence, the breadth of his learning and wit - he could write on such varied subjects as Bergson, Handel, theism, and golf - his education at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and his apparent command over imperial affairs all gave considerable authority to what he told the Commons in June 1910. But there was still more to Balfour’s speech, or at least to his need for giving it so didactically and moralistically. Some members were questioning the necessity for “England in Egypt”, the subject of Alfred Milner’s enthusiastic book of 1892, but here designating a once - profitable occupation that had become a source of trouble now that Egyptian nationalism was on the rise and the continuing British presence in Egypt no longer so easy to defend..Balfour, then, to inform and explain.

Recalling the challenge of J. M. Robertson, the member of Tyneside, Balfour himself put Robertson’s question again: “What right have you to take up these airs of superiority with regard to people whom you choose to call Oriental?” The choice of “Oriental” was canonical; it had been employed by Chaucer and Mandeville, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron. It designated Asia or the East, geographically, morally, culturally. One could speak in Europe of an Oriental personality, an Oriental [31] atmosphere, an Oriental tale, Oriental despotism, or an Oriental mode of production, and be understood. Marx had used the word, and now Balfour was using it; his choice was understandable and called for no comment whatever.

I take up no attitude of superiority. But I ask [Robertson and anyone else]... who has even the most superficial knowledge of history, if they will look in the face the facts with which a British statesman has to deal when he is put in a position of supremacy over great races like the inhabitants of Egypt and countries in the East. We know the civilisation of Egypt better than we know the civilisation of any other country. We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it. It goes far beyond the petty span of the history of our race, which is lost in the prehistoric period at a time when the Egyptian civilisation had already passed its prime. Look at all the Oriental countries. Do not talk about superiority or inferiority.

Two great themes dominate his remarks here and in what will follow: knowledge and power, the Baconian themes. As Balfour justifies the necessity for British occupation of Egypt, supremacy in his mind is associated with “our” knowledge of Egypt and not principally with military or economic power. Knowledge to Balfour means surveying a civilisation from its origins to its prime to its decline - and of course, it means being able to do that. Knowledge means rising above immediacy, beyond self, into the foreign and distant. The object of such knowledge is inherently vulnerable to scrutiny; this object is a “fact” which, if it develops, changes, or otherwise transforms itself in the way that civilisations frequently do, nevertheless is fundamentally, even ontologically stable. To have such knowledge of such a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for “us” to deny autonomy to “it” - the Oriental country - since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it. British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour, and the burdens of knowledge make such questions as inferiority and superiority seem petty ones. Balfour nowhere denies British superiority and Egyptian inferiority; he takes them for granted as he describes the consequences of knowledge.

First of all, look at the facts of the case. Western nations as soon as they emerge into history show the beginnings of those capacities for self - government... having merits of their own.... You may look through the whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self - government. [32] All their great centuries - and they have been very great - have been passed under despotisms, under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation - and they have been great - have been made under that form of government. Conqueror has succeeded conqueror; one domination has followed another; but never in all the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of those nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government. That is the fact. It is not a question of superiority and inferiority. I suppose a true Eastern sage would say that the working government which we have taken upon ourselves in Egypt and elsewhere is not a work worthy of a philosopher - that it is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour.

Since these facts are facts, Balfour must then go on to the next part of his argument.

Is it a good thing for these great nations - I admit their greatness - that this absolute government should be exercised by us? I think it is a good thing. I think that experience shows that they have got under it far better government than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilised West. . We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.

Balfour produces no evidence that Egyptians and “the races with whom we deal” appreciate or even understand - the good that is being done them by colonial occupation. It does not occur to Balfour, however, to let the Egyptian speak for himself, since presumably any Egyptian who would speak out is more likely to be “the agitator [who] wishes to raise difficulties” than the good native who overlooks the “difficulties” of foreign domination. And so, having settled the ethical problems, Balfour turns at last to the practical ones. “If it is our business to govern, with or without gratitude, with or without the real and genuine memory of all the loss of which we have relieved the population [Balfour by no means implies, as part of that loss, the loss or at least the indefinite post - ponement of Egyptian independence] and no vivid imagination of all the benefits which we have given to them; if that is our duty, how is it to be performed?” England exports “our very best to these countries.” These selfless administrators do their work “amidst tens of thousands of persons belonging to a different creed, a different [33] race, a different discipline, different conditions of life.” What makes their work of governing possible is their sense of being supported at home by a government that endorses what they do. Yet

