Orientalism has a well-established meaning in English – namely, the scholarly study by Westerners of eastern cultures, languages and peoples, a meaning Edward Said sometimes adopts. But he primarily uses the word in two other ways, both original to him:
Any writing that makes an Orient/Occident distinction, including poetry and prose, philosophy, political theory. and economics, the memoirs of imperial administrators; and
A mentality: "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient," "a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern the Orient", or most simply, "the Western approach to the Orient."
In other words, Said's subject has less to do with Western scholarship than with the Western attitudes and their role in structuring relations between Westerners and other peoples. He argues that this tells more about European and American power over the Orient than about the Orient itself. Even academic knowledge, in his view, has been "somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by" this European domination. Political imperialism has had an insidious but enormous influence on all aspects of relations between Europe and the Orient. This political context invalidates Western views on the Orient, which paint an untrue picture.
Drawing examples from sources in academic, imaginative, and political writings, Said establishes the Europeans' sense of superiority, their seeing the Orient as unchanging, and their own prerogative to exercise power over Orientals. He emphasizes the permanence of Western views and divides his critique into three chapters, more or less corresponding to the pre-19th century beginnings of "Orientalism," its 19th century elaboration, and 20th century continuation.
His basic thesis that Westerners have tended to stereotype and denigrate other peoples cannot be disputed (insofar as it can be understood, as Said's style is turgid and his organization mangled). Indeed, Said performs a service by drawing attention to the problem, for awareness must precede rectification. Western metaphors must change, stereotypes be undone, and smugness eliminated. This kernel of insight is sound and important, if not exactly original.
But Said's arguments violate history and common sense, while his manipulation of evidence creates the book's dramatic effect as well as its deep flaws. More specifically, the argument in Orientalism is overstated and its explanations false. Each of these two criticisms in turn has two parts; in all, I shall argue four points against Orientalism.
I. "Orientalism" Excludes Scholarship
Orientalism commonly understood begins with philology, the mastery of a language and the culture which accompanies it. Orientalists acquire and collate manuscripts, edit texts, compare accounts, trace versions, and, finally, create an intellectual structure. Orientalism involves a detailed effort to build an edifice of knowledge about remote histories and cultures.
Said ignores this long and massively impressive effort by European scholars and limits his gaze to the generalizations, summations, and characterizations, the casual remarks which often had no relation to the academic enterprise but made up a tiny portion of the Orientalist edifice. In calling this peripheral element "Orientalism," he unjustly damns a noble and lasting scholarly tradition.
II. "Orientalism" Excludes All But the British, French, and Arabs
Said takes up only British and French writers, ignoring those from other European countries. He defines Orientalism as "the Western approach to the Orient" but his book looks just at British and French approaches to Arab Muslims. On the one hand, Germans, Russians. and Italians do not count, as if their writings merely imitated those of the British and French; on the other, he ignores Chinese, Indians and Africans in European writings, implying that they were viewed exactly as the Arab Muslims.
He justifies this narrow focus on two grounds: the "pioneer quality" of British and French thought and its "sheer quality, consistency, and mass." But these two reasons are in fact lame excuses to avoid the cultures whose works ill fit Said's schema. The Germans did so much pioneering philological work that German was dubbed "the first Semitic language." Through the 19th century, German scholarship was pre-eminent in many fields of Orientalist scholarship, so omitting it much reduces the applicability of Said's ideas. He even admits that because Germany had no imperial network, it does not fit the "Orientalist" pattern.
Said's Orient is even more partial, for he restricts it to Arabic-speaking Muslims in the Middle East, whereas the term in English normally refers to everything from Senegal to Japan. Stray references in the book to India, Iran or Turkey merely buttress notions developed about Arab Muslims. Why only these people? Perhaps because Said himself is an Arabic speaker (though not a Muslim) and a supporter of Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Perhaps because Arab Muslims fit his schema best: European relations with them have gone on longer and with greater agony than relations with any other non-Western people.
Before 1500, Christian Europeans knew of only one major bloc of peoples outside Europe, the Muslims, mostly Arabic speakers. The two religions had comparable but rival world views (both ethical monotheisms with Jewish roots and universal aspirations). Christians had enormous hostility toward Islam, seeing it as a fraudulent or heretical Christianity, fearing its success (many Christians had converted to Islam); and fought Muslims on land and sea (the Crusades, Spanish reconquista, and Ottoman threat were only the most visible of these).
In contrast, European attitudes toward non-Muslim Orientals, especially those of South and East Asia, began after 1500 and involved more goodwill. When the Europeans encountered Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintoists, they thrilled to finding highly civilized non-Muslims. Relations with these other peoples, particularly if they accepted Christianity, could be excellent.
Said has selected a special case in British and French attitudes towards Muslims. In so doing, he has chosen not a typical European-Oriental relationship but probably the most extremely hostile one. He is wrong to insinuate that all other relationships imitated this one. Even if his ideas are correct, they hold for only a minority of Europe and a small part of the Orient. Perhaps Germans viewed China just as the British saw Egypt, but there is no reason to assume so.
Thus, Said misleads the reader about his topic. He deals with less than he claims – not the massive philological enterprise but misty generalizations and not "the Western approach to the Orient" but "the British and French approach to Arab Muslims." His analysis then fails to explain why the British and French developed their attitudes of superiority.
