Tag Archives: Orientalism

Critical Examination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

Here’s a little Q & A on Said’s now seminal and foundational text Orientalism.

Orientalism is a book published in 1978 by Edward Said that has been highly influential and controversial in postcolonial studies and other fields. In the book, Said effectively redefined the term “Orientalism” to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East. This body of scholarship is marked by a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” He argued that a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for European and the American colonial and imperial ambitions. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the US and British orientalists’ ideas of Arabic culture.

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
—Edward Said

A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to “Western” societies. This a priori knowledge establishes “the East” as antithetical to “the West.” Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.

Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the “Orient” was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. The work of another thinker, Antonio Gramsci, was also important in shaping Edward Said’s analysis in this area. In particular, Said can be seen to have been influenced by Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in understanding the pervasiveness of Orientalist constructs and representations in Western scholarship and reporting, and their relation to the exercise of power over the “Orient”.

Although Edward Said limited his discussion to academic study of Middle Eastern, African and Asian history and culture, he asserted that “Orientalism is, and does not merely represent, a significant dimension of modern political and intellectual culture.” (53) Said’s discussion of academic Orientalism is almost entirely limited to late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. Most academic Area Studies departments had already abandoned an imperialist or colonialist paradigm of scholarship. He names the work of Bernard Lewis as an example of the continued existence of this paradigm, but acknowledges that it was already somewhat of an exception by the time of his writing (1977). The idea of an “Orient” is a crucial aspect of attempts to define “the West.” Thus, histories of the Greco–Persian Wars may contrast the monarchical government of the Persian Empire with the democratic tradition of Athens, as a way to make a more general comparison between the Greeks and the Persians, and between “the West” and “the East,” or “Europe” and “Asia,” but make no mention of the other Greek city states, most of which were not ruled democratically.

Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European, mainly British and French, scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, Said sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. Said’s writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to studies of imperialist Western attitudes to India, China and elsewhere. It was one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993, another must read).

Edward Said, was a Palestinian American literary theorist and advocate for Palestinian rights. He was a University professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a founding figure in Post-Colonial Studies. He died in September 2003 after a long battle with cancer.

Many scholars now use Said’s work to attempt to overturn long-held, often taken-for-granted Western ideological biases regarding non-Westerners in scholarly thought. Some post-colonial scholars would even say that the West’s idea of itself was constructed largely by saying what others were not. If “Europe” evolved out of “Christendom” as the “not-Byzantium,” early modern Europe in the late 16th century (see Battle of Lepanto, 1571) defined itself as the “not-Turkey.”

Said puts forward several definitions of “Orientalism” in the introduction to Orientalism. Some of these have been more widely quoted and influential than others:

  • “A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.” (1)
  • “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.” (2)
  • “A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (3)
  • “…particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient.” (6)
  • “A distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” (12)

In his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Said also warned against the “falsely unifying rubrics that invent collective identities,” citing such terms as “America,” “The West,” and “Islam,” which were leading to what he felt was a manufactured “clash of civilisations.”

Here’s a little critical “Q&A” to guide you through the central arguments (the first 100 or so pages) of the text.

Question One: 

Said starts his first chapter with a quote from Fourier in the Description de l’Egypte, “le genie inquiet et ambitieux de (sic) Europeens… impatient d’employer les nouveaux instruments de leur puissance, ” which roughly translates as, “the ambitious and anxious spirit of the Europeans.. eager to use the new tools of their power.”  Explain the sentence and comment on why it is the opening quote for this chapter.


Though, Said notes, feelings of Orientalism and demarcation of an European “us” and an Oriental “them” were long in the making, the middle of the eighteenth century brought about two principal elements in the relationship between the West and the East: “growing systematic knowledge in Europe of the Orient, and Europe’s position of strength [read: domination].” (39-40)

This emerging body of literature is what, according to Said, constituted European knowledge of the Orient and is what gave them control of the region – knowledge is power, Said writes, taking from Foucault. (34, 36, and 40) Said structures this paradigm of knowledge in the following manner: “England knows Egypt, Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs; foreign occupation therefore becomes “the very basis” of contemporary Egyptian civilization; Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation.” (34)

As such, England’s age of discovery, which preceded this period of domination and government, produced a body of knowledge that allowed them to witness Egypt’s inabilities to self-govern and thus fed into England’s occupation. This timeline presented by Said is the thrust of the first chapter – that is to say that the emergent feelings of colonialism stem from systematic knowledge flooding Europe which place European culture and knowledge above that of the Orient and create a hierarchy of power between the West and the East. The tools of Europe’s power, the tools mentioned in the quote at the beginning of the chapter are these aforementioned tools of knowledge. The knowledge gathered during the Age of Discovery was harnessed in the mid-eighteenth century to serve racial and geographic paradigms of power.  This construct of knowledge feeds into Said pivotal phrase – “Orientalism orientalizes the Orient” – meaning that the Orient (and the Occident for that matter) is man made constructs built out of the systematic knowledge gathered in Europe at this time. The Orient is only the Orient when placed in opposition to the Occident.

Question Two:

Comment on Said’s question which is central to his entire book: “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” (45) Is this simply a rhetorical question or a statement about a much more difficult and unresolved issue.


Ideally, Said’s book aims to answer this question though in this context (placed in the first chapter) the question is asked rhetorically. Does this statement have to be either a rhetorical question or an unresolved issue? Can it not be both? In the first chapter it is meant to be rhetorical – it is meant to make that reader believe that the author will attempt to answer the question or that the reader will be able to answer the question come the end of the book. In the context of the whole book however, it is a statement of deeply unresolved issues of race and superiority and how each and every individual defines themselves and those around them. Is Said not saying with this statement that while we [the collective human race] wish not to admit such things, we all define ourselves in opposition to others? (I am I because I am not you…so on and so forth) Can discussing such practices and their roots ever make the practice cease? I don’t think Said had an answer, try as he might to find one in the process of this book.