directly the native populations have that instinctive feeling that those with whom they have got to deal have not behind them the might, the authority, the sympathy, the full and ungrudging support of the country which sent them there, those populations lose all that sense of order which is the very basis of their civilisation, just as our officers lose all that sense of power and authority, which is the very basis of everything they can do for the benefit of those among whom they have been sent.

Balfour’s logic here is interesting, not least for being completely consistent with the premises of his entire speech. England knows Egypt; Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self - government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs; foreign occupation therefore becomes “the very basis” of contemporary Egyptian civilisation; Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation. But if the special intimacy between governor and governed in Egypt is disturbed by Parliament’s doubts at home, then “the authority of what . is the dominant raceand as I think ought to remain the dominant race - has been undermined.” Not only does English prestige suffer; “it is vain for a handful of British officials - endow them how you like, give them all the qualities of character and genius you can imagine - it is impossible for them to carry out the great task which in Egypt, not we only, but the civilised world have imposed upon them.”

As a rhetorical performance Balfour’s speech is significant for the way in which he plays the part of, and represents, a variety of characters. There are of course “the English” for whom the pronoun “we” is used with the full weight of a distinguished, powerful man who feels himself to be representative of all that is best in his nation’s history. Balfour can also speak for the civilised world, the West, and the relatively small corps of colonial officials in Egypt. If he does not speak directly for the Orientals, it is because they after all speak another language; yet he knows how they feel since he knows their history, their reliance upon such as he, and their expectations. Still, he does speak for them in the sense that what they might have to say, were they to be asked and might they be able to answer, would somewhat uselessly confirm what is already [34] evident: that they are a subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves. Their great moments were in the past; they are useful in the modern world only because the powerful and up-to-date empires have effectively brought them out of the wretchedness of their decline and turned them into rehabilitated residents of productive colonies.

Egypt in particular was an excellent case in point, and Balfour was perfectly aware of how much right he had to speak as a member of his country’s parliament on behalf of England, the West, Western civilisation, about modern Egypt. For Egypt was not just another colony: it was the vindication of Western imperialism; it was, until its annexation by England, an almost academic example of Oriental backwardness; it was to become the triumph of English knowledge and power. Between 1882, the year in which England occupied Egypt and put an end to the nationalist rebellion of Colonel Arabi, and 1907, England’s representative in Egypt, Egypt’s master, was Evelyn Baring (also known as “Over-baring”), Lord Cromer. On July 30, 1907, it was Balfour in the Commons who had supported the project to give Cromer a retirement prize of fifty thousand pounds as a reward for what he had done in Egypt. Cromer made Egypt, said Balfour:

Everything he has touched he has succeeded in. . Lord Cromer’s services during the past quarter of a century have raised Egypt from the lowest pitch of social and economic degradation until it now stands among Oriental nations, I believe, absolutely alone in its prosperity, financial and moral.

How Egypt ’s moral prosperity was measured, Balfour did not venture to say. British exports to Egypt equaled those to the whole of Africa ; that certainly indicated a sort of financial prosperity, for Egypt and England (somewhat unevenly) together. But what really mattered was the unbroken, all-embracing Western tutelage of an Oriental country, from the scholars, missionaries, businessmen, soldiers, and teachers who prepared and then implemented the occupation to the high functionaries like Cromer and Balfour who saw themselves as providing for, directing, and sometimes even forcing Egypt’s rise from Oriental neglect to its present lonely eminence.

