Edward Said's Orientalism

A Reflection

Term Paper 2007 23 Pages

Cultural Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of Contents



What is Orientalism?

The Discourse of Orientalism and Michel Foucault

Hegemony of Culture

Paradox of Identity?

Culture as Imperialism: Hegemony and Resistance

Hybrid Cultures





Edward Said is one of the most respected and criticised scholars of our times. Being an exiled Palestian and American intellectual in one person caused him to question a number of commonly accepted, but biased concepts about the world invented and constructed by the politically superior powers, namely Europe and, nowadays, the United States. His concern for Palestine as well as his contradictory double identity are The Question of Palestine" (1979), "Covering Islam" (1981), "After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives" (1986), "Blaming The Victims" (1988),"Culture And Imperialism" (1993), "The Politics of Dispossession" (1994) and "Out of Place" (1999). "Orientalism", "the Question of Palestine" and "Covering Islam" form a trilogy and are all concerned with the politics for the state of Palestine, Palestinian identity as well as his own identity and their embedding in literary and theoretical analyses of texts and their place in the world. The paper will focus mainly on "Orientalism", its main arguments, the arising methodological contradictions and their connection to the paradoxical identity of Edward Said himself. Furthermore, it will take into account some ideas Said develops further in "Culture and Imperialism", such as the hegemony of culture, resistance against a superior one, and, most importantly, the hybridity of culture. Orientalism was published in 1978 and ironically forbidden in the Palestinian autonomous regions in 1996. Nonetheless, "Orientalism" has by now been translated into 26 languages and barely lost any of its controversy. In his work, Said portrays his view of how Europeans acquired knowledge over their respective others, empowering them to rule over homogenised "Orientals", a power culminating in the 19th century imperialism of mainly England and France of the "Orient". The Orient, however, is a mere construction resulting from the use of knowledge obtained by Europe in order to dominate it. The process of constructing the Orient is still progressing today, though by different means and in different forms, as reflected for example in the United States foreign policy (Said 2003:xxvi). Edward Said's reflections upon certain beliefs such as Orientalism are always intertwined with his own role in society and still form an important part of the post-colonial theory.


Edward W. Said was born on the first of November in 1935 in Jerusalem as a child of Christian Arabs. Jerusalem at the time was, politically speaking, British mandate of Palestine: Said lived there until 1948 when his family was forced to emigrate due to the Arab Israeli war of 1948. They left for Egypt, where they continued living until 1950. This period in his life time was most influential on both Said's personality and on all of his later works. The experience of the colonisation of Palestine and his own displacement afterwards were the reason for his dealing with imperialism. In 1950, he moved to the Unites States where he completed his education at Princeton. In the following period he obtained his phD in English Literature on Joseph Conrads. From 1967 onwards he lectured English and Comparative Literature at the Columbia University. It is, however, important to stress that his entiere education was western:

Much of the personal investment [...] derives from my awareness of being an "Oriental" as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep awareness has persisted. (Said 1978:25)

Apart from his professional career, he was actively engaged in in the politics of the Middle East, foremost concerned with Palestine and the creation of a State of Palestine. At first, he favoured the creation of an independent Palestian State, but as the fierce process continued he later campaigned for a single Jewish-Arab state. For fourteen years he was a member of the Palestinian National Congress and was its first exiled member. For a long time, he supported Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, but eventually quit the PLO in 1991 in protest over the signing of the Oslo Peace accords in 1993. He felt that the Oslo terms for peace in the Middle East were unacceptable as they would not lead to a truly independent state of Palestine and therefore meant a betrayal to the exiled Palestinians. Edward Said died on the 25th of December in 2003 in New York.

What is Orientalism?

To discuss the question of Orientalism, it is helpful to look at the word itself and how Said uses and understands it. Firstly, the word Orient itself has different meanings for different people. Said claims that Americans associate it more with the Far East (China, Japan) and for Europeans, the Orient rather signifiesthe region of the Middle East, as it is the the source of Europe's oldest (and richest) colonies. In Orientalism, Said limits his explanations to the Middle East, "the set of questions to the Anglo-French- American experience of the Arabs and Islam, which for thousand years together stood for the Orient." (Said 1978:17) For Said, Orientalism means the three, interrelated things which show the complexity of representations about the Orient:

The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one [...]. Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient [...] is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism (Said 1978:2).

