Sunday, March 10, 2019

Orientalism by Edward Said

I am doing some reading on the subject of colonialism. As part of this larger project, I am including some key books that are part of the viewpoint known as postcolonialism. Orientalism by Edward Said is often cited as such a source. Some describe it as the most important work of postcolonial nonfiction. I found it to be an interesting but esoteric argument concerning bias with some postmodernist views thrown in. 

This book was originally published in 1978. My edition contained additional material written by the author in 1994 and 2003.  Some comments that I have read contend that the book is out of date. However, it is still considered a key text in regards to postcolonial theory. In addition, much of the book is an analysis of writers and thinkers who were active during the early twentieth century and earlier. The added essays by the author also try to bring the book up to date. 

Said was a was a professor of literature at Columbia University. He wrote numerous books. Multiple sources credit him as one of the founders of postcolonial theory. He died in 2003. 

The basic preposition of the work is that in Europe and America, a basic view and body of work has arisen over the past several hundred years known as Orientalism. That body of work is dedicated to understanding and analyzing Asian history, culture, ideology, etc.  Said contends that Orientalism is based on all sorts of false propositions and is biased. Furthermore, the entire field of Orientalism has aided and abetted the domination of colonized nations by Europeans. The author contends that Orientalism is based upon stereotyping and a false sense of European superiority, that it is not based upon evidence, that it represents an unchanging picture of the orient, and views the region and people of Asia as a threat to Europe and America. The author, and many theorists who followed him, contend that these conclusions can be extrapolated and applied to Western interaction with other parts of the world. 

Said takes all sorts of writers and intellectuals to task. He writes,

a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on.

Said devotes pages and pages to analysis of writers and thinkers. He covers such prominent people as Karl Marx, T. E. Lawrence, Richard Francis Burton, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc. He also covers a lot of fairly obscure thinkers such as Gustave Flaubert, François-René Chateaubriand Louis Massignon, H.A.R. Gibb, Ernest Renan, Silvestre de Sacy and many more. The author piles up copious evidence, references and analysis to prove his points. 

Said argues that this bias and misrepresentation is not trivial. The body of knowledge known as Orientalism has driven colonialism, domination and all sorts of other bad actions and decisions by European powers and the United States. 

Said goes on.

My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West

Said has certainly convinced me that there has been a lot of bias and bad scholarship out there. Furthermore, some of it was influenced by, and has itself influenced, unethical and ill-advised actions of national governments. 

Said leans heavily on the writings and belief systems laid out by Paul-Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. He often cites postmodernist theory but also occasionally criticizes it. 

One of Said’s ultimate conclusions is postmodernist. That is, he questions the very nature of truth. The author goes beyond the contention that the Orientalists were biased. Instead, he contends that a true representation of this sort is impossible for anyone.  He writes, 

the real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representor.

I disagree with the above. This gets to the heart of the disagreements that I have with postmodernist theory. I will not say more about this in this post, but I do plan to read both Foucault and Derrida soon. Stay tuned.  Despite my opinion on the above, Said does make a convening case that at least some of the Orientalists were extremely biased and were not really on the trail of truth. 

I have also read a few articles and pieces by Said’s critics. There is a general contention among many of them that while Said is on to some truths, he overstates his case and he cherry picks his evidence. 

Robert Irwin has written here that,

Orientalism amounts to a sustained libel on the past.

Irwin has written his own book, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, which I have not read. I understand that Irwin argues against many of Said’s contentions in his work. At this point, I do not know enough about these subjects in order to evaluate what I think about these arguments. 

However, it seems that, based upon my reading of some criticism of Said, despite the enormous number of thinkers that Said examines, he leaves many important writers out of his analysis. 


While I found it to be interesting, this work is filled with fairly arcane knowledge and arguments. It is not for everyone. However, is a vital read for anyone interested in postcolonial theory. Even many of Said’s critics seem to agree that he sheds some light upon a lot of bias here.  Even if one disagrees with Said, this book is important because of its status as one of the key works that make up postcolonial theory. 