If British success in Egypt was as exceptional as Balfour said, it was by no means an inexplicable or irrational success. Egyptian [35] affairs had been controlled according to a general theory expressed both by Balfour in his notions about Oriental civilisation and by Cromer in his management of everyday business in Egypt. The most important thing about the theory during the first decade of the twentieth century was that it worked, and worked staggeringly well. The argument, when reduced to its simplest form, was clear, it was precise, it was easy to grasp. There are Westerners, and there are Orientals. The former dominate; the latter must he dominated, which usually means having their land occupied, their internal affairs rigidly controlled, their blood and treasure put at the disposal of one or another Western power. That Balfour and Cromer, as we shall soon see, could strip humanity down to such ruthless cultural and racial essences was not at all an indication of their particular, viciousness. Rather it was an indication of how streamlined a general doctrine had become by the time they put it to usehow streamlined and effective.

Unlike Balfour, whose theses on Orientals pretended to objective universality, Cromer spoke about Orientals specifically as what he had ruled or had to deal with, first in India, then for the twenty - five years in Egypt during which he.emerged as the paramount consulgeneral in England ’s empire. (Balfour’s “Orientals” are Cromer’s “subject races”, which he made the topic of a long essay published in the Edinburgh Review in January 1908., Once again, knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control. Cromer’s notion is that England ’s empire will not dissolve if such things as militarism and commercial egotism at home and “free institutions” in the colony (as opposed to British government “according to the Code of Christian morality”) are kept in check. For if, according to Cromer, logic is something “the existence of which the Oriental is disposed altogether to ignore”, the proper method of ruling is not to impose ultrascientific measures upon him or to force him bodily to accept logic. It is rather to understand his limitations and “endeavor to find, in the contentment of the subject race, a more worthy and, it may be hoped, a stronger bond of union between the rulers and the ruled.” Lurking everywhere behind the pacification of the subject race is imperial might, more effective for its refined understanding and infrequent use than for its soldiers, brutal tax gatherers, and incontinent force. In a [36] word, the Empire must be wise; it must temper its cupidity with selflessness, and its impatience with flexible discipline.

To be more explicit, what is meant when it is said that the com - mercial spirit should be under some control is this - that in deal - ing with Indians or Egyptians, or Shilluks, or Zulus, the first question is to consider what these people, who are all, nationally speaking, more or less in statu pupillari, themselves think is best in their own interests, although this is a point which deserves serious consideration. But it is essential that each special issue should be decided mainly with reference to what, by the light of Western knowledge and experience tempered by local considera - tions, we conscientiously think is bes~ ' for the subject race, without reference to any real or supposed advantage which may accrue to England as a nation, or - as is more frequently the case - to the special interests represented by some one or more influential classes of Englishmen. If the British nation as a whole persistently bears this principle in mind, and insists sternly on its application, though we can never create a patriotism akin to that based on affinity of race or community of language, we may perhaps foster some sort of cosmopolitan allegiance grounded on the respect always accorded to superior talents and unselfish conduct, and on the gratitude derived both from favours conferred and from those to come. 'there may then at all events be some hope that the. Egyptian will hesitate before he throws in his lot with any future Arabi.... Even the Central African savage may eventually learn to chant a hymn in honour of Astraea Redux, as represented by the British official who denies him gin but gives him justice. More than this, commerce will gain.

How much “serious consideration” the ruler ought to give proposals from the subject race was illustrated in Cromer’s total opposition to Egyptian nationalism. Free native institutions, the absence of foreign occupation, a self-sustaining national sovereignty: these unsurprising demands were consistently rejected by Cromer, who asserted unambiguously that “the real future of Egypt . lies not in the direction of a narrow nationalism, which will only embrace native Egyptians .but rather in that of an enlarged cosmopolitanism.” Subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them. Most of them were Orientals, of whose characteristics Cromer was very knowledgeable since he had had experience with them both in India and Egypt. One of the convenient things about Orientals for Cromer was that managing [37] them, although circumstances might differ slightly here and there, was almost everywhere nearly the same.’ This was, of course, because Orientals were almost everywhere nearly the same.

