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Centre for the Study of Culture and Society


4. Orientalism

Orientalism, Culture and Representation:

In this lesson we will be looking at the following things:

i) ‘Orientalism’ and the western ways of understanding and classifying ‘other’ cultures

ii) Representation and its role in the meaning-making processes

iii) The relationship between culture and representational practices

iv) Different kinds of representation

We shall try to understand the concept of Orientalism and its implications and consequences on notions of culture. It also examines the somewhat fraught issue of representation—what it means, and what are the factors that complicate it. We shall also try to understand what kind of relationship exists between culture and representation and how it contributes to our ways of making sense of the world in which we live.

What is at stake when a person from one culture describes another culture? What kind of meaning-making processes are at work in such a context? We will begin by reading an excerpt from a book called Orientalism by Edward Said and try to understand how he establishes a relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ within the colonial context. Said gives a great deal of importance to a process called ‘representation’. What is this representation? What has it got to do with culture? What are the ways of analysing ‘culture and representation’? We shall try to understand the role played by ‘representation’ in giving sense to cultural practices and figure out a way of trying to make sense of the various kinds of representations that we encounter in our everyday life.




Representing Other Cultures



Before we go any further we need to understand what we mean by ‘the other’. In brief, ‘the other’ is that which we are not—it is the unknown and the unfamiliar. This ‘unknowability’ and unfamiliarity leads us to construct ‘the other’ as the site of our most primal fears, our deepest loathing, our darkest desires and impulses. ‘The other’ can be another country, people of another religion, gender or race. Think about various statements we make about what ‘we’ are like as opposed to what ‘they’ are like. You will study different kinds of ‘others’ in the different modules in the paper. You will realise when you think about it that there are two different ways of dealing with ‘the other’. One is to tame it, to make it familiar by pointing out similarities and erasing differences so that we can incorporate ‘the other’ within ourselves—make them just like us. The other way is one we see very many instances of not only in newspapers and on television but in our daily lives when we encounter prejudice—the highlighting of differences rather than similarities, and responding to differences with fear and hostility. The struggle is to draw on similarities but look at differences with acceptance rather than fear. The relationship with ‘the other’ will be a recurring theme in obvious and implicit ways in most, if not all of the modules that follow. Keep an eye open for it and examine the different dynamics.

Let us begin by taking a look at the following site which gives us a visual presentation of cultures by a photographer called Robert Leon. Do you recognise some of the cultures that he is trying to represent here? What are the things that help you in making this identification?

Click here. In order to find out why we often automatically associate Indian culture with temples, great architecture, great music and dance, with mysticism, with women clad in saris, with snakes and sadhus, we have to go back to the time when colonial officers, missionaries, Western travellers, ethnographers and other writers depicted India through photographs, paintings, lithographs, diaries, novels, and other genres of writing. We need to understand how images, narratives, and other texts and practices contribute to ways of making sense of this world.

Now take a look at the following picture: PICTURE How would you describe this picture? Who are the women represented in this picture? Can you speculate on the culture to which they belong?

It is an illumination (a coloured decoration in an old book, usually painted by hand) made by a French-Flemish artist called Boucicaut Master (Click here to know more). We learn about this painting and the narrative text that inspired this painting in a book called Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art by Partha Mitter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977). We can read the relevant excerpt from the book that talks about this particular image: here.

This text tells us a lot about a process of ‘translation’ of cultures. The inspiration for this illustration is supposedly a narrative description by Marco Polo of the practice of dedicating young women as Devdasis for ritual service at temples. Marco Polo, a traveller in India, either hears about this practice, or actually sees it and writes about it using terms that are familiar to Western readers. Another Western artist, who has never been to India, translates this narrative in terms of a visual language and the cultural context that is familiar to him. That is why the Devadasis are dressed like the catholic nuns and the image that they are worshipping also looks more like the Madonna than any image of the gods and goddesses familiar to Indians.

