It is indisputable that Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978) had a huge impact on the development of postcolonial studies; indeed it is often credited with virtually creating a new discipline (see Ghazoul, 2004; Rattansi, 1997). Here I examine the nature of this impact and draw out the reasons behind it. I start by summarising the argument that Said laid out in Orientalism, discussing its main themes and his use of previous theorist such as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Next, I demonstrate the impact of this seminal work on postcolonial studies, arguing that the key reason why the impact of the book was so large was that it coincided with not only the end of empire, but also the process of return, whereby increasing numbers of scholars from the former colonies came to study at the institutions of the former colonial power. I argue that Orientalism gave a voice to these scholars, and continues to do so, helping them to make sense of their world and their relationship with the west. I conclude by examining the current concerns that coalesce around Orientalism, and the direction that its impact is likely to have in the near future within post-colonialist studies.
A Brief Summary of Orientalism
It is in the introduction that the main argument of Orientalism is most clearly laid out, the rest of the book being concerned with textual examples. Said was heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault (Said, 1978: 23), who had argued that there was evidence of a historical development of a discourse, or set of ideas that frame the way that a topic is, and can be, discussed. For Foucault, in the 18th century there was a change in the relationship between control, or authority, and the individual body, in that prisons, hospitals and schools worked directly in the bodies of those deemed as deviant (Foucault, 1977). Said extended this theory, by arguing that the set of ideas and practices that formed orientalism were similarly a discourse (1978: 12), and that it was ‘a kind of intellectual authority over the Orient within Western culture […] formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it established canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces’ (Said, 1978: 19-20). In short, he argued that ‘the Orient was almost a western invention’ (1978: 1) and that this othering principle is also constitutive of the identity of the west (1978: 12; 20): that we are not what they are, feminising the Orient at the same time as othering internal subjects, notably women.
Concentrating on the British, French and American experience of the Orient (1978: 16), he also argues that it is not possible to separate ‘pure and political knowledge’ (1978: 9); that scholars are embedded in political circumstances (1978: 10) and that there is a relationship between power and knowledge; that the ideology of Empire had relied on a ‘positional superiority’ (1978: 7) entailing a bias that permeated Orientalist texts, positioning the other as exotic, feminised. Further, he moved beyond the Marxist inspired analysis of Foucault, to attempt to bridge ‘the gap between the super-structural and the base levels in textual, historical scholarship […] to realizing that political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination’ (1978: 13-4) and to recognise the important role that individual authors and texts made to the creation of a discourse (1978: 23). Thus he was not concerned with the historical reality of the east (1978: 5), but with the way in which it was represented in western scholarship: ‘on the fact that the Orientalist […] makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West’ (1978: 20-21). His methodology was of strategic location and strategic formation; that ‘everyone who writes about the Orient must locate himself vis-à-vis the orient’ and ‘each work on the Orient affiliates itself with other works, with audiences, with institutions, with the Orient itself’ (1978: 20, original emphasis). So he combined elements of history and anthropology in his concentration on all texts, and not just on ‘scholarly’ works (1978: 23).
The ‘Personal Dimension’ was central to his work, not just in Orientalism, for his scholarly life was centred on his need to make sense of his own experience as a Palestinian; following Gramsci, who had argued that ‘the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces’ (Gramsci, quoted in Said, 1978: 25) he was keen to situate himself firmly as an oriental:
The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanising ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is the web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny’ (1978: 27).
This main theme continued to inform his work, not just his argument in Orientalism, and he returned time and time again to the Palestinian question throughout the rest of his life.
Orientalism and the Return of the Colonial to the Empire
But what was the contribution of Orientalism to post-colonial studies? And why was this impact so dramatic? I now turn to explore the role that Orientalism played in the development of postcolonial studies. Post-colonialism has ‘grown rapidly since the publication of Orientalism’ (Rattansi, 1997: 480). However, post-colonialism is not a discipline, it cannot stand alone, it is more a stance, whereby it is rendered possible ‘to look critically at revered scholarship’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 124) and this critical stance is more often than not adopted by those scholars outside of the traditional male, white, middle-class inhabitants of the western university (see Boehmer, 1998: 18; Rattansi, 1997: 484; 496). But post-colonialism is also a time, or a space: ‘in which most of the former colonies of Western imperial powers have gained formal independence’ (Rattansi, 1997: 481). Ferial Ghazoul argues that ‘the most striking achievement of Orientalism has been the undoing of racist dualisms [setting] an example of how institutionalised biases can be questioned and ultimately redressed’ (2004: 123): in short Orientalism appears to have set the agenda for post-colonialism (Rattansi, 1997: 483). Though perhaps this is to overstate the case as Ghazoul does concede that not all of the credit can go to Orientalism, but that it ‘functioned as a catalyst’ (2004: 126): ‘Orientalism did not initiate the dialogue, but it removed the intellectual barriers. It demolished the wall that had prevented genuine exchanges among cultures’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 123). Ali Rattansi agrees, arguing that post-colonialism ‘is the investigation of the mutually constitutive role played by colonizer and colonized, centre and periphery, the metropolitan and the ‘native” (Rattansi, 1997: 481) and as such follows directly from Said’s project in Orientalism. The other main contribution of Orientalism has been methodological: ‘all ‘Others,’ all people marginalized by culture, race, class or gender, could apply the methodology of Orientalism in laying bare the prejudices surrounding them’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 125). In short, that all of the ‘others’, both internal and external have therefore benefited from the methodological insights of Said’s seminal work; Orientalism has provided the tools whereby ‘we have learned to look critically at revered scholarship’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 124).
