Last Updated August 4, 2023.
In the introduction to Orientalism, Edward W. Said points out that the titular word has an uncontroversial definition in academia. An Orientalist is someone who studies Eastern cultures, a perfectly benign and respectable activity. The definition belies the aspects Said critiques: the way these cultures are studied and the assumptions that follow. Said argues that an entire branch of academia is infected with a false and destructive ideology that denies the humanity of the people it exists to study.
Said focuses on academics and their work to discuss the history and legacy of Orientalist study. Most of the scholars he examines are long dead, though some are still living or only recently deceased. Sir Hamilton Gibb, to whom Said devotes a great deal of space in the final chapter, died in 1971, less than a decade before Orientalism was published. Gibb was the mentor of many distinguished scholars active in the 1970s, including Albert Hourani. Said also mentions Bernard Lewis, whose work, he says, “purports to be objective, liberal scholarship, but is, in reality, very close to being propaganda against his subject material.”
Said makes the same accusation against many scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lewis, a contemporary scholar, was in a position to respond. He accused Said of politicizing an academic discipline. In an exchange in the New York Review of Books, Lewis claimed Said had “falsified and rearranged the history of the Middle East to bear the structure of hypothesis he wished to impose on it.”
The dispute between Said and Lewis contains the essence of a wider argument about the relationship between politics and literature that continues to divide educational institutions around the world. In these arguments, Said is perhaps the most important figure, and Orientalism is the central text. His insistence that literature and culture cannot be isolated from politics has transformed how academics, students, and general readers approach literary texts.
Much like Feminist criticism, Said’s vision of Postcolonialism questions the archaic and often damaging literary canon that continues to define the present day. It demands a more inclusive canon and insists that classic texts are read in a new way. Works such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe take on new meaning when read through Said’s postcolonial lens.
Some scholars, such as Bernard Lewis and Harold Bloom, lament the politicization of literary studies. However, postcolonial theory has become so deeply embedded in most university departments of literature and cultural studies that the views Said expresses in Orientalism have become the new orthodoxy.
It is difficult to overstate the influence of this single text in changing the way people think about literature, race, and the power relations between countries. Popular and academic attitudes to American foreign policy, terrorism, racism, cultural appropriation, and a host of other issues can be traced back to Said’s fierce critique of Orientalist discourse.
Although Said’s purpose is overtly political, he is also an acute analyst of style when writing about such authors as Sacy and Massignon. His personal style is an interesting mixture of complexity and simplicity. At times, Orientalism is densely written and allusive, filled with intricate, interwoven arguments. However, the overall thesis of the book is devastatingly simple: the West constructs an idea of “the Orient” and uses it to dominate and exploit the East.
This idea is restated often throughout Orientalism. Said presents it across multiple contexts and concerning figures who have little in common except their Orientalist perspective. The complexity of the book ensures that an academic audience will take the argument seriously, but its simplicity has allowed Orientalism to enact massive changes to the conduct of cultural and literary studies.