Literature Study GuidesOrientalismChapter 2 Part 2 Summary

Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Chapter 2, Part 2 : Orientalist Structures and Restructures (Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan) | Summary

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Summary

Said describes the two main figures of the 18th century who transformed Orientalism into a secular field: Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan. Said first discusses Sacy as the individual who created the first "systematic body of texts" on Orientalism. His efforts at translation, public presentation, secularization, and linkage to public policy provide the premise for Orientalism's spread within the academic world. Indeed, at the time, every academic around the world "traced his intellectual authority back to him." Sacy served to canonize Orientalist thought and effectively confirm the position of the Orient not as an unknowable divine, but rather as another object of "European scholarship."

In contrast, Renan linked Orientalist studies to the popular field of the day, philology. Best known for his work on Semitic languages, Renan is known to have perpetuated racist and prejudiced views against Orientals, while at the same time removing languages from the realm of the divine and affording them a purely human construction. Said emphasizes that in the context of the times, this was extremely effective in solidifying Renan's own Orientalist views. Thus, "Semitic was not fully a natural object" because of the negative views Renan placed upon it, but neither was it "an unnatural or divine object." In essence, what Renan was using philology to describe—the relative unnaturalness of the Semitic language compared to the Indo-European language—was actually being constructed by the very language he was using to describe it. Renan's approach served only to perpetuate his "European ethnocentrism."

Renan's approach was extremely effective not only in promoting his racists views but in solidifying himself as a "cultural figure" that was then drawn upon for generations. Said emphasizes part of the power of the Orientalist worldview was the self-perpetuation of the ideology. There was no room for self-questioning or doubt.

Analysis

Said discusses the work and influence of two Orientalists—Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan. He uses these individuals as examples of how the transition from a religious justification for Oriental views to an anthropological or scientific argument allowed for the continuation of traditional Oriental paradigms. Just as the religious approach to Orientalism of the 17th and early 18th centuries allowed for imperial and colonial policies, the scientific approach to Orientalism of the latter 18th century and beyond dictated public policy on the Orient.

Traditional Oriental views were adapted to fit the period's paradigm of thought, either through anthropology (Sacy) or with philology (Renan). However, the very systems of study used to characterize Orientalism in the 18th–20th centuries were those sciences that were "premised on the unity of the human species." It is through this paradox that Said characterizes the nonrational basis of Orientalism. Even when framed as "a science of all humanity," the basis for Orientalism was inherently flawed. It was concerned not with the good of the cultural groups defined under the "Orient" but rather with the ability to maintain control over these groups through knowledge and power.

Said also claims that through the categorization of these groups, they lost their human qualities and were no longer "fully a natural object." Thus, placing them under the guise of scientific thought had two purposes: the first to place Orientalism within the context of modern policymaking, and the second to obfuscate the purpose of Orientalism. If the expressed goal of anthropological and philological thought is to make clear the unity of humanity, there should be no questioning the intent behind Orientalism when placed within the context of these fields of study. Said makes this paradox clear through his discussion of how the East, in contrast to the West, was considered "inorganic" even as it was being discussed within the context of a field concerned with humanity. It was within the context of the "philological laboratory" that the Orient was transformed into an "Occidental cultural figure."

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