The purpose of this essay is to examine the relevance of Edward Said’s concept of “orientalism” regarding the analysis of contemporary representations of “the other.” Further analysis of Said’s work on orientalism (1978) will give critical insight into the matter, and deconstructing the fundamental theories will help contextualise the topic.
To assess the subject in depth, a parallel examination of Stuart Hall’s The Work of Representation (1997) and Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge (1972) is crucial, as they will provide an understanding of how identity, power, and stereotyping work in a transitional frame. This discursive approach is essential for analyzing the ideologies critically and demonstrating that the concept of “orientalism” holds such an important part in the contemporary analysis of “the other.”
Furthermore, drawing upon Judith Butler’s work on Muslim women and the veil (1999) and Myra MacDonald’s research on the problematization of image and voice in media representations (2003) will offer a critical feminist lens, thus, helping explore the extent to which “the other” is represented and how extreme religious ideologies are used to convey intersectional approaches to identities. To conclude, a comparison of all the examined theories and ideas is vital to underline the strengths and limitations of the texts used.
Having a personal and historical view, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) offers a critical postcolonial view about orientalism. Its multidimensional nature is a great source of information, revealing relationships between agency and discourse. His work underlines important themes of identity, knowledge, and power, as well as Western discourse in the Orient:
”Said’s discussion of Orientalism closely parallels Foucault’s Power/Knowledge argument: a discourse produces, through different practices of representation (scholarship, exhibition, literature, painting, etc.) a form of racialized knowledge of the Other (Orientalism) deeply implicated in the operations of Power” (Hall,1997).
Said’s work is a milestone in the field of postcolonial studies, giving an example of division of the Self and the Other. He analyses how the consensus, that “true” knowledge, is apolitical, demonstrating intertwinement with Postmodern discourse. Building on the Foucauldian questions of “How,” not in the sense of “How does it manifest itself?” but “By what means is it exercised?” and “What happens when individuals exert (as they say) power over others?”(Foucault,1982), Said focuses on the intersectionality of power and knowledge in popular thinking, especially concerning the European views of the Islamic Arab world.
In the introduction, Said (1978) talks about three independent categories of orientalism. Firstly, he identifies ‘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 Orient–and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philologist–either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she says or does is Orientalism…” (p.2).
Secondly, ”Related to this academic tradition… 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 accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. . . . 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… despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real” Orient” (p.1-3, p.5). Thus, it is an imaginative discourse. The interchange between the first two categories helped produced the third meaning; Orientalism as a Westernized idea. As a projection of ‘the other,’ ”Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient–dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, teaching it, settling it, and ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”(p. 5).
Here, one can begin to understand the stipulation that the East is different from the West, whether those differences exceed matters or politics or simply “essence.” However, this does not necessarily imply a negative view toward “the other;” they can even be admired and celebrated. It merely helps shape the meaning of the representation of “the other” and the production of difference, which is essential when analyzing other cultures.
One of the most relevant texts that apply to orientalism and “the other” is Stuart Hall’s ”Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices”(1997), drawing more specifically on his work in the chapter ”The Spectacle of the “Other.”
Although focused on African-American culture, the information can be transcribed to provide evidence on how the practice of stereotyping “is the link between concepts and language that enables us to refer to either the ‘real’ world of objects, people, or events or, indeed, imaginary mediated / constructed worlds of fictional objects, people, and events” (Hall, 1997: 17). It is important to mention that the critical analysis of the types and stereotypes plays a vital part in the understanding of “the other.” Concerning Orientalism, it is what Foucault (1982) called “a power/knowledge kind of game.” Here, Orientalism as a discourse is thus both independent and a part of cultural hegemony.
Furthermore, it builds a correlation between power, differences, and representations. When representation is concerned, the circularity of power holds an important part because ”everyone – the powerful and the powerless – is caught up, though not on equal terms, in power’s circulation” (Hall, 261).
