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Edward W. Said's Orientalism Discussion

Edward W. Said's Orientalism Discussion

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Published by Md. Shohel Rana
Critical Discussion on Edward W. Said's Orientalism and Orientalism Reconsidered : A Post-colonial Theory Study
Critical Discussion on Edward W. Said's Orientalism and Orientalism Reconsidered : A Post-colonial Theory Study

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Published by: Md. Shohel Rana on May 30, 2012
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Said's Orientalism, its Critiques and his Responses Presenter : Md.

Shohel Rana
Roll No. Zia-2300, Tutorial Group No. 1
M.A. English Literature, Session: 2009-10
Department of English, University of Dhaka

Introduction: Good morning everybody, thanks for coming and welcome to my
presentation. I have got a topic as you know and that is Edward Said's Orientalism, its Critiques and his Responses. I hope my findings will help us better understand the text. I also hope that you will find my presentation interesting. I request you not to ask questions while I am presenting as you know, interruption may distract me. But don't worry about that; if you get a question during the presentation, please write it down and ask me at the end of the session and I would be happy to answer your questions. Now let’s go to the main point.

Highlights of the book Orientalism
First of all, I am going to remind you the highlights of the book Orientalism by Said. I hope it will help us relate Said's views to the critiques. The book Orientalism is a bright moon in the world of post-colonial theories. Many a scholar has regarded it as the canonical text of cultural studies. It has brought a revolution in this field. Many scholars acknowledge that without Said’s Orientalism post-colonial studies would remain incomplete. The term orientalism means scholarly knowledge of Asian cultures, languages and peoples. Said has popularized the term in which he examines the processes by which the Orient was constructed in European thinking by professional orientalists included scholars in various disciplines such as languages, history and philology. As a form of academic discourse it was “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident” (p.2). Said defines Orientalism as "a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient"(p.3). He further defines Orientalism as "A distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts"(p.12). In Orientalism, Said has used two epitaphs. The first one is from Benjamin Disraeli's novel 'Tancred' that reads "The East is a career". The other is taken from Karl Marx's description of the ordinary farmer in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and that reads "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented". So the Orient is seen as a source of

material gain. The orientalist scholars came to the Orient motivated by their greed for wealth. They represented the Oriental people as week, feminine and inactive. They also depicted them as the Other or Alien who are inferior while the Occident are superior. The representation of Eastern man and woman by the orientalist scholars is very much objectionable. The man is depicted as feminine, weak yet strangely dangerous because poses a threat to white women. And the woman is described as both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic. In the book, Said has effectively redefined the term Orientalism to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East. This body of scholarship is marked by a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arobo-Islamic peoples and their culture". He argued that a long tradition of romanticised images of Asia and the Middle East has served as an implicit justification for European and American colonial and imperial ambitions. Principally a study of 19th century literary discourse and strongly influenced by the work of thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, Said's work also engages contemporary reality and has clear political implications. A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all Eastern societies as fundamentally similar to one another and fundamentally dissimilar to Western societies. Following the idea of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. According to Foucauldian Model of Power/ Knowledge, knowledge gives rise to power and in turn power produces knowledge and more power requires more knowledge. The orientalists established their authority over the Orient by acquiring knowledge about them. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the Orient was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. The work of another thinker, Antonio Gramsci, was also important in shaping Said's analysis in this area. In particular, Said has been greatly influenced by Gramsci's notion of hegemony in understanding the pervasiveness of Orientalist constructs and representations in Western scholarship and reparting, and their relation to the exercise of power over the Orient. Edward Said has summarized his work in the following lines: "My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided difference with its weakness...As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth and knowledge."(p.204).

Critics on Orientalism

Since the publication in 1978, Orientalism stimulated and continues to generate responses from several quarters and with varying degrees of hostility. The vigor and range of these criticisms reveal how profound the influence of the book has been. I am going to focus on those critics who have pointed out certain demerits/problems of Orientalism.

Shelley Walia Criticizing Said's Orientalism, Shelley Walia in his book entitled 'Edward Said and the Writing of History' has said, "There are some methodological problems within Said's hypothesis of Orientalism. It is felt that the study of a systematic and unitary attitude to the East is too monolithic and dismisses with a single sweep the inconsistencies and varieties of Western Orientalisms as practised by the English, the French, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Moreover, the totalising force of Western discourse is rejected as inauthentic, with the implicit assumption that there is a representation which is real."(p.46-7).