Now at last we approach the long-developing core of essential knowledge, knowledge both academic and practical, which Cromer and Balfour inherited from a century of modern Western Orientalism: knowledge about and knowledge of Orientals, their race, character, culture, history, traditions, society, and possibilities. This knowledge was effective: Cromer believed he had put it to use in governing Egypt.) Moreover, it was tested and unchanging knowledge, since “Orientals” for all practical purposes were a Platonic essence, which any Orientalist (or ruler of Orientals) might examine, understand, and expose. Thus in the thirty - fourth chapter of his two - volume work Modern Egypt, the magisterial record of his experience and achievement, Cromer puts down a sort of personal canon of Orientalist wisdom:

Sir Alfred Lyall once said to me: “Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind. Every Anglo - Indian should always remember, that maxim.” Want of accuracy, which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristic of the Oriental mind.

The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he is by nature sceptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained in - telligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description. Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat higher degree the science of dialectics, their descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavour to elicit a plain statement of facts from any ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity. He will probably contradict himself half- a-dozen times before he has finished his story. He will often break down under the mildest process of cross-examination.

Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, “devoid of energy and initiative”, much given to “fulsome flattery”, intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the clever European grasps immediately, that roads and [38] pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are Iethargic and suspicious”, and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo - Saxon race.

Cromer makes no effort to conceal that Orientals for him were always and only the human material he governed in British colonies. “As I am only a diplomatist and an administrator, whose proper study is also man’, but from the point of view of governing him”, Cromer says, “. I content myself with noting the fact that somehow or other the Oriental generally acts, speaks, and thinks in a manner exactly opposite to the European.” Cromer’s descriptions are of course based partly on dirgpt observation, yet here and there he refers to orthodox Orientalist authorities (in particular Ernest Renan and Constantin de Volney) to support his views. To these authorities he also defers when it comes to explaining why Orientals are the way they are. He has no doubt that any knowledge of the Oriental will confirm his views, which, to judge from his description of the Egyptian breaking under cross-examination, find the Oriental to be guilty. The crime was that the Oriental was an Oriental',and it is an accurate sign of how commonly acceptable such a tautology was that it could be written without even an appeal to European logic or symmetry of mind. Thus any deviation from what were considered the norms of Oriental behavior was believed to be unnatural; Cromer’s last annual report from Egypt consequently proclaimed Egyptian nationalism to be an “entirely novel idea” and “a plant of exotic rather than of indigenous growth.”

We would be wrong, I think, to underestimate the reservoir of accredited knowledge, the codes of Orientalist orthodoxy, to which Cromer and Balfour refer everywhere in their writing and in their public policy, To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalisation of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact. Men have always divided the world up into regions having either real or imagined distinction from each other. The absolute demarcation between East and West, which Balfour and Cromer accept with such complacency, had been years, even centuries, in the making. There were of course innumerable voyages of discovery; there were contacts through trade and war. But more than this, since the middle of the eighteenth century there had been two principal elements in the relation between East and West. One was a growing systematic knowledge in Europe about the Orient, knowledge reinforced by the colonial encounter as well as by the widespread interest [40] in the alien and unusual, exploited by the developing sciences of ethnology, comparative anatomy, philology, and history; furthermore, to this systematic knowledge was added a sizable body of literature produced by novelists, poets, translators, and gifted travellers. The other feature of Oriental-European relations was that Europe was always in a position of strength, not to say domination. There is no way of putting this euphemistically. True, the relationship of strong to weak could be disguised or mitigated, as when Balfour acknowledged the “greatness” of Oriental civilisations. But the essential relationship, on political, cultural, and even religious grounds, was seen - in the West, which is what concerns us hereto be one between a strong and a weak partner.

Many terms were used to express the relation: Balfour and Cromer, typically, used several. The Oriental is irrational, - depraved (fallen), childlike, “different”; thus the European. is rational, virtuous, mature, “normal.” But the way of enlivening the relationship was everywhere to stress the fact that the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organised world of his own, a world with its own national, cultural, and epistemological boundaries and principles of internal coherence. Yet what gave the Oriental’s world its intelligibility and identity was not the result of his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the West. Thus the two features of cultural relationship I have been discussing come together. Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental. and his world. In Cromer’s and Balfour’s language the Oriental is depicted as something one judges (as in a court of law), something one studies and depicts (as in a curriculum), something one disciplines (as in a school or prison), something one illustrates (as in a zoological manual). The point is’that in each of these cases the.Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks. Where do these come from?

