Orientalism Book summary
Orientalism was published originally in 1978 and it examined how the framework of Orientalism was formed and how it continues to retain influence in the contemporary world. Said’s work remains relevant primarily due to the complicated relations of the west with the Middle East, as old and ill-formed oriental ideas continue to affect their relations. The work has been noted particularly for its unique approach in the use of literary analysis, anthropology, and history, to describe in detail the biased nature of the Orientalism framework. The book’s effect on the academic world has been profound, for it has been recognized not only for its contributions to the study of the middle east but also to cultural anthropology, historical anthropology, and postcolonial anthropology.
Orientalism examines the concept of Orientalism, a phenomenon that deals with academic scholarship, cultural representation, and administrative policy of the Orient, as driven mainly by the Occident or the west. Said argues that the Orient was created on the basis of imaginative boundaries drawn up by Western orientalists. At the time, the term Orient was used to refer to the regions of the Middle East and Asia, which were then called the near east and the far east, respectively. The text of the book delves into the relationship between the Orient, and the Occident. Throughout the book, Said focuses on how the west has justified intervention in the affairs of the Orient, citing the west’s superior ability in scholarly pursuits. The book covers the various aspects of Orientalism over three chapters, all of which are further divided into four detailed sections.
The first chapter of the book presents Orientalism as a historical practice of collecting and distilling information about the Orient in a form that is suitable for the comprehension of the western people. Said explains that Orientalism is a complex field that involves different kinds of cultural and political activities, yet it has always retained a scholarly character. He explains that this is mostly because of the inherent complexity of the expansive region, and the many diverse cultures that inhabit it, which makes a complete understanding of it challenging. In the face of this mammoth challenge, the West prefers to apply an academic approach due to its desire to not only understand the orient but also to control it. In the second chapter, Said moves the discussion towards the analysis of cultural texts relevant to the study of Orientalism and focuses particularly on the western study of Islam. Said argues that subjects like Philology and Anthropology were chiefly responsible for the formation of biased and discriminatory ideas about the Orient, and especially Muslims. The orientalists of the time studied Islam from a perspective of scientific observation and created the idea of Islam for Westerners to access. This analysis of Islam led to the representation of Orientals, and specifically Arabs, as being less civilized and logical than the people of Europe. Over time, the study of the Orient developed and began to be seen as a rigorous and structured discipline in the Academic institutions of the west. However, these changes in reasoning between the 18th and the 19th century did not lead to a change in the framework but rather caused Orientalists to draw the same conclusions about the inferiority of the Oriental world, now based on 'facts'.
In the last chapter of the book, Said discusses the different kinds of Orientalism, namely Latent and Manifest, and how they were developed. He then goes on to discuss the role that America has played in Orientalism since after the second world war. Before America, it had been the English and the French academia that had been shaping the Orientalism framework, however, all of this changed when the Orient became an important part of America’s administrative policy. He goes on to explain how the intervention of America in oriental affairs has continued to be founded on the flawed Orientalist framework, even though Orientalism has undergone some changes as scholars have turned to the use of objective texts and subject experts. Said concludes the book by asserting that the West has never truly imagined Orientalism to be a human experience, and has never treated it as such.