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 Some comments that I have read contend that the book is out of date.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.