Orientalism Summary and Study Guide

Edward Said


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  • Features 3 chapter summaries and 4 sections of expert analysis
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Orientalism Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 35-page guide for “Orientalism” by Edward Said includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 3 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Binary Opposition (Orient/Occident) and The Power of the Colonial Imagination.

Plot Summary

Edward W. Said’s Orientalism introduces the concept of Orientalism, a force that has shaped Western (Occidental) academic scholarship, cultural imagination and production, and public policy concerning the space known as the Orient. The Orient consists of modern geographic territories known as the Middle East and Asia, commonly referred to as the Near East and Far East, respectively. Historically, the Orient has been situated as the opposite of the West, which is comprised of European powers and, later, the U.S. Orientalism explores the hierarchal relationship between the West and East (Occident and Orient). It examines how Western dominance in the production of knowledge has and continues to presently influence Western intervention in the political affairs of the Middle East and Asia.

Across three chapters, each with four topical sections, Said moves through the discussion of Orientalism, addressing first its scope, then its various structures, and, finally, its most recent iterations. In the first chapter, Said addresses the scope of Orientalism as a historical practice of consolidating knowledge about the Orient into forms that can be studied and conveyed to a Western audience. While Orientalism is a force that has shaped different intellectual and political activities across the West and the Orient, its impacts could always be traced back to its consolidating tendency. However, as the Orient is a culturally-diverse, politically-nuanced, and highly-expansive geographical space, the West constantly returns to it through their scholarship and political intervention in a persistent effort to contain it. This effort is motivated by a self-perpetuating crisis: the more the West involves itself with the Orient and professes to contain it, the more complicated the Orient becomes to the West.

In the second chapter, Said deepens his discussion of Orientalism by analyzing several cultural texts with an emphasis on Western studies of Islam. He describes how philology and anthropology played a large role in encouraging Orientalist views of Islam. By turning the study of Islam into a science of observation and description of objective reality, Western scholars and writers propogated the idea of a known Islam that was available to general Western imagination. These ideas of Islam populated a wide range of Western cultural works, drawing on Arab and Islamic stereotypes to relay messages of Arabs and Islamic people as different, fearsome, sinful, and inferior to Europeans.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Orientalism continued to expand and take on a modernized form as a more formalized discipline in Western academic institutions. While the various European powers had different cultural and political investments across territories in the Orient, their contributions to Oriental Studies shared the same values. The study of the Orient became a necessary way of stabilizing the West in the face of what appeared to be an increasingly-complicated East.

In the final chapter of the book, Said offers an overview of Orientalism in the present day. With the rise of U.S. political influence, the image and symbol of Islam and the Arab pervades American popular culture. Said argues that the historical impact of Orientalism is the creation of such popularized images in conjunction with expanding Western intervention in Arab and Islamic states. Furthermore, while Orientalism had operated previously as part of a conservative agenda, it is now propelled by a Western liberal impetus to involve oneself in every aspect of the non-Western world. As this is the current state of affairs, Said wonders how the project of this book might serve to challenge the forces of Orientalism.

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