on October 26, 2001
This book and Edward Said in general seem capable of generating such intense controversy. Many reviewers of this book seem to forget actually to review the work and focus on attacking Edward Said as a person, many others still forget to review the book and proceed to speak for Palestinian rights and the negative western attitudes of Islam. I will attempt to present an actual review of this book based on MY own reading of it.
In Orientalism, Said sets about dismantling the study of the "orient" in general with primary focus on the Islamic Near East. Said argues that concepts such as the Orient, Islam, the Arabs, etc. are too vast to be grouped together and presented as one coherent whole, encompassing all there is to know about the subject. Said bases his view on the shear width and breadth of the subject, the inherent bias of conflicting cultures and more recently the role of the Orientalism in colonialism. It is indeed difficult to attempt to represent a book that is so focused on anti essentialism.
Said's research of western / occidental discourse was very thorough indeed and he does illustrate through repeated examples how misinformation sufficiently repeated can become accepted academic work. Said also presents an analysis of the causes and motives and theorizes about his findings. A lengthy and a times tedious discussion of the origins of Orientalism is rather repetitive and hard to follow for a non specialist like me.
Edward Said however seem to have fallen in the same trap he attributes to Orientalism, he has not attempted to explore Arab writings of the periods he discussed nor has he attempted to present (possibly even read) work by Egyptian and Arab historians of the periods he was addressing save for work carried out in the west and within western universities. In doing so, Said fails to see how the modern and contemporary "orient" sees itself through primarily "oriental" eyes such as Ibn Khaldoun, Al Maqrizi and also through the writings of orientalists like Lane. Said also fails to address the work carried out by orientalists based on many manuscripts of Orientals.
I particularly enjoyed Said's analysis of the strong ties that Orientalism has with power and colonialism. Said analysis of the diverging development of the British and French practice based on the latter's limited success as a colonial power was very enjoyable and very well thought out. The Orientalism Today and indeed the Afterwards section are also very informative and as these were more familiar areas for Said his presentation of ideas and thoughts came across more clearly and the writing was far less tedious than the earlier parts of the book.
Orientalism is not an easy read, it will challenge many established views, indeed it has already with a fair degree of success led to changes in the way the Near East is studied. To me, most of all I see this as a book that offers in part a largely coherent explanation for the on-going misunderstanding between the West and the Near East and in Islam. And while Occidentalism does not exist as a field of study in a place like Egypt per se, Said fails to see that the west is viewed largely in terms of its wealth, promiscuous habits, hypocrisy and anti Islam and thus fails to see it as 2 way street, albeit with unequal power.
This is by no means a the definitive correction of the history of the Middle East or Near Orient, it is however a very legitimate and serious study of a field of study that no doubt has a lot to answer for!
on January 31, 2002
Public opinion has gone in and out like the tides on Said's book since I first read it some six odd years ago. It has been said that the primal characteristic of a truly enlightened mind is its ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time; in that context I find it odd that people can be so proud of their total discrediting of Said's work in favor of the preeminent and (seemingly) diametrically opposed Bernard Lewis. It is obvious to me that both men have something provocative to teach us about Europe and America's relationship with the Middle East (as it has been over the centuries and is reflected in culture and scholarship), and both need to be heard in that context.
It is not often that a brilliantly, exhaustively researched book on an alternatingly controversial and trivialized subject can engender an emotional response of the magnitude with which this work does--which usually means that it is worth reading. In documenting the psychological architecture of the western mind and its perspective on the East--or the "Orient"--he deconstructs it. The idea that it exists deconstructs it by nature; before reading this book you will swear that most of what we know of the Arabian East is the absolute truth, without even being aware that it's been either romanticized into impotence or isn't much of anything complimentary, let alone influential.
I rate ORIENTALISM, for its effect on our psyche as Americans alone (regardless of race or assumed political leanings), as one of the most important books written in the last decades of the 20th century. The world looks the way it does not because of natural law, like the reasons why the Sahara has become a desert--or at least not by the natural laws we have imagined. Edward Said, regardless of the possibility of biases coming through his scholarship, regardless of the political realities he left out of his thesis, shows this in remarkable fashion to people--like myself--who never considered this fact's existence (let alone its influence on my perceptions of the Middle East in all their forms).
