Reflections on Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

Instead of my standard book review I thought I would select a few quotes from Orientalism that I found useful, and reflect on them. The edition I’m reading was issued in 2003 commemorate the 25th anniversary of Orientalism‘s publication. This particular edition contains a valuable Preface by Said written in 2003, looking at Orientalism in the wake of 9/11.

One of the first – and continuous – thoughts I had while reading Orientalism was how applicable much of what Said wrote remains (and how sad to be able to say that). In the 2003 Preface, Said writes

neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other. (xvii)

The ideas of the ‘West’ and the ‘Western world’ are still much in use since Said made that observation, and used to signify much the same as ‘European’ did in Said’s original critique of Orientalism. The ‘West’ is (supposedly) modern, advanced, free, and progressive, the ideal to which all other (Other) areas of the world should aspire. Since starting in religious studies, I keep bumping up against seemingly monolithic, intractable constructions: the ‘West,’ ‘Buddhism,’ and the combination ‘Buddhism in the West,’ among others. That’s not to say that there aren’t viable distinctions between Buddhism as it exists in England and Sri Lanka, the United States and Japan, or Canada and Vietnam – there certainly are. However, setting up a dichotomy between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ fails to recognize the marvelous diversity between Buddhist communities in the Hawaiian islands, San Francisco, Vancouver, Boston, and London, all located in the ‘West.’ Any utility that could possibly be gained from using the ‘West’ to signify a particular culture or lifestyle is nullified by the loss of diversity inherent in use of such a broad term.

A couple of pages later, Said explains that

My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated, so that “our” East, “our” Orient becomes “ours” to possess and direct. (xviii)

My knowledge of Buddhism and it’s arrival and subsequent continuation in North America supports this point quite well. The ‘West’s’ appropriation of Buddhist ideas – not to mention works of art, manuscripts, and thinkers – is a perfect example of Said’s statement. The first few generations of history of Buddhism in the ‘West’ was written by Western (mostly white, mostly male) academics, often without consultation or experience of an actual Buddhist community. In fairness, that has been rectified to a considerable degree in more recent scholarship. (And, I’m aware of the irony of making this statement in combination with my own position as a white, Western academic writing about Buddhism.) Additionally, that criticism cannot be levelled only at scholars of Buddhism either – there is a frustrating acceptance of umbrella terms used in both scholarship and non-academic discussions. Although I haven’t read extensively into it – and perhaps I should? – those scholars attempting to dismantle the ‘World Religions’ paradigm in the study of religion(s) are doing important work.

I am in complete agreement with Said when he remarks

every domain is linked to every other one, and…nothing that goes on in our world has ever been isolated and pure of any outside influence.

and

This is not to say that we cannot speak about issues of injustice and suffering, but that we need to do so always within a context that is amply situated in history, culture, and socioeconomic reality. (xxiii)

I would add that everything we talk about requires the same contextualization and holistic approach for which Said advocates. If scholars must insist on using umbrella terms, then it becomes even more critical to talk not just about Christianity, but whose Christianity, when, and where. Would the people labelled by scholars as Christians (or Muslims or Buddhists) recognize that designation, and if so, mean the same things by it?

I’ll preface the next excerpt by saying that I think this has finally changed in scholarship about Buddhism in the United States, although it’s worth keeping in mind:

Orientalists, like many other early-nineteenth-century thinkers, conceive of humanity either in large collective terms or in abstract generalities. Orientalists are neither interested in nor capable of discussing individuals; instead artificial entities…predominate. (emphasis mine, 154-5)

This statement serves as a reminder that academia (and the type of writing it encourages in the humanities) has its origins in the 19th century. Since we are in the 21st century now, scholars have no excuse for not having moved beyond “large collective terms” and “abstract generalities.” Generalities have their place, obviously, but specifics are ultimately more useful for putting a human face with scholarship. The opposite of the urge for generalities has become more prevalent in the requirement that scholars specialize on one text, historical period, or religious tradition in one time/place/historical circumstance. My concern is that either extreme – over generalization or intense focus on a single item/event – loses sight of the important piece: the people who make up a community.

Said summarizes 19th century Orientalism thusly:

From being a place, the Orient became a domain of actual scholarly rule and potential imperial sway. The role of the early Orientalists like Renan, Sacy, and Lane was to provide their work and the Orient together with a mise en scene; later Orientalists, scholarly or imaginative, took firm hold of the scene. Still later, as the scene required management, it became clear that institutions and governments were better at the game of management than individuals. This is the legacy of nineteenth-century Orientalism to which the twentieth century has become inheritor. (197)

While I imagine it isn’t quite the lesson Said might hope his readers would derive from this summary, I can’t help but see it in light of scholars who also participate in activist work. That is, scholars can use their knowledge and writing to reach those beyond academia, and to create public conversations on important issues. (Although in the case of the Orientalist influence described by Said, it is certainly not a “positive” influence.) It gives me hope that academics can make a difference in the larger world. I enjoy learning for the sake of acquiring new knowledge, and hopefully expanding my view and understanding of the world in the process. However, what I do with that knowledge is important to consider. Do I keep it to myself and a small community of like-minded scholars? Or do I share it in a way that someone who does not have my privileges of education and time can also benefit? Moreover, do I connect my intellectual observations with the world around me? I can write an essay critiquing earlier scholars for their shortcomings regarding the study of Buddhisms in the United States, but how does my work improve not only the academy but the lives of those who identify as Buddhists?

 

References:

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994 (1978). With Preface for 25th Anniversary Edition, 2003.

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