There is therefore no doubt as to the intellectual impact of Orientalism, but why was this impact so dramatic? It is my contention that it was not only the intellectual content of the book that was responsible for its impact – after all, it continued and developed themes long explored within academia, notably and influentially by Foucault and Gramsci and as acknowledged by Said, of the relationship between knowledge and power – but the book not only coincided with the end of empire, but also with the period in which increasing numbers of scholars from former colonies came to study at the institutions of the former colonial power; that in the same way that Orientalism represented Said’s own attempt to make sense of his own experiences as a Palestinian, it gave a voice to these scholars, and continues to do so, helping them to make sense of their world and its relationship with the west. A paper by Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber serves as an excellent illustration of both the methodological and personal influence of Orientalism within post-colonial studies: she examines the positioning of Arab-Jews, or Mizrahi Jews, within Israel by applying the methodology and insights of Orientalism. She describes how relations between Arab and Western Jews in Israel are structured similarly to the relationship between east and west within Orientalist studies:
In Israel, the Zionist-European idea constructed Israeli-Jewish identity while ignoring the very existence of Oriental Jews as equal partners. Mizrahi Jews were led to believe that they should aspire to become Israelis not realizing the cultural meaning of this term. The Orientalist train of thought is used in Israel to penetrate cultural boundaries as well as to defend physical borders. Mizrahi identity is rejected because it is perceived as a reflection of the enemy’s image and as such cannot be part of a unified Jewish national identity that defines Israeli nationalism through its victim image and constant Arab threat (Madmoni-Gerber, 2003: 232).
Concentrating on the calls for an investigation into the disappearance into Yemenite babies, and the way these calls were reported in the Israeli media, she outlines the way in which ‘Orientalist elements provide solid background for new discourses’ (Madmoni-Gerber, 2003: 236): documenting the demonization of the groups leader, Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, as a ‘crazy Arab’ (Madmoni-Gerber, 2003: 239) thereby circumventing the need for a proper investigation of his claims (Madmoni-Gerber, 2003: 241; 243). She is thus able to not only make sense of such media coverage, but also of her own experience as a Yemenite within Israel by utilising the methodology of Orientalism. In this she is not alone; many other scholars have similarly sought to undertake postcolonial investigations of the relationship between the west and the rest, between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Conclusion: The Problems of Orientalism
I conclude by examining the current concerns that coalesce around Orientalism, and the direction that post-colonialism is likely to take in the near future. The impact of Orientalism has been far-reaching, as post-colonialism has extended into many disciplines other than literary criticism, and this impact was acknowledged by Said: ‘anthropology, political science, literature, sociology, and above all history felt the effects of a wide-ranging critique of sources, the introduction of theory, and the dislodgement of the Eurocentric perspective’ (Said 1995: 57, quoted in Bolton and Hutton, 2000: 4) and it also dignified post-colonial literature to the point of being considered mainstream within literature studies (Ghazoul, 2004: 125). Further, as outlined above, it has provided a voice to many academics who are often from the former colonies, but also for other minority groups closer to home. Orientalism may have ‘helped remove mental barriers, creating an intellectual space for cultural dialogues’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 123) of the sort discussed thus far, yet Elleke Boebmer argues that, in fact, many post-colonial scholars remain complicit in the dynamics of global capital: postcolonialist critics, theorists and writers, often with Third World, nationalist, or postcolonial backgrounds, have become involved in a highly mediated and disguised yet ultimately participatory relationship with […] the intellectual extension of global capital (1998: 18).
She warns against post-colonialist studies becoming an endless repetition of the past that reifies the binary opposition between west and the rest, and the dangers of a ‘covert neo-orientalism’ resulting from the funding of post-colonial studies (1998: 19). Others have argued that post-colonialist scholars, by using western theories, ‘are participating in the very process they seek to analyse’ (Loomba, 1991: 165, quoted in Rattansi, 1997: 494-5). For Boehmer the answer lies in paying direct attention to the ‘multidimensionality – the complexity and messiness – of imperial and neo-imperial relations’ (1998: 20). Similarly, Ali Rattansi argues that such an approach is ‘too simplistic’ as it ‘implies that even oppositionist Western discourses […] which make an internal dismantling of aspects of the Enlightenment project one of their key concerns, are a sort of seamless web when it comes to complicity with Western imperialism’ (Rattansi, 1997: 495). Instead she argues that we should distinguish between post-colonialism or post-colonialist studies and post-coloniality; the first referring ‘to a form of intellectual inquiry’ the latter to a ‘set of historical epochs’ (1997: 481) that begins after the independence of the former colonies is gained (1997: 490), but this does not appear to adequately address the criticisms that Boehmer and others have raised.
Finally, Ghazoul defends Said against critics who argue that Orientalism merely attacked the west, arguing instead that ‘His endeavour is precisely to demolish the conceptual constructions that divide the world into confrontational cultures or hierarchical civilisations’ (Ghazoul, 2004: 124), and so undermines the persistence of binary oppositions. But perhaps one major theme that post-colonialism should be constantly vigilant against is the reification of Orientalism, for surely Said himself would argue against its canonisation; it may have been a founding text of an emerging intellectual stance but it should not be too revered, for surely this would run contradictory to its own stated aim: instead we should apply the logic of Orientalism to Orientalism, and never forget the circumstances of its creation. Indeed, perhaps the greatest gift that Orientalism has bestowed on post-colonialism is therefore uncertainty (see Rattansi, 1997: 498).