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Orientalism Matters

As a political critique of European representations of the Orient, Edward Said’s Orientalism has been rightly credited as a pioneering text, inaugurating the field of postcolonialism within the American academy over thirty years ago. Orientalism not only riveted the attention of the intellectual establishment on the issue of colonial power by rigorously interrogating the ideological underpinnings of familiar scientific and artistic representations of otherness in modern European thought, but also played a pivotal role in shifting the focus in literary and cultural criticism from textuality to historicity, and from the aesthetic to the political. Said’s almost singularly generative text inspired a whole new generation of scholars who have sought to develop his critique by exploring its implications in new, and sometimes unexpected, arenas of inquiry. As a seminal text, Orientalism provided the effective and necessary means of inventing and transforming postcolonialism as a discursive practice to include unforeseen fields of studies.

In light of the wide-ranging influence of this text, it is remarkable how much critical energy has been expended in recent years to demonstrate that Said’s book misrepresents or inadequately represents the project of Orientalism. To be sure, Orientalism has always attracted perhaps more than its fair share of critics. Just a few years after its publication, scholars such as Ajaz Ahmad and James Clifford challenged Orientalism’s “high humanism” (Ahmad 166), took issue with its use of Foucault’s theory of knowledge-power, and questioned its omission of German and Russian Orientalism. What distinguishes recent criticism of Orientalism, however, is that it emanates from a broader rejection of the field of postcolonialism itself, and indeed [End Page 709] of the project of political critique of literary and artistic expressions altogether. In this essay, I take recent art historical discussions of nineteenth-century photographic representations of the Middle East as an exemplary site for considering the implications of such recent anti-Saidianism for the field of postcolonial studies, with the aim of showing why Orientalism (still) matters when studying representations of otherness today.

“In contemporary writing about nineteenth-century photography of the Middle East,” writes Michelle L. Woodward, “it has become almost a cliché to describe many of these images as ‘Orientalist’—that is, reflecting or propagating a system of representation that creates an essentialized difference between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West’” (363). This claim aptly captures the predominant anti-Saidian sentiment among art historians and curators who work on representations of the Middle East created by both European and indigenous painters and photographers. To be sure, responses to Said’s discussion of Orientalism as a discourse of colonial power span the critical spectrum, from more rigorous and subtle critiques articulated from the left to the sometimes facile and reactionary from those of an opposing political orientation. On one side are art historians such as Zeynep Çelik, Jill Beaulieu and Mary Roberts, and Woodward who argue that “the trend to extend Said’s analysis to apply equally to visual representations has . . . been used too broadly, obscuring nuances and inconsistencies, not only between different photographers’ bodies of work but also within them” (Woodward 363). These scholars typically aim to constructively revise Orientalism to encompass “a disparate and disputed set of discursive constructions” while at the same time acknowledging “Orientals” as “participants in the production of counternarratives or resistant images” (Bealieu and Roberts 3). On the other side are writers, such as John MacKenzie and Ken Jacobson, who betray a marked suspicion of theory and seek to return the term “Orientalism” to its prior usage as an art historical term that could be deployed without suggestion of a broader political or ideological critique. In Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts, MacKenzie argues against Linda Nochlin that “there is little evidence of a necessary coherence between the imposition of direct imperial rule and the visual arts,” claiming that “Orientalism celebrates cultural proximity, historical parallelism and religious familiarity [with the Middle East and North Africa] rather than true ‘Otherness’” (51). Given such perceived “misconceptions inherent in postcolonialist analysis,” Jacobson similarly suggests that “a return to more traditional methods is desirable for the study of 19th- and early 20th-century photography in North...


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