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The Legacy of Otherness in the Postcolonial World

Edward Said's Orientalism


Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism is a foundational work of postcolonial theory, which uncovers the ways in which the West secured colonial power and dominance over the East through the process of otherization. It documents the ways in which scholars, fiction writers, and hegemonic discourse operated concurrently to build up images of the East as inferior, uncivilized, and inherently submissive. Such representations were exploited in the Global North, a term that designates the richest and most developed countries, mostly located in the northern part of the world, employed as a justifying tactic for their domination of other countries who, through Western eyes, relied on this control to reach perceived standards of civilization and culture. The idea of the "white man's burden", closely associated with Rudyard Kipling's poem of the same name, extends this argument. The 'white man's burden', coined in the middle of the 19th century, refers to a justificatory measure that stated it was the moral responsibility of the West to bring civilization to less developed countries. Said distinguishes between the Orient, which refers to the countries of the East, and the Occident, which refers to the West and its "natural" superiority over the Orient. Crucially, Said examines the ways in which the dominant colonial processes that maintained the subjugation of the East were never dismantled in processes of decolonization, resulting in a continuance of damaging representations and discourses of the East that still permeate modern societal thought.

Said (1987) notes that it is significant to understand that the West’s construction of the East was a fundamentally imaginative exercise. While Western writers and scholars may have believed that their assumptions were justified, Said (1987) reminds us that the Orient was a "European invention and had been since antiquity" (Said, 1987, 4). This invention was maintained by discourses that promoted the exaggeration and distortion of Eastern culture, civilization, and individuals. Said (1987) understands that the “Orient was created – or, rather as I call it orientalized” (p.5), through hegemonic processes that “robbed [the Orient] of its true identity, voice, and indigenous culture” (Burney, 2012, p. 26). Crucially, representations of the Orient became widespread and accepted because they built their foundations on preconceptions that were already familiar and prevalent in Western society (Burney, 2012, p. 26). “Rather than containing references to actual lived reality” (Burney, 2012, pg. 26), Orientalism laid its foundations on words, images, and textuality that had already become canonical ways of speaking in the Orient. As Said (1987) notes, these representations had been employed by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron (p. 31).

Image 1: The Snake Charmer. (1870). Jean-Leon Gerome.


Shakespeare's representation of Othello in Othello epitomizes European representations of the Orient. As Diana Henderson (1985) understands, "Othello's conflicted presence in Venice includes, crucially, the glamour that attaches to the exotic, as well as the horror attendant upon the 'turban'd Turk'" (Henderson, 1985, pg. 168). Crucially, the characterization of Othello creates a figure against which European civility and identity can be defined. As Henderson (1985) elaborates, Othello is "placed within the discourse of European civility" (pg. 168), following Said's understanding that "the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience" (Said, 1978, pg. 1).


Ideas of natural inferiority were a necessity for Western ideological constructions of the Orient. In order to maintain justifications for Western control, it was imperative that the Orient operate as “its contrasting image, idea, personality [and] experience” (Said, 1978, 2). If the West was the strong, civilized, and intelligent power of the world, it was necessary for the East to be its weak and uncivilized counterpart. Western identity relied on such constructions of the East, with the former's own power derived from its necessarily inferior counterpart, as a way to reiterate “European superiority over Oriental backwardness” (Said, 1978, pg. 7). Crucially, to maintain these discourses, the West had to ensure control over Orient representations. As such, the Orient could never represent itself and was always spoken for, in order to ensure the continuance of Western hegemony.

Image 2: Artist Johnalynn Holland speaks of the painting as a "reflection of my weariness from living in a world slowly realising and reckoning with the issues we have talked about for decades. It's about white supremacy". (Washington Post Staff, 2020).


Fundamentally, Said emphasizes the importance of otherization processes in the construction of Oriental identity. For Western subjugation of the East to be justified, the Orient had to be produced as the “ultimate Other” (Said, 1978, pg. 2). Further, Fanon argues that the “colonial world is a Manichean world” (pg. 41), that implements good/evil binaries to further dismiss the Orient not only as “the absence of values, but also the negation of values” (pg. 41). As such, the Orient became the “quintessence of evil” (Said, 1978, pg. 2) as a means of otherization that secured the West as the epitome of goodness. As already stated, the construction of the Orient was built upon a literary history of the otherization of the East, resulting in ideas of the Orient as savage, irrational, and uncivilized. This has become widely accepted in Western discourse and thought, precisely because this way of thinking about the East had been prevalent for centuries.

Wynter and the Overrepresentation of “Man”


Said’s evocation of otherization is enhanced by Sylvia Wynter’s 2003 study, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom”. In this article, Wynter draws on Foucault’s understanding of the distinction between 'Man' and human. Although the term "human" refers to our status as a species, "man is a recent invention" (Qtd in Wynter, 2003, p. 257). It is significant to understand that conceptions of ‘Man’ are not facts of inert nature, but rather self-definitions of our identity that have been mistaken for biological or natural truth. As Wynter (2003) asserts, our current “ethnoclass conception of the human, Man, … overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself” (p. 260). This results in a predominant misconception that the current conception of ‘Man’ – the descriptive statement of what it is to be human – is the ultimate biological truth. This misconception continues, even despite Foucault’s (1966) understanding that this self-referential definition is “probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things” (pg. xxiii).


