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Why did Said’s Orientalism have such a Dramatic Impact on Post-colonial Studies?


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 thatOrientalism 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.

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).

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