Be mature enough to accept that it is not the only educated opinion or set of facts about our complex world, and this book will be a great read and teach a great deal. I would suggest triangulating ORIENTALISM with Karen Armstrong's HOLY WAR and Moseddeq Ahmed's WAR ON FREEDOM, for a truly eye-opening experience of the Western psyche regarding the East.
on June 11, 2002
In Orientalism, Edward Said had sought to apply the Foucaultian concept of discourse to argue that the study of "the Orient" developed in ways which served the ends of Western imperialism, and that the discipline is an integral part of the mechanism of Western domination over the Middle East. While his conclusions are controversial, the book stimulates an interesting debate and shows the state of much of the field of Middle Eastern studies circa 1980.
Said's main limitation in writing the book is that he doesn't speak German, the language in which many of the most influential works of Orientalism (Ignac Goldziher's Muslim Studies and Joseph Schacht's Introduction to Mohammaden Jurisprudence, for example) were written. In addition, he doesn't compare the study of the Orient to the study of other regions in the same period. Hence, when he complains near the end that much "modern Orientalism" reduces people to statistics, he doesn't mention that the same could be true of the study of American history at that time.
The work holds up well for highlighting specific problems in the field, such as the portrayal of the East as deficient in some manner. One cannot agree, however, that it continues in scholarly circles to the present, when most "orientalists" in fact tend to be ardently pro-Arab politically. This was true to a certain degree even earlier in the century when Louis Massignon and T.E. Lawrence both became active in pro-Arab causes.
Said highlights important trends in the field of Middle Eastern studies and places them in a provocative framework. Readers can judge for themselves whether that framework holds up under scrutiny.
on December 7, 2001
Compounded by debauched images like the one on the cover page of Orientalism, the collective Western sub-conscious in regards to Arab-Islamic culture has been undeniably clouded by a style of thought that harbors superiority. One need look no further than our most esteemed news sources. For this, according to Said, we have Orientalism to blame.
It is the contemporary backlash of Orientalist stereotypes turned prejudices that so disturb author Edward Said. In his view, the resulting legacy of fear and estrangement that characterize the socio-political status quo between the West and Arab nations (and Islam as an ethos) cannot be understated. The irony is that despite the fact that information is more accessible than ever, Oriental biases are being perpetuated more than ever, with shameless stereotypes of Islam being used as fodder on film and even mainstream news-media. This is exemplified by our modern coverage of foreign policy in the Middle East throughout the past century. Diplomatic hypocrisies are whitewashed by the media machine with latent, age-old stereotypes that surface when strategic interests are at risk. Following years of partnership (amidst ethnic-cleansing), the US media ?at the behest of the government ?suddenly saturated the public with the caricature of Iraq's Saddam Hussein as the crazed Arab. Though true, this was marketed at convenience (nevermind Halabja), with the inevitable cultural watershed going unquestioned in the long-term, reducing normal Arabs to "rag-heads?of the little value in the mainstream mind. Similarly in Iran, the US government's coup of the first-ever democratically elected government set the table for Khomeini's stringent Islamic regime years later. Anti-American images and rhetoric dominated our media while opposing motivations were never examined. Overnight, Iranians went from being civilized partners to a sworn enemy. As our media/ government would have us believe, it was only a matter of time before the "other?side lapsed into it's degenerate nature. Though rarely put so bluntly, this is what it is.
Because Orientalism is rooted in canonical history, literature, and art, its treatment is necessarily as exhaustive as the subject is vast. To more effectively address this breadth, Said makes three major claims in Orientalism upon which he builds his case against: that though purporting to be objective, Orientalism served political ends; that Orientalism helped define Europe's self-image; and finally, that Orientalism has produced a distorted and thus false description of Arabs and Islamic culture. In reading the text, one cannot help but appreciate the acute machinations of the author's mind at work, wielding insight that is both incisive and original. Often times, however, the language employed can be painfully esoteric, to the point that one is naturally inclined to grow weary, if not skeptical, of the substance behind the style. It is fair to say that if one read this book casually (though hard to imagine) without a critical mindset, the sheer pretension of the text might compel the reader to accept Said's theories wholesale. And yet while Said's conclusions and scope are revolutionary in themselves, and much of his argument plainly convincing, the case for Orientalism is not without flaws.