Question Three:

Explain what Said means by: “As a discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, Orientalism comes to exert a three-way force, on the Orient, on the Orientalist, and on the Western “consumer” of Orientalism” (67) What do you think about Said’s implied position about the constitution and growth of knowledge?


This statement, on page 67, harkens to the phase mentioned in the response to the first question – “Orientalism orientalizes the Orient.” Orientalism, as a practice, penalizes the Orient for not being Europe. In the process of penalizing the Orient, the Occident is orientalizing the Orient by implementing a set of constraints, limitations upon the Orient (these constraints are apart of Said’s description of the practice of Orientalism on page 41). In this process that Occident receives that it believes to be “truths” of the Orient, but in reality the “truths” they are ingesting are learned judgments of the Orient built upon the power dynamic established. Thus the process of Orientalism is as destructive to the West as it is to the East, for as mentioned above (response to question 1) both operate under false senses of themselves and the other.

Question Four:

Said argues that there are two major reasons which favor a “textual attitude” [accepting the authority of texts] over direct human encounters: one has to do with the human need for the comfort of textual authority when confronted with “something relatively unknown, threatening and previously distant”, the second has to do with “the appearance of success” (93) Explain his point in relation to Orientalism.


Said writes that all things, all experiences and places, cane be described as a book. Therefore, all reality can be described and thus descriptions garner authority as sources of reality. His over simplified example of the man who reads of a fierce lion, encounters a fierce lion, believes in the authority of the author about lions and thus subsequently about all other realities that he or she might write on is apropos.

The written word garners power because of its relationship (even if only perceived relationship) to reality. This relationship that Said constructs of how an individual will take a written account as authentic over or in place of a personal account is a large piece of both Said’s and Foucault’s arguments on the power of both language and knowledge. This is essential to the Orientalist dialectic because the power relationship between East and West, Orient and Occident, is built upon power (read: language and knowledge). If the West has more knowledge they have more power, then get more knowledge through language (written word), thus power is imbued into written accounts of travels in the Orient and encounters with the Orient. Thus the written account will trump the personal account.

This book and its main arguments serves as the basis for a paper I wrote on Orientalist painting and Napoleon’s explorations in Egypt and Greater Syria, here.


Filed under Culture, History, Middle East

Oriental Nationalism

Given the political climate in the Middle East since January, I have found some interesting parallels between this exploration of Napoleon and current discussions of despotism in the Middle East.

Oriental Nationalism: Gros’ Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa

Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804. Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In his now seminal canvas, Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa (1804),[1] Antoine-Jean Gros depicts Napoleon Bonaparte visiting French soldiers sicken by an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a mosque in Jaffa that had been converted into a hospital for plague sufferers. Napoleon stands just right of center, bathed in light, surrounded in front and to his right by Frenchmen succumbing to disease. At his immediate back stand two well Frenchmen in uniform, aghast at his bare, outstretched hand investigating the pustules in a sickened man’s armpit. To his right stand robed and turbaned men attending to the sick seated, slouched, and lying on straw mats on the floor of the mosque. In fact the few scattered non-European figures in the painting are all well-dressed and well-mannered figures attending to the needs of the sick. None of the sick are non-European. The human interaction between the well and the ill takes place in front of an arcade that opens onto the mosque’s courtyard. In the distance, the viewer discerns the other arcaded sides of the courtyard, the mosque’s minaret and the rise of a hilled and walled site in the distance, presumably the city’s citadel, complete with unfurled and full-masted French flag atop. The sky is turbulent with clouds, the sun breaking through only in scattered places, and the mysterious light source bathing Napoleon and those immediately around him in light is indiscernible and does not extend to the front or edges of the picture plane which are shrouded nearly entirely in darkness.

Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, detail, Antoine-Jean Gros.

Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte and overseen by the arts administrator Vivant Denon.[2] The painting was an “epic machine tasked with depicting, retrospectively, the Egyptian campaign to the French people.”[3] A carefully controlled amalgam of Napoleon’s Syrian campaign, the painting has served many historians in their bids to read Gros’ work as hero-worship of Napoleon and propaganda for his regime. It is easy, as many have done, to read Messianic imagery in Napoleon’s upright, contraposto stance with the out stretched hand touching, fearlessly, the wounds of the ill. He is, for all intensive proposes, Christ reaching out and laying hands on Lazarus. Similarly, as noted by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, he is Rationality touching irrationality.[4] Instead of a monarch touching the ill as means of healing through divine intercession, Napoleon is a mortal man reaching out and touching the sick to show his fearlessness in the face of the disease, but also to show that the disease was not transmitted through touch. Napoleon and his doctors, fearful of an even worse plague of fear and imagination among the troops, had long denied that the plague was what sickened soldiers but rather a fever, and that it was not contagious by touch.[5]

Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, detail of Napoleon's hand, Antoine-Jean Gros.

