By William Wetherall

A review of
Edward W. Said
New York: Vintage Books, 1979 (1978)
xi, 368 pages, softcover

See also Orientalism.

First posted 27 December 2005
Last updated 1 January 2006

The "Orient" stops west of India

Said's "Orient" has nothing to do with the bulk of the "Orient" on this website. In his own words (Page 1):

Americans will not feel quite the same about the Orient, which for them is more like to be associated very differently with the Far East (China and Japan, mainly). Unlike the Americans, the French and the British -- less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and Swiss -- have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.

Hence Said is primarily concerned with the Near and Middle East -- not surprising, since he was born in British Palestine, and grew up mostly in Egypt. He went to the United States for preparatory school college (Princeton and Harvard), and was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia when he wrote Orientalism.

Political determinism

Said strongly believes that a person's viewpoint is shaped first by their "culture" or "politics" and only later, if at all, by the fact that they are a human being (Page 11):

. . . if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author's involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his [emphasis in original] actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second. And to be a European or an American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact. It 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 almost since the time of Homer.

These "political realities" predispose "Westerners" to view the "Orient" in an "Orientalist" manner -- and this predisposition results in something very tangible (Page 12):

Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is [emphasis added] -- and does not simply represent -- a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with "our" world.

Said takes to task "literary studies in general" and "American Marxist theorists in particular" for avoiding the political and ideological implications of textual and historical scholarship. And he calls on them to realize that "political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination, and scholarly institutions -- in such a way as to make its avoidance an intellectual and historical impossibility." (Pages 13-14).

Essential questions

Said writes that "Orientalism" raises a number of "political questions", the most salient of which are these (Page 15):

How did philology, lexicography, history, biology, political and economic theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism's broadly imperialist view of the world? What changes, modulations, refinements, even revolutions take place within Orientalism? What is the meaning of originality, of continuity, of individuality, in this context? How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another? In fine, how can we treat the cultural, historical phenomenon of Orientalism as a kind of willed human work [emphasis in original] -- not of mere unconditioned ratiocination -- in all its historical complexity, detail, and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination?

To be continued.