Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Although far and away Edward Said’s best-known book, Orientalism is only one in a lengthy list of literary critical studies, studies of culture, historical analyses, and meditations and proposals on the subject of the Arabs and of Western views of Arabs and Islam.

In Said’s stylistic analyses in Orientalism and his allusions throughout to a broad spectrum of literary works, he displays the literary perspectives and erudition of such literary critical writings of his as Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), an edited volume titled Literature and Society (1980), and The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983).

As for Said’s equally long-standing intellectual concerns with the political place and image of the Arabs of the Near Orient in the late twentieth century, before Orientalism came a series of pamphlets with such titles as The Arabs Today: Alternatives for Tomorrow (1973), Arabs and Jews: A Possibility of Concord (1974), Lebanon: Two Perspectives (1975), and The Palestinians and American Policy (1976). Substantial studies published after Orientalism include The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981), and Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (1988; edited with Christopher Hitchens).

In the context of scholarly and intellectual currents in general, Orientalism is a prominent example of revisionist stances in various academic fields in which ethnocentric approaches, national character studies, the definition of other through self, the presumption of the possibility of scholarly objectivity, and other traditional assumptions and approaches to the investigation of foreign subject matter have been questioned and forcefully challenged. Said’s historical survey is as strong as it could be in arguing that a near conspiracy can be part of scholarship. His argument encouraging scholars to avoid accepting results of such research unquestioningly is salutary. In addition, his concluding examination of post-World War II American study of the Middle East constitutes both a provocative call for better teaching, research, and scholarship methods in the academic establishment and a warning to scholars concerning the inappropriateness and moral impropriety of their working in a field which does not engage their sympathies or evoke their admiration. Little serious scholarship in the field has taken place since Orientalism without a consideration of Said’s theses, criticisms, and proposals. In short, Orientalism was a watershed event in academic circles. It was remarkable that a scholarly study treating such an esoteric subject from such an unpopular perspective would become one of the most widely reviewed books of its day.

For the general American reader, Said provided a dramatic and provocative plea for fairmindedness in dealing with Arab culture. More generally, he clarified the need to transcend ethnocentric predispositions and biases in judging non-Americans and their cultures in an ever-shrinking and increasingly interdependent world and to give primary and serious attention to the self-views of others, however troubling and challenging to one’s own cultural values.

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