Aijaz Ahmad Another prominent critic of Said's Orientalism is Aijaz Ahmad. He is a well-known Indian Marxist literary theorist and political commentator. One of the most vigorous attacks on Said's alleged Foucauldian position in recent time has been mounted by Aijaz Ahmad in his book "In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literature". Ahmad contextualizes Orientalism with what he terms the general retreat of the Left in response to the global offensive of the Right. He is at pains to demonstrate that Said is inconsistent about whether Orientalism is a system of representations or misrepresentations. Further, Ahmad argues that Said's position is simply to suggest that "the line between representation and misrepresentation is always very thin." Robert Irwin Another critic whose name is Robert Irwin, a British historian criticizes a problem with Said's Orientalism. In his book 'For Lust of Knowing' he criticizes what he claims to be Said's thesis that throughout Europe's history "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist and almost totally ethnocentric." Irwin points out that long before notions like Third-Worldism and post-colonialism entered academia, many Orientalists were committed advocates for Arab and Islamic political causes.

George P. Landow

Now, let’s have a look at what George Landow says about Said's Orientalism. Landow is a professor of English and Art History at Brown University in the United States. Though he has acknowledged the great influence of Orientalism on post-colonial theory, he has found a lack in Said's scholarship. Landow criticizes Said for ignoring the non-Arab Asian countries, nonWestern imperialism, the occidentalist ideas that abound in East towards the Western, and gender issues. Orientalism assumes that Western imperialism, Western psychological projection, "and its harmful political consequences are something that only the West does to the East rather than something all societies do to one another."

Bernard Lewis Now comes Bernard Lewis, the strongest critic of Said's Orientalism. Lewis is a British-American Historian, scholar in Oriental Studies and political commentator. Orientalism included much criticism of Bernard Lewis, which he in turn answered. Rejecting the view that Western scholarship was biased against the Middle East, Lewis responded that Orientalism developed as a facet of European humanism, independently of the past European imperial expansion. He noted that the French and the English pursued the study of Islam in the 16th and 17th centuries, yet not in an organized way, but long before they had any control or hope of control in the Middle East; and that much of Orientalist study did nothing to advance the cause of imperialism. "What imperial purpose was served by deciphering the ancient Egyptian language, for example, and then restoring to the Egyptians knowledge of and pride in their forgotten, ancient past?" (Islam and the West:1993, p. 126). Lewis further says that the importance of the German and Hungarian scholars was tremendous in terms of their contribution to Middle East scholarship, even though they were not residents of countries with any imperialist interest in the region, and therefore the connection between power and knowledge did not exist in this case. He also says that Said ignored the fact that many scholars opposed imperialism, and therefore the connection he creates between their academic works and imperialism is forced. In his Orientalism Said has accused the scholars of the Middle East for serving imperialism or gaining from it. In response to this accusation, Lewis says that he agrees that some Middle East scholars served imperialism. But he argues that as an explanation of academic research of the Islamic world as a whole, this argument is flawed.

Daniel Pipes

Daniel Pipes is an American historian, writer and political commentator. He is the founder and director of the Middle East Forum. His writing focuses on the American foreign policy, the Middle East, Islam and Islamism. He is the writer of the controversial book entitled 'In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power' (2002). In a review Pipes argues that "Said's arguments violate history and common sense, while his manipulation of evidence creates the book's dramatic effect as well as its deep flaws. More specifically, the argument in Orientalism is overstated and its explanations false." In conclusion of his review Pipes further says, "Orientalism screams with pains; Said reveals unvarnished grievance and his book settles petty scores. Writing more in anger than in sorrow, Said lashes out against an outworn view of the world as a catharsis for his personal nemesis. His flawed, shoddy and deceptive project is a disgrace and deserves to be ignored. ”