Grigsby eschews the scholarship before her, which elucidates only a Christ-like reading of Napoleon without proper contextualization of why such an image was important at that time.[6] This paper, unlike Grigsby’s theses of sexualized imagery and homoerotic subtext,[7] is not concerned with the Orientalizing and feminizing of the sickened French soldiers but with the political and artistic climate of France, which made such an image successful. As Grigsby notes fleetingly, and off-handedly answers at the end of her essay: “What, one must ask, are the terms to which Napoleon’s authority are opposed?”[8] The answer lies, not in the French troops slouched, crumpled and supine on the floor of the mosque in the painting, but in the tightly controlled message of why the Egyptian expedition was embarked upon and what happened during the trip. The truth of what happened at Jaffa was controlled in France until Napoleon’s deposition when it became a rallying cry for his detractors.[9] Gros’ painting, as with Napoleon’s reign, was a amalgamation of dichotomies: rooted in classical language but also a deviation, heroic depiction of a leader while also revealing the crime, truth and spun propaganda. In the end it is not just the sick French soldiers who serve as the Other, it is Napoleon himself who is Othered, for he becomes the spitting image of the despot he rallied his troops against in Egypt.

Map of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.

England and France had been vying for control of territories from India to North America to the South Seas since the 1600s.[10] The advantages of such control were obvious to all involved. France’s interest in Egypt has been noted by some to come after a consideration of invading the British Isles, which was dismissed given the size and might of the British Navy.[11] Rather, the French government entertained at least a dozen proposed exhibitions into Egypt between 1774 and 1798. After all, as noted by a counselor to Louis XVI, “Egypt belongs to nobody.”[12] Napoleon’s plan was brazen and ill timed. After all France was coming out of a Revolution that had left it’s economy and its streets trashed. The streets and alleys of Paris ran with sewage and smelled worse than they had in the Middle Ages. The anti-monarchist country that had killed its king was still faced with royalist nations pushing at its borders, a climate not traditionally conducive to launching a large military and academic campaign so far from the homeland. But the French wanted their piece of the colonial pie, and the hope was that Egypt would be the penultimate gateway to large swathes of Asian and African territories under French control.[13] As such Napoleon Bonaparte launched his campaign into Egypt, achieving early success in Lower Egypt but losing later when Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet, isolating Napoleon’s army from Europe.[14] Napoleon turned his attentions and his troops to the north, to Syria (modern day Israel), following the disastrous loss to Nelson. He advanced as far as Acre but could not take the city, even after a two-month siege. It was during this campaign that the plague struck, especially hard in Jaffa to the south, and forced Napoleon to retreat. Almost half of the men he had left Cairo with did not return.[15]

This brings us back to Gros and the now infamous depiction of Napoleon’s visit to the hospital in Jaffa where his sick and dying men were treated. The scene, purportedly, depicts an actual occurrence of Napoleon visiting his men. The battle of Jaffa was launched on March 7, 1799, where French soldiers killed at least 2,000 Ottoman soldiers prior to two days of raping and slaughtering of civilians.[16] Approximately, 2,500 to 3,000 Ottoman soldiers took to the citadel for refuge, refusing to surrender until the French assured them that they would not be killed. Napoleon, however, promptly ordered their slaughter once they left their refuge. To conserve gunpowder, Napoleon ordered his troops to take the Ottoman soldiers to the sea and kill them with their bayonets.[17] The most scandalous part of the Syrian expedition to Europeans was not the horrendous treatment of Syrian civilians and Ottoman soldiers, but Napoleon’s treatment of his own men.

The plague had initially broken out in the summer of 1798 while the French were still in Egypt. The plague became a significant problem for the French army only while in Syria when 1,300 of the 13,000 French troops[18] contracted the disease with 1,000 of them dying. A makeshift hospital was set up in Jaffa, but not in a mosque as is depicted by Gros, but in an Armenian monastery.[19] The magisterial image is constructed by Gros in more ways than just location. Upon retreat from the city in May of 1799, Napoleon ordered his doctors to poison all bed-ridden soldiers who remained. Doses of laudanum were administered to all who remain, but as noted by David O’Brien, some men vomited the dosage and lived to tell their tales to the English who occupied the city after the French.[20]

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, Antoine-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 1806, Oil on canvas. Musée de l'Amée, Paris.

The Jaffa legend extends beyond the crimes committed by Napoleon and his men while they were there, especially for Napoleon’s detractors. As David O’Brien notes, “when Bonaparte abandoned his army in Egypt, leaving it to certain destruction, Jaffa became a synecdoche for the entire expedition, encapsulating the acts of betrayal and callous disregard for human life that characterized the whole affair.”[21] The Napoleon of Gros, Ingres, and David – a regal man, a messianic figure – is not representative of the fierce political environment of France at the time. Napoleon was presiding over a deeply divided country, torn between scheming Jacobin and Royalist groups both angling for power. France’s political and art worlds were equally torn between what was before Napoleon and what was during Napoleon. Politically, Napoleon wasn’t the secure authoritative figure presiding over a unified country. There were numerous failed assassination attempts and conspiracies, which “undermined the government’s ability to present an image of stability and permanence.”[22] The post-Revolution art world of France was weary of history painting, which it no longer trusted and was the subject of intense derision amongst Salon painters. The lack of government intervention into Salon artists’ work during and since the Revolution suited a cadre of Jacobin painters just fine, while others David included still sought up front government commissions with little intention of completing the work.[23] Even though the Salon itself was unclear on whether or not modern events belonged within the scope of history painting, Napoleon sought to invigorate such work. With his decree of October 1802, he wanted four large canvases produced every year devoted to French history. Even with the decree, no significant works were completed.[24]

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David. 1800, Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château de Malmaison.

