Ethnocentrism 101: Orientalism

Following the previous 101 publications related to ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism, now is time to review a phenomenon that also extends to the practice of building foreign identities through the convenient perception of the current dominant cultures.


Orientalism refers to the Middle-East, as different from Occident, and also was a term used to name artists in the XIX century who inhabited south Europe as much as the occidental part of Asia.

Academically, it all started with Edward Said’s publication named “Orientalism” in the year 1978. There was an academic approach to a generalized perception, and he points at the origin of the western conception of the Middle East in the XVII and XIX centuries, when European imperialism took over the creation and spread of knowledge. It is part of what is known as post-colonial studies, some authors refer to the book “Orientalism” as the one that initiated post-colonial studies. The book and his posterior highlighted the relationship between power and knowledge, an idea that can go along with each ethnocentric related publication.


"Orientalism" to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. In Said's analysis, the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced in the service of imperial power. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.”

(Mamdani, 2004)

In his book, Said also recalls the main three overlapping aspects that he considers the most important when talking about Orientalism. One is the changing historical relationship between Europe and Asia, second, the scientific discipline born in the XIX century specialized in the studies of Oriental cultures, and the last one is the ideological suppositions of a place called “the Orient”.


It is the explanatory term coined by dedicated literature scholar and critique Edward Said, Orientalism explains how European and North American (US & Canada) sees the Middle Eastern culture and how the “West” tries to construct the “East” with superior attitude using literature, arts, media, etc.

(Guder & Atay, 2021)


The Women of Algiers (1834) by Eugène Delacroix

Since its publication, there have been a lot of researches, publications and a lot of criticism; it settled a new conversation in the academic field, sources of information, perspectives for interpretation, and the validation that even nowadays is regulated by the western academy; a subject that was also reviewed in a previous article.


Western authors (Halliday, 2007 and Dole, 1982 among others) have been critical about the concept of orientalism, they take the Orientalism phenomenon as one of the results of the impossibility to reach any culture different from our own like the culture itself, they use the observer's subjectivity to justify the bad intentioned speech about the Middle-East.

Every time we analyze another culture, no matter the field, the personal circumstances, culture and identity of the observer impregnates every observation, construction, interaction or conclusion about that other culture, it can't be taken away, there is no possibility of being completely neutral. The values we carry makes very hard the analyses of other culture's values.


A lot of the modern world knowledge in the fields of medicine, and numbers (among others) come from the Middle East. If the speech of "orientalism is just a consequence of historical subjectivity" as these authors claim, then that is why there is no emphasis or recognition of their important contributions to building important, fundamental, knowledge. Something different is to get this general perception of "the other" in a convenient way when "that other culture" and "their people" are subjects of negative evaluations, treated absolutely as incapable of progress and with potential hostility.


Everyone has a cultural and academic background that will make them see “the other” through the cultural load of the observer, this culture that an observer carries according to their place of origin performs as a filter to see "the others". But once and again, this speech about orient in contraposition to the west, being built by dominant, imperialist cultures is not easy to trust or to be taken lightly. And it can be confirmed by the negative side it most of the time take, one of the main sentences of Orientalism as an applied concept, is the idea to see the inhabitants “of that other culture” as inferior, non-developed, far from any possibility of progress. And as in every other area, having just one voice, or a couple of voices that are unidimensional and only follows one direction makes it difficult to call it fair, academic, scientifically correct, and then it can become a cognitive vice.


Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa (1804) by Antoine-Jean Gros

One positive thing about the speech given by dominant cultures regarding the Middle East is the reaction of scepticism by other "marginal cultures" (in the sense of global power). Latin Americans reviewed and resignified the imaginary about the Middle East and analyzed their experiences as a reflection of their own.


The decolonization of knowledge had some consequences in the “traditional” western view of orientalism, many authors (Taboada (1998) and Moran (2005), have been studying how the perception of the Middle East was taken by that region, the impact it took after the first world war and the consequent rebellion these Latin American authors had about why a concept like orientalism should mean the same for them. Since that point, many studies have been published analyzing the hegemonic western speech, recovering the divergent Latin-American identity and its own point of view about the Middle East, followed by its own historical and cultural circumstances.


“But these studies have only hinted at the ramifications of non-Western responses to modern imperialism for the modality, the scope, the difference, and the meaning of Orientalist discourses as they traverse historical and national boundaries.”

(Makdisi, 2002)


To really approach “the other”, its historical context and current circumstances among with their power dynamics, the voices who create the narrative must be diverse, specifically because of the cultural bias. If before getting into a foreign subject we look for sources that are not only related to global power, a richer experience can be reached and shared. History cannot be written and cultures should not be analyzed with only one voice any longer, because it only brings short-sighted information, especially the perception of "the others", not only one culture can be right about a foreign one if there are so many.




Sources:

  • Dole, A. (1982). The Question of Orientalism by Bernard Lewis | The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, 10.

  • Guder, F. Z., & Atay, T. (2021). Orientalist representations of Antakya (Antioch-on-the-orontes) in digital media narrations. In Advances in Media, Entertainment, and the Arts (pp. 838–857). IGI Global.

  • Halliday, F. (1993). ‘Orientalism’ and its critics. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 20(2), 145–163. https://doi.org/10.1080/13530199308705577

  • Makdisi, Ussama (2002). Ottoman Orientalism. The American Historical Review. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/107.3.768

  • Morán, F. (2005). ‘Volutas del deseo’: Hacia una lectura del orientalismo en el modernismo hispanoamericano. MLN, 120(2,), 383–407.

  • Orientalism | Definition of Orientalism by Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Retrieved 18 September 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Orientalism

  • Prakash, G. (1995). Orientalism Now. History and Theory, 34(3), 199. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505621

  • Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes | Homepage. (n.d.). Retrieved 18 September 2021, from http://arabstereotypes.org/

  • Said, Edward. (1977). Orientalism.

  • ‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now | by Adam Shatz | The New York Review of Books. (n.d.). Retrieved 19 September 2021, from https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/05/20/orientalism-then-and-now/

  • Taboada, H. G. H. (1998). Un orientalismo periférico: Viajeros latinoamericanos, 1786-1920. Estudios de Asia y Africa, 33(2), 285–305.

  • Viteri, M. A., & Castellanos, S. (2013). Dilemas queer contemporáneos: Ciudadanías sexuales, orientalismo y subjetividades liberales Un diálogo con Leticia Sabsay. Íconos - Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 0(47), 103. https://doi.org/10.17141/iconos.47.2013.848

  • What is Orientalism | IGI Global. (n.d.). Retrieved 18 September 2021, from https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/engendering-orientalism/73353

  • Mamdani, M. (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Pantheon Books.

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Melisa Silva

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