Orientalism (1978)

The most famous work of the renowned Palestinian American scholar Edward Said is both a survey and a polemic, an introduction to the academic discipline of “Orientalism,” and an argument that it should be reformed or abolished. Said, who had an endowed chair in Comparative Literature at Columbia University, rose to the very top of the academic profession. Yet Orientalism is an argument against the academic mindset. Said’s ideal is not the social scientist, but the novelist,not the professional sociologist, but the liberal humanist.

The word “Orientalism,” like the word “hacker,” is misunderstood. So we need to be clear exactly what Edward Said means by “Orientalism” and “Oriental.” In the United States, an “Oriental” is a person from the Far East. In France and in the United Kingdom, however, the “Orient” usually refers to the Middle East, to Egypt and Palestine more than it does to China and Japan. “Orientalism,” in turn, does not simply mean “racism” or “Islamophobia.” Rather, until the post colonial era, “Orientalism” was an academic discipline just like English or History. The Department of “Near Eastern Studies” at Princeton, for example, was founded in 1927 as the “Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures.”


Not every Orientalist is a coarse racist, a Bernard Lewis or a Daniel Pipes. Nevertheless, even though Said admires scholars like Richard Francis Burton and Louis Massignon, he also argues that the academic discipline of Orientalism has traditionally been in the service of empire. In vast, and often mind numbing detail, he traces the beginnings of the Orientalist outlook back to its roots in the ancient world. He then proceeds to examine the process by which the Orientalist mindset became codified as a profession, and then how the profession of Orientalism became subordinated to British and French, and then American imperialism. If Economics is the codified ideology of capitalism, then Orientalism is the codified ideology of European domination of the Middle East, of the British and French scramble to control the Suez Canal and the route to India, and of the American need to control the supply of oil.

A key event in the development of the Orientalist mindset was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. The French, having lost most of North America, hoped to secure their control of Western Europe by outflanking the British in the Middle East. To seize Egypt meant to block the route to India. To control the Eastern Mediterranean meant to threaten British sea power. For Napoleon, however, control of the Middle East meant more than simply the control of the Nile Delta. It meant French domination over the way Europeans saw the Islamic world, French control over the origins of Western Civilization. As such, Napoleon brought with him to Egypt an army of scholars to rival Murat’s cavalry and the Old Guard. He wanted to use the soft power of ideology to control Egypt and Syria. The end result was to subordinate the study of history and of languages to the hard power of economic and military necessity.

Many of the scholars Napoleon brought with him to Egypt were students of the French Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, a pioneer in the study of Arabic and the Middle East.

“It was not only because he was the first president of the Societe asiatique (founded in 1822) that Sacy’s name is associated with the beginning of modern Orientalism; it is because his work virtually put before the profession an entire systematic body of texts, a pedagogic practice, a scholarly tradition, and an important link between Oriental scholarship and public policy. In Sacy’s work, for the first time in Europe since the Council of Vienne, there was a self-conscious methodological principle at work as a coeval with scholarly discipline.”

In de Sacy and even more so in his successor Ernest Renan, Said argues, we can see the main characteristics of the European approach to the Middle East. For the Orientalist, the Middle East is not an empirical reality to be investigated with an open mind, but a projection of the European imagination onto the Arab world. Islam is not a diverse, often contradictory, evolving reality like Europe. Rather, it is the eternal “other,” a closed off system that exists, not in Egypt, Palestine, Syria or North Africa, but, rather, in the mind of the European Orientalist. The Semitic world is removed from history, and put into a glass case in the British Museum. Like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, Sylvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, and their successors travel to the Arab world and find nothing but their own heart of darkness.

‘In the system of knowledge about the Orient, the Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references, a congeries of characteristics, that seems to have its origin in a quotation, or a fragment of a text, or a citation from someone’s work on the Orient, or some bit of previous imagining, or an amalgam of all these. Direct observation or circumstantial description of the Orient are the fictions presented by writing on the Orient, yet invariably these are totally secondary to systematic tasks of another sort. In Lamartine, Nerval, and Flaubert, the Orient is a re-presentation of canonical material guided by an aesthetic and executive will capable of producing interest in the reader. Yet in all three writers, Orientalism or some aspect of it is asserted, even though, as I said earlier, the narrative consciousness is given a very large role to play. What we shall see ‘is that for all its eccentric individuality, this narrative consciousness will end up by being aware, like Bouvard et Pécuchet, that pilgrimage is after all a form of copying.”

As the Middle East becomes the Orient, an essentialism born of empire, becomes, in effect, a lens through which all Europeans, even the most intelligent and radical, view the Arab world. Karl Marx, for example, made an initial attempt to understand the Middle East on its own terms. But he eventually fell into the Orientalist’s mindset. How different history would have turned out, Said suggests, had he been able to overcome the intellectual limitations of Orientalism. Marx might have provided the intellectual tools necessary to overcome the ideology of empire in the Arab world. But he didn’t. It’s a testament to intellectual power of the Orientalist outlook that even the author of Capital got straightjacketed by de Sacy’s and Renan’s essentialism, by the world view born of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and of the long domination of the “Orient” by the west.

