By: Okky Madasari

Since Edward Said published his seminal work entitled Orientalism in 1978, the word “orientalism” has become a buzz, giving a key foundation to post-colonial studies to always question the orientalist’ perspectives. But how do the Orientalists and Orientalism actually work?

First of first we should understand Orientalism as a knowledge system that has been established not just recently, but since hundreds of years ago, or rather, since the very first time the western people reached new lands that later they call as “Orient” and made notes about the lands and their people based on what they see and what they feel, drawing impression and conclusion that serve their interests.

The first wave of Orientalists were travellers, and for the first time orientalism appears into travel documents and travel stories. The imagery of the far away land of the East written by the travellers was accepted as the truth, read by the people who have never been to the East, and become guidance and reference for those who just embarked their journey to the East. All of these notes were quoted in the new documents, letters, and stories. That is why Said said that Orientalism is after all a system for citing works and authors.

This citing system serves a kind of method for academic tradition, making it possible for Orientalism to take a role as an academic discipline and has been since treated as an objective science. Later, we see large amount of writings and studies of the East written by the West were reproduced in various form; travelogue, journalism, research documents, or literary works, covering wide areas from geography to medical, politics to behavioural studies, history to biology.

While the citation is the main method of orientalism studies, it is not the only way for the work of the Orientalism. In the works of fiction, for example, authors do not need to cite previous works of Orientalism. Rather the authors’ imagination have been shaped by all the existing orientalism literature. Said examined several literary works including the works of Gustave Flaubert and Rudyard Kipling to give some evidences how the orientalist’s biases exist in fictional works. These works have been then continually read and passed such biases of the Orient to next works.

It is unarguable that colonialism provides big opportunity for the production of Orientalism works, and above all colonialism encourages and supports the studies of the colonies as part of a control system in order to protect and preserve colonial power and interests.  In several colonies, those in power also directly produce writings about the Orient. For example, Stamford Raffles wrote History of Java or Douwes Dekker wrote Max Havelaar. In most cases, western researches, journalists, and scholars writing about the Orient utilize all of their privileges as part of the colonizers in producing orientalism works. Not all the writers work for the colonial government, though. It is very possible that they are independent and produce works not necessarily for the interests of the colonizers, but rather for the sake of science and the love of story telling.

Considering both possibilites of the motivation behind Orientalism works, it is safe to say that Orientalism could be latent or manifest. For latent Orientalism, the orientalists did not consciously intend to adopt orientalist perspective, while the manifest will do it consciously. However, for Said, the latent Orientalism does not have significance influence in the knowledge system, remain static compared to the manifest Orientalism who are always aggressive, keeping offering changes in knowledge of Orient.

Said argues that system of representations of the Orient that appears in Orientalism was framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire. For this, Said believes that Orientalism seems more political than not, and that Orientalism itself was a product of certain political forces and activities.

In line with the observation of manifest Orientalism, Said has higlighted the two main problems in understanding the knowledge production of Orientalism. First, the distinction between pure and political knowledge. For Said, anything in humanistic studies is political. Furthermore, he argues that production of knowledge in the human sciences can never ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in their own circumstances. Thus, if American or European study the Orient, it is inevitable that their perspective, consciousness, existing values and knowledge about the Orient have been shaped  by their position.

Secondly, it is the distinction between the East and the West that draws much biases, stereotypes, and cliches in the Orientalism works. When the West see the Orient, they tend to see them as the opposites with all characters that completely different to the West. From this situation then we found the description of the Orient with its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its laziness, its feminine penetrablity, its supine malleability, appearing in many works of the Orientalists.

Said also notes that theses of Oriental backwardness, degeneracy, and lower quality compared to the West are most easily associated with the ideas about the biological bases of racial inequality that appears in several biological literatures called as Darwinism.

Said raises his concern of the most recent Orientalism bias that appears when the West portrays and describes Islam and Arabs. For this once again, will confirm what Said has mentioned that Orientalism is no more that judgement system.

At the end of the day, understanding how Orientalism works requires us to critically questioning the exisiting knowledge system in today’s world.



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