Although Said divides his argument three ways, the task of encompassing such a broad concept in a small volume is daunting. Many pieces of knowledge elemental to the development of his arguments are presupposed along the way i.e. historical figures, events, dates implying political context etc., etc. Though the book is supposed to be confined to the colonial era, Said strays as far as Greek history to explain antecedents of Orientalist philosophy, all the while dropping names like Flaubert and Dante as though they were next-door-neighbors. If one is not an exceptionally diversified historian, this makes for a rather fragmented understanding of the case. The need to investigate references on the side is almost certain, at the expense of Said's momentum.
Looking at the heart of his case, Said's assumptions of causality are largely insufficient. Early on he contends that "colonial rule was justified by Orientalism? a statement that is postured as fact though he fails to adequately support it with coherent evidence. A stronger case could be made for trade and military causes as being the main catalyst of the West's (primarily France & England) imperial agenda in the Middle East. Michel Foucault's theorem that knowledge always generates power is treated at length to bolster this claim. Nonetheless, ultimately one can only conclude that Orientalism gave the West a better grasp of Oriental culture accompanied by an unspoken sentiment of eminence, as colonial motivations and objectives are left unexplained. This pre-empts the question as to whether culture and politics are moderately interrelated, or one and the same. Said makes mention of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in a hollow attempt at illustration, arguing that "reading (the book) was a part of the European effort to hold on to, think about, plan for Africa? In effect he makes a presumption that can in no way be upheld or refuted by historical evidence and is thus weightless. Liberal assertions of this quality appear intermittently as the book progresses, at once logical and confounding to a student of history used to endorsing hard evidence rather than a good reputation.
Indeed Said may have very well bit of more than he could chew. But to his credit, he made a bold case for himself in an area that most scholars would dare not approach. Methodological shortcomings aside ?specifically his assumptions of causality in history - Said's arguments in Orientalism spawned an intense intellectual debate spanning many fields of scholarship that has yet to lose any steam. He makes it clear that as humans we are apt to project, but must first attempt to search ourselves according to our varying identities. More importantly, Said articulates the plight of many disenfranchised people in a manner that demands attention and respect. So while the flesh of his case against Orientalism may be spoilt in some respects, the bones are in tact.
on October 14, 2001
Edward Said's ground-breaking work can be critized on many levels. Some say his writing does not allow adequate agency for Arab and Asian people. In some cases, his examples of historic authors who are allegedly discrediting the "Orient," actually seem to be worshipping. Of course, Edward Said would say that both demonizing and deifying are problematic because both are distortions and Said wanted to decrease distortion. Nonetheless, some so-called Orientalist authors that he sites seem to be unfairly critised.
The weaknesses in Said's work do not detract from it's overall value. It is a new way to examine racism -- not from a purely emotional or coldly statistical perspective, but from human and academic perspectives. While the difference between emotional and human is slight, it is critical. This book is a close examination of how racism in many forms, Arab, Asian or "Other," permeates the institutions of the world. Dangerously, these "authoritative" views of Other people become acceptable ways of talking about each other. In this way, racism becomes embedded in the educational systems, in the universities, in the libraries of the world. Elimating it becomes all the more difficult, because it creates the illusion that it is natural, authentic, scientific and rational.
Like Freud, Said's theories can be fragmented and individually discredited. But also like Freud, Said has given the world a whole new framework from which to think about preconceived notions that were not previously questioned within the academic realm.
Said's Orientalism is an excellent work that I strongly recommend to anyone trying to understand the world, especially the Middle East. Breaking out of the International media paradigms is difficult without some assistance. Said provides the necessary assistance.
on April 26, 2001
Any book that raises as much controversy as this one does is worth reading on that account alone. Because of that and because the book requires some intelligence to understand, I rated it with 5 stars. It's simply good reading - excellent. The ideas, however, are simply untenable. As with so much that is modern or post-modern (or whatever), Dr. Said's theories simply fly in the face of the evidence. He is the true representative of Arabism in the modern world because it too simply refuses to face the facts.
1. The fact is, had it not been for western orientalist scholarship, Arabic literature would be nearly totally unknown, even to the Arabs themselves. All significant work done in this field has been done by westerners within the last 200 years.....all of it. The occassional brilliance of a Taha Hussein who dared to question, for example, the legitimacy of pre-Islamic poetry was savagely crushed....instantly... by his own people and caused major political and social upheavals in the Arab world. (Were a scholar in the west to question the legitimacy of Beowulf, he would cause gaffaws and then be ignored, period). It's as if all of English literature were completely unknown to residents of the British Isles and that all research on Milton, Shakespeare etc. had been carried out in Beirut or Cairo. That's what has been happening with Arabic literature. Books by controversial authors are routinely "barred" from public viewings such as at the annual NEW BOOKS EXHIBITION in Cairo. This happened again just a couple of months ago according to my sources in Cairo. Modern Arabic literature, like much of Arabic life, is characterized by almost a childlike, immature and superficial quality. It just cannot face reality.