30 comments:

mudpuddle said...

interesting stuff... i'm familiar with oriental philosophies to a certain extent, having studied Tao and Zen for several years... but i don't think either of them had much to do with colonialism or politics... more about understanding or dealing with reality as it is, actually... koans reflect this in direct ways: the sound of one hand clapping, what your face looked like before you were born, and many more... they are to direct the practitioner to thinking about what thinking is, mostly.... but that's off the track from what you're exploring, i think... informative and inspiring post, tho... tx for the reminders...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - What Said is exploring here would relate to European interpretation of Asian philosophies. I think that he gets into this a little. He concludes that the European interpretation s condescending and demeaning to the actual asian philosophies.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts about this book. I'm interested in learning more about postcolonial theory. Excellent commentary!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I am glad that I read the book Colonialism/Postcolonialism for an overview of the theory.

CyberKitten said...

Thanks for the review Brian. I'm kind of put off by the post-modern twist on things but still... maybe one day!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten - I strongly disagree with much of Postmodernist theory when it is applied to political and social issues. It seems an important component involving Postcolonial theory so one will bump into it as one reads about Postcolonialism.

Lisa Hill said...

I thank you for this: this is one of those books that has been on my radar for a long time, but I don't actually want to plod through it. It seems to me that it's the kind of book I would dutifully have waded through if it was on the reading list when I was at university, but there's no compelling reason for me to do that now.
Your review helps me to understand more about what Said is on about, and I like the way you include some of his critics as well.
I look forward to hearing about Derrida et al:)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lisa - The book is definitely for those who want to explore these theories in depth. It would be a plod for anyone not so interested.

I am looking forward to my delve deeper not postmodern myself.

Whispering Gums said...

Thanks for this Brian, as I don't think I'll be reading.

That said, I would say that the book is useful for making us think about our presumptions. I mean I grew up with East and West and it was like a "truth"! But really it isn't, is it, it's a construct based, yes, perhaps, on some "facts" that have been turned into truths. I think the nature of truth does need to be questioned. My sense is that there are some "truths" (mostly I think to do with human emotions) but that there are also some "truths" that are something quite different. And here, I'll stop and I feel i'm stepping into murky waters that I probably will not be able to emerge from gracefully!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Valuable commentary on a book and philosophy I have not heard of. I do wonder why people question whether truth can known but feel motivated to write a book that surely takes a stand on what they believe to be the truth. Otherwise why bother?

I think if I read this books I would then read books from those who take an opposite stance, such as the author you mentioned who criticizes Said's work.

Very interesting post.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Agree that for centuries the West's view of the East as you say was condescending and demeaning and so kudos to Said for writing a book about this and using literature by Western writers to show examples but I also sense from your review that Said went off on a tangent bringing in post modernism and possibly an idealised view of the East to compensate.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. Postmodernism, in this form was difficult for me to wrap my head around for a while. It does contain some innate contradictions.

I was thinking of reading a book that counters Said’s arguments, I think that Dangerous Knowledge would be the one to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - This can be a mind bending subject. I think that we do need to be always ferreting out bias. I also think that we should remind ourselves that certain things like East and West are intellectual constructs. With that, I think that there exist real truth in the Universe. I will be posting more on this when I read some postmodern philosophers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I think that it was not just Said. Postcolonial thought in general is often infused with postmodernism of this sort. There are some thinkers who are arguing for an idealized version of everything that is non Western. However I did not detect too much of that in Said’s arguments.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! I suspect this particular book would not be my cup of tea. It sounds like a book for someone who has already read and been interested in the subject, which I haven’t, alas! I do know of Edward Said, whom I heard interviewed on the radio some years ago.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I thought that a rough knowledge of the history of colonialism would be enough to get someone through this. Maybe a rough idea as to the tenants of Post Modenism would help too.