A good example that will help build on the framework of Hall’s work on “Representation” (1997) and introduce the eroticisation of his work and ‘the other’ and fetishism is Myra Macdonald’s research on problems of image and voice in media representations (2006). In addition, The work of Judith Butler (2011), while providing a more up-to-date insight, “could be equally applied in many instances to other dimensions of difference, such as gender, sexuality, class, and disability” (Hall, 225) and as a signifying practice” is central to the representation of racial differences”(Hall, 225).
Macdonald traces the contemporary fixation on ‘veiled women’ in a post 9/11 context to the 19th century because ‘media discourse and debates are fixated on “veiling” and “unveiling” and rarely differentiate between styles of Muslim clothing” (Macdonald, 2006).
Fetishism is used to intertwine fantasy and representation to a degree where the seen and the unseen can only be understood in relation to one another. When looking at the symbolism of the veil, it is astonishing to observe the meanings that have been attributed to a simple piece of fabric.It is meant to liberate, oppress, imprison, protect, obliterate.
In regard to western feminists’ tendency to criticize and condemn the veil, Butler(2011) is harsh and deems it unjust. For her, the veil is an expression of identity and belonging to a culture, signifying the complexity of religion and culture, even the resistance to compulsory assimilation into “Western norms.” She argues that “the negotiation of questions of sexuality and gender…is not always a right discourse.”
”Others should be able to represent themselves, ignore the relations of power that structure dominant discourses, and produce ‘dominant’ and ‘marginal’ speaking positions in the first place. These can’t simply be erased but need to be analysed and negotiated critically” (2006).
The veil also embodies a crucial distinction between coercion and freedom of choice in women’s adoption of the variety of head- and/or face-coverings so defined. “The veil” becomes an all-encompassing symbol of repression, and in its dominant association with Islam (with equivalent Jewish, Christian, or Hindu practices written out of the script) reinforces the monocular representation of that religion.
The Muslim veil’s potency as a magnet for discussions about Islam and women’s position arises from its capacity to evoke mixed emotions of fear, hostility, derision, curiosity, and fascination: a capacity already in evidence in colonial discourses.
The danger posed by veiling was intensified by its success as a mask, effectively concealing weapons or other sources of subversion. However, this danger would not have exercised colonial minds so energetically had it not also possessed a sexual charge.
Associations between unveiling and sexual fantasy were brought vividly to life in Western representations of the harem, in a tradition stretching from the nineteenth-century paintings of Delacroix and Ingres through to twentieth-century advertising and film. The harem of the Western imaginary has left a legacy of mystique and sexual anticipation that still contributes to the veil’s fascination.
Read through Western colonial eyes, the harem functioned as evidence of the barbaric, pre-modern exclusion of women from social interchange with men and of the subordination of women to men’s gratification. Yet out of this latter assumption flowed the lure of a sybaritic world where women could be imagined through the male voyeur’s eyes as seductive, languorous, and available for sexual fantasies, including those of lesbian dalliance. Any contradiction in this duality was masked through a process of exoticisation that rendered the harem distinctly “distant,” both temporally and spatially. The “making visible” of the harem, on the part of male artists and writers, was always filtered through a fantasy of sexual ecstasy disavowed by the official prudery of the colonial bourgeoisie.
The legacy of harem’s version of unveiling has gained fresh sustenance from more contemporary constructions of the links between bodily display and sexual expressivity.
Current post-feminist discourses assume female sexual agency and desire to be inscribed in the visibility and openness to view of the body. While feminism addressed the struggles women face in formulating their sexual desires and decolonising their sexuality from the “immense verbosity” of patriarchal discourses, consumerism eagerly capitalised on a simplistic equation between sexual expressiveness and bodily display.
Within Western traditions that read both sexual availability and (more recently) sexual self-expression against display of the body, veiling has operated as a primary signifier of the widely publicised suppression of female Muslim sexuality.