2. It's as if the Arab people have been in a state of catatonia following the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century. For the last 700 years, they have just stood by like sheep contemplating I don't know what. It's almost embarassing to realize this. But this is what did happen. And it has been the "west" that has brought them out of their slumber.
3. The fact is, Arabism and Arab culture are dying institutions. In fact, they really has been dead for centuries. Most young people in the Arab world know this. They won't admit it to you, but they know it. That's why tens of millions of them try to emmigrate to the west.....anywhere, by any means. They realize that their civilization is no longer viable or relevant to the modern world. It simply doesn't work. The tragedy of the Middle East today is not the Palestine "question" which is really a side-show in the larger scheme of things. It's the utter and complete rejection by Arab youth of their traditions and heritage. It is the final blow. The mindlessness that characterizes so much of Arab life today, the rantings of their political leaders, the insipid mimicry of modern Arabic literature (which desperately tries to imitate the west), the hatred towards the west in general, the accusations and threats, are all the pathetic howls of rage, fear and disbelief of a drowning man. Dr. Said sums all this up most vividly in ORIENTALISM. Even he doesn't realize that that's what he's doing. But that *IS* what he's doing.
4. The Arab world and Arab civilization have made no contribution whatsoever to the betterment of the modern world in any sphere of life. This is a reality which it must face. If it doesn't, it will remain a curious, laughable and marginalized society not taken seriously by anyone. It has nearly reached the point of no return. Someone better do something fast.
5. Too bad I only have 1000 words to vent my spleen here. But so be it. Dr. Said remains one of my heroes for his watershed book ORIENTALISM, his superb command of the English language and his intellectualism. But I totally and utterly disagree with his findings and his characterization of the west.
on August 25, 2000
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is very well researched and written, but it is not at all an easy read. It assumes a thorough familiarity with the literature of Orientalism. If you don't already have this familiarity, you may find many parts of this book difficult, at best, to follow. The author's main argument seems to be that the vast majority of Western authors of the Orientalist tradition wrote about their perceptions of the Orient rather than the reality. Said analyses many of these works and argues that their reporting was inaccurate, ethnocentric, or racist. His arguments would have more clear if he had provided more specific evidence for the invalidity of prior claims; instead, he tends to only question the findings of previous work, leaving it open for the reader to fill in the rest. A more interesting analysis might have been to look at the Orientalists as products of their times, and search for the motivation for their remarks rather than simply pointing out their invalidity. In any case, this book is extremely important in its field and so must be read by anyone with a scholarly interest in the Middle East.
on June 16, 2000
When it was written, Orientalism administered a much-needed correction to the study of the Arab and Asian worlds. Any historian, social scientist or humanist working in related fields should own a copy.
The strength of Edward Said's Orientalism is its highlighting of the underlying assumptions of dominance and subjection in Orientalist scholarship. Said correctly points out that the British, French and United States have relied on the reduction of the Orient to an academic study backed by a mythical image of its inhabitants and cultures as more primitive, passionate, mystical and illogical. Complementing this has been a presumption of Western superiority that allows diagnosis of social ills and prescription of Western remedies for these ills.
Said also pointed out a secondary weakness in the Orientalist approach to its studies. If Westerners presume the Orient to be more passionate and mystical, they may assume that it provides absolute alternatives to the ills of Western culture and modernism. Thus the span of Western history scrutinized by Said has seen individuals and groups embracing ill-understood religions and cultural precepts. The anti-majoritan/left-leaning subcultures arising during the upheavals of the 1960's are particularly susceptible to this.
This leads naturally to Aijid Ahmad's primary criticism of Said. Orientalism doesn't consider the varied responses of the Orient/Third-World to its theories. In particular, Ahmad correctly points out that Orientalism over-focuses blames on the West and doesn't address the self-inflicted problems of "Oriental" societies. Based on this criticism, the proper approach is to balance the effects of Western Orientalism and the indigenous difficulties. Essentially, Ahmad advocates abandoning the simple depiction of the Orient for a complex and layered reality.
