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9/11 and the legacy of Orientalism

September 16, 2011

As I sit down to write a brief analysis of Edward Said’s Orientalism, I am struck by the irony of this task given that today is the tenth anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many of the ideas explored by Said in this seminal work have reflections to both causes and reactions to the event: imperialism, constructions of the “other” in the Western consciousness, and the reactions of exploited people to Western domination. The political paradigm shift that occurred after 9/11, including various wars and political crises, highlight the continuing relevance of Said’s work.

So what does Said actually say in this book? Essentially, he argues that historical representation has been used in the West as a vehicle to exert power over groups of people. Although the terms “the Orient” and “Orientalism” reference many regions in the East including Japan, China, and India, Said focuses primarily on representations of the Middle East for the purposes of his argument. Using a wide set of historical examples, Said contends that the Western intellectual tradition contains inherent biases against the East, which could then be employed to justify colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation. Furthermore, Said lucidly notes that, in order to differentiate itself from the Orient, the Occident (the West) had to construct an intellectual framework in which it was separate from the “other.”

More specifically, Said is concerned that inherent biases in Western history writing create problems for both the “other” and the West: “My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others” (p 25). Likewise, Said spends a significant portion of his text concerned with “Orientalists,” or Western students of the East, who he worries are unconsciously fetishizing and disempowering the peoples of these regions: “despite attempts to draw subtle distinctions between Orientalism as an innocent scholarly endeavor and Orientalism as an accomplice to empire, can never unilaterally be detached from the general imperial context that begins its modern global phase with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798” (p 333).

While Said’s point is insightful, his historical reference point is problematic, since he does not provide other examples of Orientalism as it relates to say, Marco Polo’s journeys, British colonialism in India, or even early intellectual representations of Native Americans in the New World.[1] Hence this oversight highlights one of the main deficiencies of Said’s text, in which it is not nearly comprehensive enough to encompass his sweeping critique of the Western intellectual tradition.[2] That being said, the importance of Orientalism is the degree to which it brought these ideas to the fore, given its wide exposure since its initial publication.

Indeed, one of the most valuable intellectual contributions Said makes is the concept of “othering,” which takes place within many modes of socio-political discourse. Said lucidly notes, “It is enough for ‘us’ to set up these boundaries in our own minds; ‘they’ become ‘they’ accordingly, and both their territory and their mentality are designated as different from ‘ours’” (54). Thus, argues Said, once this imaginary geography has been constructed, it can be used to justify imperialism, exploitation, and domination.

Said’s work is also important because it predicted a wave of history writing on the subaltern, or postcolonial areas outside hegemonic power structures. Works like Dipesh Chakraburty’s Provincializing Europe demonstrate the problem of peoples who do not submit to the standards of truth and value utilized in the West to historicize them; thus the experience of colonial areas can and do exist independently of Western notions of the historical present.[3] Chakraburty’s observation that Western modernity (or perhaps modernity itself) created a problematic framework for discussing representations of “others.” This was not just an abstraction, but a very real challenge for Said. Near the end of his life, Said noted that despite his best efforts to transcend exploitative intellectual frameworks, “he never felt more undervalued than among his own people.”[4] It is likely that many Palestinians, particularly given a state of ongoing political crisis, daily violence, and long-term exploitation, felt a distance between themselves and Said. As Chakraburty’s argument implies, Said was bound to communicating his ideas through the lens of the Western intellectual tradition, of which he himself was educated.

Despite this conundrum, Said’s unwavering search for a universal humanism beyond the biases he saw as inherent in Western histories is admirable. Author Benita Perry incisively noted, “We can hear his own late utterances not as the voice of retreat from persistent and unresolved contradictions, but as that of righteous indignation at a disgraceful world.”[5] The continued popularity and wide dissemination of Said’s work provides a bit of comfort that this discussion has only just begun and is likely to continue onward into the future.


[1] A particularly good account of Western representations of the “other” in the discovery of the New World is found in Anthony Padgen, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

[2] There is a long tradition of interrogating the idea of “Orientalism” and the relationship between the colonialists and the colonized. See David Kopf, “Hermeneutics versus History” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (May, 1980), 495-506.  Kopf references works by Jawaharal Nehru and Rammohun Roy to illustrate his point that there was some degree of cross interaction between native Indians and English colonialists in conceptions of the Orient, rather than simply a one-way path of exploitation.

[3] Dipesh Chakraburty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[4] Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom, Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation (California: University of California Press, 2010) 310.

[5] Ibid., 509.

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One Comment
  1. Ryan Tebo permalink

    I’d be interested in what you think about Said’s follow-up essay, “Orientalism Reconsidered”.

    http://racismandnationalconsciousnessresources.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/edward-said-orientalism-reconsidered.pdf

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