Published by Penguin Books on January 1st 1970
Genres: Academic Publishing, Non-Fiction
Providing an overview of western attitudes towards the East, this book sets out to challenge established western views of the Orient and of the Arab and Islamic world.
There are two types of great books.
Ones that expand or open up new horizons of understanding and inquiry, and make us see ourselves and the world around us in radically different and illuminating ways. They shine a penetrating light through the foggy opaqueness that emerges from our all-to-often comfortable ignorance and force us to say ‘wow’.
Others equip us- for the first time- with a language that enables us to finally express the many disparate and fuzzy inclinations we already had about the world, how it is ordered and how it is constructed. These types of books provide a vocabulary that makes the incoherent, articulable and ameliorate our nagging frustrations and anxieties.
For myself personally, the late and great Professor Edward Said’s Orientalism was a masterclass in the latter; a sentiment similarly shared by the sub-altern scholar, Professor Partha Chatterjee:
‘I will long remember the day I read Orientalism…a book which talked of things I felt I had known all along but had never found the language to formulate with clarity. Like many great books, it seemed to say for the first time what one had always wanted to say’ (1992).
Growing up in two British Colonies (Palestine and Egypt) Said noticed an incredible consistency in American and European representations of the Middle East- whether in the novels of Joseph Conrad and Jane Austen, or the sculptures and images of great French artists. The consistency lay in the disparity between ‘Western thinking about the Orient’ (here the ‘Arab World’ though this could equally apply to elsewhere in the Global South) and his experience of the reality on the ground.
He attempted to answer the questions why, when we think of the Middle East, we had pre-conceived notions of what kind of people lived there, what they believed and how they acted, even though we may have never been or met anyone from there. Said claimed that studies of ‘the Orient’ were not ‘objective epistemic exercises’ that were attempting to determine an independent reality about those places and people, but ‘interested’ and crude constructions of places, peoples and their histories:
‘…always with various silences and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated’ so that the reality was ‘swept aside or ignored, relegated to the sand heap’ .
These particular intellectual explorations and representations of ‘the Orient’ therefore were not descriptive or empirical observations but reflected and reinforced asymmetrical projections of power between the ‘Occidental West and the Oriental East’- though both these were similarly socially constructed. Inspired by Foucault’s ‘knowledge and power’ dialectic therefore, representations were interconnected in their process and effects and had been a key accessory in Europe’s domination and claim to hegemony over the ‘Other’:
‘the modern Orientalist does not, as he believes and even says, stand apart from it objectively. His human detachment, whose sign is the absence of sympathy covered by professional knowledge, is weighted heavily with all the orthodox attitudes, perspectives, moods of Orientalism…His Orient is not the Orient as it is, but the Orient as it has been Orientalized. An unbroken arc of knowledge and power connects the European or Western statesman and the Western Orientalists; it forms the rim of the stage containing the Orient…The scope of Orientalism exactly matched the scope of Empire.’
But these power-contingent representations were not just limited to the legitimation of yesteryears la mission civilisatrice in the colonial period, but continued today, through the toxic representations of immigrants, refugees, racialized diaspora and traveller communities. Indeed, Said, in his later, and equally compelling book, Culture & Imperialism, stated that Orientalism pierced through into the so-called Post-Colonial age.
As a legal researcher, and a child of colonial shifts, displacement and techtonics, Orientalism has had an astounding impression in the professional, personal and political arena. Said has enabled legal researchers to recognise the ‘Persistence of the Colonial’, as a problematisation of the alleged delineation or ‘break’ between ‘post-colonial legal systems’ and colonial-era legal systems.
In the spirit of Orientalism, the legal scholar Nathaniel Berman, in his brilliant lecture in the Wake of Empire (1999, 1542) stated that ‘if we fail to notice structural continuities’ in international law from the colonial era to the post-colonial periods, we may overestimate the extent to which modern concepts are any different from colonial ones. Indeed, sceptics of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention (wasn’t colonialism about humanising the barbarians?), the Right to Protect or the UN Trusteeship system draw from this field of inquiry.
In the personal and political sense, Orientalism provided many millions of diaspora, immigrant, ‘children of colonialism’, with ways of making sense of complexity and obfuscation. It gave value to their histories, explained their displacements and justified their existence.
Without marginalising or undermining the great contributions of other post-colonial behemoths such as Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak or Homi Bhaba, Said’s Orientalism is arguably the foundational text of Post-Colonial studies. Though not without its critics- ranging from the political right and from allied parts of the political spectrum who were critical of Said’s alleged theoretical confusions (drawing from seemingly antithetical traditions of Post-Structuralist and Marxist positions), the book’s enormous impact and continuing relevance is borne from its ability to explain the continuities and reproductions of these representations. In a sense therefore, as a text which rejects purely objective determinations of many types of phenomena, Orientalism’s success comes from a kind of quasi-transcedentalism through its ability to recognise continuities in form and representation which almost appear naturalized. In that sense, it is a timeless text. More importantly however, as a text of resistance, it demonstrates how the mighty pen can have illecebrous power over the sword.