In “Knowing the Oriental,” Edward Said explains that Britain’s presence in Egypt had once been a profitable occupation; however, it had become a source of trouble with the rise of Egyptian nationalism. This compelled Arthur James Balfour to address the House of Commons to address the rising difficulties of defending Britain’s interests in Egypt. In referencing J.M. Robertson’s use of the term “Oriental,” Balfour questioned why the term was used at all to define the non-European “other.” According to Said:

[T]he choice of ‘Oriental’ was canonical; it had been employed by Chaucer and Mandeville, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron. It designated Asia or the East, geographically, morally, culturally. One could speak in Europe of an Oriental personality, an Oriental atmosphere, an Oriental tale, Oriental despotism, or an Oriental mode of production, and be understood. (31)

Marx had used the term, and now Balfour was using it without justifying his use of it, for a justification was not necessary. Said asserts that within Balfour’s address to the House of Commons existed two dominate themes—the Baconian themes of knowledge and power (32). According to Said, Balfour believes that supremacy is associated with Britain’s knowledge of Egypt, and not principally with military or economic power; knowledge means transcending the self into the foreign and distant. Balfour never denies British superiority and Egyptian inferiority, but he takes them for granted as he describes the consequences of knowledge. Balfour is unable to produce evidence substantiating Egyptians’ understanding of the benefits of colonial occupation, nor is he able to relent and allow the Egyptians to speak for themselves for fear of rebellion, so he turns to addressing the practical issues over Britain’s occupation of Egypt. He states:

If it is our business to govern, with or without gratitude, with or without the real and genuine memory of all the loss of which we have relieved the population [Balfour by no means implies, as part of that loss, the loss or at least the indefinite postponement of Egyptian independence] and no vivid imagination of all the benefits which we have given to them; if that is our duty, how is it to be performed? (33)

It is strikingly ironic that Balfour would ask such a question since “England knows Egypt; Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs” (34). British occupation acts as the foundation of contemporary Egyptian civilization, and it insists upon British occupation; however, Said argues that if the special intimacy between governor and governed in Egypt is disturbed by Parliament’s doubt at home, then the authority and prestige of the “superior” British suffers. Said contends that Balfour’s speech, as a rhetorical performance, is significant for the way in which he plays the part of, and represents, Britain. Balfour can also speak “for the civilized world, the West, and the relatively small corps of colonial officials in Egypt” (34). While he does not speak for the “Orientals” because of language barriers, he is at least empathetic to their historical discourse, reliance upon ruling powers, and expectations. Yet, he only acts as their hypothetical representative, speaking and answering questions under the guise of intimately knowing their cultural, social, and political views. He speaks on behalf of England, the West, and Western civilization about Egypt for it is more than just another colony: It is the vindication of Western imperialism, achieved and maintained by Lord Cromer, whom Balfour describes as “making” Egypt (35). What matters to Balfour concerning Egypt is the unbroken, all-embracing Western tutelage of an Oriental country, not necessarily the financial prosperity of the respective countries. Said contends that British success in Egypt was by no means an inexplicable or irrational success (35). The general theories presented by Balfour (through his notions about Oriental civilization) and Cromer (though his management of everyday business) had been instrumental in controlling Egyptian affairs; however, each man had experienced colonialism differently. Cromer spoke about Orientals as objects, something to be dealt with, which he had first experienced in India, and then for twenty-five years in Egypt during which he emerged as the paramount consul-general in England’s empire (36). Likewise, Balfour, whose theses on Orientals pretended to objective universality, regarded them as “subject races” under the term of “Orientals.” Both men’s objectification and knowledge of Orientals made their management easy and profitable. Said asserts that in this scenario, “knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.” By regulating militarism, commercial egotism, and “free institutions” in the colony, Cromer believed England’s empire would not dissolve, for if “Orientals” were predisposed to disregard the value of logic, then the proper method of ruling was not to impose “ultrascientific measures upon him or to force him bodily to accept logic.” Said suggests it is rather to understand his limitations and “endeavor to find, in the contentment of the subject race, a more worthy and, it may be hoped, a stronger bond of union between the rulers and the ruled.” Ever lurking behind the pacification of the subject race is imperial might, which becomes more effective for its refined understanding and infrequent use. Cromer opposed Egyptian nationalism, and he consistently rejected Egyptians’ demands for free native institutions, the absence of foreign occupations, and a self-sustaining national sovereignty. He believed that the real future of Egypt rested “not in the direction of a narrow nationalism,” which would only embrace native Egyptians, “but rather in that of an enlarged cosmopolitanism” (37). Many members of Britain’s ruling body, including Cromer, maintained that subject races were incapable of knowing what would best benefit them. With an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of Orientals, Cromer felt subject races could not be trusted to act or speak for themselves.

