Said's Orientalism and It's Relevance Today
Edward Said’s analysis of the Occidental and Oriental discourse was, at the time it was published in 1978, the first use of Foucault in an “extended cultural analysis” (Clifford, 1980, p. 212). There is much confusion about what Said’s Orientalism truly means. It may be stated that the book is an attempt to analyze Occidental discourse and how it promotes Western culture’s imperialistic power over the Orient. Whatever the meaning, the book is a “controversial and important work” (Winder, 1981).
According to Said, the term
Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it 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, 2004, p.3)
However, for Said, the term was mostly academic (Said, 1994, p.2) and was used to describe those who write, teach, discuss, or study the Orient. It is also a style of thought based on an “epistemological distinction” made between the Orient and the Occident (Said, 2004, p.2).
Through these three meanings, Said proposes that Orientalism is a discourse, a systematic method by which Europe was able to dominate the East. Thus, the Orient is “not a free subject” that one can exercise any thought or action upon (Said, 2004, p.3). In short, due to its literary baggage, it is never free to be what it really is and remain as if it was still under colonial rule.
Orientalists thought does not have to be false nor does it have to be suspect (Said, 2004, p.6). “Orientalism” is Western knowledge of the Middle East in the service of imperialism (p. 9). For Said, that your geographic origin defines your perspective, regardless of the content of your discourse (Said, 2004, p.11). For example, when Said discusses German discourse, he distinguishes it from the Anglo-French Orientalist because they never had an imperialist presence (Said, 2004, p. 19). Thus a German and English author could write the exact same thing, yet only one would be an Orientalist:
For it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim it’s author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances…[i]t meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the Earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient since the time of Homer (Said, 2004, p.11)(emphasis added).
Orientalism may be understood to start with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt but as a system of ideas, it begins around 1840 (Said, 2004, p.6). Thus, according to Said and his adherents, there is an undeniable link between scholarship and conquest, between discourse and imperialism (Hamdi, 2013, p. 136).
The concept is intriguing and the argument can be made, as it is so eloquently done by Said vis-à-vis Foucault. Understandably, he has his critics such as Bernard Lewis and Ibn Warraq (Hamdi, 2013). They refute Said’s claims by showing examples of Western writers who did not have imperialistic tendencies. By and large, the evidence they present is correct: there were scholars who sought to learn and write about the Orient without any designs on her people and land. Others claim that Said conveniently ignores other European cultures that had no significant Oriental designs, particularly Germany (Pasto, 1998, p. 437). Again, this is correct as Said does dismiss the “Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and Swiss” from his Occidental imperialists (Said, 2004, p.1). He thus reduces “Europe” to Britain, France, and the United States, thus making a curious foundation for an academic argument.
As a general argument, it appears correct, however, because the main colonizers of the world since 1840 were Britain and France, two European countries. But to state that there was an ideology of the “Other” that somehow identified both regions may be too general (Said, 2004, p.5) if not sophistry. The same could be said for a “Western” hegemony over Africa at the time or North and South America a few centuries earlier. The point may not be so much that scholarship produced Orientalism which produced imperialism but that other factors were in play that led to Europe’s domination and imperialistic tendencies (see e.g., Diamond, 2005, and the discussion of a stable food supply as a determining factor in European ascendency).
More importantly, however, is the argument whether Said’s analysis is even relevant or sustainable today. His analysis presumably begins in the 19th Century and continues until around 1977. With the rise of the global economy (something that Said predicted would reverse Orientalism) and the effusion of digital content on the web, the marketplace of ideas is much broader and more heterogeneous. For example, Said calls the Cambridge History of Islam the “highest and most intellectually prestigious” form of Occidental Orientalism (Said, 2004, p. 302). Whether it radically misconceives or misrepresents Islam (p. 302) as Said states is irrelevant to this argument. Perhaps in 1978 it was the preeminent Western treatise on the Orient but can the same be said today?
Using a keyword search of “Middle East”, “Islam”, “Muslim”, and “Arab” at the USF EBSCO Host electronic library brings up 15.6 million results, 7.4 million which are news or related articles. Limit this search to academic writings (journals, books, symposia, etc.) and 3.9 million results are returned. Look at the academic discourse from 1978 to today and there are a total of 3.6 million results, a net change of approximately 300,000 writings. Statistically, it would be difficult to argue that 3.6 million scholarly articles are of the type that Said argues about.
CLIFFORD, J. (1980). Orientalism [book review]. History & Theory, 19(2), 204-223.
Diamond, J. M. (2005). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton.
Hamdi, T. (2013). EDWARD SAID AND RECENT ORIENTALIST CRITIQUES. Arab Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 130-148.
Pasto, J. (1998). Islam's 'Strange Secret Sharer': Orientalism, Judaism, and the Jewish Question. Comparative Studies In Society And History, 40(3), 437-474. doi:10.1017/S0010417598001364
Said, E.W. (2004). Orientalism. New York: Vintage.
Winder, B. (1981). Orientalism [book review]. Middle East Journal, 35: 615-619.