Said's Responses to the Critiques
Said's publication of Orientalism made such an impact on thinking about colonial discourse that for two decades it has continued to be the site of controversy and criticism. Much of the criticisms against Orientalism come from the Orientalists. Some criticisms are only for the sake of criticism. But some points are well-grounded. Now let us have a look at what Said has said to the Critiques of his Orientalism. He says, "Orientalism elicited a great deal of comment, much of it positive and instructive; a fair amount of it was hostile and in some cases abusive"(OR-p.1). As some critics argue that Said has ignored the contribution of German Orientalism which was not motivated by greed, he responses to this by saying "my exclusion of German Orientalism, which no one has given any reason for me to have included, have frankly struck me as superficial, and there seems no point in responding to them"(OR-p.2). Besides this, a number of critics have argued that Said's scholarship is ahistorical and inconsistent. To this point Said says "the claim made by some, that i am ahistorical and inconsistent, would have more interest if the virtues of consistency, whatever may be intended by the term, were subjected to rigorous analysis; as for my ahistoricity, that too is a charge weightier in assertion than in proof"(OR-p.1). In response to Bernard Lewis's argument that the Western quest for knowledge about the Orient was not motivated by greed for power over them rather than by curiosity, Said refutes this in the following sentences : "In a series of articles and one particularly weak book-'The Muslim Discovery of Europe'-Lewis has been busy responding to my argument, insisting that

the Western quest for knowledge about other societies is unique, that it is motivated by pure curiosity, and that in contrast, Muslims were neither able nor interested in getting knowledge about Europe, as if knowledge about Europe was the only acceptable criterion for true knowledge. Lewis's arguments are presented as emanating exclusively from the scholar's apolitical impartiality, whereas he has become a widely rated authority for anti--Islamic, antiArab, Zionist, and Cold War crusades, all of them underwritten by a zealotry covered with a veneer of urbanity that has very little in common with the "science" and learning Lewis purpots to be upholding"(OR-p.7-8). A good portion of Said's Orientalism Reconsidered involves his responding to Daniel Pipes's arguments against Islam. At one point in the preface of his book, Pipes says "Militant Islam is best understood not as a religion but as a political ideology". Said's responses to Pipes's critique are very severe. He says "His arguments, as demonstrated in his book 'In the Path of God : Islam and Political Power' would appear to be at the service not of knowledge but of an aggressive and interventionary state- the United States-whose interests Pipes helps to define"(OR-p.8). At another point Said says "Far from trying to understand Muslims in the context of imperialism and the revolt of an abused, but internally very diverse, segment of humanity, far from availing himself of the impressive recent works on Islam in different histories and societies, far from paying some attention to the immense advances in critical theory, in social science, in humanistic research, and in the philosophy of interpretation, far from making some slight effort to acquaint himself with the vast imaginative literature in the Islamic world, Pipes obdurately and explicitly aligns himself with colonial Orientalists like Snouck Hurgronje and shamelessly pro-colonial renegrades like V. S. Naipaul"(OR-p.10). The concluding paragraph of Orientalism Reconsidered is very much sharp. Here Said dismisses the critics of Orientalism calling them baseless and ephemeral pastime. In his own words : "We are at now at the threshold of fragmentation and specialization, which impose their own parochial dominations and fussy defensiveness, or on the verge of some grand synthesis which I, for one, believe could very easily wipe out both the gains and oppositional consciousness provided by these counter-knowledges hitherto." In the very last line Said attacks his critics severely by saying: "Lastly, a much sharpened sense of the intellectual's role both in the defining of a context and in charging it, for without that, I believe, the critique of Orietalism is simply an ephemeral pastime.”


In conclusion, I would like to say that some of the arguments that have been raised by the critics against Said’s Orientalism are logical to some extent. A noticeable problem of Orientalism is that Said has over-generalized the representations of the Orient by the orientalist scholars. We cannot say that all the Western scholars of the Orient were biased. Bernard Lewis is very much logical in his argument that some scholars came to the Orient motivated by their pure curiosity and some orientalists did not support imperialism. Now if we can ignore Said’s problem of over-generalization, we will have to acknowledge that Orientalism is a great creation which has brought a revolution in the field of post-colonial theories. We can also regard the book as a canonical text of cultural studies. Actually Said’s Orientalism has open ed a new window through which we can see things better than they had been before. I hope, Edward Said will be living in his extra-ordinary creation Orientalism through centuries. That’s all from me for now. Thank you very much for listening. Have a nice day.

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