Literature Study GuidesOrientalismChapter 1 Part 2 Summary

Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Chapter 1, Part 2 : The Scope of Orientalism (Imaginative Geography and Its Representations) | Summary



Said begins by stating that Orientalism is a field of learned study. Until the mid-18th century, Orientalists were biblical scholars. In the 19th century, academic Orientalists were interested in the classical period of whatever language or society they studied. When academic study of the modern Orient gained traction, Said argues, Orientalists began to construct "imaginative geographies," dividing East and West.

In order to describe how this occurred, Said describes Claude Lévi-Strauss's argument that the mind creates order through arbitrary categorization. This creates "imaginative knowledge," or the idea that through the construction of categories, these groups are imbued with a set of qualifications that are seen, erroneously, as "knowledge" about the category. Thus, "the Orient was something more than what was empirically known." He uses the example of two plays, The Persians and The Bacchae, arguing that the dichotomy between the "Orient" and the "West" is artificial and serves only to further the boundary between the two groups. Thus, early literary and scholarly works describing Orientalism served only to create categories meant to "control" the Orient, a need born out of fear to "domesticat[e] ... the exotic."

Said claims the categorization of the Orient made the Orient appear more "knowable" to the West. However, since this categorization was not grounded in fact, but was instead a "self-reinforcing" and "closed system," this grouping resulted in the perpetuation of erroneous information about the Orient. In and of itself, this is not problematic. Many societies do this to the "other." However, since Europe was in a position of power relative to the Orient, this characterization of the Orient was harmful. Said says these categories were put into place in the 19th and 20th centuries through a long history of literature, such as Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. These categorical descriptions create "imaginative geography," or a constructed landscape that divides East and West.


Using a historical approach, Said begins by describing the beginning of Orientalism as based on religious texts, the study of language, and historical accounts. In essence, none of the initial work on the Orient was concerned with the people themselves as much as with their cultural attributes. In order to describe how this ended up creating an image of the "mythology of the Orient," Said turns to cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Trained in comparative literature, Lévi-Strauss drew on the work of contemporary anthropologists to describe how the mind organizes the surrounding world, creating an Orient that was "something more than what was empirically known about it."

This is fundamental to Said's argument. From the outset, the understanding of the Orient was derived not from the people, but rather a perception about the people of the Orient based on cultural attributes. This understanding is inherently flawed, especially from the postcolonial standpoint Said is taking here. The voice of the Orient was being created by, and spoken through, the words of the West. Said draws on literary texts, specifically two plays, The Persians and The Bacchae, to illustrate this point. He analyzes how East and West are depicted, respectively, describing the literary devices used to do so, such as the "motif of the Orient as insinuating danger." Thus, the West was concerned mainly with an unknown or potentially threatening culture. Here, Said is using literary analysis to describe exactly how the Orient is being framed, drawing on Dante's Divine Comedy and other texts to detail how a physical, cultural geography is created through words. He later extended this line of analysis to contemporary media studies in Covering Islam.

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