Impact of Said's 'Orientalism' on Oriental Ideologies and Practices: Analytical Essay

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Despite its emergence as a scholarly practice almost three centuries ago, Edward Said’s insights into the relationship between knowledge, power and practises of domination in his 1978 publication of Orientalism remain relevant in understanding contemporary relations of development. While the explicitness and expression of orientalism has changed since Said’s understanding forty years ago, the indissoluble knowledge-power relationship which provides the basis of orientalist ideology remains relevant in informing contemporary relations of development. This relationship is particularly insightful in understanding relations of development in Melanesia, given its poor economic and social development following decades of overly negative representations as perpetuated by Orientalist discourse and attitudes. The following essay will first discuss Said’s definition of orientalism and his understanding of the relationship between knowledge, power and practices of domination, before explaining how they still serve to inform contemporary relations of development. A case study of Melanesia will then be provided to elucidate this.

While the scholarly practice of Orientalism emerged long before Said’s time, his book Orientalism was, and still is considered one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the post-war era (Shatz, 2019). Said articulates that Orientalism is defined as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’” (Said, 1978), the Orient referring to countries of the East - especially East Asia - and the Occident referring to that of the West - especially Europe and America (Oxford Learner's Dictionaries, 2020). According to Said, Orientalism is the product of European assumptions about non-European subjects, given that in Orientalist discourses the self-representation of Oriental subjects fails to meet the objective standards of European discourses (Said, 1978). Consequently, Orientalist representations of the Orient reinforce the authority and dominance of Western authorities and ideologies (Said, 1978) . Essentially, the aim of Orientalism as a system of representations, whether they be explicit or implicit, was to produce an ‘alien’ other in sight of securing the stability and supremacy of the West (Shatz, 2019). These representations are the result of the dominating relationship between the West and the Oriental subjects; one which Said recognised the West dealing with the Orient by “making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling `it, ruling over it” (Andresson, 2006). The result was a monolithic representation of the Orient – as an object, rather than subjects – as inherently different, backward, underdeveloped and in need of help from its superior; the West.

It is important to note that Orientalism cannot be underestimated as simply a series of lies. Rather, it is a system of knowledge which enables the legitimacy of the West’s perception of the Orient, the Orient’s subsequent internalisation of these perceptions and the universal acceptance of these perceptions as factual. As such, two main themes dominate orientalism: knowledge and power (Said, 1978). Said understands the object of knowledge as inherently vulnerable to scrutiny, stating that knowledge is “a ‘fact’, which, if it develops [or] changes … itself in a way that civilisations frequently do, nevertheless is fundamentally, even ontologically stable” (Said, 1978). In the mind of the west, power and thus supremacy was inherently associated with knowledge given the fact that knowledge of a such a thing as the Oriental meant to dominate and to have authority over it (Said, 1978). Essentially, ‘knowledge’ of the Orient empowered the West to construct the reality that the Orient are a subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves (Said, 1978). While the orientalism today has changed from the orientalism Said discussed forty years ago, the link between knowledge, power and practices of dominance is indissoluble. As such, this relationship continues to remain relevant in understanding contemporary relations of development.

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As aforementioned, the concept of orientalism still exists, but the scope, expression and parameters of comparison have changed. According to Eashwar Swamy, in the modern-day time period, orientalism has taken on a different meaning; even though there is still an East vs. West mentality, the primary areas of contrast are sociocultural values, religious identity, and the concept of governance as it relates to religion (Swamy, 2013). Amidst the changing concept of orientalism, however the relationship between knowledge, power and practices of domination remains the same. As Said explains, this relationship shows that “knowledge gives power, more power requires knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control” (Said, 1978), allowing ‘knowledgeable’ countries to obtain power and therefore practice dominance over the countries they have ‘knowledge’ of. Furthermore, the legacy of both past orientalist dynamics and colonisation combined have made it difficult for these Western perceived “inferior” and “underdeveloped” to develop (according to Western criteria), given they are still in fact oppressed and dominated by western powers and representations. This concept of knowledge, power and practices of domination in regard to contemporary relations of development is elucidated in the case of Melanesia.

