I wrote a short piece for my Observer column on Edward Said, Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin and why I have come to appreciate them more despite (or perhaps because of) the contradictions in their arguments. I thought it might also be useful as a counterpoint, to publish a short part of my original critique of Said’s Orientalism from my 1996 book The Meaning of Race. It is part of a much longer critique, but gets to the essence of some of disagreements. My new book, out next year, will update many of these arguments, particularly in the context of contemporary postcolonial theory and identitarian politics.
Orientalism and ahistoricism
(From The Meaning of Race, pp. 227-230)
In Orientalism, Said argues that Western historians, philologists and philosophers have fabricated a complex set of representations about the Orient, which for the West have effectively become the Orient. Said suggests that the creation of the Orient in literary, historical and scholarly accounts established a discourse through which the West could assert political and military control over the Orient:
My contention is that, without examining Orientalism as a discourse, one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – and even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe that no one writing, thinking or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. The Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought and action… [T]his book also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.
For Said, then, Orientalism constitutes a body of thought which both limits how those in the West are able to think about the Orient and allows the West to establish physical power over it. The discourse of Orientalism establishes a dualism between the West and the Orient which strengthens Western culture and imprisons those of the Orient. This dualism shapes the reality of the Orient for the peoples of both the West and the Orient itself.
Despite such major claims there is, however, a total lack of precision in Said’s work as to what he means by “Orientalism” and what are the historic and epistemic boundaries that delimit it as a discourse. Said himself observes in his Introduction that “by Orientalism I mean several things”. But these “several things” are often so contradictory, and sometimes mutually exclusive, that the term “Orientalism” is rendered meaningless.
Central to Said’s argument would seem to be the idea that Orientalism is a post-Enlightenment discourse, the product of the Enlightenment’s universalising categories and one which allows the West to establish colonial power over the Orient:
Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point, Orientalism can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.
But Said also argues that “the demarcation between the Orient and the West… already seems bold by the time of the Iliad”. In Aeschylus’ The Persians and Euripides’ The Bacchae, “Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile ‘other’ world beyond the seas”. The two plays, writes Said, distil he distinctions between Europe and the Orient which “will remain essential motifs of European imaginative geography”:
A line is drawn between the two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant… It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator, whose life-giving power represents, animates, constitutes the otherwise silent and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries… Secondly, there is the motif of the Orient as insinuating danger. Rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses, those mysteriously attractive opposites to what seem to be normal values.
Orientalism no longer seems to be the specific product of Enlightenment categories but originates at the very dawn of what Said conceives as European civilization. Within the earliest of Athenian plays appear the concepts that were to be articulated later by Enlightenment philosophes. This allows Said to suggest that Orientalism “can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Marx”.
Any concept of a discourse that can accommodate four writers as historically, politically and philosophically diverse as Aeschylus, Dante, Hugo and Marx cannot but be profoundly ahistoric. The specificities of Aeschylus’ understanding of the barbarian, Dante’s view of Islam and Marx’s analysis of India, disappear beneath the swamp of an all-encompassing “Orientalism”. And if the concept of the non-Western world as the “Other” derives from the universalising impulse of the Enlightenment, yet is premised on “a line… drawn between two continents” by Ancient Greek playwrights and philosophers, in what way is Enlightenment discourse specific to the Enlightenment? Said seems here to posit a view of “Western thought” essentially untouched since its creation.
The ahistoricism of Orientalism leads Said to mimic the very discursive structures against which he polemicises. Said creates a “Western tradition” which runs in an unbroken line from the Ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to modernism. It is a tradition which defines a coherent Western identity through a specific set of beliefs and values which remain in their essence unchanged through two millennia of European and Western history. This, of course, is the myth of “Western civilization” propagated by many an advocate of Western superiority.
Said not only accepts the reality of such a tradition, but he also erases, as Aijaz Ahmed observes, the fractures, conflicts and divisions within European societies and treats Europe as a homogenous maker of history:
It is rather remarkable how constantly and comfortably Said speaks… of a Europe, or the West, as a self-identical, fixed being which has always had an essence and a project, an imagination and a will; and of the “Orient” of its object – textually, militarily, and so on. He speaks of the West, or Europe, as the one that produces that knowledge, the East as the object of that knowledge. In other words, he seems to posit stable subject-object identities, as well as ontological and epistemological distinctions between the two. In what sense then, is Said himself not an Orientalist – or at least, as Sadek el-Azm puts it, an “Orientalist-in-reverse”? Said quite justifiably accuses the “Orientalist” of essentialising the Orient, but his own essentialising of the “West” is equally remarkable. In the process, Said gives us the same “Europe” – unified, self-identical, transhistorical, textual – which is always rehearsed for us in the sort of literary criticism which traces its own pedigree from Aristotle to T.S. Eliot.In Theory, p. 183
For Said, a European, by virtue of being European, must necessarily be racist. “[E]very European”, he writes, “in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric”. Every European? Surely even Gobineau or Renan might have been somewhat more circumspect about making such sweeping statements. As Ahmad observes, “These ways of dismissing entire civilizations as diseased formations are unfortunately all too familiar to us, who live on the other side of the colonial divide, from the history of imperialism itself.”
Elsewhere, Said himself has cogently argued against such ahistoric attitudes:
Culture and Imperialism, If you know in advance that the African or Iranian or Chinese or Jewish or German experience is fundamentally integral, coherent, separate, and therefore comprehensible only to Africans, Iranians, Chinese, Jews or Germans you first of all posit as essential something which, I believe, is both historically created and the result of interpretation – namely the existence of Africanness, Jewishness, or Germanness, or for that matter Orientalism or Occidentalism.Culture and Imperialism, p. 35
Yet such cautionary reminders of the dangers of an ahistoric approach are all too often lost amidst the rush to establish that the categories of Western thought are in and of themselves imbricated with racism. A few chapters on from his warning against thinking of cultures as “fundamentally integral, coherent, separate”, Said argues that there exists a “fundamental ontological distinction between the West and the rest of the world” and that “we may consider” “the geographical and cultural boundaries between the West and its non-Western peripheries” as “absolute”.