Shows a continuous thread through European and American orientalist literature and academic studies. The subject of these disciplines, namely the Arab and Muslim world, is reworked and in a sense re-created as an “other” to the “we” of the orientalist scholar and his own society. This conceptual concoction helps justify and reinforce colonialism and the dominance of the West.
There is, however, a simple equation that Said does not point out: Greater power = conquest = contempt for the conquered. The unbalanced power relation between the West and the Arab world preceded the establishment of the European Empires. And only once colonial domination was implanted was the Arab self and society in turn invented as something other from and contemptible to the West. Orientalism argues that the myth of essential oriental inferiority helped justify continuing Western domination and exploitation of the rest of the world. Still, the West had to be in a position of real domination before the myth-making could take effect. Said’s history begins with the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt and does not recognize that attitudes prior to this event were distinctly different. Voltaire’s History of Charles XII of Sweden is a good example: The Ottoman Empire, a major player despite itself in the collapse of Charles XII’s military fortunes, is not described as a mysterious and contemptible other. In fact Ottoman behavior after the defeat of Peter the Great is compared favorably with the latter’s treatment of Charles’ Swedish army. In The Century of Louis XIV the Ottoman Empire is included in the chapter evaluating and assessing European powers in the 17th century. Voltaire clearly regards the Ottoman Porte not primarily as a Muslim entity but largely as one player among many on the 17th and 18th century European chessboard of power. References are made to cruel practices of the Ottomans but instances are also brought up of the relative humanity and tolerance of other Ottoman policies and practices. The important thing is that Voltaire does not relentlessly reduce the Muslim world to its otherness or Muslimness. He does foresee the rapid decline of Ottoman power after the failed siege of Vienna and the retreat from Belgrade. He attributes this to poor administration, poor generals and an unwillingness to learn from swiftly improving European military tactics. One question: Is Voltaire’s attitude due strictly to his pre-colonial perspective or to some of the basic principles and attitudes of the Enlightenment.
One can generalize to say that academic conceptualizing always follows after real power relations have been established. It does not prepare the way. The schoolmen have ever been the lap dogs of the powerful, willing to provide intellectual cover for military and economic faits accomplis. Said’s academics are the ladies who retire for champagne and chocolates while the real men divide up the world.
Said provides a concrete example of Foucault’s theory of how the self is constructed partially through hypostatizing an other that is not the self. It is not clear in either Foucault or Said whether this gesture is some sort of a priori structure on which any self-characterization depends or a happenstance in the history of madness on the one hand and of European colonialism on the other. It is worth noting that the much celebrated chapters on otherness in Foucault’s History of Madness occur only at the beginning. Foucault’s subsequent chapters on how madness is understood are very different. In the later classical age, madness is understood as a part of the mind. It is a limit case to human rationality, not just a sequestered social other. Positivism defined madness as a treatable disease and so freed the insane from prison and placed them in the asylum.
As a moderately liberal American of Palestinian descent Prof. Said wrote this book presumably because he believes that rationally shared research and analysis can help resolve conflict. Once American scholars are shown the underlying prejudices of the orientalist tradition, they would, suitably enlightened, change their ways. His postscripts betray much wonderment that this did not happen.
In fact scholarly respect seems to come only when national powers are so evenly balanced, that one nation cannot conceivably dictate to another, such as is presently the case among the nations of Western Europe or in fact among the various American states. Where such a power balance does not obtain the stronger nation will inevitably dictate to the weaker. (De Gaulle once forced his will on Monaco by establishing customs and immigration controls.) Where imbalance is the order of the day stasis is only reached when one nation tacitly consents to become the little brown brother of the other.
With the fall of the Soviet Union the United States emerged as overwhelmingly superior militarily and economically to every other country in the world. It had the opportunity to set an example and endorse non-military approaches to international disagreement. There are ancillary reasons why it chose not to do so: oil, the Israeli lobby in the US etc. However, the principal motivation behind American behavior is the almost immutable law that if any nation is significantly more powerful than another nation it will use that power to dictate policies to the other nation. Indeed it will seek excuses to exercise its military. The way to achieve leverage against American domination today is to possess nuclear weapons. The United States backs away from confronting or undermining any nation that has gone nuclear. Pakistan, North Korea and China know this. Serbia and Iraq discovered it too late. Iran has come to embrace it.