Cultural strength is not something we can discuss very easilyand one of the purposes of the present work is to illustrate, analyze, and reflect upon Orientalism as an exercise of cultural strength. In other words, it is better not to risk generalisations about so vague and yet so important a notion as cultural strength until a good deal of material has been analysed first. But at the outset one can say that so far as the West was concerned during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an assumption had been made that the [40] Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West. The Orient was viewed as if framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual. Orientalism, then, is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.

During the early years of the twentieth century, men like Balfour and Cromer could say what they said, in the way they did, because a still earlier tradition of Orientalism than the nineteenth-century one provided them with a vocabulary, imagery, rhetoric, and figures with which to say it. Yet Orientalism reinforced, and was reinforced by, the certain knowledge that Europe or the West literally commanded the vastly greater part of the earth’s surface. The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it.” Every continent was affected, none more so than Africa and Asia. The two greatest empires were the British and the French; allies and partners in some things, in others they were hostile rivals. In the Orient, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Indochina and Malaya, their colonial possessions and imperial spheres of influence were adjacent, frequently overlapped, often were fought over. But it was in the Near Orient, the lands of the Arab Near East, where Islam was suppose to define cultural and racial characteristics, that the British and the French encountered each other and the greatest intensity, familiarity, and complexity. For much of the nineteenth century, as Lord Salisbury put it in 1881, their common view of the Orient was intricately problematic: “When you have got a . faithful ally who is bent on meddling in a country in which you are deeply interested - you have three courses open to you. You may renounce - monopolise - or share. Renouncing would have been to place the French across our road to India. Monopolising would have been very near the risk of war. So we resolved to share.”

And, share they did, in ways that we shall investigate presently. What they shared, however, was not only land or profit or rule; it was the kind of intellectual power I have been calling Orientalism. In a sense Orientalism was a library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held. What bound the archive together was a family of ideas” and a unifying [41] set of values proven in various ways to be effective. These ideas explained the behavior of Orientals; they supplied Orientals with a mentality, a genealogy, an atmosphere; most important, they allowed Europeans to deal with and even to see Orientals as a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics. But like any set of durable ideas, Orientalist notions influenced the people who were called Orientals as well as those called Occidental, European, or Western; in short, Orientalism is better grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine. If the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority, then we must be prepared to note how in its development and subsequent history Orientalism deepened and even hardened the distinction. When it became common practice during the nineteenth century for Britain to retire its administrators from India and elsewhere once they had reached the age of fifty - five, then a further refinement in Orientalism had been achieved; no Oriental was ever allowed to see a Westerner as he aged and degenerated, just as no Westerner needed ever to see himself, mirrored in the eyes of the subject race, as anything but a vigorous, rational, ever-alert young Raj.”

Orientalist ideas took a number of different forms during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First of all, in Europe there was a vast literature about the Orient inheri-ted from the European past. What is distinctive about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which is where this study assumes modern Orientalism to have begin, is that an Oriental renaissance took place, as Edgar Quinet phrased it.” Suddenly it seemed to a wide variety of thinkers, politicians, and artists that a new awareness of the Orient, which extended from China to - the Mediterranean, had arisen. This awareness was partly the, result of newly discovered and translated,Oriental texts in languages like Sanskrit, Zend, and Arabic; it was also the result of a newly perceived relationship between the Orient and the West. For my purposes here, the keynote of the relationship was set for the Near East and Europe by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, an invasion which was in many ways the very model of a truly scientific appropriation of one culture by another., apparently stronger one. For with Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt processes were set in motion between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives. And the Napoleonic expedition, with its great collective monument of erudition, the Description de I’Egypte, provided a scene or setting [42] for Orientalism, since Egypt and subsequently the other Islamic lands were viewed as the live province, the laboratory, the theater of effective Western knowledge about the Orient. I shall return to the Napoleonic adventure a little later.

