In 1977, “Orientalism” was an old-fashioned name for a set of academic fields dedicated to what had once been widely known as “Oriental studies” in days gone by. Scholars had also used the term “Orientalism” to describe the languages, cultures, fashions, arts, and societies of the Eastern peoples and nations they called, "Oriental". It was an old, slightly musty, but honorable word that carried with it a lingering hint of the exotic. Yes, there was some unease about the notion of Orientalism in some scholarly circles (hence the growing shift toward using terms like "Asian studies" in its place) and a few outright critics of it; but for the most part in 1977 the word “Orientalism” was uncontroversial if a bit archaic. In 1979, just two short years later, Orientalism had become a hotly debated term, no longer musty and no longer simply taken for granted. And while it remained for some a good word to name a good thing, for many others “Orientalism” was suddenly a window into the horrors and immoralities of Western colonialism. It was a dualistic ideology that historically had promoted Western domination by imagining and constructing "Orientals" as being essentially, irredeemably inferior. In between, of course, Dr. Edward W. Said of Columbia University penned his now famous, groundbreaking book, Orientalism (1978).
And things have never been the same. In the decades since 1978, scholars in a wide range of fields and working in nearly every corner of the planet have praised, condemned, chewed on, and elaborated on Said's original thesis that classical Orientalism was in fact an ideology of domination. Over those decades, scholars have discovered literally hundreds of "Orientalisms"; and they have found that the whole notion of Orientalism is much more complicated than it seems reading Said. It is not just about Asia. It is not just an ideology of domination. It is, indeed, not just one thing. One of the key challenges students of Orientalism(s) have long struggled with, in fact, has been to transcend the black-and-white categories of Orientalist ideology even as they themselves continue to "gaze" upon all of the Orientalisms they have discovered.
The purpose of this website is to provide tools that will help students of Orientalism better navigate this complicated arena of study. To that end, this website contains:
- A Glossary of Orientalisms, which contains dozens of entries briefly describing each term, which range from abstract Orientalism to Zionist Orientalism.
- A Main Bibliography, which is an extensive bibliography of books, articles, and other sources directly related to the study of Orientalism.
- A Bibliography of Christian Orientalism that contains a bibliography of resources related to the study of the particular field of Christian Orientalism.
- And Quotations, which contains a selection of scholarly descriptions of Orientalism.
Speaking personally, I originally "came at" the study of Orientalism through my years of study of the history of Christianity, including missionary history, in Thailand and the history of the Christian church in Thailand, particularly northern Thai Protestantism. Some of the results of my labors in that field may be found at herbswanson.com. The role the Western missionaries, especially the American Presbyterian missionaries, played in the establishment of Christianity in Thailand is actually two stories. One is the story of their role in modernization. The other is their role as patrons of the churches they founded. When the missionaries went to Thailand, they took with them not only their religious faith and theologies but also an ideology that turns out to have been a version of ideological Orientalism. Said's writings helped me make sense of the missionary role in Thailand and got me hooked on the wider field of the study of Orientalism.
The goal of this website, then, is to promote and support the continued study of Orientalist ideologies, positive as well as hurtful, to the end that ours will indeed be a more peaceful and a more just world.
The painting that provides the backdrop for this website is entitled The Snake Charmer. It was painted by the French Orientalist artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), c. 1879, and now hangs in the The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Commenting on the painting, Holly Edwards observes, “Looking at The Snake Charmer…is an intense experience. Vivid and full of intriguing detail, it implies a titillating story. So seductive is the image, in fact, that many viewers have succumbed to a desire to touch the boy’s naked body. As a result, the painting is now under a protective layer of glass. The visual seduction, moreover, is not confined to vicarious pleasures of the flesh. The unwary museum visitor is also enticed into thinking that the story is somehow ‘true,’ for such images seem to record reality as it presents itself to the naked eye. This, one might suppose, is what the Orient is really like. But what is the ‘Orient’? Who says it is ‘really’ like that? And what agendas does it serve to make such a claim?”
Edwards also notes that The Snake Charmer was chosen to be the cover art for the first edition of Said’s Orientalism (1978), and she goes on to write, “While Said propounded his thesis in reference primarily to literary evidence, art historians extended his insights by considering the visual arts, most particularly nineteenth-century French paintings like The Snake Charmer. The ensuing scholarship has generated an increasingly nuanced appreciation of the imperialistic agendas, gender inequities, and racial prejudices that underlie such depictions of the erotic, exotic East and the processes of power that they make manifest.” (Edwards, Noble Dreams Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 11.)
For further commentary on The Snake Charmer see the entry in Nineteenth-Century European Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.