Partha Mitter argues that in a similar manner, the medieval European secular literary tradition that dealt with fantastic stories of the ‘monsters and marvels’ of the East, and the Christian theological tradition that believed that all pagan religions were a creation of the devil, contributed to the representation of Indian gods and goddesses as unnatural ‘monsters’. What we learn from this analysis of Mitter is that whenever something is ‘represented’ in the form of a written narrative, in pictorial or other forms, there are many presuppositions that contribute to that particular representation. These presuppositions are drawn mostly from the cultural context of the creator of these images.

Let us take a look at some more examples where a culture gets represented in terms of certain fixed images and stereotypes.






View these clips from A Passage to India and Octopussy (click here for clip 1 of Octopussy and here for clip 2 of Octopussy). India is visually presented as a cultural space that is quite different from others. How do the two filmmakers do this? What are the common elements in the characterisation of India? Keeping in mind the example of the Boucicau Master’s painting, what explanation can you give for this kind of representation of India?

Can you think of any other example—either film, or a story where India is equated with certain practices?


Said and Orientalism



Said and Orientalism:

Boucicaut Master’s depiction of the Devadasis has shown us that when a person tries to depict another culture, or a practice that is not familiar to her in cultural terms, she will always use images, descriptions, structures and concepts that are known to her. The fantasy that India is ancient, chaotic, that there are snakes and elephants on the Indian streets, that there are hoards of unruly crowds is visually represented in both the films. In fact the visual images symbolically stand for Indian culture. However, we also know that the film A Passage to India is about India under the colonial regime. It depicts both the colonizer and the colonized: the one orderly and organised and the other chaotic. One of the strategies for conveying this sense of order and chaos is by alternately showing the rows of sepoys and the crowded streets. The sense that India is ‘religious’ is given by the images of the ascetics in both the films. There actually exists a tradition of representing India by equating it with ‘religion’, with ‘chaos’, with ‘irrationality’. In order to understand where and how this mode of thinking about India started, we can turn to explanations given by the scholar Edward Said in his book Orientalism.

(Click on these names: Said and Orientalism)

Said suggests that there is a complex relationship between the political power of the colonial enterprise, the imaginative work on the countries of the East and the academic knowledge that goes by the name of oriental studies. He especially points out that during the 18th century this gave rise to a sense of ‘authority’ in the West over matters related to not just the geographic spaces in the East but also its cultures. Thus during the colonial period, the study of the Orient is transformed into an institution for dealing with the Orient. It does so “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 1978: 3).

Said’s account of Orientalism suggests that even those things that go under the name of ‘area studies’ or anthropology, things which are seen as ‘objective’ also have their root in the West’s desire to describe the East. Though there were more of these descriptions during the early years of colonial expansion, we can see a similar attitude towards ‘oriental’ cultures even today.

‘Representation’ is quite central to Said’s understanding of the relationship between ‘politics’ and ‘culture’ during the colonial period.

Excerpt from Orientalism (from Introduction) pp. 20-22:

Click on this: My principle methodological devices…it very rarely guided it. In terms of the ‘authority’ question, the ‘location’ of the writer/academic/artist who represents the ‘other’ culture is very important.

“Everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis-à-vis the Orient; translated into his text, this location includes the kind of narrative voice he adopts, the type of structure he builds, the kind of images, themes, motifs that circulate in his text—all of which add up to deliberate ways of addressing the reader, containing the Orient, and finally representing it or speaking on its behalf.”

We now realise that the word ‘representation’ does not merely mean ‘reflecting’ or ‘reproducing’ something. The one who speaks on behalf of the Orient, also has a sense of authority over the subject.

Thus the links between culture and civilization or one dominant culture and the cultures subordinated by it are not always innocent. Said points out the political import of descriptions, narratives and studies of other cultures produced by the western discourse on the ‘orient’. As we examine the links between ‘culture and civilization’ we need to remember how the production of knowledge about other cultures was necessary for the purpose of ruling over these peoples.