With such experiences as Napoleon’s the Orient as a body of knowledge in the West was modernised, and this is a second form in which nineteenth - and twentieth-century Orientalism existed. From the outset of the period I shall be examining there was everywhere amongst Orientalists the ambition to formulate their discoveries, experiences, and insights suitably in modern terms, to put ideas about the Orient in very closeli in touch with modern realities. Renan’s linguistic investigations of Semitic in 1848, for example, were couched in a style that drew heavily for its authority upon contemporary comparative grammar, comparative anatomy, and racial theory; these lent his Orientalism prestige and - the other side of the coin - made Orientalism vulnerable, as it has been ever since, to modish as well as seriously influential currents of thought in the West. Orientalism has been subjected to imperialism, positivism, utopianism, historicism, Darwinism, racism, Freudianism, Marxism, Spenglerism. But Orientalism, like many of the natural and social sciences, has had “paradigms” of research, its own learned societies, its own Establishment. During the nineteenth century the field increased enormously in prestige, as did also the reputation and influence of such institutions as the Société asiatique, the Royal Asiatic Society, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, and the American Oriental Society. With the growth of these societies went also an increase, all across Europe, in the number of professorships in Oriental studies; consequently there was an expansion in the available means for disseminating Orientalism. Orientalist periodicals, beginning with the Fundgraben des Orients (1809), multiplied the quantity of knowledge as well as the number of specialties.

Yet little of this activity and very few of these institutions existed and flourished freely, for in a third form in which it existed, Orientalism imposed limits upon thought about the Orient. Even the most imaginative writers of an age, men like Flaubert, Nerval, or Scott, were constrained in what they could either experience of or say about the Orient. For Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar ( Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). This vision in a sense created and then served [43] the two worlds thus conceived. Orientals lived in their world, “we” lived in ours. The vision and material reality propped each other up, kept each other going. A certain freedom of intercourse was always the Westerner’s privilege; because his was the stronger culture, he could penetrate, he could wrestle with, he could give shape and meaning to the great Asiatic mystery, as Disraeli once called it. Yet what has, I think, been previously overlooked is the constricted vocabulary of such a privilege, and the comparative limitations of such a vision. My argument takes it that the Orientalist reality is both antihuman and persistent. Its scope, as much as its institutions and all - pervasive influence, lasts up to the present.

But how did and does Orientalism work? How can one describe it all together as a historical phenomenon, a way of thought, a contemporary problem, and a material reality? Consider Cromer again, an accomplished technician of empire but also a beneficiary of Orientalism. He can furnish us with a rudimentary answer. In “The Government of Subject Races” he wrestles with the problem of how Britain, a nation of individuals, is to administer a wide-flung empire according to a number of central principles. He contrasts the 1ocal agent”, who has both a specialist’s knowledge of the native and an Anglo - Saxon individuality, with the central authority at home in London. The former may “treat subjects of local interest in a manner calculated to damage, or even to jeopardise, Imperial interests. The central authority is in a position to obviate any danger arising from this capse.” Why? Because this authority can “ensure the harmonious working of the different parts of the machine” and “should endeavour, so far as is possible, to realise the circumstances attendant on the government of the dependency.” The language is vague and unattractive, but the point is not hard to grasp. Cromer envisions, a seat of power in the West, and radiating out from it towards the East a great embracing machine, sustaining the central authority yet commanded by it. What the machine’s branches feed into it in the East - human material, material wealth, knowledge, what have you - is processed by the machine, then converted into more power. The specialist does the immediate translation of mere Oriental matter into useful substance: the Oriental becomes, for example, a subject race, an example of an “Oriental” mentality, all for the enhancement of the “authority” at home. “Local interests” are Orientalist special interests, the “central authority” is the general interest of the imperial society as a whole. What Cromer quite accurately sees is the management [44] of knowledge by society, the fact that knowledge - no matter how special - is regulated first by the local concerns of a specialist, later by the general concerns of a social system of authority. The interplay between local and central interests is intricate, but by no means indiscriminate.

