Naming the Unnameable: Another Look at Edward Said’s Orientalism

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In the 40-plus years since Edward Said’s book Orientalism was published, many outlets and authors have reflected on Said’s legacy. One of the most recent is an authorized 2021 biography by his student and friend Timothy Brennan called Places of Mind. Although he died in 2003, Said’s thought still lives in the minds of leftists around the world. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Orientalism was one of the most influential works of the last half century. Not only did it help give shape to a variety of academic subdisciplines and genres of analysis, but it spread beyond the confines of university lecture halls and graduate student seminars to leave a permanent imprint on public discourses of racism and imperialism.

The general premise of Orientalism seems deceptively simple to contemporary readers: Said argued that there is a dominant notion of the “Orient” that colors how the West views the “Rest.” He called this “Orientalism.” Orientalism was a “style of thought” that presupposed the West and the Rest—the Islamic world, in particular— as fundamentally different. Academic centers and cultural and government institutions made implicit (and explicit) assumptions about how the “Other” acts. Islamic countries came to be viewed as places that needed to be colonized and “civilized,” and thus they became a foil and contrast to the so-called West.

What was most striking about the argument of Orientalism was not necessarily its novelty—many of Said’s arguments had been made before, particularly by authors writing in Arabic—but its bold and often polemical tone. The immediate reaction to it was a mix of high praise and defensive critiques. Prominent figures in the field of Middle Eastern studies attacked Said as a dilettante unfamiliar with Arab culture. Some critiques were more serious, pointing at a few contradictions and flaws in Said’s methodology. Said mostly focused on U.S., French, and British depictions of the “Orient,” ignoring the rich history of German and Russian scholarship on the region. Likewise, he dismissed the economic and material forces undergirding imperialist mindsets. A famous critique by Syrian Marxist Sadiq Jalal al-Azm noted that Said’s polemical tone hurt the details of his arguments. By tracing the origins of Orientalism not necessarily to just the origin of European colonialism but to a hazy past dominated by such figures as Homer and Dante, Said implies that Orientalism is a natural part of European thought, thus essentializing the “West” in the same way he accuses Western authors of essentializing the “East.”

In addition to critiques of Said’s methods, some scholars called into question the novelty of his ideas. Said’s general argument borrowed from the lesser-known works of many other Arab writers, including Albert Hourani and Anouar Abdel-Malek. Though he noted this intellectual debt, his own work came to overshadow theirs. To that end, as contemporary critics have noted, Said was in a sense tokenized, taken

U.S. academia as an exceptional symbol of Arab intellectualism, contrasted with his contemporaries instead of having his work situated in a longer tradition of work that critiqued the cultural dimensions of imperialism.

Following the publication of Orientalism, Said spent much of his time responding to these critiques, often successfully. He acknowledged many of the book’s contradictions but stuck to his core argument: that imperialism created—and was then justified by—a discourse that presupposed the West’s cultural and civilizational superiority. That argument holds up today.

Other aspects of the book have not aged as well. Said’s emphasis on cultural production and grandiose statements about the continuities between ancient and contemporary Orientalism weaken the book’s empirical core. Even scholars sympathetic to Said’s claims have pointed out that Orientalism is less a single discourse produced by largely white and male institutions in the West and more a heterogeneous body of discourses co-authored by people at the margins, both in imperial centers and in the colonies themselves. Others have noted that Orientalism affects the “ruled” as much as it does the “ruler,” with many former colonies uncritically accepting assumptions about their supposedly “barbaric” pasts.

Some have taken their critiques further, arguing that Said kickstarted an age of scholarship that turned away from a rigorous analysis of economic forces in favor of vaguer and less empirically bound concepts of culture and language. The result, while helping to flesh out justifications for imperialism, sometimes misses the forest for the trees, lost in its own esoteric language.

Many have tried to dismiss Said him- self as emblematic of the ivory tower intellectual uninterested in “real” political analysis and activism. Among some members of the Left, “postcolonialism” and “identity politics” are seen as the reason for our intellectual and organizational failures and stagnation, however unfairly, and Said has been linked to both. But Said remained an avowedly critical and involved scholar, using the tremendous prestige and platform that Orientalism gave him to reflect on the duty that intellectuals have to the public and to radical causes.

Nowhere was this clearer than in his passionate advocacy for the Palestinian cause and his ceaseless critiques of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East and anti-Arab discrimination at home. Said never separated his academic work from his activism, noting in a letter to a fellow historian Roger Owen that he found his work to be ultimately a “contribution to the struggle against imperialism.” From his association with various Arab thinkers and revolutionaries to his participation in the struggles of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including as a member of its “parliament in exile,” Said remained a steadfast critic of imperialist aggression in the Middle East. As the struggle for Palestine waned, with the Palestinian leadership largely acquiescing to Israeli demands following the Oslo Accords, Said turned his anger against them, too, showing that he was willing to hold any oppressor to account, regardless of nationality. To that end, he used his cosmopolitan position as an Arab intellectual working in the West to destabilize both imperialist and self-imposed stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims, and “Others.”

In that sense, Said’s power and influence were not limited to Orientalism or the works that followed it. Rather, he should be remembered for his challenge to all of us to develop a vocabulary for critiquing the dis- courses of cultural superiority and civilizational hierarchies that have given shape to the world around us. In short, Said empowered us to name the unnameable, pointing to the everyday, mundane structures of knowledge and information that enable the enduring oppression of the Global South. To that end, he embodied the best of the radical intellectual tradition, as summarized by Marx himself: Many have “interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”