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Edward Said The intellectual and Orientalism

“... the intellectual represents emancipation and enlightenment, but never as abstractions or as bloodless or distant gods to be served. The intellectual’s representations — what he or she represents and how those ideas are represented to an audience... are always tied to and ought to remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society..”

Edward Said, Representations of an Intellectual, 1993-BBC Reith Lectures

Edward Said

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief introduction on Edward Said and his work for the benefit of the Montage readers who may not be familiar with his life and work. The result of this (three part) article is to take stock of my own reflections on reading Said’s work and life for a variety of reasons.

I have read almost all his key publications, and studied his work, Orientalism in depth when I took courses on English and Cultural studies at a post-graduate level at Murdoch University, Perth in the 1990s. When I taught political studies and Sociology at a University in Perth, I have drawn from Said’s work to empasise to my students the concept and the importance of reading Orientalism and ideas on cultural imperialism etc. Above all Said work, particularly his memoirs Out of Place has provided a focus to reflect on my own life, uprooted from a familiar culture and to find my own sense of place in Australia. I was fascinated by his intellectual journey and kept reading his work over the last fifteen years. My purpose is to share my understanding and reflections on Said’s work and assemble them into a simple format as I have understood the work and philosophy of this great intellectual.

The term ‘intellectual’ as it was used during the twentieth century, and meanings or definitions attached to it, carries specific qualities on the activities and the role of the ‘intelligentsia’ of a given society.

Central to these definitions is the key assumption that activities of an intellectual should focus around the belief that those who either have access to ‘knowledge’ or generate new knowledge have a fundamental responsibility in not only understanding but addressing social and global issues that concerns them and the people around. If we embrace this basic definition about the qualities and the role of an intellectual, Edward Said would fit into this framework without any arguments or redefinitions.

This Palestine born-American academic is undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated cultural critics of the post-war world. Although he became well–known for his most controversial book, Orientalism, first published in 1967, he began his academic journey first by studying the world of Joseph Conrad which he published in 1966 titled Joseph Conrad and the Fictional of Autobiography.

This work is considered as a “methodological investigation” between his fictions compared with Conrad’s correspondence. In this work Said revealed the reasons and conditions of Conrad’s alienation.

Unlike his Orientalism, this is a revision of his PhD dissertation which he tirelessly worked for at Harvard University. Said described this work as “a phenomenological exploration of Conrad’s consciousness”. (Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.)

Of his many books of literary, political, social and philosophical analyses, Orientalism covers on myth of the exotic East. His books including the classic, Culture and Imperialism are considered among the best academic work on those subjects. His greatness is that during his life and career, he covered a variety of subjects not just politics and literature, but history, philosophy, and music.

Birth and education of Edward Said Edward Said was born in 1935 in Talbiyah, a part of West Jerusalem inhabited then exclusively by Palestinian Christians. He was the eldest son of a family of four sisters.

As his parents had settled down in Cairo, he received an ‘unhappy’ and colonial education, first at the Gezira Preparatory School, where there were no local Egyptian teachers. In 1946, he moved to the Cairo School for American Children. Though this school provided him a more relaxed and democratic environment, young Edward felt alienated because his classmates were primarily, Americans and British children.

In 1951 Said’s parents sent him to a “Puritanical” boarding school in New England, USA. It has been documented that it was his first encounter with teachers who helped him not only to broaden his intellectual curiosity, but meeting with those who assisted him to develop his passion for piano music. During his two years in this “puritanical” New England Boarding school, he had become a pianist with good skills, and he also earned a reputation as one of the two top students with excellent academic standards.

He was accepted to both Harvard and Princeton, but Said enrolled to study at Princeton University. Having finished his undergraduate work, he enrolled at Harvard and completed his thesis on Joseph Conrad.

Although he finally found a sense of place in USA as an academic and American citizen, his work and outlook was not confined by US-centric perspectives. There are special reasons for his outlook on global matters, because Edward Said had witnessed the impact of the Second World War upon the Arab world. He saw the disbanding of Palestine and the birth of Israel; he saw the rise and fall of Nasser and the emergence of the PLO, the Lebanese Civil War, and the failure of 1990 peace process initiated by the US leaders. Some of these issues and his reflections are embodied in his very insightful memoirs, Out of Place which I will endeavour to discuss later in a future series of this article.

Writing Orientalism

Orientalism is not his debut publication. His debut work is redevelopment of his PhD thesis on Joseph Conrad and the Fictional of Autobiography.

The publication, Orientalism consists of three main chapters and several sub sections on each of the chapter:

Chapter 1- Scope of Orientalism

I. Knowing the Oriental

II. Imaginative Geography and its representation: Orientalizing the Orient

III. Projects

IV. Crisis

In chapter one, Edward Said explains how the so called “science of orientalism” developed and how the orientalists started considering the orientals as non-human beings. The orientalists divided the world into two parts by using the concept of ours and theirs.

Chapter 2 Orientalist Structures and Restructures

I. Redrawn frontiers, Redefine issues, Secularized Religion

II. Silverstre de Sacy and Earnest Renan: rational Anthropology and Philological Laboratory

III. Oriental Residence and Scholarship: The Requirement of Lexicography and Imagination

IV. Pilgrims and Pilgrimages: British, and French

This chapter identifies the change of attitudes of the Europeans towards the orientals. The Orientals were publicized in the European world through their work. Oriental land and behaviours were highly romanticized by the European poets and writers and then represented their “subjects” through their work to the western world. For the consumption of European viewers, the orientals were presented with the colour and prejudices by the orientalist.

