Perhaps no other work of modern literary theory has had such a deep and lasting impact on the fields of Near East, Middle East and Islamic Studies than Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said is arguably among the most influential public intellectuals of the late 20th century. Modern scholars of these fields have found within his work endless avenues for sanctimony about the plight of the colonial and post-colonial Orient at the hands of Western powers. Additionally, it has allowed those same scholars, if they originate elsewhere than the Orient, to identify with that plight and internalize it as a part of their course of study.
The work itself does have value as an exposition of literary theory regarding the intellectual production of those who studied the languages and cultures of places east over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. It demonstrates that this field of study has been particularly instrumentalized for the purpose of desensitizing Westerners to the actual mechanism of imperial hegemony, namely cultural hegemony. Said’s work also addresses that the 20th century, marked by what was thought to be the end of the colonial era, in fact saw the extension and reapplication of Orientalism for the purpose of a new type of post-colonial imperial hegemony. It could be argued that his exposition of 20th century Orientalist authors presages the modern intellectual war that is being waged against Muslims specifically and the East more generally, which Said described quite adeptly in his 1985 article “Orientalism Reconsidered”.1
Said synopsizes his entire book at the beginning of the last section in describing his “principal operating assumptions:”
“[F]ields of learning, as much as the works of even the most eccentric artist, are constrained and acted upon by society, by cultural traditions, by worldly circumstance, and by stabilizing influences like schools, libraries, and governments; moreover, that both learned and imaginative writing are never free, but are limited in their imagery, assumptions and intentions; and finally, that the advances made by a ‘sciences’ like Orientalism in its academic form are less objectively true than we often like to think.”2
These are fair operating assumptions. There is nothing particularly controversial about these points. Said is simply pointing out that within any field of learning, one tends to operate inside of a given intellectual superstition, which is in turn a product of one’s societal and historical circumstances. Further, he asserts that, “[t]he Orient is taught, researched, administered, and pronounced upon in certain discrete ways.”3 In other words, the Orient is packaged and peddled in a way that allows for it to be viewed as exotic, strange, antique and curious; in a word: other. This is the overarching point being pressed by Said throughout his work on the field of intellectual production which he has labeled Orientalism.
Without detracting from its merits, there are problems which can be observed within the work itself. There are several more with the manner in which the work has been utilized. It is, as mentioned above, a work of literary theory. Said overtly wanders into political and social theory, but the valuable aspects of the work are actually within his own discipline. As pieces of literature, some of the works which he critiques—such as Lane’s On the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians—do demonstrate a strong cultural bias. The author, whom we will use as an example, makes observations from the point of view of a curious alien. His writing exhibits that character. It is assumed, however, that they are entering this world with another bias already in place, that of the Orientalist. This bias is different in character. It exists largely, as Said discusses, to serve the material ambitions of the 18th and 19th century colonial powers as they expanded their authority throughout the Middle-East, Africa and South Asia. On close inspection of the work in question by Lane, the bias presented is that of complete ignorance of the places to which he traveled and the bias of environmental or geographic determinism, which held in the early 19th century, and has a provenance tracing to the ancient literary sources.4 This is perhaps what inspires Said to pose that Orientalism has its roots in ancient Greece. The conflation of ancient Greek civilization with that of the modern West has its own set of problems, not least of which is that the intellectual production of the former is not transmitted primarily by the latter, but rather by the Medieval Muslims who saw value therein.
Second, Said identifies that his two fears in writing Orientalism “are distortion and inaccuracy.”5 While he himself may have found a way to avoid these issues, he did not leave a great deal of advice for those who came after him about how to avoid the same. For this reason, perhaps, Orientalism is just as widely misused as it is used in modern scholarship. This is a problem of post-modern discourse in general. It is largely a discipline of scholarly name-dropping, with little in the way of critical analysis other than at the most abstract levels. As such, Orientalism has come to be a book which must be mentioned in any modern academic production on the Middle-East, Near East or Islam, whether or not that mention serves any other purpose. This particular feature is at the root of the nearly endless fruitless debates which occur over the topic of whether this or that scholar is an Orientalist or not and what that means with regard to the position of his work.
Finally, the work is aging. As mentioned above, Orientalism does seem to have some predictive quality with regard to the intellectual war which is presently occurring. It did not, however, predict what the post-colonial effects of colonial imperial hegemony would be. There is no backlash against the West, except in speech. What we see today in the Middle-East, at the very least, is not the continuation of colonial imperialism in new forms, but rather the hungry uptake of a global (read Western) sense of modern cultural features on the part of those people living in the region. Pre-modern material culture is preserved only when Western initiatives fund said preservation. Identifiably Western companies are sought for setting up franchises throughout the Middle-East, typically controlled by a local majority share interest, as required by local laws. In states where the Western companies cannot or will not set up franchises—or where the laws permit gross violations of copyright and trademark—impostors fill in the gap.6
The modern Middle-East is marked by uneven development, poorly-applied, politically-motivated solutions to infrastructural problems and substandard education in local environments, all of which result in the contracting of foreign companies and individuals as a stopgap. The application of the theoretical points in Orientalism to the cultural hegemony present in the modern Middle-East fails, unless we can accept that billions of people have in fact been brain-washed into accepting global cultural norms for some nefarious imperial hegemonic material purpose. Even in this case, it is difficult to argue that there is now any alternative.
- Edward Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” Cultural Critique, no 1 (Autumn 1985), 89-107.
- Idem, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Reprinted with new afterword in 1994.), 201-202.
- Ibid., 202.
- This is discussed in Claudius Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblios as well as in many of the works by Plato, including Republic and Timaeus, to name a few.
- Said, Orientalism, 8-9.
- In Ramallah, there is a coffee chain called Stars and Bucks which utilizes every aspect of the marketing materials of the well-known chain Starbucks, right down to the logo and the interior décor of the coffeehouse locations.