“The quotation, which supports Marx’s argument about torment producing pleasure, comes from the Westostlicher Diwan and identifies the sources of Marx’s conceptions about the Orient. These are Romantic and even messianic: as human material the Orient is less important than as an element in a Romantic redemptive project. Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking, even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged. Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.”

Arabs and Muslims, the “Orient,” pushed itself back into history during the First World War. The French and British, now allies, scrambling for position as the Ottoman Empire cracked up, allied themselves with the Arab revolt against the Turks. The Turks, in turn, defeated the British at Gallipoli, and established their own secular nationalist state under Ataturk. The process continued after the Second World War with the independence of India and the rise of Pan Arab nationalist under Nasser. But western imperialism and Orientalism live on. Edward Said died in 2003 during the darkest days of the Bush administration without getting to see an independent Palestine. American and Zionist imperialism has replaced British and French imperialism. The need to control Saudi oil has replaced the need to control the Suez Canal.

American Orientalism has become, if anything, more of a self-enclosed and self-enclosing worldview than British or French Orientalism. After 9/11, every right-wing, low-IQ American became a vulgar Orientalist, quoting out of context snippets from the Koran in the comments section of his local newspaper’s website. Bookstores were lined with works by Hirsi Ali and whatever Israeli “terror expert” the media was pushing at the time.  What’s more, Said argues, while Arab radicals once tapped into Marxism, anti-imperialism, and secular nationalism to re-establish the Orient as a subject of history instead of merely the object for western contemplation, the Arab elites — who are now largely educated at American universities — have begun to adapt the Orientalist mindset for themselves.

But Said does suggest a way out.

Throughout his book, hovering behind his survey of the academic discipline of “Orientalism,” is Said’s own discipline of Comparative Literature. If Orientalism is essentialist and sealed off from experience, dogmatic, racist, Islamophobic, and, in the end, subordinated to empire, the novel, liberal humanism, and philology — the study of languages — are searching and open ended, a way back into history. The key distinction, Said argues, should not be east vs. west but history vs. mythology. We need more literary criticism (Said himself began his career as a critic of Joseph Conrad), more empathy, more history, less academic pseudo-science.

“One of the striking aspects of the new American social-science attention to the Orient is its singular avoidance of literature. You can read through reams of expert writing on the modern Near East and never encounter a single reference to literature. What seem to matter far more to the regional expert are “facts,” of which a literary text is perhaps a disturber. The net effect of this remarkable omission in modern American awareness of the Arab or Islamic Orient is to keep the region and its people conceptually emasculated, reduced to “attitudes,” “trends,” statistics: in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist—and there are many—writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, cliches, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented. A literary text speaks more or less directly of a living reality. Its force is not that it is Arab, or French, or English; its force is in the power and vitality of words that, to mix in Flaubert’s metaphor from La Tentation de Saint Antoine, tip the idols out of the Orientalists’ arms and make them drop those great paralytic children—which are their ideas of the Orient—that attempt to pass for the Orient.”

The method behind Said’s examination of Orientalism can be applied to other academic disciplines. The intellectually straightjacketed worldview that gave us Orientalism doesn’t begin and end in the Middle East. We should examine every area of study, every well-funded, established field of intellectual endeavor. Why, for example, do we presume study “English” in American universities? Does the typical American with an English degree know how the discipline was codified? When it was first taught? When it was first offered as a degree? How about Economics? Why do we study economics as if it were a pseudo-science outside of history? Why do we study Milton Friedman and not Marx? What interests does the discipline of Economics serve? Why do we study “Political Science” and not “Politics?” Why don’t people study “Classics,” once the core curriculum at English universities, in American universities? What about the American university as a whole? How did the expansion of higher education under the GI Bill and during the Cold War serve the needs of the American empire?

Said’s “Orientalism” should be read by every high-school senior before he gets to college. Agree with his conclusions or not, it’s worth learning his methods. It’s a thoroughgoing preparation for getting the most out of an undergraduate education, a course in critical thinking. If the “Department of Oriental Languages and Literatures” at Princeton is now the “Department of Near Eastern Studies,” if Joseph Massad, Said’s colleague at Columbia, is now perceived as more of a threat to Zionism and the American empire, than a tool in the service of Zionism and the American Empire, if the Palestine Solidarity and the BDS movement have become almost mainstream, then Orientalism, Said’s book from 1978, in no small way contributed to the new way of thinking, to the cracks in the once dominant “Orientalist” mindset. Any book that powerful deserves to be studied.


One comment

  1. Your review has helped me understand some things I hadn’t after originally reading this book.
    I think I should read Chapter 2 Orientalist Structures and Restructures again.

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