Chapter 3 Orientalism Now

I. Latent and Manifest Orientalism

II. Style, Expertise Vision: Orientalism’s Worldliness

III. Modern Anglo-French Orientalism in Fullest Power

IV. The Latest Phase

This chapter starts with a description of how the geography of the world was shaped or redefined by the Europeans through their colonization process. There was a mission for geographical knowledge which formed the foundation of orientalism.

Said then goes into discuss the changing circumstances and approaches to orientalism in the 20th century. The main difference was that where the earlier orientalists were more of silent observers, but the new orientalists took part and influenced the everyday life of the orients. The earlier orientalists did not interact a lot with the orientals, whereas the new orientalists lived with them, as if they were one of them.

Then Said goes on to talk about the work of two other scholars, namely Massignon and Gibb. Though Massignon is a bit more liberal and often attempted to protect their rights as evidence from his work. With the changing situation, especially the World War 1, orientalism took a liberal stance towards most of its subjects. However, Islamic orientalism did not enjoy this status. There were constant attacks to show Islam as a weak religion, and an assortment of many religions and thoughts.

Though concerned with representation and multiple misrepresentation, Orientatism encounters problems in its own representation and several of the figures it examined. Said’s treatment of three of them: H.A.R. Gibb, Louis Massignon and E.W. Lane are relevant here. Said’s interpretation of the evidence about these scholars could be interpreted as less than generous, and is occasionally questionable. This is partly because Said’s implicit criterion for judging their encounters with the cultures they studied and their transcendent identification with those cultures.

After World War 1, the core of orientalism moved from Europe to USA. One important transformation that took place during this time was, instances of relating it to philology and social sciences that contributed to the emergence of a new discipline called postcolonial studies.

Said’s evaluation on Orientalism

Said’s evaluation and analysis of the set of beliefs or myths which came to know as Orientalism provides an important foreground for emerging a new disciple called postcolonial studies (which has many flaws as well!).

Said’s work emphasised the errors and deficiencies of widely accepted assumptions by questioning how Westerners first created a biased image of East in Middle Ages. Through his work, Said questioned the underlying assumptions that form the foundation of Orientalist thinking in general.

In Said’s view, rejection of Orientalism stipulates a rejection of various previously held assumptions such as biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious biases. It is a rejection of greed as a primary motivating factor in a new intellectual quest. It is a removal of the imagined parade between ‘the West’ and ‘the Other.’

Said argued that the Europeans divided the world into two parts; the east and the west or the occident and the orient or the civilized and the uncivilized. This was fundamentally an artificial or imagined boundary; and it was laid on the basis of the concept of them and us.

Edward Said concludes his book by saying that he is not making a case that the orientalists should not make generalization, but creating a boundary at the first instance which should not be done.

In writing his most discussed book, Orientalism, 25 years after its publication Said wrote:

“Orientalism is very much a book tied to the tumultuous dynamics of contemporary history. Its first page opens with a 1975 description of the Lebanese Civil War that ended in 1990, but the violence and the ugly shedding of human blood continues up to this minute. We have had the failure of the Oslo peace process, the outbreak of the second intifada, and the awful suffering of the Palestinians on the reinvaded West Bank and Gaza.

The suicide bombing phenomenon has appeared with all its hideous damage, none more lurid and apocalyptic of course than the events of September 11 2001 and their aftermath in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.”

When Said wrote his afterword to the 1995 edition he summarised the result of his work: “In a Borgesian way, Orientalism has become several different books.”

The reason for this assertion or interpretation is simple. Some academics, scholars and intellectuals considered Orientalism as a book to read in defence of Islam. Some others found in the thesis, a way of “writing back” and projecting their own voice that has been kept only as a “silence voice” by the cultural hegemony of the West and western scholars. Africans, Asians, Native Americans, Latin American and those nations who were colonised by the Westerners saw a methodology in Orientalism as a means of challenging the west.

As a result, Orientalism has become a canonical text of cultural studies as Said had challenged the concept of orientalism or the difference between east and west. Said argues that with the European colonisation of the East, they came in contact with the lesser developed countries and found their civilization and culture very exotic, and this led to the science of orientalism i.e. the study of the orientals or the people from these exotic civilization.

One of the best accolades Said was bestowed upon comes from the controversial US veteran of media war, Noam Chomsky. He talks of Said when he gave an interview in 1999:

“Edward’s in an ambivalent position in relation to the media and mainstream culture: his contributions are recognised, yet he’s the target of constant vilification. It comes with the turf if you separate yourself from the dominant culture.” He adds: “His scholarly work has been devoted to unravelling mythologies about ourselves and our interpretation of others, reshaping our perceptions of what the rest of the world is and what we are. The second is the harder task; nothing’s harder than looking into a mirror.” (Quoted in Maya Jaggi, Out of the Shadows,The Guardian, September 11, 1999)

Some of these vilifications were not just confined to anti-academic papers on Orientalism, but included physical and death threats. These were, a part of the outcome of Said’s colossal work that become a center of an ongoing academic dialogue on Orientalism with both supporting and opposing views.

To me Edward Said is a true Intellectual. When he delivered 1993 BBC Reith lectures, Representations of the Intellectual, he described the public role as that of “unaccommodated”. Yet an intellectual engaged as an outsider divorced from a professional “expert” who serves power while pretending to be detached.

(To be continued) For reader’s response: [email protected]


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