The enormous success of Gros’ painting at the Salon of 1804 changed the game entirely.[25] The immediate embrace of the painting by his peers established Gros as a major painter of his day and established the visibility of large-scale propagandistic representations of contemporary events depicted in the language of classical history painting. The chaos of the arts scene during the Revolution seemed over in 1804. Not only due to the appearance and success of Gros’ canvas at the Salon but also because Napoleon became a protector, of sorts, for artists, so long as they “only had eyes for him.”[26]

Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa was not Gros’ only work depicting Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign. Gros painted the Battle of Nazareth (1801), Battle of Aboukir (1806), and Napoleon Haranguing the Army Before the Battle of the Pyramids (1810). In these images, unlike Jaffa, Napoleon and his troops are violently clashing with Arab soldiers in with bloodshed and horrific carnage strewn around the picture plane. The intention in the battle scenes is clear: make Napoleon look like the triumphant general fearlessly leading his troops into battle. Do not let the salacious bloodshed fool you; these war scenes are as much operatic constructions of the Napoleon legend as Jaffa. As O’Brien notes, “Bonaparte was defeated in Egypt, and on some level that failure had to be explained in his propaganda.”[27] Gros and his fellow Napoleonic painters as well as the significant painters of the Restoration (1815-1830) never traveled to the Orient. These images were ordered by Napoleon, overseen by his administrator and then

The Battle of Nazareth, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1801, Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.

carefully, purposefully positioned in the Salon in such an arrangement as to effect the biggest impact on the public. His [Gros’] later paintings were no exception to this arrangement.[28] In the case of Jaffa, and the battle scenes, the aim of Gros’ brush was to craft an image that spoke to the larger cultural contrasts between the French and the Arab Other that they engaged while on the campaign. In the case of Battle of Nazareth, Napoleon skillfully insisted on naming the battle after the city of Nazareth (even though it actually took place in Loubia)[29] so as to conjure images of the Holy Family and to reinforce the notion of the campaign as a latter-day crusade.

The Battle of Aboukir, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1806, Oil on canvas. Musée du Château, Versailles.

Similarly, in the case of Jaffa the painting countered a number of charges lobbed against Napoleon: “instead of a general abandoning his army in a foreign land, it represented a caring leader risking his life to raise the troops’ morale, and instead of a ruthless, self-interested executioner, it showed a compassionate, humane man with seemingly supernatural healing powers.”[30] Unlike the Nazareth of Aboukir, where Napoleon is calm in the face of danger, valiantly leading his men into battle against fatalistic Arabs (their faces drawn in scowls to further set them apart), here Napoleon is not calm in the face of confrontation from an Other, but rather in the face of disease. It is his own men he must fear. O’Brien latches onto Grigsby’s astute theory that it is the sickened Frenchmen who are the Other, but neither discuss the presence of the Arab figure; which is present, is not threatening or attacking, and is upright, a point glaringly missed by Grigsby. In fact, here in Jaffa, by the brush of Gros, the fearsome Arab is turned savior, for he is the Turkish doctor lancing the bubo of the sickened Frenchman kneeling before Napoleon.

Napoleon Haranguing the Army Before the Battle of the Pyramids, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1810, Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château, Versailles.

Gros’ roots in the Neoclassical tradition, particularly due to his tutelage in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David, are noticeable in the composition of Jaffa. While Grigsby uses Oath of the Horatii as evidence of a tradition Gros deviates from in Jaffa,[31] I will use David’s masterpiece as a tradition Gros grows out of and whose charged narrative Gros capitalizes for his veiled critique of Napoleon.

Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David. 1785, Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The interior scene is set with an arcade in the background past which the viewer is unable to discern. Center stage: a man holding three swords aloft between his person and those of three Roman soldiers. Behind the central man, swooning, despondent women lean on one another, their eyes down cast, avoiding the scene. Though based on the account of the Roman salute by Livy, the scene is of David’s own creation. The men are upright and active, engaged in some kind of ceremonial process. A light shaft rakes across the scene from a source unknown to the viewer, filling the room with light casting the shadows to an even dark black. Gros, David’s student, takes up the foreground scene, employing the arcade as divider between that which is essential and important to the scene and that, which is not. A similar unknown light shaft rakes across Gros’ scene, though David fully illuminates nearly his entire cast while Gros leaves all but the central figures in shadow. Gros color palette is not the somber, subdued palette of the Neoclassical, which places the narrative above the painting itself. Rather, Gros embraces warm saturated hues, tones that feed a celebratory, Messianic reading of Napoleon.

The warmth of reds and golden ambers in Jaffa as well as the mysterious glow surrounding Napoleon further separate student from master. But the charged narrative remains in Gros’ work. In David’s painting it is a familial oath pledged before battle, in Gros’ painting the agonizing deaths of soldiers from the plague and the possibility of recovery at the hands of their leader.

It is here that Grigsby’s work fails most significantly. In her pursuit of evidence to support her claim that the sickly and dying French soldiers represent a feminized Other, she distorts the relationship between master and student. Gros was not deviating from the Neoclassical; he was implementing classical language and traditions anew. His painting of Napoleon at Jaffa was equal parts glory-filled propaganda, for the Messianic connections cannot be missed, and critique. Gros benefited from his relationship to power.[32] He was repeatedly asked to paint problematic subjects in which Napoleon’s crimes needed to be concealed and his triumphs exalted, or in this case created. In this vein, Gros was a sharpened tool of propaganda and of the nationalism prevalent in France during and after the Revolution. However, Gros’ response to these requests was a blending of both the heroizing of Napoleon and graphic depictions of violence.[33] For as much as Jaffa is about Napoleon visiting his troops, laying his hands on the sick, it is about the horrors of the Syrian campaign and France’ involvement in Egypt, and the process of colonialism generally, too.