We can now take a look at a set of postcards belonging to the colonial period, put together by Malek Alloula (click on his name to know more) who has also written about these and many other picture postcards depicting scantily clothed or bare Algerian women in his book The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). Speaking of the women represented here he says that “[h]istory knows no other society in which women have been photographed on such a large scale to be delivered to public view”(5). Alloula finds that these postcards produced by Western photographers during the colonial period show the exoticized, eroticized female ‘oriental’. They are not merely postcards meant for writing letters home, but are equally suggestive of the “right of (over)sight that the colonizer arrogates to himself” and thus becomes a site of “multiform violence”(5).

This suggests another aspect of culture. Culture is often visualized through various systems of signification and symbolic representation. When Alloula speaks of violence, he is referring to the particular manner in which the body of the oriental woman is symbolically presented to the gaze of the colonizer, both as that which is different and that which is desired. Therefore, it is important to understand the complex relationship between various representational practices and the systems of meanings and signification with which they operate.

This example of Alloula helps us understand what Said means when he speaks of the “strategic location” of the author of the work over the Orient. Said also refers to a body of writing, painting, scholarship on the Orient that forms the context for any statement made on the ‘Orient’ and imbues it with authority: “…each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself. The ensemble of relationships between works, constitutes an analysable formation—for example, that of philological studies, of anthologies of extracts from Oriental literature, of travel books, of Oriental fantasies—whose presence in time, in discourse, in institutions (schools, libraries, foreign services) gives it strength and authority.” What Said has in mind is not just a written statement about the Orient but a range of practices and institutions that have dealt with the Orient and therefore are seen to have authority over the matter.

For the Orientalist, the Orient is the ‘other’—it is a space out there that needs to be made accessible to the West. An Orientalist, in short, ‘translates’ the Orient just as Boucicaut Master translates Marco Polo’s narration into a pictorial representation, or the films A Passage to India or Octopussy translate a whole body of writing, descriptions, paintings and fantasies about India into visual images that stand for India. We now realise that the question as to whether these are ‘real’ pictures of India or not, does not really matter. Hence Said’s statement: “My analysis of the Orientalist text… places emphasis on the evidence, which is by no means invisible, for such representations as representations, not as ‘natural’ depictions of the Orient.” The representation of the Orient by the Orientalist has an attribute of exteriority to it because of the belief that the Orient cannot represent itself, and therefore needs to be represented by the West.

Further, Said questions this whole idea of the distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘representation’. His argument is that language itself is a “highly organized and encoded system”, which can only create a ‘re-presence’—and, at least in terms of language, “there is no such thing as a delivered presence”. But the West has adopted various techniques of representation that make the Orient (which need not necessarily have any correlation with the ‘real’) accessible to the West. These “representations rely upon institutions, traditions, conventions, agreed-upon codes of understanding for their effects, not upon a distant and amorphous Orient”.

It is clear to us by now that Said does not use the term ‘representation’ simplistically. What is the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘representation’? In the next section, we shall explore the various meanings associated with the term ‘representation’ with the help of the writing of a well-known culture critic called Stuart Hall.



Culture and Representation




Check on this link to get an idea of the range of meanings suggested by the word ‘representation’.

Put very simply, representation, or systems of representation are what help us make sense of the world around us. According to Stuart Hall, we are constantly in the process of making meaning of the various social practices, signs and images that we are confronted with in our everyday life.

While trying to derive meanings out of situations and practices we use a large number of signs, icons, visual and other representations as our ‘texts’. Language is not necessarily the only means for communication.

In fact, Stuart Hall questions the commonsensical understanding that in any act of communication, there is a sender of the message and a receiver of the message, who receives the message the way it is intended. We often hear and read about the ‘impact of television on children’ where a film that depicts violence is supposed to, in turn, make the children who watch the film violent.

