Said returns to singe his critics

Orientalism
February 24, 1995

Orientalism was, Edward Said tells us in his new afterword to this printing, "the only book that I wrote as one continuous gesture, from research, through several drafts, to final version, each following the other without interruption or serious distraction". Although "it was far from clear whether such a study of the ways in which the power, scholarship and imagination of a 200-year-old tradition in Europe and America viewed the Middle East, the Arabs and Islam might interest a general audience," Orientalism was recognised immediately as being something rather special - "a stimulating, elegant yet pugnacious essay", as one reviewer put it 1978. It was soon published in many languages; and while there was some dissent from its arguments, hardly any student reading list in the humanities and social sciences was deemed to be complete without it. Orientalism became not just a tract for our times but a sacred text.

The book showed how western European scholars and literary figures (in fact mainly the French and British) had, over two centuries, tried to understand and write about their neighbours in Africa and Asia. Their main interest and concern was with those peoples who were geographically nearest to them and whose history had most impinged upon them. That history had been (like, indeed, most of the rest of European history) one of intense political and military conflict, and it was coloured (again like affairs in the rest of Europe) by religious and cultural strife. But from the later 18th century, arising from the experiences of western European expansion, new ideas emerged of how to define the problems of the eastern frontiers: out of scattered, diverse, overlapping and heterogeneous lands, peoples and religions, a coherent concept of the Orient was created. It was seen as a complete whole, being both geographically separate and culturally distinct from Europe and, by being so defined, it gave Europe itself an identity. This concept of an Orient was one shot with ambiguities and contradictions, although it was not without its superficial attractions. It promised to make comprehensible that which was challenging; and new scholarly methods evolved which seemed to make sense of that which was difficult to understand. A problem, recognised and then defined, was explored and solved, though in the process things were simplified and distorted.

Such is the tremendous variety and fecundity of human existence that the curious who travel have always been excited and unsettled by what they find. Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, recorded in his diary that he was drawn to India by the prospect of ruling a large country "full of men, and full of produce" with "masses of gold and silver". He was awestruck by the fact that India was "a different world; its mountains, rivers, jungles and deserts, its towns, its cultivated lands, its animals and plants, its peoples and their tongues, its rains, and its winds, are all different". Although some of the districts he travelled through had similarities with the countryside around Kabul, which he knew and loved so well, mostly they were different. "Once the water of (the Indus) is crossed, everything is in the Hindustan way: land, water, tree, rock, people and horde, opinion and custom." And Babur delighted in the variety, even when he was critical of it.

When looking across the world it is often the case that one is at first impressed by those things which are most unlike the conditions of one's own country or the customs of one's own people. In certain circumstances the very fact of these differences can be disturbing and one too easily ignores the things humanity shares the world over. Moreover, while seeing the diversity and complexity, the mind grasps for simple stereotypes and explanations which will bring the unusual under control. One thus finds in another place a coherence and a unity which would on closer scrutiny prove difficult to define or to justify; but these also help to give form to ideas and to create identities - both of the observer and of the observed. Inevitably this psychology leads to a caricature of social and cultural realities and has important consequences for how peoples regard each other. It is central to Said's main argument that, as French and English writers and social scientists turned their attention towards the lands east of the Mediterranean - their peoples and their religions - there occurred major distortions with profound political consequences. An Orient was created as an object of study, and the methods of study were in due course refined. Discoveries of ancient texts and advances in their translation, new ideas about theology and literature, exciting new disciplines such as philology, sociology and anthropology, all came to play a part in the study of the East.

In some ways, as examples in the substantial chapters of Said's book make clear, this was a fruitful enterprise: significant additions were made to the sum of human knowledge. But as it developed there was a heavy cost in both moral and spiritual terms. For the research undertaken from the late 18th century onwards tended increasingly to emphasise difference and distinctiveness, and in its determination to define that difference, scholarship dehumanised the societies under study. As more rigorous ways of categorising and classifying languages, religions and social organisation were developed, and as social and political hierarchies were constructed, severe constraints were placed on new thinking, and a series of unchallenged assumptions held the day. Said argues for the remarkable persistence of a number of dogmas, always implicit and sometimes quite explicit, in both scholarly and popular accounts of the Orient: "One is the absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior. Another dogma is that abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a 'classical' Oriental civilisation, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities. A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself; therefore it is assumed that a highly generalised and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically 'objective'. A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible)."