Though Grigsby was right to identify the lack of explication of this work by Gros by other scholars and appropriately sought and elucidated alternative readings of the painting, she misses, nearly entirely, the political climate in France post-Revolution as well as the act of colonialism and the fallout thereof until the very end of her essay when the body politic is shoved gracelessly into the concluding paragraph. The wounded and battered body politic of France should, I believe come first. Any readings of the feminization of homoerotic subtexts of the painting should be second to the discussion of why Napoleon needed such a glorifying depiction of himself. The highly censored, repressive regime that Napoleon created had to be dominated by his message and his images to avoid unrest and to control his troops and the public at large. Napoleon became the very despot he went to Egypt to destroy. It is this contribution that keeps Jaffa from slipping into arid propaganda.[34] It is easy after Grigsby to read the plague ridden French soldiers as the Other, as the object of Gros’ Orientalist gaze; but it is harder though more important to see Napoleon in the same gaze. This time France had instead of a monarchy with divine pretenses an Enlightened despot who ruled with the same barbaric fist that colonialism was supposed to root out in the Orient. Therefore, it is of little surprise that anti-Napoleonic sentiment and detractors turned to this painting as a basis of protest against the Napoleonic regime.

The authors cited in this paper, with the exception of selected primary sources in footnotes and the inclusion of J. Christopher Herold, are all post Edward Said’s Orientalism. Be that as it may, none of the author’s question Said’s discussion of the French campaign in Egypt, nor is a critical light shone onto narrowness of Said’s telling of the French involvement in Egypt.[35] Grigsby not only cites Orientalism, but she also cites a passage from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, a book and author Said worked with extensively prior to Orientalism. Heart of Darkness also deeply impacted Orientalism for Said, and for Grigsby, apparently. Grigsby’s argument benefits from the binary construction of Orientalism; she revels in flipping what she calls the Neoclassical binary of strong man-weak woman around and present dominate vertical Frenchman-supine subordinate Frenchman. But in doing so, as previously noted and cited above, Grigsby weakens her argument by not breaking out of binary blinders, as it were, and placing both Gros’ painting and the French Egyptian campaign in a broader context of French political upheaval during the Revolution that had to be squelched in order for Napoleon to be successful. Grigsby’s rush to seek an alternative reading on Gros from the previous (stale) scholarship labeling him a propagandist and nothing more, takes her out of range for a valid and needed discussion on the fraught tension between French Enlightenment despot and his public.

David O’Brien, writing after Grigsby, errs on the opposite side, too conservative. His introduction pushes at the tension between Napoleon and his deeds and the image he desired to present the public, but still perpetuates Gros’ role as propagandist.

Stuart Harten picks up Orientalism and agrees, whole cow, with Said’s position that “Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt was the enabling project for all subsequent Orientalist enterprises.”[36]

The result is, that even after Said, even after a discourse has opened up to more honestly explicate Orientalist images, no such dialogue – with the exception of Grigsby – has dared to draw a new line in the sand. Grigsby’s argument may verge on irresponsible at times – with the lack of larger contextualization and political awareness – but at least her argument opens up new frontiers. The same cannot be said for other scholars operating with the same material.

Napoleon had to control his public French citizens were wary of political propaganda, tired of monarchical power gone too far, and thirsty for a champion of the people. With his ever-present starched uniform and fearless quest for France’s new frontier, Napoleon was the Messiah France needed. But all roads did not lead to Paris for Napoleon and the detours had to be glossed over if he was going to avoid the guillotine. Gros, eager to become the prominent painter he had toiled to become in David’s atelier, was all to eager to please. But Napoleon’s pleasure came at a higher cost than Napoleon bargained for. Jaffa was equal parts the desired gloss Napoleon needed to keep France’s attention tuned to the cultural accomplishments of the campaign and away from the failures, and scathing critique of a general who abandoned his troops in the care of the fearsome Turks they had fought.

[1] The oil on canvas, now housed at the Museé du Louvre, Paris, France, is 17 feet 5.5 inches by 23 feet 7.5 inches in size. It should be noted that the painting is known by a variety of titles: Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House of Jaffa, Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, etc. The title used in this project is the most frequently used title and the closet to the most popular variations.

[2] This point was clarified by David O’Brien in “Antoine-Jean Gros in Italy,” Burlington Magazine 137, no. 4, October 1995, 651-660. Prior to the publication of this article scholarship asserted that the painting was commissioned not by Bonaparte but by his wife Josephine. This was the case due to, as noted by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby in Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 66 n9, a letter previously published between Napoleon and his wife in which he chastises her for not getting Gros to agree to a better price. Further more, the O’Brien article reiterates the point that oversight of the commission was handled by Vivant Denon, Director of the Musée Central des Arts at the time. Grigsby also notes that Denon had previously promised the commission to another artist, Guérin, but that Napoleon announced one day in the Louvre that he wanted Gros to execute the work and as such Gros was given the commission. It should be noted, as David O’Brien does in After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros – Painting and Propaganda Under Napoleon (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), that Denon forged a relationship with Napoleon by “securing a position as a savant in the Egyptian expedition.” (92) O’Brien notes further that when he [Denon] returned to France in 1799, he wrote the immensely popular work: Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte (1802). Despite this accomplishment, when he received his post as Director it was quite a coup. He was put in charge of not only overseeing works of art commissioned by Bonaaparte but he was also in charge of selection and display on works in the Salon.

[3] Grigsby, 66.

