ORIENTALISMUser Review - Kirkus
One may quibble with the title: this is a study of Islamic Orientalism solely, of Western representations of the Near East, with little or no direct reference to Persia, India, China, Japan. Professor ... Read full review
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The impact of Orientalism cannot be understated. Both for critics and accolades, the book Orientalism by Edward Said has been monumental. The depth and breadth of the scholarship in the book challenged the entire academic world to rethink the manner in which they observed and recorded differing cultures.
Said makes numerous assertions that challenge the then current philosophy in Middle Eastern Studies when this book was first published in the 1970s. His perhaps finest assertion was that “Orientalism failed to identify with the human experience.” His overarching critique of Western Orientalists and how they systematically and carefully constructed an image of the Middle East and its people is a powerful concept. Diving into the roots of this construction he briefly addresses the Arab Invasions of the Middle Ages, the Age of Discovery, the growth of Orientalism during the 1700’s and its complete dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. He makes a strong point that the problem of Orientalists is assuming that the Orient cannot interpret itself, therefore it needs the Orientalist to do it for it. Said argues that these scholars of the Middle East over generalized and over-sexualized the Middle East, creating a mysterious and fascinating ‘other’ to which Europeans and eventually American’s sought out. He also takes several stabs at the Israeli and Arab conflict, expressing frustration at the portrayal of Palestinians and efforts to justify the Israeli state formation. Overall, his arguments are powerful and cause deep reflection. He carefully produces a chronological examination of the creation of Orientalism and how it has impacted the world in such a way that the reader will be hard pressed not to agree with him.
Said’s book is one that is powerful and thought provoking. However, that does not mean that his book is not without flaws. Perhaps the greatest flaw is his continual condemnation of generalization, when in fact he appears to be doing the same thing throughout his book. His assumptions and statements that ‘Orientalists are’ or ‘Orientalists do this’ appear seemingly contradictory to his claims of humanism and examining the individual narrative. He fails multiple times in this book to address anything positive about Orientalists and appears to suggest that they are after the same bent as those negative examples he cites. Though he asserts in his 1990 afterword that this was not his intention, the fact that he still ignores adding positive accounts of good Orientalists appears to show that he has committed the sin he has charged the Orientalists with. Said also is in the habit of underplaying the problems with Arab states. He excuses violence and conflict and blames the West for the problems in the Middle East. While there is substantial ground for some blame to be assigned to the West, the dismissing of problems in various Middle Eastern cultures is problematic and should cause concern that the writer is not as unbiased as he claims to be. This is particularly troublesome when he brushes over the Islamic invasions of the Middle Ages and acts as if Europe should not have been affected. This, combined with his heated defense of Middle Eastern cultures, illustrates that Said is unwilling to fully remove his biases and attempt to see flaws within cultures he is defending. Another flaw in his book is his sweeping statements without careful source documentation. This was particularly frustrating for one who wanted to more thoroughly examine his claims. He also has a fascination with the sexualization of the Orient, and at times seems to be bent on proving that Westerner’s were sexualizing the Middle East, even though the context of the passages he cites may not always have those overtones.
Overall, Edward Said produced a thought provoking and powerful book. There are plenty of flaws for which critics can justly call out or call into question. However, there are also powerful ideas about revising the historical narrative for future generations to produce a more solid and truthful history