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Orientalism At Last

Reflections on reading Edward W. Said. Orientalism. 25th Anniversary Edition with a New Preface by the Author. New York: Vintage, 2003 (originally 1978, Afterword 1994).

[An installment of the Read Me Project.]

In some sense, Orientalism has been on the Read Me shelf for decades. Everyone has their unread classics – there are English majors who’ve never read Ulysses, and sociology majors who’ve never read Economy and Society, and probably a few philosophy majors who’ve never read Being and Time. Orientalism has been one of mine: a must-read book in several disciplines almost since it was first published, a book I knew about and knew I ought to read but had never quite gotten around to reading.

In fact, though, it actually and physically wound up on the Read Me shelf because of my dad, and Glenn Beck.

That whole story is too long to tell here, but one result was that I felt compelled to read It IS About Islam. When I did that, I came across Beck’s discussion of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Some of Beck’s statements I knew were correct: Orientalism has been exceptionally influential in academic circles; it has helped convince people that one way racism operates is through discourse; and it is required reading in college for a lot of people. I’m sure my brother had to read it. I think that’s how my dad ended up with the copy that I snagged from the house thinking “I really ought to read this” instead of taking it to Half Price Books along with all the other books we were clearing out of the house in advance of the estate sale … another long story.

Some of what Beck said, however, had the ring of undergraduate writing on an assignment that hasn’t actually been read, or hasn’t been fully understood if it has. To check that out, I’d actually need to read the book. So I searched through the books in the basement that had come from Mom and Dad’s house, found Orientalism, and put it on the Read Me shelf.

image of the cover of Orientalism
Orientalism by Edward Said

Orientalism is not light reading. I could understand how a reading assignment like this might get skipped, or skimmed and over-simplified. Said is working with a massive field, the study of “the Orient” in and by “the West” over several centuries. He’s thinking about it in a complex way, that he doesn’t have a simple, telegraphic vocabulary for.

(He doesn’t have a simple, telegraphic vocabulary for it because that vocabulary comes into being as one response to his work. So, for instance, he can’t just say “I’m going to look at the discursive production of “the Other” in the field of Oriental studies” because “the discursive production of ‘the Other’” wasn’t that kind of a thing in 1978. It became a thing in part because people read Orientalism and took it seriously and decided “the discursive production of the Other” was a helpful name for what Said was talking about.)

I would like to believe that Orientalism has had a place in the long and often interrupted road to human freedom.
– Edward Said, Preface to Orientalism, xxx

Said is breaking new ground in Orientalism, theoretically and methodologically. He isn’t working with obvious, tried-and-true patterns of the academic discourse of the time. So, for instance, he isn’t exactly doing “history of ideas” (and he says this explicitly in the introduction). He is definitely not presenting Orientalism as cultural superstructure and showing how it’s the product of an economic base, which would have been the traditionally Marxist thing to do; he says this in the introduction, too (“…Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions …” 12). His multiple references to Gramsci (6-7, 14, 25) would tip a reader off to this – if a reader knows about how reading Gramsci liberated a whole generation of academics from the straitjacket of Marxian cultural analyses in the eighties, that is. He’s responding to Foucault, taking Foucault’s ideas seriously while differing with him in some ways, and not everyone had read Foucault yet, then, either. He is using the methods of the humanities, but looking at the traditional subject matter of the humanities as taking place in and relating back to a political and economic and social context that it has a very complex, dialectical relationship with. In other words, remembering what people were doing and thinking and how people were operating in the mid-seventies, when Said was writing Orientalism, it’s impossible not to be impressed with his originality, and not to see why this work would have become the foundational text it became.

It’s also easy to see why Orientalism would be, and has been, misunderstood in various ways over the course of its career as an influential text. Said complains about some of those misunderstandings in the “Afterword” in the 1994 edition. He was not, he points out, ever saying that Orientalism was a kind of synecdoche for “the West,” or saying that “the West” had “violated Islam and the Arabs,” and especially not trying to provide “a pretext for arguing … that Islam is perfect” and so on (331). But misunderstandings of that kind arise, presumably, because Orientalism is a complex, difficult, qualified and often obscure text. Texts like that are sitting ducks for oversimplification, for being “boiled down” to something easier to state “in other words.” And those “other words” are – maybe predictably – likely to fit the more familiar mental categories people use to organize their thinking.

So, maybe ironically, and maybe forseeably, Orientalism the book about Orientalism has been misunderstood in some ways that reinforce pre-existing political and intellectual structures that have a lot to do with the Orientalism Said was writing about.

… what has really been lost is a sense of the density and interdependence of human life, which can neither be reduced to a formula nor brushed aside as irrelevant.
— Edward Said, Orientalism(xxvii)

In my own very simplified reading, Said argues (and I think demonstrates) that “the Orient” – something we might reasonably think is a geographic, or cultural, or even socio-economic region – is more properly an imaginative social construct than it is an actual physical or human entity. The same is true of “the Occident.” Over time, in response to real historical forces and events, European thinkers and writers (as far back as Homer, or Dante) elaborated an existing set of concepts, the concepts of “East” and “West.” They developed ways of talking about and thinking about and treating these concepts that came to feel familiar to people in “the West,” and that acquired the authority of truth. These ideas took on a life of their own, had a history of their own, but they were not just disembodied ideas; they took shape and took place in institutions, practices, economic and political policies, and so on. And then, those material realities further influenced the ideas people had and the things people could and did say. And on it went.

It’s not as if European ideas about “the Orient” were simply “falsehoods,” either. People did a lot of real work over the course of several centuries to understand the nature of “the East” better and better – at least, in some ways, and some of those ways were important. That is, people collected more and more details about “the East,” studied and learned more and more about its ancient languages, collected more and more fragments of its classical literature, gathered up more and more bits of information about its religion (Islam), and so on. But all that work was predicated on the idea that “the East” had “a nature,” which Said points out is a “representation,” and one that’s worth questioning.

Moreover, this kind of essentialist knowledge of an abstraction is different from the kind of knowledge one gets from encountering human beings who live human lives in an actual place, as human beings who are living human lives in an actual place. That kind of knowledge of “the Orient” was not only impossible to have, it was almost impossible to think about trying to get, because it was almost impossible for an English or French person to imagine that kind of knowledge being possible, and the fact that Orientalists didn’t have that kind of knowledge was almost impossible even to notice precisely because that kind of knowledge wasn’t even imagined, or desired, let alone sought.

To seek that kind of knowledge, to have wanted it, to have imagined it as something you could want, or seek, you would have needed a different starting place. That’s a methodological point, and this might be the most important point Said makes in Orientalism. That is: how scholars do their work affects what they know; “watch out for that first step.”

So, Orientalism contains plenty of implications for people doing scholarly work. For that reason alone, it seems to me its status as a required text is well-deserved.

I think one of those implications is that we probably aren’t as “free” as we think we are when we’re “just saying what we’re thinking,” and even less when we’re “just stating plain facts.” Even highly original thinkers and authors can be working with and within received structures and ideas. Our own work may be less original than that.

So back to my own starting point, as I read Said, he does NOT say what Beck said he said, namely: “if you’re a person of European descent then talking about the religion of 1.6 billion Muslims is inherently racist.”1

But having finally read Orientalism, I’m less likely to think that was just a simple misunderstanding, either.

1 Beck, Glenn. It IS About Islam. (New York: Threshold Editions/Mercury Radio Arts, 2015). 73.

More on the “Read Me” Project

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
So. many. books.


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