[4] Grigsby 72-73 n34: “Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases: “Fear caused [the disease’s] spread more than anything else. The principal seat of the plague was in the imagination. During the Egyptian campaign all those whose imagination was struck by fear died of it. The surest protection, the most efficacious remedy, was moral courage.” … An Enlightenment model of rationality has been superimposed on the sacred tradition of the healing king…Physical contact with an ill man appears to be rationally justified (if ineffectual), not courageous…Napoleon’s heroism does not reside in his willingness to touch an ill man, who is, after all, not contagious. Rather, his heroism lies in his “moral courage” and his conviction – that is, his capacity to maintain his rationality – in the midst of horror.”

[5] Fear, notes Grigsby, was “palpable and pervasive.” She insists that this is the context with which the viewer must read the painting. The livret that accompanied the painting at the Salon read: “Bonaparte, general in chief of the army of the Orient, at the moment when he touches a pestilential tumor while visiting the hospital at Jaffa…To distance further the frightening idea of a sudden and incurable contagion, he had opened before him some pestilential tumors and touched several. He gave, by this magnanimous devotion, the first example of a genre of courage unknown until then and which has had imitators.” Grigsby, 72 and n30.

[6] See above, n4. Grigsby sees the heroism of Napoleon as an Enlightenment manifestation, not as a Messianic “laying of hands.” In this shift she negates all previous scholarship so as to assert her theories of eroticism and sexualization of figures, which she offers, in the succeeding pages of the chapter. Her failure to see that the ideas do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive is one weakness in the chapter and in her thesis.

[7] Grigsby’s argument really begins in earnest with her discussion of Gros’ deviation from David (75-top of 76) by changing the male-female binary into a male-binary. This discussion feeds into her reading of the strength and phallic nature of Napoleon and his fellow upright, vertical troops juxtaposed with the nude, ‘reclining’ soldiers on the ground (76-77). Finally, the last piece of the initial argument is the argument that touching a male nude is laced with eroticism. Here (78-82) Grigsby creates a circle of nudity: Napoleon’s nude hand touching the pustule of a nude soldier, and the horizontal body of a nude soldier on the ground connecting the two vertical men.

[8] Grigsby, 71.

[9] David O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.

[10] Nina Burleigh, Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (New York: Harper Collins; 2007), x-xi.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stuart Harten, “Rediscovering Ancient Egypt: Bonaparte’s Expedition and the Colonial Ideology of the French Revolution.” In Napoleon in Egypt. Edited by Irene A. Bierman (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press; Los Angeles: Gustave E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, 2003) 33. “Bonaparte’s goal of setting sail for Egypt in May of 1798 was to establish a military protectorate in the Near East in order to impinge on Britain’s commercial trade routes to India…Egypt was also envisioned as a replacement for Saint-Domingue, the pearl of the French mercantile empire and by far the richest colony in the world. With the collapse of the Atlantic economy and the abolition of slavery during the Revolutionary wars, France increasingly looked to Egypt as a viable colonial alternative to what had been the most dynamic sector of French overseas commerce in the eighteenth-century.”

[14] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 94-95.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. Also, J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) 274-278; Joseph-Marie Moiret, Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801 Edited and translated by Rosemary Brindle (London: Greenhill Books; Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001) 21-22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] This figure, notes Herold, does not include a bevy of Egyptian and Arab personnel attached to the army. Likewise, it does not include additional French personnel such as civilian commissioners. Herold, 264.

[19] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.

[20] Ibid.

[21]O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.

[22] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 98.

[23] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 91-92.

[24] O’Brien, After the Revolution, top of 92.

[25] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 90.

[26] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 92. O’Brien quoting Quatremère de Quincy.

[27] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 96.

[28] See n30.

[29] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 96.

[30] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 98.

[31] Grigsby, 74-75.

[32] O’Brien, After the Revolution, 10.

[33] Ibid. “Gros also benefited from his unusual relationship to power. The government repeatedly asked him to treat problematic subjects in which Napoleon’s crimes were concealed and his failures construed as moral triumphs. Gros responded by combining the requisite, idealized vision of Napoleon with an astonishingly graphic depiction of the violence, suffering, and death that resulted from the French leader’s actions. It is especially this unexpected combination of elements that saved Gros’ work from lapsing into arid propaganda and that continues to fascinate viewers.”

[34] Ibid.

[35] Said’s discussion of Egypt: Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978) 79-88.


Filed under Culture, Middle East, Politics

In Vogue: Women, Beauty, the Grotesque, and the Other

Perhaps this is a chicken-egg question, but which came first: Fashion or Exploitation? Whether it’s the neutered body of a waifish model, or the eroticized body, fashion has always used women to play out, fabricate and exoticize women, cultures, and the body. The virile body, the paradoxical body, the armored or mechanized body, the postmodern body, the objectified body, and the Orientalized body. Fashion and art, after all, have always been about the body. Clothes activate the body, and the body animates the fantasy of clothes.

William Klein, Club Allegro Fortissimo

“Fashion, which has always been as much a narrative about the body as it is about clothes, has rarely taken kindly to the idea of flesh. Much as we may wax nostalgic about the Rubenesque ideal or the buxom, wide-hipped wenches of Restoration comedies, in its modern iteration fashion has steadily downsized the human scale. Flesh suggests messiness, privileging the indiscipline of life over the fierce control of art, the unaerobicized body spilling over the contours of an artificial silhouette…Flesh also suggests the threateningly female, moistness and blood, the hothouse clutches of a heavy-breasted mother — off-putting images for male fashion designers, who are more often than not gay.”

