On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976
a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area
that “it had once seemed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.”1
He was right about the place, of course,
especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was
almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place
of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences. Now it was disappearing; in a sense it had
happened, its time was over. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant that
Orientals themselves had something at stake in the process, that
even in the time of Chateaubriand and Nerval Orientals had lived
there, and that now it was they who were suffering; the main thing
for the European visitor was a European representation of the
Orient and its contemporary fate, both of which had a privileged
communal significance for the journalist and his French readers.
Americans will not feel quite the same about the Orient, which
for them is much more likely to be associated very differently with
the Far East (China and Japan, mainly). Unlike the Americans,
the French and the Britishâ€”less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish,
Portuguese, Italians, and Swissâ€”have had a long tradition of what
I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the
Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European
Western experience. 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 its 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. Yet none of
this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of
European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses
and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode
of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship,
imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.
In contrast, the American understanding of the Orient will seem
considerably less dense, although our recent Japanese, Korean, and
Indochinese adventures ought now to be creating a more sober,
more realistic “Oriental” awareness. Moreover, the vastly expanded
American political and economic role in the Near East (the Middle
East) makes great claims on our understanding of that Orient.
It will be clear to the reader (and will become clearer still
throughout the many pages that follow) that by Orientalism I mean
several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent. The
most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic
one, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic
institutions. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the
Orientâ€”and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist,
sociologist, historian, or philologistâ€”either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism. Compared with Oriental studies or area studies, it is true
that the term Orientalism is less preferred by specialists today, both
because it is too vague and general and because it connotes the
high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century and earlytwentieth-century European colonialism. Nevertheless books are
written and congresses held with “the Orient” as their main focus,
with the Orientalist in his new or old guise as their main authority.
The point is that even if it does not survive as it once did, Orientalism lives on academically through its doctrines and theses about
the Orient and the Oriental.
Related to this academic tradition, whose fortunes, transmigrations, specializations, and transmissions are in part the subject of
this study, is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism
is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological
distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the
Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are
poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between
East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics,
novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the
Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. This Orientalism can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante
and Karl Marx. A little later in this introduction I shall deal with
the methodological problems one encounters in so broadly construed a “field” as this.
The interchange between the academic and the more or less
imaginative meanings of Orientalism is a constant one, and since
the late eighteenth century there has been a considerable, quite
disciplinedâ€”perhaps even regulatedâ€”traffic between the two. Here
I come to the third meaning of Orientalism, which is something
more historically and materially defined than either of the other
two. Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined
starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the
corporate institution for dealing with the Orientâ€”dealing with it
by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing
it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism
as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. I have found it useful here to employ
Michel Foucault’s notion of a discourse, as described by him in
The Archaeology of Knowledge and in Discipline and Punish, to
identify Orientalism. My contention is that without examining
Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the
enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was
able to manageâ€”and even produceâ€”the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively
during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative
a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account
of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism.
In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a
free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism
unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that
it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on
(and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar
entity “the Orient” is in question. How this happens is what this
book tries to demonstrate. It also tries to show that European
culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against
the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.
Historically and culturally there is a quantitative as well as a
qualitative difference between the Franco-British involvement in
â€¢he Orient andâ€”until the period of American ascendancy after
World War IIâ€”the involvement of every other European and Atlantic power. To speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly,
although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in such disparate realms
as the imagination itself, the whole of India and the Levant, the
Biblical texts and the Biblical lands, the spice trade, colonial armies
and a long tradition of colonial administrators, a formidable scholarly corpus, innumerable Oriental “experts” and “hands,” an Oriental professorate, a complex array of “Oriental” ideas (Oriental
despotism, Oriental splendor, cruelty, sensuality), many Eastern
sects, philosophies, and wisdoms domesticated for local European
useâ€”the list can be extended more or less indefinitely. My point
is that Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced
between Britain and France and the Orient, which until the early
nineteenth century had really meant only India and the Bible lands.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of
World War II France and Britain dominated the Orient and
Orientalism; since World War II America has dominated the
Orient, and approaches it as France and Britain once did. Out of
that closeness, whose dynamic is enormously productive even if it
always demonstrates the comparatively greater strength of the Occident (British, French, or American), comes the large body of texts
I call Orientalist.