III. Ignoring the Rise of the West
Said establishes that British and French attitudes towards Arab Muslims reeked of arrogance, racism, teleology, false dichotomies, and misrepresentation, that scholars said things no less stupid than naïve administrators, and that degrading attitudes permeated all writings—even those by eccentrics.
He fails to explain this consensus, however, when he notes that a European dichotomy between itself and the Orient, as well as a Europeans vaunting of their superiority, goes back to Homer's time. If this attitude has existed for millennia, how does it explain specifically the overweening European attitudes of the 19th century, which he dubbed "Orientalism"? And what about other civilizations, notably the Chinese, which also feel superior – why did they too not hold "Orientalist" views? What happened that caused the modern British and French to consider Arabic-speaking Muslims inferior and unchanging?
Much happened, and Said makes no mention of it. In brief, the key was Europe's astonishing superiority in virtually every field of human endeavor. Building to a climax in the Victorian era, 1850-1914, Britain and France encroached nearly everywhere and became predominant in nearly all spheres of life. The Europeans' unrivaled economic and military power, along with their new techniques, machines, and organizations allowed them to overturn political authority and traditional ways in Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and (of course) the Middle East. Over a period of several centuries, as their edge over others ever-widened, Europeans could do increasingly more.
The British and French, in particular, needed to account for their global successes, to explain what they had done right. Their awesome power, however, undermined attempts to explain its success; an absurd imbalance of power and wealth led to absurd ideas. They came to see their primacy as a permanent fact, not as a transient phenomenon, and so they recruited static cultural, religious, and racial theories to account for Europe's success: the Greek legacy, the Christian religion, Europe's geography, cold climate, larger brains, and so forth. Such views, it bears emphasizing, did not develop in isolation or at random: new and fleeting material circumstances (towering superiority), not enduring intellectual traditions (the antique Orient/Occident dichotomy) explain "Orientalism."
IV. Ignoring Recent Changes
But, as the 20th century wears on, and especially since World War II, the invincible power of the West has faded and with it the confidence of permanent superiority. As non-Europeans make use of European techniques, they share its power and wealth. As decisions affecting the West are ever more made in Tokyo, Hanoi and Tehran, non-Western civilizations look more impressive. Said himself, a Palestinian who fills the Parr Professorship of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the non-Westerner who adopts European culture and succeeds at it; and his Orientalism neatly encapsulates how those skills can be turned against Europe.
The relative decline of Western power confirms that Europe's modern successes resulted from specific historical circumstances, and not from an innate superiority. This decline makes cultural relativism plausible; Europe now appears as only one of several great civilizations, the one which enjoyed its moment most recently and most spectacularly. Daily, the Orient/ Occident dichotomy makes less sense (where does Japan fit in?).
Such changes mean what Said calls "Orientalism" has declined. If not entirely extinct, its premises have declined for a full generation and have lost all respectability or importance. Scholars specializing in other civilizations stand at the vanguard of repudiating religious and racial supremacism. Non-Western history is studied empirically, without grand theories (the concept of "Oriental despotism" is defunct) and is seen to develop (rather than cycle on itself without moving, as used to be the case). Non-Western cultures are respected, even honored.
Said somehow missed this change; he insists that the 19th-century attitudes prevail yet today. To prove this preposterous thesis, his concluding section cites with a number of major figures writing in English today, triumphantly locating some juicy quote whose meaning, in almost every case, Said distorts to fit into his "Orientalist" schema. The case of Bernard Lewis, the eminent Princeton historian of Muslim peoples, exemplifies this problem. Lewis wrote this about thawra, the Arabic word for revolution:
The root th-w-r in classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. . . The noun thawra at first means excitement, as in the phrase, cited in the Sihah, a standard medieval dictionary, intazir hatta taskun hadhihi'l-thawra, wait till this excitement dies down—a very apt recommendation.
Said's convulsion over the alleged sexual innuendos in the above two sentences deserves quotation in full:
Lewis's association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most part it is a "bad" sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel's rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus.
Said's distortion is exposed. Ironically, Said reveals himself to be the "neurotic sexual" Arab that he himself conjures up.
By insisting that nothing has changed over time, Said is guilty of the same ahistoricity that he rightly decries in "Orientalism." He too has constructed a typology and claims it exists outside history, immune to change. He claims that "Orientalist" ideas survived for centuries due to what he calls "textualism," the reliance on books instead of reality, whereby privileged ideas perpetuate themselves, self-confirming because no one bothers to check what Orientals actually do. In another irony, Said is the one who restricted himself to texts and ignored major changes in the world order around him. While Said correctly blames Europeans for seeing Orientals as static and unchanging, he is the one who commits this sin. One wonders whether his effort will initiate a "textualism" of its own?
Orientalism screams with pain; Said reveals unvarnished grievances and his book settles petty scores (for proof, re-read the anti-Lewis paragraph). Writing more in anger than in sorrow, Said lashes out against an outworn view of the world as a catharsis for his personal nemeses. His flawed, shoddy, and deceptive project is a disgrace and deserves to be ignored.
Dec. 17, 1979 update: With the publication of Said's Question of Palestine, one sees how Orientalism merely extended his ideas, rooted in the Arab-Israeli conflict, to a much larger canvas.
June 20, 2003 update: I document Said's obsessive and insulting response to this review.