In relaying the story of Balfour and his address to the House of Common, Said finally arrives at the long-developing core of essential knowledge, knowledge both academic and practical, which Cromer and Balfour inherited from a century of modern Western Orientalism: knowledge about and knowledge of Orientals, their race, character, culture, history, traditions, society, and possibilities” (38). Said contends that this knowledge was tested and unchanging, since “Orientals” were a Platonic essence, which any Orientalists (or ruler of Orientals) might examine, understand, and expose. Cromer expounded on this in Modern Egypt, where he stated that the main characteristic of the Oriental mind was the want of accuracy, which easily degenerated into untruthfulness (38). In contrast, the European, who is a close reasoner and natural logician, makes statements of devoid of any ambiguity. According to Said, Orientals and Arabs are depicted thereafter as:

[G]ullible, “devoid of energy and initiative,” much given to “fulsome flattery,” intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the clever European grasps immediately, that roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are “lethargic and suspicious,” and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race. (38-39)

Cromer never ceases to objectify Orientals as the human material he governed in the British colonies, and he is seemingly content with noting that Orientals generally acted, spoke, and thought in a manner exactly opposite to Europeans. He also makes no effort to conceal that Orientals for him were always and only the human material he governed in British colonies.  While many of his views are unique to his experiences in the colonies, many of them are based on the foundations of Orientalist orthodoxy. Said implies that Cromer’s narrow view of Orientals led to the idea that Orientals were considered second-rate citizens simply because they were Orientals, and it is an accurate sign “of how commonly acceptable such a tautology was that it could be written without even an appeal to European logic or symmetry of mind” (39). Said claims that any deviations from what were considered the norms of Oriental behavior were deemed unnatural, and he argues that Orientalism was more than just a rationalization of colonial rule. In saying that, we ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified and advanced by Orientalism, rather than after the fact. The absolute demarcation between East and West, which Balfour and Cromer had accepted with such complacency, had been years, even centuries, in the making (39).

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, there had been two principal elements in the relation between East and West: 1.) growing systematic knowledge in Europe about the Orient that was reinforced by the colonial encounter as well as by the widespread interest in the alien and unusual; 2.) a position of strength, not to say domination. Many terms were used to illustrate distinction within this relationship: The Oriental was depicted as “irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different,’” while the European was characterized as being “rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’” (40). The way to enliven the relationship, according to Said, was to stress “the fact that the Oriental lived in a different but thoroughly organized world of his own.” European knowledge of the Orient generated out of strength created, in this sense, the Orient, the Oriental, and his world. Said concedes that cultural strength is not something one can discuss easily, and the purpose of the current work is to illustrate, analyze, and reflect upon Orientalism as an exercise of cultural strength.

The Orient has been segmented and classified as a subject would be in a classroom, a criminal court, or a prison, and so Orientalism became the knowledge of the Orient that places Oriental things in classes, courts, prisons, or manuals for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing (41). This stemmed from the proliferation of colonialism, or more specifically European expansion, and the immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism. The colonial possession and imperial spheres of influence in the Orient were adjacent, frequently overlapped, and often fought over; however, it was in the lands of the Arab Near East that the British and the French encountered each other and “the Orient” with the greatest intensity, familiarity, and complexity, but within these encounters they shared what Said defines as Orientalism, or a “library or archive of information commonly and, in some of its aspects, unanimously held…a family of ideas and a unifying set of values proven in various ways to be effective” (41-42). These ideas explained the cultural and historical discourses of Orientals, but more importantly, they allowed Europeans to deal with and even to see Orientals as a phenomenon possessing regular characteristics (42). These ideas, however, marginalized Orientals, and acted better as a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than as a positive doctrine. Said warns that if the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority, then we must be prepared to note how in its development and subsequent history Orientalism deepened and even hardened the distinction.