Said was very popular and was considered one of the key Postcolonial thinkers.

James said...

Thank your for highlighting the arguments presented by Edward Said in his book on Orientalism. While I have not read his book I have read such oriental philosophy as presented by Confucius, Lao-tse, and the Mahabharata. In those writings I was impressed by the depth of thinking, the challenge of different perspectives, and the presence of some similarities to Western European thought.
While there undoubtedly some aspects of Said that are valuable, objective observers like yourself may find themselves in the minority when they attempt serious criticism of his work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I also found thatt Asian Philosophers and mythology had a lot of depth. Said would day that the problem was with the Western Interpretation of them. At the very least, he has been very influential.

Judy Krueger said...

I have heard quite a bit about this author. An influential guy and it seems he raises good questions. As I read your review and some of the comments I kept thinking about the fact that in many Asian countries, Westerners were considered barbarians back in the 16th through 19th centuries when we were busy trying to colonize and Christianize them!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - This was indeed influential. It seems thaf most cultures tend to not think highly of outsiders.

Judith said...

Hi Brian,
I think I've always tended to think more in political/historical terms than in theories of post-colonialism. The topic is interesting, and definitely one that I should think more about.
For some reason, Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American comes to mind. Set in 1955, at the end of the French colonial period in Vietnam, and at the beginning of U.S. involvement, is where I've thought most about these topics.
Best to you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judith - I find many aspects of Postcolonial theory questionable myself. I wanted to get a sort of a handle on it however. There is some great fiction out there that is called Postcolonial. I have not read The Quiet American but it looks to be worth the read.

thecuecard said...

What happened in Asia in WWII must have had an impact on this Orientalism theory right? There was much bias after that. I look forward to more of your reviews on postcolonialism. I don't know much about the whole field but would be interested to know more.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Said does get into post World War II a bit, especially in his additions material. I may read at least one more book that relates to postcolonial theory, however, I also plan to move onto some mainstream and conservative books on the subject.

baili said...

incredible commentary dear Brain!

book sounds interesting yet little controversial as it deals with subject that provoke questions at the end

i think that history has all the answers about such negative philosophies sprung by all the critical conditions that arose by manifestation of racism nations suffered time to time

i am not much aware of the topic in depth but i want to share my simpler opinion about it in the light what i have learnt through my ways of knowledge

in short, this is game of power,it always was and it always will be

some nations who ruled the world in past are threat for those who are holding the world today

nations in power need to rearrange the whole scenario for their "free play"

For this first of all they need to prove the certain nations "guilty of terrorism " so they can be sign of fear and hatter front of whole civilized world

by doing so the half jab is done
other half is to create consistency in first half by causing terror to the world in each possible field

inventing needs for weapons , and diseases to tore minds and bodies ,and applying each single possible way to distort their image front of the world

these are new ways of war ,shaking hands with smiling faces and poisoning at the same time
fear is pushing them to put whole humanity in danger ,fear of loosing power once again

no one is clean here, east or west when it comes to politics and business and today both are ONE

blessings to you my friend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - I agree. There was obviously a lot of racism connected to Colonialism. There was also a lot of greed. More powerful nations used others for thier own benefit. Problems in the world also continue. However, I think that that the world is slowly becoming more peaceful and more equitable.

Take care!

Caroline said...

I was so sure that this book had been written much earlier.
I find a lot of what he says is similar to the concept of exotism, which is just broader, including more regions than just Asia. I did some research on exotist literature, literature that distorts the other culture to make it more interesting for Europeans.
I see why this is still an importnat book for the debate.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - The concept of Exoticism is fascinating. Said does mention it. I tend to think that it would be something that members of their own future would do to create entertainment when creating non - fiction or myths about other cultures.

The Bookworm said...

I am glad you enjoyed this read on postcolonial theory. The subject of colonialism is interesting, I hope you enjoy reading more on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I will be reading more on Colonialism. Perhaps one more on Postcolonial theory. Then on to some other views.