Edward Said and Orientalism


A review of Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Introduction and Preface 2003)


“Oriental” was simply understood as the opposite of “occidental” (western). The word was used to develop negative connotations after the publication of the work Orientalism by the American-Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking. In particular, Said says that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period (p. 3).

In the part I of his introduction, Said puts several definitions of “Orientalism”. Some of these are:

  • “A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (p. 1).
  • “A style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (p. 2).
  • More historically and materially defined, Orientalism is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (p. 3).

Said gives limitation in his work, that Orientalism derives from a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France and the Orient, which until the early years of the nineteenth century had really meant only India and the Bible lands. America also has dominated the Orient since World War II. British, French, or American come the large body of texts Said calls Orientalist (p. 4).

In part II, Said stresses particularly on the Orient as an idea that has history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. Then, he gives three qualifications to someone who deals with Orientalism. First of all, it would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality. The phenomenon of Orientalism deals principally with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient beyond any correspondence with a real Orient (p. 5). Second, the ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood without their force or their configuration of power. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, and of varying degrees of a complex hegemony (p. 5). Third, one has never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more that a structure of lies or myths which would simply blow away. It is particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient (p. 6).

In the part III, avoiding from an inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic generality as well as too positivistic focus, Said deals with three main aspects of his contemporary reality to point the way out of the methodological difficulties as the followings:

1. The distinction between pure and political knowledge. Most knowledge produced in the contemporary West is that it be non-political, scholarly, academic, impartial, or small minded doctrinal belief. However, in practice, the reality is more problematic since no one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar for the circumstance of life, from the fact of his involvement with a class, a set of belief, or a social position. Therefore, Orientalism is not merely political subject, nor a large collection of texts about the Orient, nor representative of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts. It is an elaboration of a basic geographical distinction and a whole series of interests as scholarly discovery. It is a discourse corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power (p. 12).
2. The methodological question. Much of what Said does in his study is to describe both the historical authority in and the personal authorities of Orientalism. His principal methodological devises for studying authority are what can be called strategic location, a way of describing the author’s position in text regard to the Oriental materials he writes about, and strategic formation, a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and a way in which groups, types, genres of texts acquire mass and referential power among themselves.
3. T
he personal dimension. Much of the personal investment of this study derives from Said’s awareness of being an “Oriental” as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of his education in Palestine and Egypt, and in the United States has been Western and that deep early awareness persisted.  

Preface 2003

In the beginning of his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Said denotes that Orientalism is the product of circumstances that are fundamentally, indeed radically, fractious and tied to the tumultuous dynamics of contemporary history. He emphasizes in it accordingly that neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability. Each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other. (p. xii).

He admits that his idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange. This is to say that every domain is linked to every other one and that nothing that goes on in our world has even been isolated and pure of any outside influence. The disheartening part is that the more critical study of culture shows us that this is the case, the less influence such as a view seems to have, and the more territorially reductive polarizations like “Islam versus the West” seem to conquer. (p. xvii).   

Finally, Said warned against the falsely unifying rubrics such terms as “America,” “The West” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse and cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. They were leading to what he felt was a manufactured “clash of civilisations.” (p. xxii). Orientalism, in what Said believes, has had a place in the long and often interrupted road to human freedom. (p. xxiii). 


6 Responses to “Edward Said and Orientalism”

  1. 1 dhulal

    i would like to know the name of the company who makes his books and where they make his book the edward said, introduction to orientlism. thank you

  2. Thanks for your comment. There are many versions of his book “Orientalism”. The latest one was published in 2003 by London [etc.]: Routledge and Kegan Paul, whilst the first edition was in 1978 by New York: Pantheon Books.

  3. 3 navid

    thanks alot! it really helped me to undrestand the book, without reading it all!!!!!!!!!thanks

  4. Thanks for your comment.

  5. 5 Stephanie Kreutter

    Can you expound upon the topic of strategic location and strategic formation in relation to texts in general? Is Said talking about ALL texts–novels specifically included?


  6. 6 Sanober Umar

    A very well written synopsis, its borne in mind all the key arguments of edward said and has helped me to understand them better, as a young student. Iwill be glad if you can elaborately explain me what was Said’s critique of Antihumanist approach? Also, though influenced heavily by Foucault, he had criticised him for not providing a theory of resistence, which was later pointed out to be his misappropriation of Foucault’s work. Yet he insisted on calling his works “anti- foucault” ….in what sense did he mean that? Thank you.

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