In the last three decades, Melanesia has been predominately portrayed as a place of conflict, political instability and poor economic and social development (Kabutaulaka, 2015). Among other factors, this inherently negative representation and lack of “development” can ultimately be explained by the relationship between knowledge, power and practices of domination. Melanesia was first subjected to knowledge-power dynamics in 1835 when it was first put on the map (Pacific Encounters, 2011). As appointed by Europeans, this mapping was not purely geographical. Rather, it was a racialist mapping which reflected long held European ideas about race and social evolution (Tcherkezoff, 2003). As per orientalist ideology, notions of racial hierarchy dominated European discourse, placing ‘white’ people at the top and ‘black’ at the bottom. In the mapping of Oceania, Melanesia was the only subregion named after the skin colour of its inhabitants – the ‘Black Islands’ (Kabutaulaka, 2015). This solidified the orientalist notion that Melanesia was, by nature, inherently inferior - even to the other sub regions of the Pacific Islands, who were also subjects of Western subordination. As such, right from the beginning the term ‘Melanesia’ was impregnated with racialist overtones, having been identified only by the colour of their skin rather than their geographical characteristics (Kabutaulaka, 2015). As stated by Said, knowledge to the west means ‘surveying a civilisation from its origins to its to its prime to its decline – and of course, it means being able to do that” (Said, 1978). Provided the European’s surveyance of Melanesia as the ‘Black Islands’ from colonisation, this ultimately allowed for – under the guise of orientalist attitudes – a paramount domination over the sub-region; one which gained traction over the following decades through consistently negative, overly racialist and derogatory European discourse. The lack of their ‘development’ was a prominent critique. The failures and successes of Melanesian societies were, of course, measured using western criteria. Under this lens, their diversity of culture, languages and the way they organised themselves in their societies in a way which did resemble models of western states was considered “underdeveloped” and “backward” (Kabutaulaka, 2015). These negative descriptions of Melanesian social and political structures were also resultant of European’s inability to understand and relate to the complexities of Melanesian societies (Kabutaulaka, 2015). As aforementioned, the scope and appearance orientalism has changed over decades; while it is often not as blatantly racialist in its expression, orientalist legacies and attitudes continue to exist in Western discourse – often just not as explicitly. This is seen in the overly negative representation of Melanesia which continues to exist today. However, this is not to say Melanesia is unproblematic. Despite their resource endowment, Melanesian countries are currently behind in social and economic development and are unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goals (BreadfortheWorld Institute , 2008). Furthermore, Melanesia suffers from weak governance and economic mismanagement, and has had some of the most violent conflicts in the Pacific Islands (World Bank Group, 2020). However, to an extent these problems can be understood as a reflection of internalised Western perpetrated representations, as well as the lack of any significant of economic, social and political power they hold as a result of Western domination accrued from their ‘knowledge’ of Melanesia. This elucidates the legitimacy of Said’s understanding of the relationship between knowledge, power and practices of domination, and showcases the way in which this relationship can inform and provide insight into contemporary relations of development. Today, Melanesian’s are trying to appropriate the term “Melanesia” to challenge Western representations and represent it in a more progressive, empowering and positive light (Kabutaulaka, 2015). This will prove to be a challenging task given the absolute and indissoluble nature of the knowledge-power relationship; one which continues to remain relevant in the contemporary world.

While todays orientalism isn’t quite as explicit and blatantly expressed as it was at the time of Said’s Orientalism, the same relationship between knowledge, power and domination which underpins the concept of orientalism is still relevant today. Due to the way in which Western powers have preserved dominance over Oriental countries through the legacy and often continuation of oriental ideologies and practices, this same knowledge-power relationship remains relevant in contemporary relations of development.

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Impact of Said’s ‘Orientalism’ on Oriental Ideologies and Practices: Analytical Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
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