Edward Said: Orientalism

In his magnum opus, Orientalism, Edward W. Said shows that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self. Orientalism is defined here as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the orient.

Mr. Said makes clear to the reader that by Orientalism, he means many things that are interdependent. As a matter of fact, the most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one – and it lives on through its doctrines about the Orient and the Oriental.

Later in the text, Mr. Said makes a stunning observation. He notes that in a quite constant way, Orientalism fundamentally depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand – and this discourse unfolds even today.

Said launches further into a brilliant critique of Orientalism. He notes that one must repeatedly ask oneself whether what matters in Orientalism is the general group of ideas overriding the mass of material about which who could deny that they were shot through with doctrines of European superiority.

This critique of European superiority is a reoccurring theme in Said’s text, and in postcolonial studies generally. This point is specifically crucial, as it helps us deconstruct Eurocentric narratives about the cultural superiority of Europe and the backwardness of the Orient.

This notion of Orientalism can often yield various kinds of racism, imperialism and the like, dogmatic views of “the Oriental” is a kind of ideal and unchanging abstraction ¬– according to Mr. Said.

Later in the text, a crucial description of Orientalism is made. It is noted that Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or an institution. Instead, it is a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, and historical texts.

Orientalism is a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw sense. Rather, it is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power. This is a very Foucauldian perspective to take, no wonder Said evokes him in the text.

In Said’s view, various kinds of power are political (as with the colonial or imperial establishment), intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences) and power (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values).

Mr. Said then goes on a critique of Eurocentric thinkers and challenges these narratives by making omnipresent the cognitive dissonance inherent in them. He evokes the works of Harry Bracken, who brilliantly illustrates to us that philosophers will conduct their discussions of Locke, Hume and empiricism without ever taking into account that there is an explicit connection in these classic writers between their “philosophic” doctrines and racial theory, justifications of slavery, or arguments for colonial exploitation.

Mr. Said launches further into this brilliant critique by rightfully claiming that liberal cultural heroes like John Stewart Mill, Arnold, Carlyle, Newman and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism, which are quite easily to be found in their writing. This idea is at the heart of most post-colonial texts. The idea is that so called enlightenment and liberal texts are Eurocentric in nature and are often problematic and don’t incorporate a full range of cultures and civilizations.

Said brings up a brilliant and timely example, that of John Stewart Mill. Mill made it clear in On Liberty and Representative Government that his views could not be applied to India because the Indians were civilizationally, if not racially, inferior.

Throughout Orientalism, Mr. Said is dissecting and addressing this idea that the way the orient has (and still is) pictured and understood by the West is not only degrading but closer to mythology than reality. This is a humorous observation and an eloquent critique of the so-called proponents of reason and civilization.

Mr. Said’s basic argument throughout the text is that the desire to understand a different culture than our own so we can co-exist should be independent from the exchange of power and dominance.

Power and dominance have resulted in years of colonization, arbitrary drawings of frontiers and the oversimplification of a multitude of civilizations and cultures under one stereotypical domination: obviously, I am referring to The Orient.

Said’s free flowing energy and charismatic personality are omnipresent in every passage. He beautifully expresses a desire to open the range of debate and criticism of post-colonial discourses through a humanist perspective – this is something you would expect only an innovative provocateur like Said could pull off.

Said is implying that to analyze more profoundly the conflicts within Orientalism, one must adhere to the idea that no domain of research and study through time can exist independently from another.

Said argues that to break the chains of the mind, which restrain from a reasonable historical reflection, one must consider injustices and suffering through a broader historical, cultural, and socioeconomic reality – and this something thinkers such as Gramsci, Fanon and Césaire can provide us with.

Said dives presciently into critiques of cliques and myths. Said specifically describes Orientalism as being an occidental theory based on the perspective the West has of its oriental counterpart.

This social construction is based on a fantasized perception of the Orient influenced by a perceived superiority of the West over its former colonies and other ‘exotic’ cultures as well as an inaccurate cultural perspective transmitted through cliques.

These oriental stereotypes and patters are all too common in western civilization. These phenomena are omnipresent in film, art, and literature, and it has a tremendous impact on foreign policy.

The “other”, a term and concept that Mr. Said is vehement on conveying, is constructed by the West, hence why it must be deconstructed. A postmodernist he was. He applied his concepts to create a new cultural logic for the postcolonial intellectual scene.

Mr. Said, in a beautiful and illuminating passage, states that: “Orientalism itself is a European invention and had been since antiquity ‘a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”. These presuppositions have manifested in how western culture sees the “other” or the orient.

Said often borrows from Foucauldian discourse when describing orientalism. A discourse is described by Michel Foucault as being a compilation of knowledge and thoughts regarding a common subject through similar methodology and present power relations as well as how it is talked about and perpetrated.

For Mr. Said, Orientalism is an occidental post-colonial discourse as he brilliantly describes it in a dense and rich passage: “The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial style.”

Mr. Said emphasizes and asserts the idea that without embracing Orientalism as a discourse, one cannot fully understand the past and current relations between the West and East and the systemic and oppressive ways in which they are being implemented. This dynamic illustrates to us the contemporary importance of Said’s rich and sophisticated scholarship on Orientalism.

Mr. Said’s scholarship on Orientalism is both innovative and prescient. A lack of nuance and understanding often plagues foreign policy on the Orient, hence why Said’s work is both practical and prescient.
One must deconstruct Eurocentric discourses on the orient and reevaluate cultural symbols that misrepresent the Orient.
Mr. Said brilliantly summarizes his world view in Egyptian Auteur Youssef Chahine’s 1999 film The Other. In a brief cameo, Mr. Said passionately states: “I hope that one day they and us will stop separating “us” and “them,” and use an inclusive “we” instead.


Said's, Edward. "Orientalism." (1978).