So begins Daphne Merkin’s “The F Word,” a sharp essay on the fickle presence and taste for flesh in fashion and beyond. Merkin’s take on the oft gay-male dominated fashion designer penchant for rail-thin and eternally juvenile models reinforces the societal pressure for women to maintain a svelte physique. The female body endures the “purgatory of size 14” more brutally than the male body. (Recall Karl Lagerfeld’s disdain for a German magazine’s decision to use only regular-sized women in their photos: “No one wants to see curvy women. . . . You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips sitting in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.”)

Deborah Turbeville, Models in Public Bathhouse in New York, Vogue (May 1975)

Contrast the William Klein photograph, Club Allegro Fortissimo, (above, which accompanied Merkin’s essay) with a similar bathhouse scene from Vogue. Deborah Turbeville’s Models in Public Bathhouse in New York (Vogue, May 1975) contrasts blatantly with Klein’s Rubenesque bodies. In fact, to find bodies of undulating flesh or resplendent thighs and bosoms in the pages of Vogue, one has to be prepared for the grotesque (Irving Penn’s Large Nude Woman Seated (“Epic Proportions”), Vogue, April 2004) or grotesquely fetishized musculature (Annie Leibovitz’s Tina George and Natalie Coughlin, Black’s Beach San Diego, Vogue, July 2004).

Even the magazine’s annual “size” issue is less an experiment in diversity and more a careful warning that curves are one thing, flesh is another. In fact the magazine’s colorful Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley, a man of sizable stature, has noted publicly that “Ms. Anna” (Vogue’s long-tenured Editor Anna Wintour), “doesn’t care for fat people.”

Irving Penn, Large Nude Woman Seated ("Epic Proportions"), Vogue (April 2004)

In fact, in the case of both Penn and Leibovitz the non-waif female form is borderline androgynous (fully so in the case of Penn). Is Penn’s Large Nude Woman Seated recognizable as a woman without the caption? Her eyes are closed, her face slack, resting on the folds of her neck. Her breasts undulate seamlessly into the layers of folds around her torso, which in turn hide her nipples and vagina amongst planes of flesh. From a distance would we debate her gender? Surely. Is that the point? Perhaps. Penn’s portrait is not that of a fertility goddess. Venus of Willendorf she is not. She is not the thick hipped, lushly thighed women of a Titian or Rubens painting.

No, her flesh is meant to be grotesque, it is meant to scare us, to caution us against consumption. Her flesh is not the making of her sexual allure but the undoing of it. We aren’t to gaze upon her like an Odalisque. Rather, we are to judge her, her sloth, her girth, her de-sexed genitalia.

Annie Leibovitz’s portrait, on the other hand, isn’t about the excess of

Annie Leibovitz, Tina George and Natalie Coughlin, Black's Beach, San Diego, Vogue (July 2004)

flesh, but flesh draped over muscles. Leibovitz’s women aren’t sexualized because of their femininity, but rather for their masculine virility. Their biceps flexed, their thighs and calves strained, their breasts recede seamlessly into their pectorals. Are they women? Even if we aren’t certain of their femininity, we are certain that we aren’t to think of them as women. We admire their forms, the forms the artist captured, the way we admire the David or a Bernini. This portrait is about the artist’s capturing of the body. Can we admire the strength of these women? In a different situation, context, sure. But here, their faces intense, their muscles taught, the ominous sky, this is the Laocoön. The added layer of racial dichotomy only enhances the othering and the grotesque tone.

Irving Penn, The Small Waist, Vogue (August 2000)

But the grotesque isn’t just about pointing fingers at the large and abnormal, it also comes in distorting, hybridizing, mechanizing the body. From a rib crushing corset to Thierry Mugler’s cyborg post-modernism and Alexander McQueen’s outlandish heels, the female form has become an anthropomorphized hanger. Breast, hips, thighs are present only when they need to be accented. But even then, their power as sexual objects, of femininity are often diminished or distorted.

Alexander McQueen, Spring 2010

The body often takes a backseat to the clothing, ornament, mask, the assorted accoutrement, and becomes a quasi didactic illustration or a vaguely anti-illustration illustration. Or vice versa. Often the clothing, the mise en scène is what falls by the way side and the body or the effects on the body take center stage. The images become less about shilling a product and more about using fascia, skin, musculature, and faces to construct a fantasy.

Eva Respini notes in “Paradox and Provocation” in Extreme Beauty in Vogue (SKIRA, 2009), that:

Irving Penn, Sweetie (A), Vogue (November 2002)

“The grotesque, which differs from the colloquial usage, can take on anumber of guises – crude, vulgar, and monstrous, but also whimsical, fanciful, and humorous. With its combination of disparate parts, it is the embodiment of paradox and contradiction.

Bodily mutilations are regularly broadcast into out living rooms via video games, horror movies, TV crime shows, and terrorist beheadings on the Internet…Bee-stung lips, bodies crawling with serpents or spiders, heads covered with beads, feathers, and burlap. Women corseted, masked, bound and teetering on high heels. Bodies measured, bandaged, prodded, and poked. Women screaming, smiling, kicking and fighting while sporting swimsuits, hats, jewelry, or nothing at all…these grotesque fantasies and illusions propose new hybrids of beauty for an age in which the pursuit of beauty has become an extreme sport.” (7)

Steven Klein, Intelligent Design - Remote Control, Vogue (January 2006)

So many of the images included here, in this post, as well as in Vogue (or any other variation of the high end fashion magazine), accompany articles on the latest beauty cream, surgery, potion, promise, or fitness craze. They extoll the virtues of the multi-hundred dollar facial or multi-thousand dollar surgical procedure. Articles about lip-plumping, knee lifting, anti-aging, wrinkle reducing are as much apart of the othering of women as the images are.