In Cromer’s own case as an imperial administrator the “proper study is also man”, he says. When Pope proclaimed the proper study of mankind to be man, he meant all men, including “the poor Indian”; whereas Cromer’s “also” reminds us that certain men, such as Orientals, can be singled out as the subject for proper study. The proper study - in this sense - of Orientals is Orientalism, properly separate from other forms of knowledge’, but finally useful (because finite) for the material and social reality enclosing all knowledge at any time, supporting knowledge, providing it with uses. An order of sovereignty is set up from East to West, a mock chain of being whose clearest form was given once by Kipling:

Mule, horse, elephant, or bullock, he obeys his driver, and the driver his sergeant, and the sergeant his lieutenant, and the lieutenant his captain, and the captain his major, and the major his colonel, and the colonel his brigadier commanding three regiments, and the brigadier his general, who obeys the Viceroy, who is the servant of the Empress.

As deeply forged as is this monstrous chain of command, as strongly managed as is Cromer’s “harmonious working”, Orientalism can also express the strength of the West and the Orient’s weakness - as seen by the West. Such strength and such weakness are as intrinsic to Orientalism as they are to any view that divides the world into large general divisions, elitities that coexist in a state of tension produced by what is believed to be radical difference.

For that is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism. Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly? By surviving the consequences humanly, I mean to ask whether there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by the division, say, of men into “us” (Westerners) and “they” (Orientals). For such divisions are generalities whose use historically and actually has been to press the importance of the distinction between some men and some other men, usually towards not especially admirable ends. When one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of analysis, research, public policy [45] (as the categories were used by Balfour and Cromer), the result is usually to polarise the distinction - the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western - and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies. In short, from its earliest modern history to the present, Orientalism as a form of thought for dealing with the foreign has typically shown the altogether regrettable tendency of any knowledge based on tuch hard - and - fast distinctions as “East” and “West”: to channel thought into a West or an East compartment. Because this tendency is right at the center of Orientalist theory, practice, and values found in the West, the sense of Western power over the Orient is taken for granted as having the status of scientific truth.

A contemporary illustration or two should clarify this observation perfectly. It is natural for men in power to survey from time to time the world with which they must deal. Balfour did it frequently. Our contemporary Henry Kissinger does it also, rarely with more express frankness than in his essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy.” The drama he depicts is a real one, in which the United States must manage its behavior in the world under the pressures of domestic forces on the one hand and of foreign realities on the other. Kissinger’s discourse must for that reason alone establish a polarity between the United States and the world; in addition, of course, he speaks consciously as an authoritative voice for the major Western power, whose recent history and present reality have placed it before a world that does not easily accept its power and dominance. Kissinger feels that the United States can deal less problematically with the industrial, developed West than it can with the developing world. Again, the contemporary actuality of relations between the United States and the so - called Third World (which includes China, Indochina, the Near East, Africa, and Latin America) is manifestly a thorny set of problems, which even Kissinger cannot hide.

Kissinger’s method in the essay proceeds according to what linguists call binary opposition: that is, he shows that there are two styles in foreign policy (the prophetic and the political), two types of technique, two periods, and so forth. When at the end of the historical part of his argument he is brought face to face with the contemporary world, he divides it accordingly into two halves, the developed and the developing countries. The first half, which is the West, “is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and [46] classifying data - the more accurately the better.” Kissinger’s proof for this is the Newtonian revolution, which has not taken place in the developing world: “Cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost completely internal to the observer.” Consequently, he adds, “empirical reality has a much different significance for many of the new countries than for the West because in a certain sense they never went through the process of discovering it.”

Unlike Cromer, Kissinger does not need to quote Sir Alfred Lyall on the Oriental’s inability to be accujate; the point he makes is sufficiently unarguable to require no sp’ecial validation. We had our Newtonian revolution; they didn’t. As thinkers we are better off than they are. Good: the lines are drawn in much the same way, finally, as Balfour and Cromer drew them. Yet sixty or more years have intervened between Kissinger and the British imperialists. Numerous wars and revolutions have proved conclusively that the pre-Newtonian prophetic style, which Kissinger associates both with “inaccurate” developing countries and with Europe before the Congress of Vienna, is not entirely without its successes. Again unlike Balfour and Cromer, Kissinger therefore feels obliged to respect this pre - Newtonian perspective, since “it offers great flexibility with respect to the contemporary revolutionary turmoil.” Thus the duty of men in the post-Newtonian (real) world is to “construct an international order before a crisis imposes it as a necessity”: in other words, we must still find a way by which the developing world can be contained. Is this not similar to Cromer’s vision of a harmoniously working machine designed ultimately to benefit some central authority, which opposes the developing world?

