Edward Said (1935-2003) was one of the foremost intellectuals of the Twentieth Century. Heavily influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, his work spanned the fields of literature, history, and post-colonial studies. He was a controversial figure, and none of his work is more debated than his landmark 1978 book Orientalism. Said recast this term so that it referred to the structures of knowledge – or rather discourse – through which Westerners constructed the image of the East. Europeans, he suggested had typically cast ‘the Orient’ as simultaneously fascinating and effete, mysterious and corrupt. This was not merely an historical observation: Said regarded Orientalist ways of thinking as a form of oppression. The ongoing political relevance of Said’s thinking seems clear from this passage from a 1980 essay, even though the specific context has changed a good deal:
The media have become obsessed with something called “Islam,” which in their voguish lexicon has acquired only two meanings, both of them unacceptable and impoverishing. On the one hand, “Islam” represents the threat of a resurgent atavism, which suggests not only the menace of a return to the Middle Ages but the destruction of what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls the democratic order in the Western world. On the other hand, “Islam” is made to stand for a defensive counter-response to this first image of Islam as threat, especially when, for geopolitical reasons, “good” Moslems like the Saudi Arabians or the Afghan Moslem “freedom fighters” against the Soviet Union are in question. Anything said in defense of Islam is more or less forced into the apologetic form of a plea for Islam’s humanism, its contributions to civilization, development and perhaps even to democratic niceness.
We have created two new Talking Empire podcasts, discussing Orientalism – the book and the concept. In the first one I interview Dr. Justin Jones about Said’s core ideas. In the second, Justin and I discuss Said’s work in more detail, and also explore criticisms of his ideas.