Why did a lot of Hollywood movies represent the Pacific as an exotic place, the Middle east as of political unrest, Asia/Africa and especially India as primitive nations?
These notions are constructed by western movie makers for a large world population to make their opinion. A popular poem of Rudyard Kipling stated “East is East and West is West, and never shall the twain meet’ in The Ballad of East and West (1869).
Although East and West may not meet, however, West has dominated over East. The superiority of the ‘West over ‘East’ as a part of orientalism is noticed in many movies, literature, public opinion, foreign and government policies, academia and in the mind of scholars. Every Pacific Islander needs to comprehend the concept of Orientalism and its ramifications in the colonial and post-colonial world.
Here we attempt to explain the seminal work of Edward W. Said (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978) that explained these binary constructions.
He examines the connection between East and West, particularly how the Western supremacy in academics, academic and political representation has influenced/dominate the public policy towards Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. This is done in cultural concept/representation to form Orientalist paradigm as Orientalizing the Orient.
Said defines Orientalism as an academic discipline, style of thought and a corporate institution. Said’s work is considered the founder of post-colonial intellectual discourse, as these works combat the cultural legacies of colonialism on cultures in order to find ways that shall create a space based on mutual respect.
Power and Knowledge Relationship
The European nations had distinct cultural and political interests in the Orient when they came to study it. Academically, from the 18th century onwards, the western hegemony over the Orient was constructed by various disciplines and represented; European academics showed immense interest in East and different forms of Oriental Studies. That helped to create certain western stereotypes about the Orient that coincided with a period of European imperial expansion between 1815-1914.
It is a relationship of power and knowledge influence of Western countries (the Occident) over the non-Western Countries (the Orient); or in simple terms, the model that used varied ways by Europe for knowing the colonised world and became the means to dominate them.
The West’s claim to knowledge of the East gives the West authority to identify and govern. West is considered to have created the binary division (Self/West vs Others/East) of the East and West that is the polar opposite to each other in terms of historic, cultural, social, political and intellectual.
This binary was created in colonial times and continued in the post-colonial era. Occident cannot exist without the Orient and vice versa, as they are mutually constitutive, as per Said.
He shows that how the Orient is regarded by Occident as a place of mystery and danger, that need to be controlled. The image of the Orient was created as passive while the west was active, where imperialism motivates Orientalism.
This negative image of the Orient is not true, as per Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European enlightenment and colonisation of the Arab world. The book describes the way the historical process of concentrating knowledge about the Orient into forms that can be studied and communicated, and further presented by western people.
The idea of Orientalism was created historically to suit European (especially French and British imperialist agendas), and the concept is created through the domination of Occident culture over the Orient.
In his term Orientalism is “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 1978), that provide the rationalization for European colonization where the West constructed the East as inferior/different that requires western interventions to rescue or civilised.
That is the white man’s burden, and it is the duty of the white man to make him civilised. Therefore, Said’s Orientalism has challenged the bias embedded in the western consciousness.
It also attempts to analyze how the philological, literary and historical writers of the 19th century understand Oriental structures. A section of the book understand modern Orientalism and locates the continuity of the practices of British and French Orientalism in the contemporary American discourses of Orient.
The concept of Orientalism is a way to know the ‘other’ or construction of ‘other’ (someone who is not you Or the Opposite of yourself), where, “the Orient is not an inert the fact of nature, but a phenomenon constructed by generations of intellectuals, artists, commentators, writers, politicians, and more importantly, constructed by the naturalization of the wide range of Orientalist assumptions and stereotypes”.
This relationship between Occident and Orient is based on power, domination and varying degrees of a complex hegemony. Orientalism is locating Europe’s others created the issue of national distinctiveness, racial and linguistic origins, a culture where European civilization is considered supreme. Orient is considered to be western fantasy, although it was away from the truth, it remains constant over time.
Orientalism examines various cultural works that demonstrate how western authors have explored Islam as a science of observation through various methodologies in order to present it to a western audience. The Islamic beliefs filled many western cultural words that consist of Arab and Islamic stereotypes that depicted Arabs as inferior, backward, uncivilized, exotic at times dangerous immoral to Europeans.
Orient has been described as unchanging, static, free from history or primitive, irrational, where this Orient/East is considered as an object of knowledge and passive for the West or Occident that became the realm of the subject, who knows and represents. Orientalism helps to deconstruct the multiple relationships of West domination and subordination over East. It gave voice to hegemonic practices and Western cultural supremacy.
Conclusion: Holy Trinity of Post-Colonial Studies
Said’s work has been critically worked on and extended by Homi. K. Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak. Many criticised Said’s homogenous dichotomy of Orient and Occident; provides no alternative to Orientalism; ignore gender and class differences; provide the monolithic perception of this binary; ignores resistance within the West.
Post Colonial Studies have decolonised social, political and economic domains and demanded a relationship based on equality between West and East. Now, whenever readers watch their next movie flick reflecting their identity and home destination, they probably look through the prism of stereotypes and decolonise the mind to eradicate the imposition of these ideas to make their objective understanding.
Author: Dr Sakul Kundra, A.HOD Department of Social Science, College of Humanities and Education, Fiji National University.