While many have sung the praises of the whimsy, avant garde, and fantastical nature of fashion photography, but there’s a fine line between the thought provoking and the exploitative. While the nature of beauty is always up for debate, the manner in which the female body is consistently the target of manipulation and exploitation – whether the grotesque hybridizing of the body or face, the reified body into object or machine, or the Orientalizing of the body through ornament or clothing capitalizing on the otherness of activated body in cloth.

Herb Ritts, Beach and Beyond, Body Sculpting (B), Vogue (June 1996)

Take Irving Penn’s Sweetie (A) (Vogue, November 2002), a white-washed bust with a Fouchon collage of rock candy, licorice, candied fruits and dates. An image equal parts child’s art project and visceral body turned inside out.

Steven Klein, Medical Mistakes, Vogue (May 2008)

Or take Steven Klein’s Medical Mistakes (Vogue, May 2008) or Intelligent Designs – Remote Control (Vogue, January 2006), two portraits that seem more like stills from a Cronenberg film or a Marina Abramovic performance as opposed to fashion photography.

Abramovic, widely considered the grandmother of the performance art movement, has said of performance: “Once you enter into the performance state you can push your body to do things you absolutely could never normally do.” (Janet Kaplan, “Deeper and Deeper” Art Journal 58:2 (1999): 6-19)

Alexander McQueen: Fashion Show as Performance Art

This seems as apropos for Vogue‘s take on the body as it is for Abramovic, an artist infamous for her bodily transformations. Klein’s subject’s mouth in Medical Mistakes is made of grotesque oversized vinyl lips that mirror the sheen of the cut-out panels on the model’s designer dress. Is this image selling the dress? Sure, I suppose. But it’s selling the performance more. And the performance is dangers of plastic surgery gone awry.

Helmut Newton, Machine Age, Vogue (November 1995)

The irony, of course, is that over the decades as plastic surgery has become more and more advanced and more and more pervasive, the models in Vogue have become more and more airbrushed and exaggerated in their shape and weight. Women who end up as plastic surgery punch lines or cautionary tales often do so in their pursuit to look like models. What is more dangerous: the grotesquely outrageous caricature in the Klein photo, or the reality of what occurs, what women do to themselves to look like what they see in Vogue?

Plastic surgery is equal parts science fiction and medical miracle working. With the tides of science fiction literature and film have come a change in fashion, in the way the body is treated and used by fashion to depict the mechanical, the hybrid, the postmodern. Take for instance the MET Costume Institute’s “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy,” an exhibition from 2008:

“Through the years, the superhero has been used to embody—through metaphor—our social and political realities. At the same time, it has been used to represent concepts reflective of sexuality and corporeality through idealized, objectified, and hyperbolic visualizations of the human body. Constantly redefined and reworked according to popular canons of beauty, superheroes embody the superlative.

Helmut Newton, Machine Age, Vogue (November 1995)


Fashion not only shares the superhero’s metaphoric malleability, but actually embraces and responds to the particular metaphors that the superhero represents, notably that of the power of transformation. Fashion celebrates metamorphosis, providing unlimited opportunities to remake and reshape the flesh and the self. Through fashion and the superhero, we gain the freedom to fantasize, to escape the banal, the ordinary, and the quotidian. The fashionable body and the superhero body are sites upon which we can project our fantasies, offering a virtuosic transcendence beyond the moribund and utilitarian.”

Thierry Mugler

The Hollywood concept of the “Superhero” and the fashion concept of the “Supermodel” have merged more often than not, and in doing so have brought Stellarc, the Terminator, Catwoman, and Donna Haraway’s cyborg out of the sphere of the unbelievable into the realm of fantastical possibility.

But the fantasy of science fiction and reified bodies encased in a Mugler armored suit is a form of Othering, of turning a woman into a postmodern hyperbole. But the more often invoked method of Othering within fashion is through the appropriation of the “Other.”


The exposed or covered body of the Eastern woman has long held the voyeuristic gaze of the West. Nochlin’s “Imaginary Orient,” Ingre’s Odalisque or Turkish Bath, or Lalla Essaydi’s self-Orientalizing Les Femmes du Maroc, or any number of Orientalist paintings or literature. But fashion has long harbored a fetish for the perceived exotic eroticism of the sumptuous East.

Steven Meisel, Untitled, John Galliano Models, Vogue (December 2002)

Take Givenchy’s “burqa” or John Galliano’s deconstructed, over-sized, monochromatic geisha kabuki ensmble, for examples. Whether the topic is “Muslim Chic” or the strange mix of fear and fascination induced by the sight of a burqa or abaya clad women, the conversation of fashion, women and the Other has incited a lot of discussion (here, and here, just a few among innumerable blogs, websites, etc.)

Does fashion help us with these questions of the body, of beauty, of the grotesque and the Other? Does it make it worse? The debate, it seems, is never ending, the evidence ever-mounting. The cycles of fashion or no different than the cycles of society. If fantasy helps erase fear of the body beneath the abaya, or the armor of a bustier then so be it. But if is infantilizes the discussion or perpetuates the separation between “us” and “them” or “West” and “East” then it’s the problem not the solution.

Fashion as all art is both reaction to and catalyst for the shifts in the world. To see it as anything else diminishes the impact it has, both positive and negative.


See related visual culture blogs: “The Sight of Blood: Vision, Violence, and the Temple in Etruscan Etruria;” “Oriental Naitonalism;” and “Body As Weapon: The Mediated Body of the Suicide Bomber.”


Filed under Culture, Feminism