In this regard, Orientalism has an academic designation still of importance to many institutions. According to Said, anyone writing about the Orient is called an Orientalist, and there is no further distinction made between historians, sociologists or philologists. The representation of Europe's others has been institutionalised by an academic discipline (established from the beginning of the 18th century onwards) that consists of an archive of knowledge, serving to maintain Western representations of the East, but unable to recognise its tendency towards doctrinaire assumptions, its specialised language and professionalism. Said rejects such an academy that prefers speaking "to itself rather than to the world of everday life and ordinary need" (Ashcroft 2001:7). What he criticises is the lacking connection of Orientalist texts produced by academics (professionals) and the real world. It fails to acknowledge the possibility of political action in their theory. Any theory maintains a number of connections with the world: an English novel, for example, is not simply part of the works called "English Literature", it also has to be read in respect to its political, social and cultural context, because all of these features constitute the reality behind the world represented in the book. Nowadays, the term "Area Studies" is preferred to "Oriental Studies" since the latter has a highly negative connotation and mirrors 19th and 20th century European colonial attitude. Said, however, is of the opinion that Orientalism lives on through its doctrines and theses about the Oriental.


Related to this academic tradition, [...] is a more general meaning for Orientalism. Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and [...] 'the Occident' (1978:2).

In the second part of what Orientalism actually is, Said detects the distinction between the Orient and the Occident. It is accepted like a given fact and seen as a starting point for theories, novels, social descriptions and political accounts by all kinds of European writers, such as economists, political theorists, philosophers, poets and novelists. Taking into account Giambattista Vico's1 statement that men make their own history and that this is precisely what they can know, Said applies the very same notion to geography and culture: such entities are man-made (Said 1978:5). Therefore the creation of the Orient is an idea with its respective history, tradition of thought and imagery that pretends a real Orient for and in the Occident. Behind the representation, there is a real Orient that is barely acknowledged by Orientalism for it is all Orientalism can do. The process of creating binary opposites, the difference between Occident and Orient, empowers and enables the the West to "orientalise" (meaning the creation of the Orient), a vast region accomodating a range of populations much larger and much more diverse than its counterpart. Constructing the Orient mirrors political attitude of the West best exemplified in imperial expansion in the 19th century. For Said, the study of the power relations of ideas, cultures and histories is central in this sense of Orientalism. The power imbalance is not only reflected politically but also, in terms of culture. The imperial powers dominate culturally over the colonised. The third meaning of Orientalism is historically defined:

[...] Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient [...], Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. (1978:3)

For Said, the emergence of Orientalism in the 19th century and the rise of imperial expansion of the European powers is not coincidental. The origins of modern Orientalism begin in the late 18th century with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798. With the invasion of Egypt, the close link between academic knowledge and political entreprise was obvious for the first time. Said sees in this event the evidence of how all tactical power of knowing the Egyptians in order to convince them of the French's good intentions was used to give "birth to the entire modern experience of the Orient as interpreted from within the universe of discourse [...]". (Said 1978:87) Napoleon's expedition gave a new impulse to the Orientalist Studies whose legacy still continues in world history today. During and in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, France and Britain have been replaced from the world stage by the United States. Said argues that this shift only moved the centre of power, but not the discourse of Orientalism itself. Therefore the image of the Orient remains essentially the same, since Orientalism contains all the European knowledge about the Orient acquired in two centuries. Orientalism in this sense defines it as a corporate institution of dealing with the Orient, teaching about it and ruling over it: Orientalism becomes a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. While the first two definitions of Orientalism are concerned with the textual creation of the Orient, the last definition serves to display how Orientalism has been used to gain authority and dominance over the Orient .

The Discourse of Orientalism and Michel Foucault

Orientalism as "the enourmously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, socially, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post Enlightenment period" (Said 1978:3) has to be seen as a discourse in the Foucaultean sense: as a manifestation of power and (social) knowledge within which and by which the world can be experienced. The world is not just there, it is rather a discourse in itself within which the world comes into being. In a discourse, according to Michel Foucault, writers and readers come to an understanding about themselves, their relationship to one another and their place in the world. Said, however, only takes parts of Foucaults theory which he has constantly been criticised for. This partial use of the theory of Foucault can be explained by of function of text and critic. Both, text and critic, are to be considered in the context of their time, political, social, historical circumstances, and can therefore not be released from their place in the world, their secularism. Authors and critics alike leave their unvarying imprint "upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism" (Said 1978:23).

Though Said admits his indebtedness to Foucault, he criticises his lack of political commitment to change these imbalanced power relations that have always caused some form of resistance. This has a much greater importance. Foucault does acknowledge that power cretates resistance, but has no interest in trying to change it. For Said, it proves once again that the scholar has locked himself up in a world of his own instead of hooking his ideas onto the real world.


1 Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), Italian philosopher and professor of Rhethoric at the University of Naples; verum factum principle: truth is verified through invention and creation and not through observation, in the tradition of humanism


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University of Leipzig – Institut für Kulturwissenschaften
Edward Said Decolonisation The Other Orientalism East West Binary Oppositions Orient Occident hegemony hybridity Gramsci discourse michel foucault




Title: Edward Said's Orientalism