It should be said at once that even with the generous number
of books and authors that I examine, there is a much larger number
that I simply have had to leave out. My argument, however, depends neither upon an exhaustive catalogue of texts dealing with
the Orient nor upon a clearly delimited set of texts, authors, and
ideas that together make up the Orientalist canon. I have depended
instead upon a different methodological alternativeâ€”whose backbone in a sense is the set of historical generalizations I have so far
been making in this Introductionâ€”and it is these I want now to
discuss in more analytical detail.
I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert
fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself
is not just there either. We must take seriously Vico’s great obser-
vation that men make their own history, that what they can know
is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entitiesâ€”to say nothing of historical entities
â€”such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the
Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought,
imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in
and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to
an extent reflect each other.
Having said that, one must go on to state a number of reasonable
qualifications. In the first place, it would be wrong to conclude that
the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality. When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that
the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East
was something bright young Westerners would find to be an allconsuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the
East was only a career for Westerners. There wereâ€”and areâ€”
cultures and nations whose location is in the East, and their lives,
histories, and customs have a brute reality obviously greater than
anything that could be said about them in the West. About that
fact this study of Orientalism has very little to contribute, except
to acknowledge it tacitly. But the phenomenon of Orientalism as
I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between
Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient (the East as career) despite
or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real”
Orient. My point is that Disraeli’s statement about the East refers
mainly to that created consistency, that regular constellation of
ideas as the pre-eminent thing about the Orient, and not to its
mere being, as Wallace Stevens’s phrase has it.
A second qualification is that ideas, cultures, and histories cannot
seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more
precisely their configurations of power, also being studied. To be-
‘ieve that the Orient was createdâ€”or, as I call it, “Orientalized”
â€”and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of
‘he imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between
Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of
varying degrees of a complex hegemony, and is quite accurately
indicated in the title of K. M. Panikkar’s classic Asia and Western
The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was
discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered common-
place by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because
it could beâ€”that is, submitted to beingâ€”made Oriental. There is
very little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself,
she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke
for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy,
male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed
him not only to possess Kuchuk Hanem physically but to speak
for her and tell his readers in what way she was “typically Oriental.”
My argument is that Flaubert’s situation of strength in relation to
Kuchuk Hanem was not an isolated instance. It fairly stands for
the pattern of relative strength between East and West, and the
discourse about the Orient that it enabled.
This brings us to a third qualification. One ought never to assume
that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure
of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told,
would simply blow away. I myself believe that Orientalism is more
particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over
the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (which
is what, in its academic or scholarly form, it claims to be). Nevertheless, what we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knittedtogether strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to the
enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its redoubtable durability. After all, any system of ideas that can remain
unchanged as teachable wisdom (in academies, books, congresses,
universities, foreign-service institutes) from the period of Ernest
Renan in the late 1840s until the present in the United States must
be something more formidable than a mere collection of lies.
Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the
Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for
many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of
knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through
the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment
multipliedâ€”indeed, made truly productiveâ€”the statements proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture.
Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil
and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary
(or at least rational and noncoercive) affiliations like schools,
families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the
police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct
domination. Culture, of course, is to be found operating within
civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions, and of
other persons works not through domination but by what Gramsci
calls consent. In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural
forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what
Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for
any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West. 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. Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hay
has called the idea of Europe,3
a collective notion identifying “us”
Europeans as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can
be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison
with all the non-European peoples and cultures. There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves
reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness, usually overriding the possibility that a more independent, or more
skeptical, thinker might have had different views on the matter.