Such an understanding of the impact of the televisual message endorses the view that communication is a one-way process. However, Hall, speaking specifically of the way a televisual message is received, suggests that we look at the process of communication as a complex network of “encoding, production, circulation and decoding”. Though he says this about the televisual sign, it is applicable to other forms of communication, especially to ways by which we make sense of the visual images that surround us. Representation and the meaning-making processes:

Let us now read the excerpt from Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding/Decoding’:

From the Cultural Studies Reader: pp. 96 – 98: The televisual sign is a complex one…the fragments of ideology" (Click here for link)

What he has to say with reference to ‘real’, naturalism, or realism makes sense if we think of some examples:

Take a look at the following images taken from a Kannada Magazine:

Kannada Magazine:

For most of us, these pictures, especially those on the second page, do not seem to represent ‘reality’. We normally do not associate women with the kind of activities that these images show them doing. In order to imagine that these are ‘unrealistic’ pictures, we must also have an idea about what these women are normally associated with. Our expectations of a realistic representation are not trained to see women engaged in such ‘masculine’ jobs as driving a heavy vehicle, repairing a vehicle. But Hall would suggest that without a “specific articulation of the language on the ‘real’” there can be no naturalism or realism. The “apparent fidelity of the representation to the thing or concept represented” is a condition created by a certain use of language, by conventions of associating meanings with practices. It is—to use Hall again—“the result of a discursive practice”. (Note: Though in earlier formal usage the term ‘discourse’ referred to ‘a long and serious treatment or discussion of a subject in speech or writing’, it is used by the French thinker Michel Foucault to refer not necessarily to a written text, or a long speech but to all the things, practices that contribute to our knowledge about a given issue or object. If you wish to have a better understanding of the term ‘discourse’ or are curious about the work of Foucault, you can browse through the following links.







Though in earlier formal usage the term ‘discourse’ referred to ‘a long and serious treatment or discussion of a subject in speech or writing’, it is used by the French thinker Michel Foucault to refer not necessarily to a written text, or a long speech but to all the things, practices that contribute to our knowledge about a given issue or object.

If you wish to have a better understanding of the term ‘discourse’ or are curious about the work of Foucault, you can browse through the following links.

We can now turn to Stuart Hall, “Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying
Practices”, p. 44:

“The first point to note, then, is the shift of attention in Foucault from 'language' to 'discourse'. He studied not language, but discourse as a system of representation. Normally, the term 'discourse' is used as a linguistic concept. It simply means passages of connected writing or speech. Michel Foucault, however, gave it a different meaning. What interested him were the rules and practices that produced meaningful statements and regulated discourse in different historical periods. By 'discourse', Foucault meant 'a group of statements which provide a language for talking about—a way of representing the knowledge about—a particular topic at a particular historical moment. ... Discourse is about the production of knowledge through language. But... since all social practices entail meaning, and meanings shape and influence what we do—our conduct—all practices have a discursive aspect'"(Hall, 1992, p. 291).

It is important to note that the concept of discourse in this usage is not purely a 'linguistic' concept. It is about language and practice. It attempts to overcome the traditional distinction
between what one says (language) and what one does (practice). Discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. Just as a discourse 'rules in' certain ways of talking about a topic, defining an acceptable and intelligible way to talk, write, or conduct oneself, so also, by definition, it 'rules out', limits and restricts other ways of talking, of conducting ourselves in relation to the topic or constructing knowledge about it. Discourse, Foucault argued, never consists of one statement, one text, one action or one source. The same discourse, characteristic of the way of thinking or the state of knowledge at any one time (what Foucault called the episteme), will appear across a range of texts, and as forms of conduct, at a number of different institutional sites within society. However, whenever these discursive events 'refer to the same object, share the same style and ... support a strategy ... a common institutional, administrative or political drift and pattern' (Cousins and Hussain, 1984, pp. 84-5), then they are said by Foucault to belong to the same discursive formation.”

From the two excerpts of Stuart Hall we understand that ‘discourse’, as used by Foucault, is not merely about the use of language. Discourse also alludes to the practices, the regulatory systems and institutions that contribute to our knowledge about a subject.