According to Said, Orientalistic ideas took a number of different forms during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, a vast literature about the Orient inherited from the European past was found, and an Oriental renaissance took place (42). A sudden new awareness of the Orient rose and was not only partly the result of newly discovered and translated Oriental texts, but also a newly perceived relationship between the Orient and the West. Said argues that the keynote of the relationship was set for the Near East and Europe by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, which set into motion processes between East and West that still dominate our contemporary cultural and political perspectives, and inspired Orientalists’s ambitions “to formulate their discoveries, experiences, and insights suitably in modem terms, to put ideas about the Orient in very close touch with modern realities” (43). During the nineteenth century, Orientalism increased enormously in prestige, and knowledge concerning Orientals experienced an even greater importance as higher education worked toward disseminating Orientalism; unfortunately, Orientalism imposed limits upon thought about the Orient. Said says:

[O]rientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality ‘whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’). This vision in a sense created and then served the two worlds thus conceived. Orientals lived in their world, ‘we’ lived in ours. The vision and material reality propped each other up, kept each other going. (43-44)

Freedom of intercourse had always been the Westerner’s privilege, but Said argues that the constricted vocabulary of such a privilege, and the comparative limitations of such a vision, has been overlooked. In this, Said believes that the Orientalist’s reality is both antihuman and persistent, but he wonders how it worked (44). In looking to Cromer once more, Said establishes that it worked on the concept of Westernized central authority. He explains:

Cromer envisions a seat of power in the West, and radiating out from it towards the East a great embracing machine, sustaining the central authority yet commanded by it. What the machine’s branches feed into it in the East—human material, material wealth, knowledge, what have you—is processed by the machine, then converted into more power. The specialist does the immediate translation of mere Oriental matter into useful substance: the Oriental becomes, for example, a subject race, an example of an ‘Oriental’ mentality, all for the enhancement of the ‘authority’ at home. ‘Local interests’ are Orientalist special interests, the ‘central authority’ is the general interest of the imperial society as a whole. (44)

Said contends that Cromer envisions the management of knowledge by society, or the fact that knowledge—no matter how special—is regulated “first by the local concerns of a specialist, later by the general concerns of a social system of authority.” This interplay between local and central interests is not discriminate. It suggests that the proper study of Orientals is Orientalism, properly separate from other forms of knowledge, but finally useful (because finite) “for the material and social reality enclosing all knowledge at any time, supporting knowledge, providing it with uses” (45). An order of sovereignty is established from East to West, yet Orientalism can also express the strength of the West and the Orient’s weakness, both of which are intrinsic to Orientalism as they are to any view that divides the world into large general divisions, or entities that coexist in a state of tension produced by what is believed to be radical differences. This is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism: Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly? In this, Said begs the additional question of whether or not there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by division. He argues that when one uses categories like Oriental and Western as both the starting and the end points of analysis, research, public policy (as the categories were used by Balfour and Cromer), the distinction becomes polarized and limits the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies.

Said argues that this observation can be suitably explained through some contemporary illustrations. He states that it is natural “for men in power to survey from time to time the world with which they must deal,” and he sees this in the words of Henry Kissinger, who establishes in his essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy” a polarity between the United States and the world (46). Said explains:

Kissinger feels that the United States can deal less problematically with the industrial, developed West than it can with the developing world. Again, the contemporary actuality of relations between the United States and the so-called Third World (which includes China, Indochina, the Near East, Africa, and Latin America) is manifestly a thorny set of problems, which even Kissinger cannot hide.

