Do Orientalist ways of thinking still persist in our contemporary world?
Firstly, I would like to establish that I am not a person who has experienced the prejudice of Orientalism and thus cannot assume it has been eradicated. Orientalism is a discursive practice used to depict the East and the othering of its culture. This delineation of the East is constructed from exaggerated stereotypes, such as emasculated or barbaric men, and sexualised or oppressed women. Note here the discrepancies of oxymoronic portrayals, demonstrating the absurdity of these assumptions. To answer the question, it is useful to guise towards the social and political climate of the West. In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said cultivated both an attack on Western representations and defined how the portrayal of the Orient was used as juxtaposition of the Occident. Said describes a process of imaginative geography, which is the constructing of a community. Everyone on the outside is the other. Said was not the first to scrutinize the West in this manner; studies made by Said’s contemporaries and predecessors tracked the relationship between European representations and European rule, often coming to the same conclusion that the areas that affected natives intellectually, psychologically, and ethically, echoes throughout colonial history. 40 years on from Said’s study and Orientalism endures as an underlying factor that we should talk about. John MacKenzie makes note in his book that Said’s history of Orientalism is ‘in itself essentially ahistorical’ as it does not define the factors that make distinct historical moments.
Pop culture allows us to explore the social side of the West that is affected by Orientalism. In the 2018 Wes Anderson movie Isle of dogs, it has been debated that the Orient is used as decorative backgrounds or as perpetuations of inaccurate portrayals. In a review of the Isle of dogs from Japanese viewership by Emily Yoshida, she concludes that Anderson managed to ‘turn an entire country and culture into a prop for white enlightenment’. She discusses how Orientalism persists, stating that Isle of Dogs ‘is a perfect artifact for our current-day conversation around cultural appropriation… It’s hard to call it offensive and yet, it’s not devoid of a kind of opportunism’. This reaction, in my opinion, is justified when considering that the film is about the Japanese, yet there is little dialect from the Japanese characters. When there is a moment of the Japanese language, it is not subtitled therefore making it inaccessible for monolingual English-speaking viewers. As the language is not a necessity for the plot, then a conclusion can be made that Japan is little more than background fodder. I find Yoshida’s point to be a perfect standing argument for whether Orientalism persists in our contemporary world; in a myriad of ways, the conversation has not ended, but it has developed and changed from Said’s evaluation. In other words, Orientalism appears more in a latent subconscious.
Another aspect to focus on is the political world. Adam Shatz of the New York times book review contests that Orientalism imbues the West whenever the US goes to war. Constructing orientalist images of Islamic and Muslim people was made extreme by the context of the Cold War in the twentieth century. This was heightened by the events of 9/11 when Orientalism arose more from US portrayals than it did from Eurocentric ones. Shatz debates Said’s work, stating that ‘Said intended his book as a history of the present — a present, now past, that is very different from our own.’ This isn’t to say that Orientalism no longer exists. Instead, much like the previous point made, Shatz calls for consideration that this postcolonial term has changed with the course of history and has reached a time that it must be re-defined. Criticism has been made of Said’s influential study. Said makes a controversial argument that western scholars were so Eurocentric, that they could not make fair conclusions about the East. In his article, Orientalism is not Racism, Jonathan Jones discusses his concern that Said evokes a disinterest from the Occident, rather than encouraging the West to understand the East. He suggests that the West’s tepidness is a consequence of a ‘blank wall of terror’. Because the West avoid learning about the culture and history of the Orient, the West is now so uneducated on the East that they either have utter indifference to them or they unjustifiably fear them.
Orientalism is given as a posteriori knowledge that pretends to be priori knowledge; an inaccurate depiction that many would take as the truth. Conclusively, the answer is yes; Orientalist ways of thinking persist, but not in the same manner that they once did. Instead, the West has gone from mocking the East to subconsciously appropriating the Orient or fearing them. I believe that this development is detrimental due to the ignorance of its implication, and the expanding division between the West and the East. We have advanced in our awareness of society yet sit idle as one side of the world is feared and ignored.