Kissinger may not have known on what fund of pedigreed knowledge he was drawing when he cut the world up into pre - Newtonian and post - Newtonian conceptions of reality. But his distinction is identical with the orthodox one made by Orientalists, who separate Orientals from Westerners. And like Orientalism’s distinction Kissinger’s is not value - free, despite the apparent neutrality of his tone. Thus such words as “prophetic”, “accuracy”, “internal”, “empirical reality”, and “order” are scattered throughout his description, and they characterise either attractive, familiar, desirable virtues or menacing, peculiar, disorderly defects. Both the traditional Orientalist, as we shall see, and Kissinger conceive of the difference between cultures, first, as creating a battlefront that [47] separates them, and second, as inviting the West to control, contain, and otherwise govern (through superior knowledge and accommodating power) the Other. With what effect and at what considerable expense such militant divisions have been maintained, no one at present needs to be reminded.

Another illustration dovetails neatly - perhaps too neatly - with Kissinger’s analysis. In its February 1972 issue, the American Journal of Psychiatry printed an essay by Harold W. Glidden, who is identified as a retired member of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, United States Department of State; the essay’s title (”The Arab World”), its tone, and its content argue a highly characteristic Orientalist bent of mind. Thus for his four - page, double - columned psychological portrait of over 100 million people, considered for a period of 1,300 years, Glidden cites exactly four sources for his views: a - recent book on Tripoli one issue of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, the periodical ' Oriente Moderno, and a book by Majid Khadduri, a well - known Orientalist. The article itself purports to uncover “the inner workings of Arab behavior”, which from our point of view is “aberrant” but for Arabs is “normal.” After this auspicious start, we are told that Arabs stress conformity; that Arabs inhabit a shame culture whose “prestige system” involves the ability to attract followers and clients (as an aside we are told that “Arab society is and always has been based on a system of client - patron relationships”); that Arabs can function only in conflict situations; that prestige is based solely on the ability to dominate others; that a shame culture - and therefore Islam itself - makes a virtue of revenge (here Glidden triumphantly cites the June 29, 1970 Ahram to show that “in 1969 [in Egypt] in 1,070 cases of murder where the perpetrators were apprehended, it was found that 20 percent of the murders were based on a desire to wipe out shame, 30 percent on a desire to satisfy real or imaginary wrongs, and 31 percent on a desire for blood revenge”); that if from a Western point of view “the only rational thing for the Arabs to do is to make peace . for the Arabs the situation is not governed by this kind of logic, for objectivity is not a value in the Arab system.”

Glidden continues, now more enthusiastically: “it is a notable fact that while the Arab value system demands absolute solidarity within the group, it at the same time encourages among its members a kind of rivalry that is destructive of that very solidarity”; in Arab society only “success counts” and “the end justifies the means” [48] Arabs live “naturally” in a world “characterised by anxiety expressed in generalised suspicion and distrust, which has been labelled free - floating hostility”; “the art of subterfuge is highly developed in Arab life, as well as in Islam itself”; the Arab need for vengeance overrides everything, otherwise the Arab would feel ego-destroying” shame. Therefore, if “Westerners consider peace to be high on the scale of values” and if “we have a highly developed consciousness of the value of time”, this is not true of Arabs. “In fact”, we are told, “in Arab tribal society (where Arab values originated), strife, not peace, was the normal state of affairs because raiding was one of the two main supports of the economy.” The purpose of this learned disquisition, is merely to show how on the Western and Oriental scale of values “the relative position of the elements is quite different.” QED.

This is the apogee of Orientalist confidence. No merely asserted generality is denied the dignity of truth; no theoretical list of Oriental attributes is without application to the behavior of Orientals in the real world. On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab - Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things. Out of what collective and yet particularised view of the Orient do these statements emerge? What specialised skills, what imaginative pressures, what institutions and traditions, what cultural forces produce such similarity in the descriptions of the Orient to be found in Cromer, Balfour, and our contemporary statesmen?


[ previous ] [ top ] [ next]