Although there is an attempt today to demystify the so-called alleged exoticism of non-European cultures, during Europe’s imperial era diversity was produced for western consumption and everything that came from abroad was impregnated with an enigmatic connotation. Exoticism may be interpreted as this process of cultural diversity domestication, even though the representation of individuals, objects and unfamiliar places kept evoking a disquieting ‘strangeness’. Designating the representation of the different out of a collective notion that defines the European identity relative to anything non-European, exoticism is based upon a Western discursive strategy over the rest of the world, the latter being symbolised by the ‘Orient’ metaphor. The Orient arises as a repository of the alter-ego of Europe’s identity, pointing to all Western antagonistic characteristics projected unto its other self.
Designating the representation of cultural difference out of a collective notion that defines the European identity relative to anything non-European, exoticism is based upon a Western discursive strategy over the rest of the world, the latter being symbolised by the ‘Orient’ metaphor. The Orient arises as a repository of the alter-ego of Europe’s identity, pointing to all Western antagonistic characteristics projected unto its other self.
In his seminal study Orientalism (1978), Edward Said tried to outline Europe’s discursive strategy on the Orient proving that, from the 18th Century onwards, the imperialist project has been linked to a whole symbolic construction of the Orient on a literary, historical, scientific and artistic level. Europe’s willingness to know, dominate and understand alterity turned into a permanent attempt to catalogue and file the other within confined boundaries aimed at containing the radicalism of the different and making it easy to be incorporated by the European identity.
The Orient therefore became the object of several discourses of western knowledge: in academia it enjoyed the status of object of knowledge; in museums as an exhibition object; in colonial administration it became a reconstruction object; in the realm of anthropology, biology, linguistics and history it appeared as a theoretical illustrative object on the human being and the universe; economic and sociological theories got their inspiration from the Orient to support theories on development, revolution, culture and religion (Said, 1978: 7-8).
The intellectual power intrinsic to discourse on the Orient thus complements western trade power over territories located mostly in Asia and Africa. Said defines Orientalism, while intellectual power, as a library or information archive shared by colonial powers and subsided by a set of common ideas. These ideas explained oriental behaviour, bestowing them with a mentality, genealogy, and environment; above all, they allowed the Europeans to deal with the easterners as a phenomenon imbued with regular characteristics (Said, 1978: 41-2). To sum up, Orientalism may be understood as a set of limitations imposed on thought so as to control the unpredictability resulting from the contact with what is different.
Although there is an attempt today to demystify the so-called alleged exoticism of the non-European cultures, during the 18th century alterity was produced for European consumption, and everything that came from abroad was impregnated with an enigmatic connotation. Exoticism may be interpreted as this process of cultural diversity domestication, even though the representation of individuals, objects and foreign places kept evoking a disquieting ‘strangeness’. In fact, the absolute domestication of the exotic never takes place as it would neutralize the intrinsic ability of unpredictability to generate surprise (Huggan, 2001: 20).
The intellectual power of discourse over the Orient reveals a political dimension by providing information of practical use that would be made to serve the commercial designs of Europe’s colonial trading powers. The politicized vision of reality intrinsic to Orientalism promotes a distinction between what is familiar – i.e. the European identity – and the exotic – the Orient. This intellectual and artistic vision has fostered the consolidation of a dichotomy of two worlds conceptualised as radically diverse. And so there is a dialectics between the intellectual vision and the material realisation of the reality that feeds the West/Orient binomial: the creation of an Orient in artistic and literary texts is used to exert authority upon the East. Symbolist painting and literature, not only show a romantic fascination with oriental mysticism, associated to a docile passiveness, but are also distinct in having an erotic vision of the primitiveness of what is different, connoted with a need for redemption.
The European discourse on the Orient is generally thought of as having consolidated between 1815 and 1914, at which time about 85 percent of the world’s territories came to be under European colonial dominance. The political orientation evidenced by Orientalism became particularly visible with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon’s tactics, namely by persuading the Egyptian population that they would be fighting for Islam – resorting to French academic to inform him on the Koran and also on the Islamic society – proves the strategic and tactical power of knowledge (Ashcroft, et al., 1999: 61). Said states that, after Napoleon, the very language of Orientalism changed radically: ‘Its descriptive realism became more precise, becoming not a mere representation style but rather consisting in a language, a means of creation’ (Said, 1978: 87), symbolised by the building of the Suez Canal in 1869.
Europe’s concern with showing the sophistication of its own civilisation had already been evident in the first of the Great World Exhibitions at Crystal Palace, London, in 1851, during which England exhibited a whole range of artefacts, from architecture to steam engines. Human beings brought from overseas colonies were also exhibited as scientific curiosities during the event. A famous example was the exhibition of the South-African Sara Baartman, nicknamed the ‘Hottentot Venus’, as an object of difference, whose body contrasted that of the western woman.
Ashcroft, Bill et al., Edward Said. London: Routledge.
Graham, Huggan, The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001.
Said, Edward, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin.