“I have begun with the assumption that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either. We much take seriously Vico’s great observation that men make their own history; that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entities—to say nothing of historical entities—such locales, regions, geographical sectors as ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ are man-made… The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.” (1869)
When I read this passage I immediately thought of our discussion of Saussure and the relativity of terms in a sequence or contiguous line (as in east to west). “[A] term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows it, or both” (Saussure 864). The boundary between one and the other may be uncertain, but the essential nature of one or the other (the Self and the Other; the Occident and the Orient) is nonetheless defined against what is on the opposite side of that uncertain boundary and its identity is constructed in part through that opposition. In this way the sequential nature of their relationship is obscured, and they appear to have a difference that can be marked by the boundary—the boundary appears to be real, “an inert fact of nature.”
It is significant that Said goes on to qualify this observation by pointing out that the relationship between “the East” and “the West” must be understood in terms of “configurations of power” (1869). Oppositional relationships (as we have seen in our discussions of the construction of an essentialist gender binary) are constructed to defend and justify unequal power relations, making difference (and, by extension, inequity) appear objective and natural.