The History and Politics of Orientalism

By Delvoie, Louis A. | International Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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The History and Politics of Orientalism


Delvoie, Louis A., International Journal


CONTENDING VISIONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST The History and Politics of Orientalism Zachary Lockman New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xxii, 308pp, US$05.00 cloth (ISBN 0-521-62080-5), US$22.99 paper (ISBN 0-521-62937-3)

In 1978 the late Edward Said of Columbia University published quite a remarkable book entitled Orientalism. Ever since, Said's views and the concept of orientalism have been at the heart of numerous and frequently acrimonious debates in the field of Middle Eastern studies. The latest contribution to these debates is this new history written by Zachary Lockman of New York University.

The term "orientalism" itself is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Some are virtually incomprehensible, bogged down as they are in the opaque ideas and language of poststructuralism, and in the thought and methods of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. At a simpler level of discourse, orientalism can be said to refer to the manner in which a long line of western writers and scholars tended to represent the Arab/Muslim Middle East on the basis of images, preconceptions, overgeneralizations, and oversimplifications as opposed to serious and detailed study of facts and realities. The result of this approach was to portray the Middle East in generally unflattering ways, and usually in apposition or opposition to very different ideas about the west. Thus the east was depicted as slothful, static, and tradition-bound, whereas the west was dynamic, progressive, and modern. Or again, the east was said to be characterized by despotism, authoritarianism, and subservience, while the west was home to freedom, liberalism, and democracy. Those deemed guilty of these intellectual sins include not only a multitude of now largely forgotten scholars, novelists, and poets, but also such luminaries of the western canon as Montesquieu, Marx, and Weber.

The debate over orientalism is not viewed by participants as some arcane academic pastime. Rather, they tend to situate it squarely in the context of what they call the politics of knowledge. As Lockman puts it, "[sjcholars in the 19705 and beyond would argue forcefully that Orientalism as an intellectual enterprise was in significant ways linked to contemporary European colonialism and that the kind of knowledge Orientalism as a discipline tended to produce was often used to justify and further the exertion of European power over the Muslim world" (88).

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