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Racial Capitalism

Definition: Orientalism

Definition: Orientalism is a term defined by Edward Said, who was a Professor of Literature in Columbia University. In his book Orientalism Said argued that from the 17th century the Orient was imagined by Europe as its inferior other upon which its projection of difference would be enacted. The Orient was represented as a mythical and timeless space, stretching across an undefined space, “the idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe” (Said, 63). Orientalism was articulated in different fields to sustain the representation imagined by the West, such fields included literature, arts, films, music, academia etc… Through those fields the Orient was further enshrined in Western imagination, objectified, and reified through the culture industry. 

For Said Orientalism can take place in two forms, one of them being European Orientalism, and the other US Orientalism. European Orientalism takes on a much more traditional role, with direct colonial experiences in the countries that are being represented, most notably Said points to the colonial conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 as marking a new turn in European Orientalism. Napoleon’s colonial conquest entailed the surveying, recording, and writing about Egypt by French imperial personnel institutionalizing the process of mystifying and imaging the Orient and its otherness. Said sees US Orientalism as taking a markedly different turn, stemming from indirect contact, and based more on abstractions as represented in the US culture industry (i.e. mass media, hollywood films, novels, tv shows etc…). One of the main investments of the US in Orientalist ideology came about through the creation of the state of ‘Israel.’ Supporting its presence as a satellite ethno-nationlist self proclaimed Western state – the West encountering the East in the East in the words of the genocidal David Ben Gurion. Moreover, Said also highlights the representations of Islam in the West and its mystification through mass media. Particularly, he speaks to the forms in which Muslims come to be represented as an irrational and savage people, continuously being presented in the figure of the terrorist in popular media. Orientalism as a system of representation, in turn moves to have a very real and material impact on the peoples that it represents. Used as justification in policy decisions, imperial wars, and other acts that seek to advance of white supremacy and racial capitalism. 

Further reading: 

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, New York, 1979.

Edward Said on Orientalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVC8EYd_Z_g&t=634s

Aijaz, Ahmed. “Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Cosmopolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.27, No. 30, July 1992, 98-116. 

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