What is a "discourse," first of all? It is a repertoire of images, poetry, travel diaries, movies, press articles that contain references to a certain topic, here Orientalism.
According to Edward Said discourse is any system of non-verbal communication that is categorized under semiotics of human interaction. The dialogue goes beyond verbal communication and includes any other mode of communication such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
Orientalism is the discourse through which the European imperial powers that occupied the Middle and the Far East tried to understand what was unfamiliar and strange about the cultures they came across. It is how they sought to make sense of what they could not fathom.
Orientalism is the critical evaluation of colonialists ideas concerning Western literary texts. Said came up with this term after a compilation of knowledge of authentic texts, history, politics, and eloquence in both written and spoken language.
What are the features of Orientalism according to Said?
It is codified knowledge, where the "Other" is a threat. The Arabs are seen as the others, and their lifestyle is considered as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and inappropriate.
It is not creative; it keeps repeating the same cliches/stereotypes. The same orientalism that dates back in the early 20th century is still present today. The same stereotype that Europeans had on Arabs back then are still relevant today.
It is organized
It is consistent with itself, but not compatible with the reality of the cultures it describes.
It is consistent through time, i.e., It represents "Orientals" today the same way it did in 1890, as though they are timeless, unchanging.
It represents an "ideal other," that is, another that does not exist, for one, and as a "typical" Oriental, i.e., as though all Orientals behave the same way (as though they are "programmed" by that "Oriental culture")
Think of how this contradicts all that we know about culture.
Orientalism and Power:
The discourse of Orientalism is politically needed and supported: if the "Other" is a threat, then we need to control that risk and manage it. Therefore Orientalism plays a big role in the ideological justification of the politics that take place in the "Orient": for example, Afghani women need to be liberated, Iraqis need democracy, etc.
Having the POWER to invade Egypt (i.e. "being there), the French "army of scientists" brought in by Napoleon started recording Egypt. That means that these scientists started producing scientific knowledge about Egypt that is legitimate and objective because they were there, or so they contended. In fact, we now know that this experience was substantially biased and represented nothing of the reality of the peoples it talked about. Always question information that is produced under the occupation. One of the consequences of this (as well as the implications of the Holocaust) was that the American Anthropological Association now prohibits its members from working with/for the military: an anthropologists first concern is the safety and the good representation of his/her informants.
Orientalism has the military power to be enforced. That is one significant difference between racists: power. A black person or a black group in the United States can very well be racist against white people/culture, but cannot transform this racism into policy, because s/he does not have the power to do so. Similarly, Orientalism has the military power to impose its ideas on the people it pretends to represent
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