1 My contention is that, without examining Orientalism as a discourse, one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism, the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought and action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity ‘the Orient’ is in question.
2 Within the perspective of Foucault’s analysis of knowledge, we can now treat Orientalism as a discourse that creates typologies within which characters can be distributed: the energetic Occidental man versus the lascivious Oriental, the rational westerner versus the unpredictable Oriental, the gentle white versus the cruel yellow man. The notion of Orientalism as a discourse of power emerging in the context of a geo-political struggle between Europe and the Middle East provides the basis of one of the most influential studies of recent times, namely Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978).
Orientalism as a discourse divides the globe unambiguously into Occident and Orient; the latter is essentially strange, exotic and mysterious, but also sensual, irrational and potentially dangerous. This Oriental strangeness can only be grasped by the gifted specialist in Oriental cultures and, in particular, by those with skills in philology, language and literature. The task of Orientalism was to reduce the bewildering complexity of Oriental societies and Oriental culture to some manageable, comprehensible level. The expert, through the discourse on the Orient, represented the mysterious East in terms of basic frameworks and typologies. The chrestomathy summarised the exotic Orient in a table of comprehensible items.
The point of Orientalism, according to Said, was to Orientalise the Orient and it did so in the context of fundamental colonial inequalities. Orientalism was based on the fact that we know or talk about the Orientals, whereas they neither know themselves adequately nor talk about us.