In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on
this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a
whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever
losing him the relative upper hand. And why should it have been
otherwise, especially during the period of extraordinary European
ascendancy from the late Renaissance to the present? The scientist,
the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or
thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think
about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part. Under the
general heading of knowledge of the Orient, and within the umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient during the period from
the end of the eighteenth century, there emerged a complex Orient
suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for
reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in
anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses
about mankind and the universe, for instances of economic and
sociological theories of development, revolution, cultural person-
ality, national or religious character. Additionally, the imaginative
examination of things Oriental was based more or less exclusively
upon a sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged
centrality an Oriental world emerged, first according to general
ideas about who or what was an Oriental, then according to a
detailed logic governed not simply by empirical reality but by a
battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections. If we
can point to great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship like
Silvestre de Sacy’s Chrestomathie arabe or Edward William Lane’s
Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians,
we need also to note that Renan’s and Gobineau’s racial ideas
came out of the same impulse, as did a great many Victorian
pornographic novels (see the analysis by Steven Marcus of “The
And yet, one must repeatedly ask oneself whether what matters
in-Orientalism is the general group of ideas overriding the mass of
materialâ€”about which who could deny that they were shot through
with doctrines of European superiority, various kinds of racism,
imperialism, and the like, dogmatic views of “the Oriental” as a
kind of ideal and unchanging abstraction?â€”or the much more
varied work produced by almost uncountable individual writers,
whom one would take up as individual instances of authors dealing
with the Orient. In a sense the two alternatives, general and
particular, are really two perspectives on the same material: in
both instances one would have to deal with pioneers in the field like
William Jones, with great artists like Nerval or Flaubert. And
why would it not be possible to employ both perspectives together,
or one after the other? Isn’t there an obvious danger of distortion
(of precisely the kind that academic Orientalism has always been
prone to) if either too general or too specific a level of description
is maintained systematically?
My two fears are distortion and inaccuracy, or rather the kind
of inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic a generality and too positivistic a localized focus. In trying to deal with these problems I
have tried to deal with three main aspects of my own contemporary
reality that seem to me to point the way out of the methodological
or perspectival difficulties I have been discussing, difficulties that
might force one, in the first instance, into writing a coarse polemic
on so unacceptably general a level of description as not to be
worth the effort, or in the second instance, into writing so detailed
and atomistic a series of analyses as to lose all track of the general
lines of force informing the field, giving it its special cogency. How
then to recognize individuality and to reconcile it with its intelligent, and by no means passive or merely dictatorial, general
and hegemonic context?
I mentioned three aspects of my contemporary reality: I must
explain and briefly discuss them now, so that it can be seen how
I was led to a particular course of research and writing.
1. The distinction between pure and political knowledge. It is
very easy to argue that knowledge about Shakespeare or Wordsworth is not political whereas knowledge about contemporary
China or the Soviet Union is. My own formal and professional
designation is that of “humanist,” a title which indicates the
humanities as my field and therefore the unlikely eventuality that
there might be anything political about what I do in that field.
Of course, all these labels and terms are quite unnuanced as I use
them here, but the general truth of what I am pointing to is, I think,
widely held. One reason for saying that a humanist who writes
about Wordsworth, or an editor whose specialty is Keats, is not
involved in anything political is that what he does seems to have
no direct political effect upon reality in the everyday sense. A
scholar whose field is Soviet economics works in a highly charged
area where there is much government interest, and what he might
produce in the way of studies or proposals will be taken up by
policymakers, government officials, institutional economists, intelligence experts. The distinction between “humanists” and persons
whose work has policy implications, or political significance, can
be broadened further by saying that the former’s ideological color
is a matter of incidental importance to politics (although possibly
of great moment to his colleagues in the field, who may object to
his Stalinism or fascism or too easy liberalism), whereas the
ideology of the latter is woven directly into his materialâ€”indeed,
economics, politics, and sociology in the modern academy are
ideological sciencesâ€”and therefore taken for granted as being
Nevertheless the determining impingement on most knowledge
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