Orientalism: The Western Blindspot

The study of literature is one with countless divisions that utilise their own lens when analysing and studying various pieces of work from past to present. Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Marxism, among others are commonly known theoretical approaches that are cited regularly-however, one that Western literature less so delves into is ‘Postcolonial Theory’. 

Postcolonial Theory was founded by Edward Said with his publication of what is considered the theory’s founding text, Orientalism, in 1978. His work details the West’s (the Occident) perception and projection of the East (the Orient), including the Arab World and the Far East, and how the representation of the cultures, people and identities embedded within the Orient are inaccurate and controlled by the Occident. Said roots this power and control in the history of colonisation which, although appears to lay dormant to the naked Western eye, continues to rule over the colonies it once gripped. 

“The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other”.

Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) 
Edward Said pictured left in Sevilla, 2002

Edward Said- Distortion to Clarity 

Edward Said (1935-2003) was a University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and authored over 30 books. Born in Mandatory Palestine, Said gained American citizenship through his father, a U.S veteran and spent his schooling bouncing between Jerusalem and Cairo. Consequently, his background fed into his foundation of the academic field of postcolonial studies 

“With an unexceptionally Arab family name like “Saïd”, connected to an improbably British first name […] I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all.”

Edward Said, Between Worlds, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2002)

With this background, which an increasing number of young Arabs are born into as a result of our exponentially globalised way of life, Said detailed how he found himself caught in the middle of two worlds that were ‘inextricably mixed’ yet ‘uncomfortable’. We see this very awkward blend of the East and West in his national identity- Mandatory Palestine- where his birthplace (in the East) was a Mandate of the United Kingdom under the League of Nations in 1922 (the West). This discomfort reinforced Said’s later work in which he argues that the Orient has aided in defining what the West is as its contrasting image and experience.

As a result of the approach Western literature and media take in addressing the Orient, the depiction of the East is continually focused on what the West is not rather than what the East is itself, even to this date. The foundation of Postcolonial Studies brings light to the distorted identity thousands of Arabs possess, and attempts to sift through the discomfort between both worlds to reveal the true nature of their dynamic in Western media and literature. 

The Founding Text: Orientalism (1978)

Said’s Orientalism has been incredibly influential in a multitude of academic fields including English and Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Religious and Middle Eastern Studies as well as being translated into 26 languages. Prior to the book’s publication, ‘Orientalism’ had always been used to refer to the Far East, but with Said’s research the term broadened to include the Middle East. Said endeavored in his book to identify the blindspot in the Western perception of ‘The East’ and bring to light the so-called mythical and  mysterious atmosphere it surrounds the Orient with. Said aims to dismantle the myth curated by the West and identify Orientalism as a form of discourse in academia. 

“One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away. […] Nevertheless, what we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted- together strength of Orientalist discourse, its very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and it’s redoubt-able durability.”

Edward Said, Orientalism, (1978)

Recognising Orientalism as such is necessary to understand the intricate web that is the Western representation of the East. By doing so, the theory broadens to encapsulate the everyday interactions between the two spheres. Identification of Orientalism in this manner, allows Said to examine the other two prerequisites of his theory in Orientalism (1978):  

  1. How the creation and correspondence between the Orient and Orientalism has internal inconsistency and therefore a lack of the “real” Orient.’
  2. That the cultures, histories and identities within the Orient cannot be studied without their force, ‘or more precisely their configuration,’ of power also being researched.

The shadows of colonisation nevertheless continue to cloud the representation of the Orient in Western literature and media. The past dynamic between the Occident and its previous colonies facilitates the West in its domination over the East in literature and media. This is achieved by its carefully controlled representation of the Orient being rooted in ancient traditions, halted in time, unable to meet the modernity and progressiveness the West has achieved in recent centuries. 

A Closer look – China in James Bond Skyfall 

The application and recognition of Orientalism at work is just as, if not more, important than simply delving into the hundreds of journals and books detailing Said’s theory. 

“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’. Thus a very large mass of writers […] have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient.”

Edward Said, Orientalism, (1978)

Skyfall, released in 2012, saw great success in the box office as the film commemorated 50 years of James Bond films. For the case of analysing the depiction of the East, let us focus on Bond’s trip to Shanghai and Macau in China. As such, the seeds of Orientalism planted can be undug and held up to scrutiny, illuminating how Orientalism aids in furthering the gap between the ultra-modern, well-known city of Shanghai and the inconspicuous Macau

Cutting from the West, the audience is transported to the skyscraper-filled, bustling streets of Shanghai- an image we are accustomed to. However, the ambience changes when Bond makes his way to Macau, which is where the inherent traits of Orientalism are revealed. The audience leaves the modern and glamorous streets of Shanghai to a far more traditional depiction of Chinese culture- candles replace electricity, boats replace the cars and there is an abundance of Komodo Dragons, creatures that resemble dinosaurs from millions of years ago. These elements give the illusion to the audience that we have gone back in time as China is illustrated as not just the East, but the Ancient East, a world with none of the elements of modernity we associate with the West. 

This abrupt change in the representation of China is furthermore reinforced through the change in hue used by the director- scenes from Shanghai utilise a blue tinge, a tint associated with electronic screens and technology. However, Macau is steeped in red, a colour associated with the fiery Chinese festivals of the past. Our senses are further influenced to acknowledge this change with the shift from electronic music to the traditional Chinese flute. The cut between these two scenes is striking, encouraging the audience that within a single scene cut we are no longer in 2012 but deep in the past. 

Orientalist or Cinematic License? 

The West’s depiction of the Orient in Skyfall is one that is frozen in time, existing in a completely different temporal realm from the West. This is something Edward Said flags as one of the hallmarks of Orientalist thinking and representations. Although we can attempt to push the devil’s advocate in referencing how the film dedicates 10 minutes of showing Shanghai in its ultra-modern glory, it spends 15 minutes on the scenes set in Macau. Utilising Said’s literary lens, it’s as if the West cannot bear to represent the East as equal to itself and feels compelled to turn away from the modernity that exists in the Orient (Shanghai).

Yet, this strangely makes the film watchable. There is no doubt that the scenes from Macau are exciting and alluring, and thus we might be tempted to brush the Orientalist argument aside for the sake of cinematic licencing. However, at what cost would we be setting it aside? We can of course appreciate the stunning cinematography executed by the production team, but that should not take away from the inherent traits of Orientalism that exist in the representation of China.  

As Said writes, those who represent the Orient in the West take advantage of, to a degree, an assumed knowledge of the East which they then reference and rely on. In the case of Skyfall, the film balances on the traditional depictions of China that we are accustomed to due to our unconscious understanding that the East is what the West is not. It is because of this that it is imperative , we develop a better understanding of how cultural domination operates in our everyday lives, and is not simply limited to literary studies. 

Postcolonial Studies is a form of discourse that goes beyond the literary sphere. It is important that we find a new way of dealing with the Orient and, eventually, a complete elimination of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’. By stimulating a new direction of understanding, Said hopes “we shall have advanced a little in the process of what Raymond Williams has called the ‘unlearning’ of ‘the inherent dominative mode.’” Edward Said’s book and theories encourage us to be vigilant when faced with the West’s addressal of the East, primed to spot and untangle any lingering elements of Orientalism. 

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