The Imperial Archive
Orientalism: A Critique
Last updated 17 June 2007
Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism, while undoubtedly a hugely influential text in the area of post-colonial criticism since its publication in 1978, has also drawn much criticism from other theorists. As Gill has outlined, these criticisms range from questions over the supposed originality of Said’s work, as discussed by Sardar (71), to criticism of the theoretical foundations of the text (Porter 151), and feminists complaints about the absence of any discussion of gender from the text (Kennedy 44).
This essay however will explore two further, somewhat interlinked, weaknesses in Said’s work. Firstly, it will look at the nature of, and flaws in, the binary opposition at the centre of his theory, both in how it is created and how it is defined. Secondly, it will investigate the often oversimplified and reductive nature of Said's work, with particular reference to his claim that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority” (875), read against the example of The Travels of Dean Mahomet.
Said's binary opposition:
Said’s parenthetical statement that “(the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident)” (873), is a helpful summary of the binary opposition he creates. However, while here he acknowledges this obvious opposition of Orient and Occident, at various stages later in the text, Said complicates the issue, referring to the Orient both in opposition to that which is “Western” (881) and that which is “European” (880), rather than its natural antonym which he has already established. Said’s dualistic definition of the Occidental half of the binary poses a problem: although he uses the two terms seemingly interchangeably, and despite the overlapping of definition to some degree, the lack of true synonymy between “Western” and “European” means it is no longer clear quite what Said is suggesting the Orient is to be defined in opposition against. As this binary construction is so central to Said’s thesis, if it is improperly defined, or otherwise indistinct, the whole theory is brought into question.
Said’s binary distinction between Orient and Occident is further damaged and fractured by his discussion of the commonality of German Orientalism, Anglo-French Orientalism, and American Orientalism (874). 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 (873). This concession to divisions within European thought, and further, between European thought and American thought, highlights the problems of trying to discuss and theorise such large terms as Europe and Western. While Said discusses the problem he claims every writer on the Orient faces, “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” (874), he appears faced with similar problems of the sublimity, scope and dimensions of his terms as he discusses the Occident.
As the unity of his Occidental models fracture, Said’s binary system breaks down yet further. The central binary distinction between Occident and Orient becomes increasingly complex as it becomes 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 theory is premised is not only problematised as it is poorly defined, but also because of the reductive nature of the terms which Said uses.
Such reductive tendencies are not only present in his discussion of Europe/the West/the Occident, but can also be seen to at least the same degree in his discussion of the Orient. While he acknowledges the geographic span of the Orient, “which extended from China to the Mediterranean” (882), 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 sublimated entity.
Although Orientalism is acknowledged by Said as “a Western style” (873), he seems to fall too easily into line with the western thought he critiques by delineating the Orient as a holistic unit because of its exoticism, its ‘otherness’ to the west, rather than because 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, eventually finding his theory overshadowed by concepts that he fails to properly define and gain control over. All of this evidence seems to indicate the necessity of a number of different binaries to fully construct the complex system of inter-relationships between the various acting nations and peoples in this discourse, rather than one simple distinction of West / East.
While 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, one further example of such a generalizing tendency in his work can be seen 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” (875).
Central to Said’s thesis is the idea that the knowledge gained about the Orient from representations of it in literature, is central 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” (880). However, while it is clear that writers such as Warren Hastings, Sir William Jones, William Hodges, and Robert Southey, among others, might be seen in such terms as Said describes, to speak for the Orient, and thus, to create it in the minds of their readers, theirs are not the only representations of the Orient that exist.
Said’s thesis therefore seems premised upon a generalized, and hence, a false assumption that “such an Orient was silent” (877). Although very much in the minority, the existence of Mahomet’s text rejects notions of such a silence, proving that the Orient was not solely created through imperial eyes, but also through representations of the east by eastern people.
However, 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, because he migrated to Europe, Mahomet is a hybrid figure, as culturally English as he is ethnically Indian. Similarly, his text is a hybrid, influenced in style and possibly in content by other European Orientalist texts, yet also different because of 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, but 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” (875), without examination of a character like Dean Mahomet, or other recourse to evidence and examples is as reductive in its own way as the earlier problems surrounding his definition of the binary opposition of Orient and Occident.
As has been demonstrated above, in both of these examples, in his problematic construction of the binary opposition of Orient and Occident, and in his seemingly oversimplified statement that, “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority” (875), some weaknesses of Said’s theory beyond those highlighted in Gill’s work may be seen. However, in spite of these flaws, 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.
Kennedy, Valerie. Edward Said: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Mahomet, Dean. The Travels of Dean Mahomet. Ed. Michael H. Fisher. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1997.
Porter, Dennis. “Orientalism and its Problems.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 150-161.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Literary Theory: An Anthology (Revised Edn) Eds. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan. Cornwall: Blackwell, 1998. 873-886.
Sarder, Ziauddin. Orientalism. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.
This page was written by Neil Templeton
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
Email Dr Litvack with your comments: L.Litvack at qub.ac.uk
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