Theories and Analysis

I was beginning to see a pattern in the work that you have shared with me, and this session was a response to that pattern.  So, I can see plenty of evidence of reading, thinking, and planning for your dissertations, but those different elements currently seem SEPARATE in your work.  So, if you look at your iMap right now, you may see that you have included summaries of texts that you have read and some ideas of your own, but you might not have CONNECTED them yet.  For university writing, we need to take ideas (theory) from our reading, and apply them in our own thinking about our subject (our analysis).  The example iMaps from former students show how this can be done, but they are of course the final submissions from these students.  They probably started, just as you did, with their reading and thinking separated before using their reading to perform an analysis.

In this session, my aim was to give you an example of how we can use theory to perform an analysis of a subject.  The subjects we used were images and a historical event.  The theories included Orientalism (Edward Said), Projection (Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan), and Othering (Gayatri Spivak).

The Snake Charmer (1880), an Orientalist painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904)

I asked you what think of when you see the picture above.  These are the responses:



Weird decadent hopeless

Poor bored weak


The image, and your responses, link very well to Edward Said’s Orientalism.  Orientalism is the name of Said’s 1978 book, and it has become the name given to the concept of “the West”’s portrayal of “the East”.  “The West”, or the “occident”, refers largely to Europe (Orientalism is a post-colonial critique, so it is fundamentally related to former colonial powers, such as Britain and France) and “the East” or “orient” refers pretty much from Turkey eastwards, as far as China, Japan, and South East Asia.  We could call Orientalism a largely “negative” portrayal, but it’s more complex than this.  Not all of our words above are completely negative (“mysterious” might be quite attractive for some people) but together they form a way of representing eastern cultures so that western cultures seem superior.  

I then asked you this question: when you think of Chinese characters in American TV series or movies, how would you describe the characters? Are the men good or bad?  What about the women? I agree with your observations:

Women are good

Old men are good – wise?

Chinese food

Kongfu – kung fu 

Good at math

Men are connected to the criminal underworld


Now the point here is not just to DESCRIBE what we see in American movies, but to ANALYSE it.  And maybe we can use Said’s theory to discuss how US culture represents Chinese people in a way that, again, is not entirely negative, but which can make it seem in some ways inferior.

Please note, that here I am just giving you examples that I think you will be familiar with.  We’re performing this analysis in order to CRITIQUE the representations.  

I then introduced two other THEORISTS, to see if we could take their ideas and apply them to our discussion of Orientalism. 

You were familiar with Freud, the “father” of Psychoanalysis, and I also referred to Jacques Lacan to talk about psychoanalytic theories of “Projection”, in which people take their own fears and elements that they feel ashamed about and “project” these onto others, thus making themselves feel better about themselves.  (I’m simplifying massively here, but I hope it makes sense). 


I hoped that you might recognise this happening in the following image: (follow the link and read the blog post – its’ good!)

This is quite a strange photograph.  In many ways it is a good example of Said’s Orientalism: a Western artist is portraying the East as mysterious, decadent, living for pleasure, and maybe sexually immoral / improper. The photograph is a Western idea of the East.  It contains imagery related to “the East”, much of which is ‘supposed’ to be China: we think that the woman’s dress is supposed to be a traditional Chinese costume, and perhaps the smoke is Opium; the furniture might be Chinese, though the rug looks more like it comes from Iran! The image is inconsistent with ‘reality’, but it is consistent with Said’s theory.  We can also apply the idea of Projection to this image.  As was pointed out in the session, there is some irony in this photograph.  If this is a Western attempt to represent the East as immoral and decadent, history tells us that the British *wanted* opium use to be widespread in China (hence the Opium Wars).  So perhaps, as Lacan might argue, the photograph represents a Western projection of guilt and shame onto the East.  

I hope you can see how we are combining theory and observation here to create an analysis. 

There is another THEORIST that we can introduce here: Gayatri Spivak. Consider this:

The photograph portrays “the orient” as mysterious, decadent, and arguably immoral”.  It is a very clear attempt to portray the East as “different” and, as such,  is a good example of Said’s Orientalism.  The photograph of the woman is also an example of what Spivak calls “othering”.


So here I introduced you to Gayatri Spivak’s essay “The Rani of Sirmur”, published in 1985.  In it, Spivak shares the story of the Rani of Sirmur and discusses the complexities in analysing her situation, which is basically that:

  1. The Rani’s husband has died.
  2. Local custom dictates that his wife, the Rani, should throw herself on his funeral pyre.
  3. The colonial rulers, the British, want to prevent this from happening.

How do we analyse the situation?  How does our THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK change our analysis? I asked you to consider how using THEORY might change the way we interpret the situation.  You responded very well:

A Marxist: The extreme manner of death is a way to communicate that the overthrow of the regime must be through violent means of revolution

A feminist: perhaps the Rani should not conform to a tradition that subjugates women; or perhaps that the Rani is a strong woman who can use this act to stand up to the patriarchy of the British colonial power. 

An anti-colonialist: she threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in order to maintain the conventional traditions and resist the invasion of colonists.

A post-colonial post-structuralist: by wanting to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, the Rani was not only fighting against colonial oppression, she also created a record of herself for future generations to find.  The action gave her a voice. In this sense, it was empowering.  

There’s no correct analysis of course, but note what we are doing here.  We are taking ideas, and applying them to subjects to try to analyse them and deepen our discussion.

As a next step, I recommend that you look at iMaps from former students and try to find examples of THEORY and THEORISTS in their work. Note how the students apply the theories to their own subject. This is what I mean when I refer to the application of a THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK.

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