Kissinger creates a binary opposition in his essay that illustrates two styles in foreign policy (the prophetic and the political), two types of technique, two periods, and so forth. According to Said, Kissinger, when he is brought face to face with the contemporary world at the end of the historical part of his argument, divides it accordingly into two halves, the developed and the developing countries. Kissinger may have been unaware of what knowledge he was drawing within his division of the world into pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian conceptions of reality, but his distinction is analogous to the orthodox concept created by Orientalists, who separate Orientals from Westerners (47). Said argues that both the traditional Orientalists and Kissinger conceive of the difference between cultures “as creating a battlefront that separates them, and second, as inviting the West to control, contain, and otherwise govern (through superior knowledge and accommodating power) the Other” (47-48). Another illustration that closely corresponds to Kissinger’s analysis is Harold W. Glidden’s “The Arab World,” a psychological portrait that purports “to uncover ‘the inner workings of Arab behavior,’ which from [his] point of view is ‘aberrant’ but for Arabs is ‘normal’” (48). Glidden argues the following:

  • Arabs inhabit a shame culture whose “prestige system” attracts followers and clients;

  • Arabs can function only in conflict situations;

  • Prestige is based solely on the ability to dominate others;

  • A shame culture—and therefore Islam itself —makes a virtue of revenge;

  • If from a Western point of view “the only rational thing for the Arabs to do is to make peace … for the Arabs the situation is not governed by this kind of logic, for objectivity is not a value in the Arab system.

Glidden notes that while the Arab system demands absolute solidarity, it also encourages rivalry among its members that is destructive of that very solidarity. In essence, Arabic society functions on the maxims that only success counts, the end justifies the means, people are naturally anxious and hostile, and vengeance overrides everything (48-49). This stands in stark contrast to Western beliefs and reveals that on the Western and Oriental scale of values ‘the relative position of the elements is quite different’” (49). Said argues that this is the apogee of Orientalist confidence. Generalities are neither granted the dignity of truth, nor are theoretical lists of Oriental attributes inapplicable to the behavior of Orientals in the real world.  In essence, the cultural dichotomy that remains between Westerners and Arab-Orientals is steeped in tradition and promises never to be rectified.

In “Knowing the Oriental,” Said establishes that Orientalism acts a way for the author to differentiate between what is deemed “normal” and the “Other.” This implies that many authors, in using a postcolonial approach, create a dichotomy between themselves and their subject, illustrating through commonly held principles by others within their discourse that their subject represents the binary extreme of his/her own identity. The audience, therefore, must come to terms with the definition of normalcy set by the author and accept how that idea is conceived, or find themselves standing in opposition to the author’s message or purpose. In terms of rhetorical effectiveness, this can prove to be problematic, especially if the reader represents the author’s ideal “other,” but it can also prove to be beneficial, especially if the author is attempting to establish ethos and appeal to the reader through his/her credibility. For example, a teacher could create dichotomy between herself and her students by writing a set of classroom rules. Within these rules, the teacher would designate herself as the ruling body, thereby forcing her students (or those who cannot govern themselves) to act in her classroom as she deems appropriate. It is within the text that the author’s authority can be presented and manipulated to generate the desired results, thereby propagating his/her agenda and persuading the “other” (the reader) to adopt new ways of thinking about the text, or the world, because these principles are perceived to be the correct way of thinking about the subject. The social, cultural, political, and historical repercussions of this type of literary theory can be very powerful, and dangerous, in the author’s hands. An author can establish an agenda and compel readers to follow it by suggesting that this mode of thinking is the ideal way of thinking. Instead of national “imperialism,” the author can create “rhetorical imperialism,” whereby their predispositions on any topic can change the way their audience regards the topics addressed. In my own critical practices, I would use this approach to teach students the various aspects of colonial oppression, especially in regards to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Orwell’s 1984,or perhaps—as a stretch—even in the oppression of white patriarchal society in Ellison’s Invisible Man. In my community, my students rarely experience multiculturalism, and so the benefits of revealing how white culture has oppressed many different cultures around the world could be an eye-opening experience for them; however, it could also become very problematic, since my students, who are predominantly white, could feel that they were in some sense being persecuted for being white and privileged. In either case, students would be exposed to literature that is often not taught within white, European canonical literature, and this could give them a different perspective of the world, which I hope would include a radical transformation in their view of white supremacy and Western imperialism.


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