Orientalism (1978) shines a light on the often unquestioned assumptions about Eastern civilizations that are persistently prevalent in the West. By unearthing and analyzing the West’s biases, Edward Said aims to undermine Orientalism’s influence on how the West perceives and interacts with the East.
When you see a travel commercial for an Asian or Middle Eastern country, how is the country depicted? Perhaps the ad displays images and ideas of exoticism and seduction that exude a sense of geographical and historical distance. Despite there being an outdated feel to such images, they continue to be commonplace today, and these depictions can be linked to a body of Western knowledge called Orientalism.
Orientalism constructed a specific image of the East – known as the Orient – as a means to approach it. Modern Orientalism was conceived during Napoleon’s expedition to, and invasion of Egypt in 1798. In addition to his army, Napoleon had brought along civilian scholars, scientists and researchers who would produce a 23-volume encyclopedia on the country, entitled Description of Egypt.
This team of researchers was responsible for defining Orientalism, and the “experts” on the East were known as Orientalists.
This concept was fleshed out by other colonial powers, most notably Britain during the 19th century, and was the lens through which the West viewed the entire Orient, which was considered to include the Middle East, Asia and the Far East.
The resulting image of the East was an exotic, erotic and irrational one, while Eastern stereotypes found in travel journals, newspapers and scientific publications began to proliferate. These presented
the Orient as exotic and unfamiliar; as one equally strange and foreign entity, regardless of country, people or culture; and as the place where unseemly passions could run amok.
Eroticism was viewed as the emblem of the Orient, with harems viewed as places where the “lustful Oriental” could be found.
Finally, the people of the Orient were perceived as irrational and incapable of logic; the accompanying assumption was that the opposite of these traits were considered Western traits.