Edward Said on Latent and Manifest Orientalism
The philosophical Roots of Latent and Manifest
Said’s Critics on Latent and Manifest Orientalism
Edward Said (1935-2003) has been widely praised as a leading thinker of post-colonialism and even as one of its founding figures. Moreover, he “became one of the most widely known, and controversial, intellectuals in the world during his lifetime” (Ashcroft 2009, 1). His best known book, Orientalism (1978), is a milestone in post-colonial theory and was one of the first examples for combining French critical theory with Anglophone cultural and textual tradition (cf. Castro Varela 2005, 31). It actually paved the way for differentiating critical Postcolonial Studies from the earlier Commonwealth Literary Studies with their uncritical continuation of colonial prejudices (cf. ibid, 23). Even Daniel Varisco (2007), who argues for a rather critical view of Said’s work, concedes that “Said’s book stimulated a necessary and valuable debate among scholars who study the Middle East, Islam, and colonial history.” (Varisco 2007, XII).
Said was born in 1935 in Jerusalem, which was at that time ruled under British mandate in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration. He was brought up in Cairo and went to American and British schools there. Having been sent to the United States for further schooling and studies, he excelled as a student at the elite Universities of Princeton and Harvard (cf. Ashcroft 2009, 3). He had just started building himself a career as a Professor of Comparative Literature, when the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war changed his life: “He suddenly found himself in an environment hostile to Arabs, Arab ideas and Arab nations.” (ibid). That completely changed his self-conception - “he could no longer maintain two identities, and the experience began to be reflected everywhere in his work” (ibid.). This painful personal experience made him carefully watch - and deplore and criticize as a colonial act - the virtual colonization of his homeland Palestine. Said described himself as a humanist, but not without an inescapable political impetus shaped by his own destiny as a Palestinian emigre to the United States (cf. Said 1995, 9 ff). He openly wrote about his personal “awareness of being an >Oriental< as a child growing up in two British colonies” (ibid, 25 ), Palestine and Egypt. Some of the intellectual roots he claimed for himself can be found in the works of Marx, Gramsci and Foucault.
Taking seriously his role as a political author, Said developed a completely new line of sight at the phenomenon of Orientalism, insinuating that it was from the very beginning a carefully orchestrated instrument for suppression and dominance of peoples and cultures that were conceived by the Europeans as “the other” and hence as antiquated, irrational and primitive (cf. Castro Varela 2005, 32 f).
A leading and highly successful publication like Orientalism does not get away without drawing criticism. The list of critiques having devoted entire books to criticizing it is much longer than what can be dealt with in this paper. It reaches from exuberant praise with a few critical annotations, like Bill Ascroft’s Edward Said, to an enormously detailed critical analysis like Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism. It also includes a devastatingly negative, slating review, Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West. A few of the arguments of the critics will be dealt with later in this paper.
Since a 10-page term paper could never do justice to a literary and scientific masterpiece like Orientalism, this paper picks out just a small detail of its rich content: In the third and last chapter of Orientalism, Said introduces a distinction between two forms of Orientalism, latent and manifest. The meaning of this dichotomy does not reveal its full significance at first reading. What exactly did Said have in mind by using this terminology - perhaps unconsciously in addition to what he writes about it on some 20 pages of his book?
Several scholars have commented on this distinction and its significance for Said’s work. This paper will build on that material and attempt to analyze and summarize what can be found out about the dichotomy. Particular interest will be devoted to the philosophical roots Said was referring to when writing about latent and manifest Orientalism.
- Was he influenced by Arab Philosophy in using the dichotomy?
- Did he use the terms in the psychoanalytical sense introduced by Sigmund Freud and also used by Jacques Lacan?
- How do some of Said’s critics, like Maria do Mar Castro Varela, Daniel Martin Varisco or John McLeod interpret and evaluate the distinction?
A logical start for this discussion is to look at what Said himself wrote about that matter.
Edward Said on Latent and Manifest Orientalism
Said begins the chapter titled “Latent and Manifest Orientalism” with some philosophizing about meaning and truth in language, quoting a famous dictum by Friedrich Nietzsche: “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” (Said 1995, 203)1. This complements quite well his theory that Orientalism can be regarded “as a manner of regularized (or Orientalized) writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient.” (ibid, 202). It eventually leads to Said’s conviction that in the 19th century “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was [...] a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric” (ibid, 204). He contends that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness” (ibid, 204).
Then he formulates the distinction he wants to introduce:
The distinction I am making is really between an almost unconscious (and certainly an untouchable) positivity, which I shall call latent Orientalism, and the various stated views about Oriental society, languages, literatures, history, sociology, and so forth, which I shall call manifest Orientalism. (Said 1995, 206).
To pin it down, latent Orientalism is an unconscious positivity and manifest Orientalism consists of stated views about Oriental phenomena. The first definition, latent Orientalism, is of central importance to Said’s work and very well explicated many times in the book. But what kind of “stated views” does Said have in mind with the second definition, manifest Orientalism? Stated views of European Orientalists? Or stated views of Orientals? Or does he mean all kinds of stated views concerning the Orient? On the 24 pages of the chapter Said does not put forward any further definition or explanation of the dichotomy. However, a number of clues are provided, as excerpted in the following passages (cf. Said 1995, 206225):
1. Change in knowledge of the Orient occurs almost exclusively in manifest Orientalism, while “the unanimity, stability, and durability of latent Orientalism are more or less constant” (206, my italics). Said exemplifies this by observing that the ideas of European Orientalists, such as Silvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, and Edward William Lane, were different just in manifest criteria such as form and personal style, whereas all of them voiced the same prejudices about the Orient, based on their unconscious, latent conceptions of it: “Every one of them kept intact the separateness of the Orient, its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability” (206).
2. Said also observed “a peculiarly (not to say invidiously) male conception of the world” (207) in the writings of authors like Renan or Lane, which he attributes to their latent Orientalism, which generally viewed its subject matter with sexist blinders. This conception led to their imagination of woman only as “creatures of a male power- fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207).
3. Mentioning a book by Jacques Waardenburg that deals with an image of the Islam as formulated by five relevant western Orientalists, Said concludes that the manifest differences in their methods were less important than the consensus they agreed upon, which he summarizes as “latent inferiority” (209) of Islam. Each of the experts had something to criticize about Islam and each of those arguments Said presumes to have its roots in latent Orientalism, in this case intensified by a common political affinity of the authors.
1 Quoted from Nietzsche, Friedrich: “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”. In: The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking Press, 1954, 46-7.