Image 3: Untitled. Monica Ahanonu. 2020.


As Wynter (2003) suggests, the race is a construct that arose with the new ethnoclass conception of ‘Man’ – a damaging cultural creation that would enable the globalizing "West to replace the earlier mortal/ immortal, natural/ supernatural” (p. 264), binaries that grounded distinctions of what it meant to be human. The earlier binary oppositions that maintained the order of the medieval and early modern world, then, would be replaced by a harmful “human/subhuman distinction instead” (pg. 264). Thus, Said’s understanding of the Orient's otherization is augmented by Wynter’s (2003) study, which explores how Western hegemonic colonial control was aided by the verification of “the overrepresentation of Man as if it were the human" to "legitimate the subordination” (p. 267) of the other. This study explains why Said believed that preconceptions of the West were found to be natural and pervasive in society. This is because it follows the construction of ‘Man’, which requires an irrational and uncivilized other to define itself – a conception that has overrepresented itself in systems of knowledge and power so that it appears a human truth.

Legacies of Colonialism


Wynter's (2003) study also proposes the maintenance of these damaging, prominent modes of thought that legitimized colonial endeavor. As she states, many of our imposing issues of today, including race, are directly linked to this conception of 'Man'. Despite the physical structures of colonialism being demolished, our current society has yet to dismantle its ideological discourses. As a result, the prevalent way of representing the East continues in popular culture, as society has yet to configure a conception of 'Man' free from the human/subhuman binary. A.H. Sa'di (2020) argues:

"although Said's critique was powerful enough to show the spuriousness of the orientalist discourse, it did not bring about its substitution by more humane ones ... orientalism continues to serve the interest of powerful nations and elites" (Sa'di, 2020, pg. 2507).

Image 4: Grenfell Tower fire, 4:43 a.m. Natalie Oxford. 2017.


It is significant to realize that Western countries are still labeled 'the free world' and 'the civilized world' (A.H. Sa'di, 2020, pg. 2507), which present denominations of the same civilized/uncivilized binary employed in colonial discourse. This lack of progress is partly caused by a lack of accountability by former colonial powers, who would much rather hide behind the reality of their colonial history than take responsibility for it. The Grenfell Fire of 2017 epitomizes this lack of accountability. It is unmistakable that the persistence of racist structures that neglected the safety of minorities, despite their calls for more safety measures in the flat building, was one reason for the tragedy. However, discussions of race in the investigation were markedly absent. This is supported by Ida Danewid (2019), who argued that the "neglect of race in the discussion about Grenfell is indicative of a wider set of racial erasures" (Danewid, 2019, pg. 291). Further, Claire Launchbury (2021) proposed that the Grenfell Fire is but one example of the "conditions of invisibility" (pg. 8) that enable the continuation of racism, by institutions that should have been held accountable. This study links the fire to a "colonial subjecthood engendered through institutional racism" (Launchbury, 2021, pg. 8), highlighting the racism, rooted in colonial structures, that still operates in the 21st century.


The eagerness of colonial powers to forget the violence and oppression of their past has ultimately led to the maintenance of colonial discourses, structures, and forms of power, producing harmful and alarming continuities in contemporary society. The West's strong desire to forget its colonial misdemeanors has led to a confusing, fragmented identity for victims of colonialism, and its inescapable legacy, whilst Britain and other such Western powers all too easily forget their accountability. Many postcolonial writers find themselves caught between a desire to retrieve their cultural identity that has been suppressed by Western culture, and to conform to Western standards of identity, in order to find themselves on the right side of the perpetual colonial binary. Ultimately, colonial processes of otherization were never dismantled with the disintegration of physical structures of colonialism, resulting in a damaging legacy for postcolonial subjects who struggle to figure out their identities against narratives that still operate to subjugate and diminish those with colonial ties. If the 'post' in postcolonial is to become a valid and accurate prefix, Western colonial powers must work to take accountability for the continuation of harmful legacies, and actively dismantle narratives of otherness that still exist today.


Bibliography

Danewid, I. (2019). "The Fire this time: Grenfell, Racial Capitalism, and the Urbanisation of Empire". European Journal of International Relations, 26(1), ppg. 289-313.


Henderson, D. (1985). "Alternative Shakespeares". Psychology Press, pp. 1 - 294.


Launchbury, C. (2021). "Grenfell, Race, Remembrance". Wasafiri, 36(1), pp. 4-13.


Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Vintage Books, New York.


Sa'di, A. H. (2021). "Orientalism in a globalised world: Said in the twentyfirst century". Third World Quarterly, 429110, pp. 2505-2520.


Washington Post Staff. (2020). "Nine black artists reflect on the question: 'Is America at a point of reckoning?' The Washington Post.


Wynter, S. (2003). "Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument". The New Centennial Review, 3(3), pp. 257-337.

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