In Orientalism, Edward Said lays the groundwork for his theoretical views of how the West has come to dominate and control the global perception of the East. In his own words, “Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” One explanation that Said gives of Orientalism is an analogy to caricatures; he describes the West orientalizing the East as if the West emphasizes and distorts certain features of an “Oriental” in order to alter and mold perceptions of the East. Said continues to explain that, because of this stigma we have placed on being an “Oriental,” the “Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action.”
I would like to discuss here three topics that Said uses to support his argument, keeping in mind that I am not writing necessarily to disagree with Said so much as I am to expand upon these topics in particular to introduce my own social theory. First of all, although he does mention the idea of a binary between the Self and the Other several times, Said mainly focuses on relationships between the West and East. I would like to expand the parallels that Said makes about the West “Orientalizing” the East to the Self “Otherizing” the Other. Second, I will focus on Said’s discussion of the fundamental interrelatedness of knowledge and power, and argue that the two need not be so intertwined. Finally, I will argue my view on the idea of beginnings that Said discusses, refuting his notion that there can be no such thing as an unbiased beginning in an intellectual pursuit. In this approach, I hope to lay a foundation for my own social theory, which, in my upcoming writing, I will use to analyze my observations of the world as we see it today.
Let’s first address the concept of a binary between the Self and the Other. In Orientalism, Said mainly focuses on a political and cultural binary between the West and the East, the Occident and the Orient. I believe that this can be expanded to a more general binary: humans inherently fear that which is different from what we are accustomed. We always find ways to “Otherize” the unknown. This phenomenon holds true from the global perspective all the way down to the personal perspective, from America’s anti-immigration sentiments to someone being afraid to try some exotic food. The problem with the world is that not only do we not understand one another, but also that we don’t realize that we don’t understand each other. We don’t even realize that the world would be a better place if we could understand each another. Human society needs to abandon this anachronistic binary of the Self vs. the Other, and begin to focus on We and Us.
Said discusses in his introduction to Orientalism how “the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not ‘true’ knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced.” Thus, according to Said, all knowledge is inherently political, or, stated differently, by seeking knowledge, one is always seeking some form of power.
While I agree that, to this day, institutions of knowledge are always interested in attaining power, I challenge his assertion that there exists an immutable and unchangeable intertwining of the two. Is it possible to seek knowledge in an unbiased manner? Is it possible to obtain knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Said, as well as many anthropologists, will tell you that you cannot be purely objective when it comes to seeking knowledge, for every person looks at the world through a certain, unavoidable “lens,” representing that person’s culture and environment. Although I realize that it is simply not possible to observe the world entirely objectively, I believe that we as humans should still strive to seek the impossible.
The least we can do to generate genuine understanding between peoples across the world is to make an effort every day of acknowledging our biases without letting them cloud our conclusions. Furthermore, can one gain knowledge simply for the sake of gaining knowledge? Not until one commits to aiming for this unreachable goal, until one strives to be a part of humankind through the We and the Us framework, rather than a Self looking at the rest of the world as the Other.
These assertions bring us now to the issue of beginnings that Said discusses. In his words, “the idea of beginning, indeed the act of beginning, necessarily involves an act of delimitation by which something is cut out of a great mass of material; separated from the mass, and made to stand for, as well as be, a starting point, a beginning.” Maybe it’s impossible to be purely objective as a human being, but I do believe it’s possible to be purely objective in beginning an intellectual pursuit. One must be willing to accept that perhaps the world does not work the way he or she thinks, or even the way in which he or she wants it to work. When the scholar realizes this, he must be willing to adapt. This principle can and should be attributed to all aspects of life; that humans can in fact seek pure knowledge by being open-minded and allowing for complete flexibility in intellectual pursuits.
I could go on forever about how I think our society should work, but I think I have said enough for you to comprehend the basis of my very own social theory. In future articles, I intend to analyze happenings in the world—be they global events, national events, local events, or events that happen to me, personally—in light of my social theory. Although I will be constantly referring to this first entry, future posts will be far more analytical and less theoretical. In my next article, I will discuss a current social issue in Afghanistan which I find extremely interesting in light of this first article. I leave you asking you to consider everything you have just read as you go about your life. From here on out, we’ll see where this social theory takes us in the events and news of today’s complex and oftentimes confusing world.