This situation came about partly because the study of the Orient was the preserve of a few experts whose expertise was inadequately exposed to detached criticism, and partly because Oriental Studies emerged and was recognised as a separate field of study in its own right through its cosy connections with the economic, political and military expansions of the two major western European powers. Orientalism developed not as a free scholarship, but as a useful one; it focused on understanding a situation in which unequal relations were taken as a given and in which a prime aim was to advise on how best lands could be occupied and managed. Denzil Ibbetson made the point thus in his preface to the 1881 census report on Punjab: "Our ignorance of the customs and beliefs of the people among whom we dwell is surely in some respects a reproach to us; for not only does that ignorance deprive European science of material which it greatly needs, but is also involves a distinct loss of administrative power to ourselves."

While the untrammelled desire for information may be wholly laudable, Ibbetson's need for information raises interesting questions. India would be carefully studied, yes, but from a European and imperial perspective: and with this knowledge would come the power to identify and to control. This reminds us that the search for knowledge is never wholly altruistic or disinterested, and that information has to be organised and interpreted to make it comprehensible. The underlying purpose determines what information is collected and how it is handled. All scholarly activity, therefore, carries with it an ethical responsibility, for what might seem to be a harmless pursuit in someone's study may well have fatal consequences in the street.

Doubtless driven by the anguish of contemporary Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, appalled by western policy-making in the Middle East in an era which saw the formal dismantling of empires but not necessarily an end to colonial relationships, and horrified by the popular western stereotypes of peoples in the Middle East, Edward Said argued passionately in Orientalism that far from expanding the horizons of knowledge and understanding, orientalists had developed a scholarship that was morally bankrupt. As his study moved into the 20th century its involvement with contemporary cultural matters became even more impassioned, linking up with new ideas about the place of the poor and oppressed, of minorities, of women, and of that vast mass of peoples still engaged in a struggle for the basic right of existence. Orientalist scholarship became, in Said's persuasive view, not just reactionary, but fundamentally destructive. Powerful establishments in the West based their actions on expert advice which appeared to be scholarly and objective but was in fact bound by malignant prejudices concerning race, religion and culture. Said's skilful arguments jolted the complacent and the thoughtless, and angered those who had earlier cast themselves as pursuing a difficult learning in a blameless way through such ordinary academic institutions as the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and Princeton University.

Though focused on a particular target, Said's book in practice rendered more explicit some key issues common to the humanities and social sciences. It raised such questions as: How do you represent culture? What is another culture? Do cultural, religious or racial differences matter more than socio-economic or political and historical ones? How do ideas acquire the status of being normal, or truthful, or authoritative? and What is the role of the intellectual in giving status and validation to human cultural forms? Said did not leave room in his book to explore these questions positively, although it is clear where he stands: he quotes with approval Hugo of St Victor: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." And he comments on this passage: "The more one is able to leave one's cultural home, the more easily one is able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance."

Orientalism has undoubtedly had a liberating effect on humane scholarship. It was not, of course, the only work to argue the case, but its reasonableness and lucidity ensured that the case was heard. Said's 1994 afterword adds little to this achievement, however. He is surprised (naively) that his work was seen by many as fundamentally hostile to Europe and the West, but he is right to point out gently that this is not a healthy reading of his text. He pokes again (unnecessarily) at those blinkered orientalists still turning on the spit over his slow fire. He approves of much new work that has been published since 1978, some of it overtly accepting his lead and consciously attempting to allow peoples their own voice; but he is also aware that Orientalism has unleashed as much that is indifferent and worthless as was ever produced by the old-style orientialist - for new presbyter is always but old priest writ large. However, for many of us the real importance of Said's outstanding book is that it reminds us most forcefully of our scholarly responsibilities and speaks to our calling, recently so well defined by David Ford: "Inquiring, learning, knowing and reasoning are forms of responsible relationship with other people and with our world. They attest to the priority of ethics even in our knowing. Facing another person my free spontaneity is called into question. I am answerable and am summoned, obliged, called into responsibility. Intelligibility itself is born through language in community, and rational discourse is about bearing responsible witness and justifying that witness before others."

Gordon Johnson is director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Orientalism

Author - Edward Said
ISBN - 0 14 023867 0
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 396

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments