What is discourse according to Edward Said?

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A discourse, according to Foucault, is an authoritative form of speech. A discourse doesn't simply speak: it speaks with power and credibility, in a context in which what it says is taken to be accurate and truthful. Because a geology professor has the institutional backing of his university, for example,...

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A discourse, according to Foucault, is an authoritative form of speech. A discourse doesn't simply speak: it speaks with power and credibility, in a context in which what it says is taken to be accurate and truthful. Because a geology professor has the institutional backing of his university, for example, when he speaks about rock formations, people are primed to believe him, because he is the designated expert.

Discourse can set the frame and boundaries of a subject and use its power to decide what can and cannot be said in a topic. Modern economics, for example, may take certain portions of well-being, such as happiness, off the table, when discussing the impacts of economic growth.

Said called Orientalism a discourse could because it functioned as a way for the Western nations to dominate "the Orient," a huge swathe of land that went from Egypt and Turkey to India to Japan to China. The West spoke about the "Orient" with an authority that was unquestionable while at the same time insisting on what Said argues (and most people now accept) as unwarranted claims. For example, highly disparate cultures and religions, from the nomadic and Islamic culture of Saudi Arabia to Hindu cultures in India to the urban and Confucian cultures of China were all lumped together as one monolith called "the Orient."

Orientalism was a discourse because it gave the West an enormous amount of power, justified oppression by defining "Orientals" as inferior, and indiscriminately lumped together very different cultures so as to more easily control vast territories. Its contours were determined by the needs and preconceptions of those power rather than reality.

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According to Said, "Orientalism" is an attitude, a way of looking at people on the part of the West. It is a way of imagining, describing, and understanding people and places that are seen as "others." The important thing about Said's work is that he argued that Orientalism was wrapped up with European desires for power. He writes that "European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient." According to Said, a "whole network of interests" gained by creating and sustaining the creation of Orientalism. He draws upon the work of Michel Foucault, a contemporary of his, to illustrate that Orientalism was what Foucault called a "discourse."

Foucault's concept of discourse is difficult to define, but it can essentially be boiled down to a key proposition. Foucault understood all relationships to be undergirded or suffused with power. In particular, the production of knowledge, which he called "discourse," about something was a process that aimed at controlling that thing. For instance, Foucault argued across his works that Western societies created categories that included criminals, sexual deviants, and the mentally ill in order that people who were placed into those categories could be controlled. In this light, the studies of criminal justice, taxonomy, psychology, and other disciplines produced knowledge that served to create and perpetuate power. Said argues that Orientalism is an example of "discourse," knowledge about the Islamic world in particular that is used to expand and justify European cultural and economic hegemony over the region.

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Edward Said writes in chapter 1 of Orientalism that he applies Foucault's idea of discourse to the discussion of Orientalism.

I have found it useful here to employ Foucault’s notion of a discourse, as described by him in The Archaeology of Knowledge and in Discipline and Punish, to identify Orientalism. 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.

Foucault's definition of discourse is "a body of thought and writing that is united by having a common object of study, a common methodology or way of speaking about that object/thing, and/or a set of common terms and ideas."

Example: The discourse of alcoholism would include writings by rehabilitation facilities, writings from Alcoholics Anonymous, writings by doctors who study the effects of alcohol, novels about alcoholism/alcoholics, autobiographies written by alcoholics, and other writings related to alcoholism.

This explanation of discourse allows one to study works across time and genre and to realize that ideas and concepts aren't necessarily the creation of one individual person.

Orientalism is a way of talking about and representing the Orient; therefore, it becomes valuable for one to look at works across genres of writing and time periods to analyze how views of the Orient were produced through the lenses of Europeans and how those views evolved or stayed the same. Said looks at texts from various European countries, from poets, novelists, politicians, and so on, and makes them a unified body of discourse—a common object of study. Through this discourse, these various writings from various people, countries, and so on, it becomes evident that the same ideas and images of the Orient are repeated in different texts by different people and in different time periods. It illuminates the concept of "otherness" and how Europeans were looking through Western lenses to portray the Orient.

I have included a reference link from an English journal that further explains the link between Foucault and Said's discourse.

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