who recently passed away, belongs - or belonged - to a tradition of critical
Marxism, which needs to be distinguished from Marxism and understood as
the philosophy of historical materialism. Born to Palestian parents and
brought up in Cairo, where he attended private English schools, Said was
a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University
and one of the leading and most articulate advocates of the Palestinian
cause. He is most known for his epoch-making study Orientalism,
which has been instrumental in making post-colonial studies into one of
the fastest growing fields within the humanities.
What does Said mean by the term orientalism? According to him, Western society in general, and the colonial powers Britain and France in particular, developed over the course of the nineteenth century a series of discourses - academic, literary, political, etc. - on the Orient and the Arab world. Since the same regulating norms, perspectives, and ideological biases dominated all these narratives, they came to constitute what Said calls a system of representation. It is to this closely knit web of thought, scholarship and cultural production, and its empowering institutions, that the term Orientalism refers.
If we are
to believe Said, this Western pursuit of learning, vision and knowledge
about the Orient was not motivated by a disinterested search for truth,
but by a desire to serve Western imperialism and dominance. The Oriental
is in this vast and multi-faceted literature thus persistently portrayed
as barbaric, devoted to despotism and submission, and lacking "high
culture" and civilization. He is, in other words, a suitable object
upon which the Western conqueror may impose his rule, his political order
and his way of life. As a result, the Arab and the Muslim have become
caught in a web of racial, cultural and generally dehumanizing stereotypes
that has determined, and continue to determine, the asymmetrical relationship
between the Western "We" and the Oriental, or colonial, "Them".
The great virtue of Said's method is that it allows us to look behind the mirror of representation and to perceive the abstract categories and the totalizing tendencies of the discourses that envelope the world of human particulars like a prejudicial filter. But he has often, and with reason, been accused of Occidentalism, of creating a homogenized and undifferentiated image of the West.