Modernism och postmodernism

Edward Said and Orientalism

Modernism och postmodernism - startsida

Edward Said, 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.

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the Orient" and (most of the time) "the Occident." Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, "mind," destiny, and so on ... the phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient . . despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a "real" Orient.

Edward Said: Orientalism (London: Vintage, 1979, pp. 2-3.

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.


Guardian: Obituary - Edward Said


© 2004 Mikael Hörnqvist Mikael Hörnqvist - Welcome page
Modernism och postmodernism