Western assumptions about the female body and sexuality conscript Muslim women into two potential forms of sexual silencing. Denied sexual agency in the “shroud-like” representations of their veiled state, their “natural,” unveiled bodies are also circumscribed by codes of modesty that confirm their apparent exclusion from post-feminist forms of sexual liberation.
In the mapping onto Muslim women’s bodies of narratives of either “resistance” against or “liberation” from extreme versions of Islam, Western discourses repeat the connotations of a hidden and mysterious beauty previously evoked by the harem.The co-opting of painted nails and lipstick as signs of political rebellion suggests the privilege of liberal modernity over pre-modern constraints (simultaneously by-passing feminist and post-feminist debates about the politics of bodily adornment and appearance). Beauty rituals, seen from this perspective, become an expression of solidarity rather than of any desire to emulate a post-feminist bodily ideal.
The increased visibility and apparent audibility of Muslim women in the media post-9/11 cannot, as post-colonial theory confirms, be read as an automatic sign that diversity has been achieved. An analysis of the texts discussed in this article suggests that “voices are most readily muffled when they try to speak against the grain of already hegemonic modes of representation; and most particularly so when they remain in isolation from each other.”
”We need to think about gender regulations in a global and comparative way so that some abstract idea of a woman with the veil does not become the signifier of sexual oppression. It really gets the so-called West off the hook and it displays extraordinary ignorance about the history and present of Muslim practices” (Butler, 2011).
Going back to the original point of the essay, it is natural to draw a few conclusions about the problems that emerge from the ideologies and issues analysed.
One reason why Orientalism and the process of “othering” is so problematic is that beyond the moment-to-moment experiential act of establishing an Other, discursively, such a phenomenon operates on all levels within an infinite variety of spaces. The Foucauldian perspective is reflective of this plurality (which is inherently difficult to define, grasp, and make sense of) common of post-modern/post-structuralist thinking in which Said was so keen of. And so, from this perspective, Said’s heed to the dire waters of discourse, Oriental or not, is entirely acceptable. While the words of Foucault and Derrida offer tremendous support for Said, from an alternative perspective, these same words appear to weaken the tenets of his Orientalist problematic. This “alternative perspective” is nothing more than a slightly different coloured lens with which the same text is viewed. For this reason, the distinction is subtle. To put it another way, as there is no definite boundary between the point or moment when Foucault and Derrida’s texts support Said’s discourse, and when they weaken it, the above argument depends just as much upon one’s leniency; in this case, a brief suspension of belief when clear-cut differentiation is required. The logical place to start when attempting to view this give-and-take relationship would, of course, be at the level of the word itself because words, whether spoken or written, are always malleable. But beyond the words themselves and the ways in which they are aligned, this phenomenon rests largely with the agent whose primary function here is intake and interpretation. It is for these reasons that Said’s structural supports function in a two-fold manner; they support and weaken, just as Said’s own discourse (or a single text such as Orientalism) exists for itself and yet equally against itself. What seems at first to be a dualistic paradox operates experientially in the same fashion.
Power and representation are not simply reprimandable products of agency, but constructs which operate outside and amongst agents taking on a life of their own. Thus, Said must be held equally accountable as he is following the same rules and creating discourse no differently.
To conclude Said’s problematic at its core is not limited to the Orient, and not defined by space or time. Processes of power, representation, and “othering,” function regardless of the lens used, or the historical scope which they are bound within. Said’s Orientalist problematic finds fault principally in Orientalism’s failure to “identify with human experience,” yet there would be no Orientalism without human experience. Perhaps it is the particular way, Orientalism identifies with human experience, which Said takes issue with. Said may warn and heed the raging waters of discourse all he wants, but his actions operate according to the same rules. He too is representing, establishing a position of power, and engaging in the definition of an Other regardless of his motives. And, here, the curious play between agency and discourse reveals itself ever so slightly: just as discourse is created by the agent, so too does the agent create him/herself accordingly in the face of discourse.