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Orientalism | Summary



Epigraph, Preface, and Introduction

Said begins Orientalism with two quotes, one by 19th-century German philosopher Karl Marx, and the other by 19th-century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, setting the tone for the rest of the work to follow. In the Preface to the 2004 anniversary edition, Said argues that the mindset of Americans has changed little since the initial publication of Orientalism. Instead, they have increasingly come to see the Middle East as a polar opposite, rather than a unique human culture with distinct experiences. Reflecting on the past 25 years since the initial publication of Orientalism, Said suggests it is only through the humanities that the "injustices" wrought by Orientalism can truly be rectified.

In the Introduction, Said explains that his purpose in writing the book was to describe how the concept of Orientalism was constructed historically, to serve French and British imperialist agendas, as well as how Orientalism is constructed today. Said's focus is on describing the framework for the creation and perpetuation of the concept of Orientalism. He then describes the biases inherent in his work.

Chapter 1: The Scope of Orientalism

In the first chapter, Said explains what he means by Orientalism. He defines the knowledge base created through the literary, biblical, and scholarly works of early Orientalists. In this way, Said sets up and describes the historical timeline for the development of Orientalism through the 18th-20th centuries. In order to describe the transformations of Orientalism over time and space, Said draws upon anthropological scholars such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Michel Foucault.

Chapter 2: Orientalist Structures and Restructures

In this chapter, Said focuses on the construction of power from the 18th to the 20th centuries. He argues that the modern Orientalist is the product of an "accumulation" of ideas that persist, not because they are grounded in reality, but because they exist in the first place and are seemingly backed by secular authority. He discusses the work of two Orientalists—Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan—to emphasize that part of the power of the Orientalist worldview was the ideology's self-perpetuation. This was accomplished through the development of a "knowing" vocabulary, and the propagation of these ideas through the advent of mass text production and distribution.

Chapter 3: Orientalism Now

In this chapter, Said describes the two forms of Orientalism—latent and manifest. Latent Orientalism refers to the worldview formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries that underpinned later Orientalist ideas. Manifest Orientalism is how those latent traits are incorporated into modern Oriental policy. He argues that this continuation of Orientalism failed to provide knowledge about the Orient, serving instead to create caricatures. Said describes the specifics of Orientalism prior to and after World War I and World War II. Having spent the majority of the work describing English and French Orientalism, in the last part of the chapter, Said turns to Orientalism today in the context of the United States as a major world power. He ends by arguing that the dehumanizing beginnings of Orientalism continue to the present day.


Fifteen years after the initial publication of Orientalism, Said included an Afterword to address some of the critiques leveled against the work within the context of political events since that time. The main critique he addresses is the labeling of his work as "anti-Western." He addresses this by arguing that his criticism of Orientalism does not imply an anti-Western viewpoint. He also claims there are two main reasons why his work is seen as anti-Western. The first is the pervasiveness of stereotypes, and the second is the current political climate. He concludes by arguing that the East is complex and thus should not be reduced to stereotypes or caricatures.

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