Check out the following websites if you wish to know more about discourse:

The pictures of women engaged in activities that we normally do not associate with them is seen as not ‘natural’ because our conception of ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ feminine activities are derived from other practices, other texts, other visual images that give us a sense of ideal femininity.

Take a look at the following cartoon from another Kannada magazine.

Click here.
It is one of the many typical cartoons that we find especially in the Special Festival Issues of Kannada magazines such as Sudha, Tharanga. The husband is busy preparing for the festival meal while the wife is busy reading the special issue of the magazine. The cartoon functions by suggesting some kind of eccentricity within the space of family. The reading woman and the man in the kitchen are the objects of mockery here. Once again, our response to this cartoon is determined by a number of things that are not necessarily ‘textual’ in nature. It is determined by our understanding that this suggests a reversal of roles, it is determined by what we have learnt to expect from this genre of cartoons, it is determined by a number of representations that suggest that in a household it is ‘normal’ to find a man who reads and a woman who cooks.

Foucault and Hall are arguing that there is nothing ‘natural’ or pre-given about either these images or the gendered division of tasks that they seem to endorse. These norms are culture-specific.

These examples help us understand Hall’s argument in ‘Encoding, Decoding’:

“Certain codes may, of course, be so widely distributed in a specific language community or culture, and be learned at so early an age, that they appear not to be constructed—the effect of an articulation between sign and referent—but to be ‘naturally’ given. Simple visual signs appear to have achieved a ‘near-universality’ in this sense: though evidence remains that even apparently ‘natural’ visual codes are culture-specific. However, this does not mean that no codes have intervened; rather, that the codes have been profoundly naturalized.”

Summing up







If we try to sum up the arguments made by Edward Said and Stuart Hall about the representation of cultures, it is important to remember the following things:

a). The political authority that the colonial regime had over its colonies in the East derived a lot from the ‘authority’ of academic studies and imaginative representations of the Orient, its people, practices and ways of living. Said suggests that both the ‘objective’ academic studies and the imaginative reactions to the Orient are to be treated as ‘representations’ whose meanings are culture-specific.

b)According to Stuart Hall, representations are central to the process by which we make sense of this world. The textual or visual representation of a subject is situated within a discursive formation that comprises of practices, institutions and norms that regulate our knowledge about it. Therefore, it is important to understand both the signs used to represent the subject as well as the shared and dominant concepts of a culture that give meaning to those signs.

Keeping in mind these two important observations, if we turn to the number of instances where the word ‘representation’ is used, we would be surprised to see the range of meanings and the contexts called forth by its use. Through the following examples let us try to get a sense of the various uses of this term and understand the meanings associated with it in each context.

Example 1:

History and Representation Click here for more. We realise that an academic discipline such as ‘history’ can be a contested space precisely because of questions such as who is representing and what is being represented. You will learn more about this when you discuss the ‘history book controversy’ in a later module on the uses of history in contemporary India.

Example 2:

Read this news clipping on a women’s group making representations (Click here for more) to the government. In the given news report the word representation is used to explain an act—the women’s group formally presenting a statement to the authorities in the government making clear its stand on a certain issue. This assumes a certain form of government that would in turn recognise such representations as both valid and important (in other words a democracy rather than a dictatorship).

Also, we see that the women’s group has taken it upon itself to record its protest against the ‘demeaning’ depiction of women in some television advertisements. It is important to note that the group thinks of itself as representing the interests of all women.

Example 3:

This report also speaks of ‘representation’.

Panchayat Raj: What is the nature of representation that is being described here?

Example 4:

If you read this article by Gopal Guru (Click here to know more about this man) you will understand the political underpinnings of a word such as ‘representation’.

The essay raises questions about the representation of Dalits by non-Dalits. In doing so it also reveals the important role played by ‘representation’ in a modern democracy. How do representational questions become linked to notions of identity?


Write a paragraph summarising the arguments of Gopal Guru. Can you give other examples of such struggles over representation?

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