Seth J. Frantzman: The Orientalist Shield

Roundup: Talking About History

Dr. Seth J. Frantzman is a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The term “orientalism,” or more specifically the accusation that someone is an “orientalist,” should be deracinated from discourse. Invented to describe a relatively obvious phenomenon, it has become so nonsensical in its application that it should be viewed more as a shield for abusive regimes, reactionary politics and militant religious fanaticism than as something descriptive.
Originally “orientalism” referred to the numerous applications of art and the humanities that sought to imitate, illustrate and learn about the “Orient” or anything that was east and south of Vienna. These orientalists were as diverse as the sketch artist David Roberts, who visited the Holy Land, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer who translated The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. Their paintings depicted everything from Samarkand to the life of the women in the harem. Some of it was more conjecture than reality: How many bath houses and slave auctions did Jean-Leon Gerome truly visit, and why are the nude women depicted always perfectly plump with ample breasts? The concept of orientalism, at least the word, changed in 1978 when literary theorist and Palestinian-American Columbia University professor Edward Said wrote a book on the subject. He claimed that orientalism was part of a Western construct for viewing the East, a conspiracy that sought to impose imperial and military might via the academic study of the East. Said noted that “as a cultural apparatus, orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge.”
Many scholars have taken issue with this blanket view that all scholarship or portrayal of the east must necessarily be racist and imperialist. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby notes in an introduction to a UC-Berkeley course on orientalist French painting that “Said admitted that he was uninterested in comparing the way the Orient actually was with the way the West historically perceived it, but rather in analyzing the West’s discourse on the East. This robbed his work of some analytical force. For if a comparison between a discourse and the reality of that discourse’s object cannot be made, it is difficult to effectively criticize the perception and the discourse surrounding it.”
Bernard Lewis and other scholars have complained that Said never bothered to explain, for instance, of what possible imperialist use deciphering ancient hieroglyphics could have been for Western racist views of the “other.”..

comments powered by Disqus