Edward Said’s Orientalism is his signature contribution to literary criticism and academic life. The book questions a pattern of misrepresentation of the Orient (East) by the Occident (West).
It argues that there had never been a neutral scholarship that studied the Orient. This is because those who were doing the study were located in the West, which exercised colonial power over those being studied. This unequal power relation created the very object of study—’we’ could study ‘them’ because ‘they’ were separated from ‘us’ and subject to ‘our’ rule.
The evaluation and critique of Edward Said’s set of beliefs, known as ‘Orientalism’, forms a significant background for postcolonial studies. Besides, it has also given birth to a new sub-discipline—the cultural study of colonialism. However, Edward Said’s Orientalism has various flaws and weaknesses as well. The book has been often cited as criticized by literary theorists, anthropologists, historians, and political scientists. However, it received strong criticism from academic Orientalists, including some of Eastern background.
Edward Said’s Orientalism made a parenthetical statement that ‘the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident’. This statement presents a useful summary of the binary opposition he creates. Nevertheless, here Said acknowledges the obvious opposition of Orient and Occident. Whereas, at various stages in the text, he complicates the issue. He refers to the Orient both in opposition to that which is ‘Western’ and that which is ‘European’, rather than its already established natural antonym.
Some Major Drawbacks of Said’s Binary Distinction Between the Orient and the Occident
The dualistic definition of the Occidental half of the binary by Edward Said causes a great problem. It is obvious that he uses the two terms apparently interchangeably. Yet, despite the overlapping of definition to some extent, the lack of true synonymy between ‘European’ and ‘Western’ shows that it is no longer explicit what Said is suggesting the Orient (East) to be defined in opposition against. Since this binary construction is crucial to Said’s theory, if it is improperly explained or seems indistinct, the whole theory raises doubt.
Said’s binary distinction between the Orient and the Occident is further fractured by his discussion of the commonality of German Orientalism, American Orientalism, and Anglo-French Orientalism. By naming them separately, and in therefore acknowledging a difference as well as a commonality between the three, Said opens up the possibility of the existence of multiple Orientalisms rather than a single unified system of Western thought, which he elsewhere defines Orientalism as being.
This concession to divisions within European thought, and further, between European and American thought, highlights the problems of trying to discuss and theories such large terms as Europe and Western. Moreover, Said discusses the problem he claims every writer on the Orient faces. These problems, in his views, are: “how to get hold of it, how to approach it, how not to be defeated or overwhelmed by its sublimity, its scope, its awful dimensions”. However, at the same time, he appears faced with similar problems of the sublimity, scope and dimensions of his terms as he discusses the Occident.
Fractured Unity of Occidental Models in Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’
As the unity of Edward Said’s Occidental models fractures, his binary system breaks down yet further. The central binary distinction between the Occident and the Orient becomes increasingly complex. This is because it begins to be more apparent that while Europe and the West may be defined in relation to their differences with the Orient, so may the West’s component parts be similarly defined in relation to their differences with each other. In this way, the binary opposition upon which Said’s premises his theory is problematic because it is poorly defined.
Moreover, Said theory also gets fractured because of the reductive nature of the terms he uses. Such reductive tendencies are not only present in his discussion of Europe/the West/the Occident. They can also be seen to the same degree in his discussion of the Orient. In addition, while Said acknowledges the geographical span of the Orient, “which extended from China to Mediterranean”, and has already discussed the perils of sublimity in writing about the Orient, he nevertheless still seems to forget the cultural and societal span this sweeping labelling of ‘the East’ takes in, and continues to talk about the Orient as a single sublimed entity.
Edward Said’s Orientalism Theory: Overshadowed by Improperly Defined Concepts
Although Edward Said acknowledges Orientalism as ‘a Western style’, however, he seems to fall too easily into line with the western thought he critiques. He does so by delineating the Orient as a holistic unit because of its exoticism and its ‘otherness’ to the West, instead of any commonality of features within itself. By not seeking enough to define and question the concepts and labels he uses in his discussion, Said falls victim to their reification.
This eventually makes Edward Said’s Orientalism theory overshadowed by concepts that he fails to define properly and gain control over. Also, this evidence seems to indicate the necessity of a number of different binaries to fully construct the complex system of interrelationships between the various acting nations and people in this discourse, rather than one simple distinction of the West and the East.
Major Flaw in Said’s Claim about the Orient Being Spoken Only From Outside
As we’ve discussed, Said’s often sweeping and reductive nature has already been seen to an extent in his problematic use of the terms around which his argument revolves. Another example of such a generalizing tendency in his work appears in his suggestion that:
“Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West”. — Edward Said
Another central aspect of Said’s theory is that the knowledge gained about the Orient from representations of it in literature, is crucial to the power the West held over it. In his own words:
“Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world”. — Edward Said
However, it is clear that writers such as Sir William Jones, Warren Hastings, Robert Southey, and William Hodges might be seen in such terms as Said describes. That is, to speak for the Orient, and thus, to create it in the minds of their readers. While, theirs are not the only representations of the Orient that exist. Often cited as an Indian author’s first text in English, The Travels of Dean Mahomet is quite significant in this regard. An autobiographical book first published in 1794, it is an instance of the exception of Said’s generalized rule of exteriority. Its production and existence is enough to dispute Said’s claim about the Orient being spoken merely from the outside—the West.
Mahomet’s work clearly defies Said’s convention. It is an explicit example of a description of the Orient, rendering its mysteries plain and clear for the West, not written by an external ‘Orientalist’, a European poet or scholar travelling in the East. But, by an Indian writer who has travelled in and emigrated to Europe.
Edward Said’s Orientalism Theory: Based Upon A Generalized & False Assumption
Edward Said’s Orientalism theory, therefore, seems based upon a generalized, and hence, a false assumption that ‘such an Orient was silent’. Although very much in the minority, the existence of Mahomet’s text rejects Said’s notion of such silence. The book further reveals that the Orient was not solely created through ‘imperial eyes’. However, the representations of the East by the Eastern people also played a role in its creation.
Nevertheless, as convenient as this argument may seem, Mahomet is not simply an Indian writer who offers a simple refutation of Said’s claim of exteriority. Instead, since he migrated to Europe, Mahomet is a hybrid figure, as culturally English as he is ethnically Indian. Similarly, his text is a hybrid. It is influenced in style and possibly in content by other European Orientalist texts. Yet, it is also different due to his different view of events. Although Mahomet’s text is not premised on exteriority to the Orient to the same degree as works by contemporaneous writers, neither can it be said to be the work of a completely Oriental insider.
Because of these complexities surrounding Mahomet’s location as a writer, his work’s example cannot be seen to completely disprove Said’s claim of Oriental exteriority. However, it does highlight the fact that there are elements to Said’s Orientalism that he oversimplifies and doesn’t explore as fully as he might have done. For Said to claim that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority” is as reductive in its own way as the earlier problems surrounding his definition of the binary opposition of the Orient and the Occident. This is because it is without examination of a character like Dean Mahomet or other recourse to evidence and examples.
As has been demonstrated in the above argument, Edward Said’s Orientalism theory has certain flaws and weaknesses. However, in spite of these flaws and weaknesses, it is testament to the importance of Said’s work that it continues to provoke such criticism and debate nearly two decades after its publication.