Orientalism's uncriticized weakness lies in its treatment of Europe. Said willingly admits his limited focus on Britain, France and United States may miss some important scholarship found elsewhere. This concentration has some logic to it. His trio of nations has been among the strongest if not dominant powers in the colonial and post-colonial world. A complete survey of European Orientalism could run for several volumes. Yet in this focus, Said misses those European nations who had had longer and more intricate relations with the "Orient".
Said mentions his lack of attention to German scholarship on the Orient. Beyond the loss in additional scholarship, he cannot take account of the direct influence of the German academic tradition on the rest of Europe and particularly the United States. Beyond this immediate effect, Said loses the transmitted experience of the German Reich's participation in the direct struggle against the Ottoman Empire. While he mentions the Medieval and Renaissance hostility to Islam based on direct threat and conflict, he ignores the extension of this conflict into the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet this conflict remained a dominant factor in the existence of the Austrian and Russian Empires. As long as the struggle continued, the Orient in the form of Islam would have a direct influence on the course of European history. The simple illustration of this is the European approach to independence for the Balkan states and occasional support for the Ottomans versus an opponent. While this support was partially based on the perceived weakness of the Ottomans and resultant manipulability, it also concedes the existence of some real and beneficial power.
Said's exclusion of other European states weakens his structure in a different manner. It's useful to consider the British and French perceptions of Austria and Russia. A simple interpretation of Orientalism presumes a unified Europe as opposed to the Orient. Yet this ignores the equally institutionalized denigration of Austria and Russia. We can refer to the image of the mythical Slavic province of Ruritania (cf. Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda), a den of intrigue and iniquity. Add to this Said's notes on the relative knowledge of the Near Orient versus the Far Orient. This suggests more of a subtle gradation in the construction of the Other than is represented by Orientalism's sharp division between Occident and Orient.
Other historical patterns also stress the need for the representation of a more complex Occident. For instance Said argues that European exploration and extension of trade routes to India and the Far East shows hostility to Islam. A simpler explanation may be mercantile concerns for lowering expenses and increasing profits. Direct trade was more profitable than relying on Arab middlemen. The Arab reaction to Portuguese penetration of the Indian Ocean reflected a concern with being excluded from the profits of trade with India rather than with the intrusion of a new power in the region. This concern with trade leads to different motivations for learning languages and examining cultures. A variety of motivations for scholarship argue for a more complex Occident. The need for more complexity does not necessarily invalidate Said's central points on the institutionalized domination common to Western European Orientalism. Rather it demands refinement of a useful critique of the study of colonialism.
on October 6, 1999
This isn't a perfect book by any means. Foremost among its flaws is that it fails to incorporate German Orientalism. This negelect, admitted by Said, brings into question the whole project and argument in the estimation of some. Nevertheless, Said's arguments on the relationship between knowledge and power, colonialism and the construction and formation of the counter-factual, foreign other remain intact despite the distortions and exaggerations within this book. In other words, if one so desired, one could entirely rewrite Said's book from the ground up without its flaws and with a more comprehensive scope and arrive at basically many of the same conclusions.
One can decide to judge the value of the book by its influence and the subsequent emergence of post-colonial studies following its publication, or one can decided to view it as a work on the merits of its contents. From the former perspective, this is a work of indisputable importance. From the latter perspective, this is a work that though engrossing leaves much to be desired becuase it fails on various fronts. Despite those failures, much of Said's argument remains intact. Anyone who does read this book and study his arguments cannot help but to be effected by the arguments presented. After Said, the study of other cutlures can never be viewed in the same light.
on February 16, 1999
At first sight, arcane knowledge of the classical "Orient" and seemingly objective inquiry into cultures other than "ours" may not bear any great impact on politics or other more decisive facets of life. Said demonstrates, however, that knowledge does affect political power in extremely significant ways. He thoroughly documents how apparently "objective" scholars from Europe and later America formulated and taught academic dogmas about the "inferior East." These academic doctrines, in turn, acquired an aura of authority on the basis of their seemingly immense knowledge, and thus acquired the power to (mis)represent "the Orient" to the Occidental audience. Through various reductionist stereotypes, such Orientalist dogmas climbed their way into state-sponsored academic chairs and experts who, up to his very day, have the power to guide and direct national policies. Said's Orientalism is a forceful and cogent political argument against binary oppositions and harmful divisions which unfortunately still pervade much of "our" scholarship and politics.