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IR2501 – week 6 lectures. I - Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism Claire Heristchi F43 EWB Consultation Times: Tuesdays 10-noon Orientalism in a historical context. Orientalism: academic and artistic discourse on the Middle East from a European perspective.

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ir2501 week 6 lectures

IR2501 – week 6 lectures

I - Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism

Claire Heristchi


Consultation Times: Tuesdays 10-noon

orientalism in a historical context
Orientalism in a historical context
  • Orientalism: academic and artistic discourse on the Middle East from a European perspective.
  • Developed over centuries:
    • Steeped in violent encounter during the crusades, Islamic invasion in Europe, era of exploration, and later colonialism
  • Formally involving academic books, fiction, poetry, art, travel logs… - production of a corpus of knowledge about the region
  • In principle: a major push toward better understanding of different cultures, languages, religion, etc.
  • But can we assume that this knowledge was unbiased, politically neutral?
said s critique of the tradition of orientalism
Said’s Critique of the Tradition of Orientalism
  • Edward W. Said: Palestinian-American cultural critic who used his skills in literary analysis to deconstruct key texts in the Orientalist tradition
  • Key texts: Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam
  • Traditional images of the Orient always emphasise violence, barbarism, mystery, sensuality of the hidden woman (fantasies of the harem)
  • These ideas have permeated centuries of novels, paintings, newspaper reports, but also academic knowledge by specialists…
major claims of orientalism
Major Claims of Orientalism:
  • The Orient is a homogeneous entity geographically
  • Its features do not fundamentally change over time
  • Defined by lack of progress/modernisation
  • Emphasis on how the Islamic civilisation is in decline because Islam is flawed (- anti modern)
  • Bound to be despotic (and violent) because Islam cannot adapt to the modern world
said s theoretical and methodological approach
Said’s theoretical and methodological approach
  • Questioning of assumptions underpinning academic scholarship, especially objectivity
  • Connection between power requirements (domination) and the production of the academic discourse on the Orient:
    • Orientalism is: “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient… by making statements about it, authorizing views on it…teaching it, settling it, ruling over it”
    • Connection to Foucault’s post-structuralism
  • Discourse is based on ‘Othering’ - defining difference as threatening and inferior
  • ultimately says a lot more about ourselves than the Middle East: a map of colonialism?
  • This applies historically and in the contemporary setting
ambiguities in said s analysis
Ambiguities in Said’s Analysis
  • Is it realistic to ever overcome the problem of assumptions, or essentialism? What are the alternatives when talking of other cultures?
  • Aijaz Ahmad: can one use Foucault’s deconstruction and wanting be a humanist…
  • Getting too caught up personal feuds (with Bernard Lewis)
  • Does this open the door to nativism?
    • Misreading of Said
    • Nativism posits that Oriental/native voices are more objective and thus more reliable
    • Can Westerners contribute at all? Is this reverse ‘Orientalism’?
what relevance to ir theory
What relevance to IR Theory?
  • Neither the ‘Islamic World’ nor the ‘West’ are monolithic entities or ‘civilisations’, so why are we using them as categories in IR?
    • A politics of space is core to IR?
    • Failure to historicise ‘difference’?
  • Complexity of Empire as a mode for regulating power relationships: has its own legitimising discourse, and legitimising agents
  • Is there a current discourse of Empire: ‘failed states’, the ‘developing’ world, ‘rogues’…
    • Do we assume that rationality is a Western virtue?
    • Do we assume a linear path to (liberal capitalist) development? Was there ever a level-playing field?
  • Is the ‘postcolonial’ world one of genuine independence?
the legacy
The Legacy
  • Said was extremely influential to literary theorists… But most IR and ME studies scholars continue to proceed in the same way
  • Sadowski shows how analyses on the supposed incompatibility between Islam and democracy reflect Orientalist assumptions
  • Nativists have rejected the validity of all Western scholarship – some have not followed Said’s injunction to engage in genuine dialogue
  • Birth of a new critical idiom: Postcolonial Studies