We don't often associate the humanities with power. Most people believe in making art for the sake of beauty and studying history for the sake of knowledge. But there is a kind of power in the products of the humanities even though these subjects are often undervalued in our society. Today, filmmakers, web designers, writers and even boring old historians create the content the explains the human experience.
Unfortunately, we humanists don't have the best track record as producers of human values. For instance David Hume the philosopher and historian featured above this text, gave existential thinkers some really great ideas about causation and evidence, but, he also thought that darker people who lived in warmer climates were inherently more savage and less rational. These views were shared by other thinkers and artists in the Early Modern Period and they left an impression on larger bodies of knowledge that remains with us today.
This unite introduces Orientalism, a criticism of the imperialist knowledge systems that developed in the European countries that colonized much of the world in the nineteenth century.
Imagining the World Divided
The critique Orientalism was written by Edward Said. Said wanted to know how the idea of Oriental and Occidental worlds that stood in opposition of each other became so entrenched in the minds of people around the world. The story is very long. As the Roman Empire collapsed it divided itself into Eastern and Western spheres. Rome, the old capital in the West, fell under the control of the Germanic tribes the empire had conquered. The old vanguard of Rome moved to Byzantium (Constantinople), a city the eastern edge of the empire that was becoming increasingly important as a center of trade.
People living on either side of the Empire increasingly considered themselves distinct from their counterparts. This was not new. Most classical civilizations saw themselves as the center of the universe. But as the classical period ended and Christianity and Islam became world religions, the divisions between the West and ‘the Orient’ were drawn in even sharper relief. These traditions continued as a thousand years of interaction and competition in the form of trade and warfare occurred between the two "sides". The European powers gained the advantage after catholic Portugal and Spain expelled the North African and Arab Muslims who had conquered the Iberian peninsula. Thenthey began to find ways to circumnavigate the Muslim sphere of influence in the Mediterranean sea.
Subduing the ‘Orient’
As you may of guessed this is the period many call the Age of Discovery. But many of the ‘Explorers’ saw themselves as knights and considered their mission as an extension of the crusades rather than a mission of exploration. The period is often romanticized. This is because the people who left us records of these events in the form of art and texts viewed them in that light. As ‘Westerners’ established themselves in new parts of the world and reversed longstanding patterns of ‘Eastern dominance’ they left us a narrative of Western Civilization triumphing over Eastern Barbarism. You can see one example in the painting above of Alfonso Albuqurque. He was a Catholic knight who seized important cities in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in the sixteenth-century and made Portugal a global empire that dominated the lucrative spice trade. This narrative of trade and conquest culminated in colonialism a process that brought most of the world under the control of a few seafaring industrialized European powers in the nineteenth century.