This week, I was introduced to a new subject: Orientalism. Based on the many complex readings of the definitions of important terms such as orientalism and essentialism in Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, as well as Edward Said’s critical essay “Introduction to Orientalism,” I have come to understand the term Orientalism as a representation of the culture and people of “the east” (Here, I feel that the air quotes are necessary–just as Dr. Clemens notes that air quotes are crucial in postcolonial discourse). However, that is simply a basic definition, and I believe that Edward Said beautifully explains the construction of the Orient and how it is problematic because it favors essentialism and othering.
The most striking comments that Said makes explains the idea and construction of the Orient. He begins by stating, “The Orient was almost a European invention…” (Said 71). This immediately caused red flags for me, suggesting to me that the idea of the Orient is a mere tactic to essentialize and cause Othering of groups of people and their cultures.
Said goes on to further explain this concept, noting that the Orient is necessary in the formation of the European Western experience. He states,
“The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said 71).
Based on Said’s analysis of the creation of the Orient and its “place,” I have come to understand how the Orient is created simply to solidify the European or the Western culture and experiences. They rely on the creation and formation of the Orient as a contrast, as Said explains, so that they are the dominant part of the binary, while the Orient becomes Othered. Similarly stated in Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts,
“The Orient is not an inert fact of nature, but a phenomenon constructed by generations of intellectuals, artists, commentators, writers, politicians, and, more importantly, constructed by the naturalizing of a wide range of Orientalist assumptions and stereotypes. The relationship between the Occident and the Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 153).
The very idea of the Occident and the Orient creates a dangerous binary that essentializes two bodies of peoples (the “West” and the “East”) and their respective cultures. In previous weeks, I have furthered my learning on the dangers of binarism and its ability to “uncover the ambivalence of a structure of economic, cultural and political relations that can both debase and idealize, demonize and eroticize its subjects” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 20).
The power of the Othering of the Orient by the Occident binary shows the immense power of binarism that the West created. Said notes that the construction of the Orient was simply because “it could be.” He notes that the Orient “fairly stands for the pattern of relative strength between the East and West and the discourse about the Orient that it enabled” (Said 75).
Said argues that Orientialism is still alive and well today. I would have to agree. He states, nothing the durability of the Orient, “It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far” (Said 76). I would argue that Orientialism requires essentialism, or, “the assumption that groups, categories or classes of objects have one or several defining features exclusive to all members of that category” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffins 73). It is this notion of essentialism that allows me to identify that the Occident and the Orient are still largely present today. Specifically, I think of Dr. Clemens presentation at Shepherd University. In her speech, she explains essentialism simply but effectively as “one size fits all” (This is the most brilliant way to describe the complex notion of essentialism, I must say). She notes how the veil has become a signifier for ‘Oriental women of the East’ and how it depicts to the Occident (our sometimes ignorant western culture) all that is wrong with the Orient. This essentialization of the veil takes away any possibility or notion of choice of these Eastern women. It is instead assumed that the women are forced to wear a hijab or a Burkha, and that these women could not possibly have a choice in this matter. And this, to me, is horrible. The Occident creates assumptions about the Orient as a whole, without allowing individuality (how dehumanizing).
I have seen how essentialism lives on today in the country. We witnessed it in the attacks after 9/11, when we essentialized all Muslims and assumed that every Muslim was a terrorist. This is still happening today, as Trump is dehumanizing populations of people in the “East” as well as immigrants, simply on the groups of essentialism: he essentializes all immigrants to be terrorists. It is heartbreaking that this country and the leaders of the country are perpetuating the notions of the Occident and the Orient and continuing to establish a dominant authoritative power over the Orient. It is dangerous that Trump is so quick to Other and create an “us” and “them” situation, or as Said states, “‘us’ Europeans against all ‘those’ non-Europeans” (Said 76).
It is my strong belief that the effect of this is crippling. I am deeply saddened that I live in a world where Othering still exists, where binarism creates a strong divide between the so-called Western nation and the “East.” There is one driving statement that has stuck with me and that I think is critical. Dr. Clemens, in her presentation at Shepherd University, notes, “Conflations of nations and their peoples is a dangerous game.”
Yes, yes it is, and unfortunately, Trump and all of those who consistently essentialize and Other are perpetuating that game today.