Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thoughts on Orientalism

The Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix

I posted this for a blog for a class I'm taking, Renaissance Encounters, and thought I'd share the content here, as well:

Orientalism is a non-thinking philosophy in that it is effortless to look at the East, with all its unfamiliar customs and artifacts, and think of all of the peoples and cultures therein as “other,” that is, the opposite of what “we” are; it requires no real understanding of the inherent diversity but handily gives one the power of knowing, of being able to put an easily identifiable label – Oriental – on unknown complexities and simply them. It is the result of years of Western codified prejudice. Therefore, it is difficult for a culture to break free from that.

The problem is that Orientalism does not encourage Western governments to make any attempt to truly understand Eastern cultures; it is through the use of Orientalism that such governments exercise their power, justify their actions: they identify the Oriental as subordinate and incapable of self-government. The West, therefore, carries the burden of civilizing. Any true investigation, one not based on conjecturing canonical authorities, into the culture and history of the colonized peoples would yield a uniqueness of each land that would not corroborate the idea of an Orient, one readily understandable, domitable people. Orientalism neglects the complex traces of history that connect us all and create and define each land not as a mass of like-minded people, but as a spectrum of peoples, cultures, languages, religions, races, and ideas.

Orientalism further inhibits true understanding in its emphasis on difference. If we are all the same, then there is no “other.” And if “they” are always different and unfamiliar, then we fail to recognize and, therefore, deprive them of their humanness, lumping them together as one, ignoring the significant differences that create the significant singularity we sometimes recognize as humanity.

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