Dog Days Classics: Said Said What? Orientalism and the Other

Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978

Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism is without a doubt a massively influential work that grad students and others sometimes use far too carelessly. Along with later works such as 1993’s Culture and Imperialism, Said established a critical insight into how Western works, fictional and historical, created a discourse about the East that conflated it with femininity, emotionality, and sensuality that left Eastern culture submissive to the masculine, scientific, and rational West. The book exploded the idea of an objective history and raised questions about the efficacy of Western histories of the East. After all, the West’s imposition of the above traits on Eastern culture in many ways said far more about the West than it did the East.

Orientalism was an important book for my own development. Though I read it at age 20 for an undergraduate course, it raised all kinds of red flags. I had never really considered the power of discourse or the problematic foundations upon which Western historians wrote histories of the East. Maybe even worse, as an American Catholic school educated student (twelve years of Popery if you will), the idea of Israel as a problematic state never ever really came up. Though Orientalism never discusses Israel, my classmates did. Needless to say, it forced me to reconsider the plight of both Palestinians and Israelis. In a strange way, I grew to understand the nuanced and tragic relationship between them far better than I ever could have without Said. If I remember correctly, we read Orientalism in tandem with Martin Bernal’s controversial Black Athena, so one can understand what kind of effect this might have on a middle class kid from the South Suburbs of Chicago. Thankfully, I never viewed history the same again.

Yet, as with Foucault, Said’s conclusions can be carried too far. After all, discourse matters, it can shape actions and policies, but it is not the be all end all. Also like Foucault, sometimes Said’s followers seem to carry his conclusions too far or position him in ways he himself opposed. Said certainly had his doubts about the kind of work he inspired. Even with all its flaws, Said loved Western literature. The late Tony’s Judt’s essay on Said engages this thorny issue:

Edward Said was the idolized hero of a generation of cultural relativists in universities from Berkeley to Bombay, for whom ‘orientalism’ underwrote everything from career building exercises in ‘postcolonial’ obscurantism (‘writing the other’) to denunciations of Western culture in academic curriculum. But Said himself had no time for such nonsense. Radical antifoundationalism, the notion that everything is just a linguistic effect, struck him as shallow and ‘facile’: Human rights, as he observed on more than one occasion, ‘are not cultural or grammatical things, and when violated they are as real as anything we can encounter.’ (Tony Judt, “Edward Said: The Rootless Cosmopolitan,” in Reappraisals, 164)

Yes, critics unfairly labeled Said, the “Professor of Terror,” but even those who questioned Orientalism’s conclusions, like Judt, or writer/literary critic, Edmund White repeatedly commented on the decency of the man. White, whose negative review of Orientalism offended Said, acknowledged that though it took years to repair the breech, White wanted to out of sheer admiration for him. (City Boy, 16) Moreover, even if some took his conclusions too far, there is no doubt that subaltern studies and efforts to uncover the place of the “other” and other liminal peoples have greatly expanded our knowledge of the past and present.

Nor was Said any kind of real nationalist (“I have no patience with the position that ‘we’ should only or mainly be concerned with what is ‘ours’.” (Judt, 166)). He viewed the solution to Palestine, not as a two state solution but rather as the transformation of Israel and Palestine into a secular nation shared by both peoples. As a “rootless cosmopolitan,” he surely felt the sting of Palestinian humiliation and suffering and he rightly saw the sham of the Oslo Peace process (for both sides, though admittedly Said would probably focus more on the Palestinian cause). For all Said’s contributions to postcolonial studies, he viewed nationalism, even when resistant toward imperial power, warily. Efforts to rightly resist imperialism sometimes hinged on an essentializing nationalism that too often morphed into nativism, negating politics and history. In his 1993 work Culture and Imperialism, Said warned “to accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism, the racial, religious, and political divisions imposed by imperialism itself.”(228) Like Arjun Appadurai, Said raised concerns about the role of media in reifying and inscribing negative images about Asia and the Middle East while also marginalizing the experiences of such peoples by only giving historical context when geopolitical conflict erupts.

Said provided game changing contributions to numerous fields. Foucault and Said’s collective influence created its own discourse, that as acknowledged, could be problematic in its own right but also established a new lexicon and way of thinking regarding history, sociology, anthropology, and other traditional disciplines. Newer fields like immigration and postcolonial studies depend mightily on many of the foundational tenets Said provided. However, as with anything in the world of academia and elsewhere, theories can be extended too far. Of course, once again, it can be argued that Said noted this flaw himself. According to Judt, nothing frustrated Said more than modern literary scholars’ overattention to theory at the expense of close textual reading. (Judt, 164)

Critics have argued Said obscured the contributions Orientalists made in regard to building knowledge about the East and that he pointedly focused too much on French and English writers at the expense of other European interlopers. Others claim that Orientalists served as advocates for political causes of various Middle Eastern peoples. Perhaps they have a point, but it remains difficult to ignore the clear social constructions that continue to emerge regarding representations of the East. Inane examples like the musical, Miss Saigon, popular in the 1990s and re-staged this summer in Philadelphia, appear laughably guilty of the sins of Orientalism. The “mysterious, inscrutable Vietnamese” (one could argue when you don’t speak the language anywhere people will be mysterious) and the overly sensualized peasant girl turned prostitute Kim provide two clear examples. If Said got some things wrong, he got many more right. For this writer, the book opened up whole new vistas that 12 years of dutiful but dogmatic Catholic Church education failed to do.

Ryan Reft