Post-Colonial Theory: Edward Said




Perhaps the most influential and widely read Post-Colonial critic was the late Edward Said (1935 – 2003) a Palestinian intellectual who was born in Jerusalem and died in exile in America. His well-known book, Orientalism was published in 1978 and is probably the often utilized structural analysis of Post-Colonial theory. Said’s approach is the first fully developed analysis of Post-Colonialism that is impersonal, intellectual, and yet in the tradition of engaged scholarship. A generation after that of Albert Memmi and Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, Said was more of a New Yorker than a colonized individual and belongs to the postmodern phenomenon of the global diaspora. In the privileged precincts of Columbia University, Said joined the “cultural turn,” in which literary theory and Foucauldrian discourse became methodological tools through which to view culture.

It is obvious that “culture” is neither nature nor natural, but how is culture made and for what purposes? By the seventies, Marxism had been folded into a postmodern theory of representation which is where “Orientalism” can be located. With the now-expected antecedents of Hegelian logic embedded in critical theory, it was possible for Said to build on the foundation of previous scholars. In contrast to Memmi and Cesaire and Fanon who viewed colonialism as a psychological sickness created by the twisted intertwined Master/Slave dialectic, Said took a Post-Structuralist–he read the discourse of “orientalism,” consisting of text of 18th and 19th century European scholars and antiquarians who constructed a representation of an idea of an East that was not the West and conversely of a West that was not the East.

The basic assumptions that underly the book include the historical fact of European colonial domination and imperialist exploitation that put European scholars in the position to gaze upon the exotic other and to study this alien otherness for European purposes. As was noted in an earlier post, the European concern with the East can be traced back as far as the religious clash between Christianity and Islam that began in the seventh century and continues today. For centuries a parity was reached when the demarcation between religious territories was sealed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, but, after two world wars in the 20th century, the wound was reopened and laid bare. When the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East began to weaken, the Europeans, led by the French under Napoléon, began to encroach upon northern Africa. Under the scientific gaze of Europeans, Egypt and by extension the Holy Land became an object of study and a place of imaginative exploration.

This land, Holy to Christian and Muslim, this territory that was an eternal historical battleground trod over by many civilizations was the starting point for Said who turned the intellectual tables on the West. For Said, “Orientalism” or the Western construction of the “imaginary Orient” was fashioned by Europeans through practices of writing, which had the effect of representing the Other, the East. Few people, except for hard core historians and literary theorists have ventured much beyond his introduction and most readers probably find his later work, Culture and Imperialism (1993) more interesting to read. When he established the notion of the “Occident” in opposition to the “Orient”, Said was echoing Georg Hegel and Simon de Beauvoir and using these intellectual sources, Said re-positioned the West as the masculine One to the East’s feminized Other.

That said, Michel Foucault’s elaboration on the “discourse” is probably the most important of Said’s intellectual influences. Foucault’s impact can be discerned clearly in traces: the repeated exhortations as to what Said is not saying and the long meandering sentences with endless pauses with semi-colons. When Said established a literary or discursive “field” in which “the Orient” is constructed through language and representation, he was following the concepts of Foucault. Foucault dated the habit of Western Othering from the post-Medieval substitution of the leper with the mad person as the Other in society. Someone had to be an outcast. As Foucault pointed out in Madness and Civilization, this Other was constructed through discourse, or non-expressive utterances, that constructed an object to be first written of and then examined and then incarcerated. The language must be created for the Other to be spoken of and for the discourse to be constructed. People had always lived in territories that had a Muslim history but in order for these groups to be elucidated they had to be discursively constructed–named and studied and controlled.

Foucault posited the power of the “gaze” of the One that would then represent the Other. In his later work, Discipline and Punish, he linked “voir” (to see) with “savoir” (knowledge) and “pouvoir” (power). Thus seeing (the gaze of the authority) produces knowledge, which produces power. Through historical circumstances, it was the Western regions who “advanced” technologically faster than the East and thus it was the Europeans who took it upon themselves to name the regions, “The West” and “The East,” “The Occident” and The Orient.” Today to merely use these terms is Eurocentric–Europe is at the center of the world and all other regions relate to it–a totally imperialist position. The imperialist stance and language is part of the discourse of Orientalism, which is an example of how the powerful represent the powerless. from former Secretary of State, Henry Kissenger, stating the the problem of the Middle East that the region did not experience the Enlightenment to the more recent work of scholar Bernard Lewis who insisted that the Muslim nations deliberately refused to participate in Modernism, the “Orient” has been seen as the uncivilized, barbaric, backward Other.

orientalism_John Frederick Lewis_The Reception

John Frederick Lewis,. The Reception (1873)

But all that has been stated by Western scholars is merely words, language which have created a veil of representation that allows the East to be spoken of from a position of power, not truth. Said, following Foucault, stated that “Orientalism” is a discourse, a whole network of interests. Orientalism as a practice of writing was mainly a British and French enterprise due to the particular closeness of these nations with the “Orient.” Another way of expressing this “closeness” is to point to the long history of colonialism and imperialism by these two nations in the Middle East. “Orientalism” was but part of a network of cultural effects that justified Western control over such a backward region. The Orient is not a fact of nature but an idea that has a history with its own vocabulary and its own imagery. European culture gained in strength and identity be setting itself up against the Orient, so, as Said stated, the two geographic entities support and reflect each other–as opposites in a mirror.

Like a mirror, the images reverse each other with the privileging on the side of the Occident. In Lacanian language, the Orient is the narcissistic reversal of the fictional Self of the Occident or the “idea” of Europe. This Orient is a European idea and invention, not, as Said warned, essentially an idea with no correspondence in reality. The East is a European construction that facilitates a very real relationship of power and domination between West and East. Orientalism became a textual grid through which “The Orient” was filtered into Western consciousness.In saying that the West was a prevailing ideology, Said borrowed the concept of hegemony or prevailing “cultural form” from a new influence on Post-Colonial theory, Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and his odd assortment of Prison Notebooks from 1929-1935 . According to Gramsci certain cultural forms or representational discourses have dominance over others and reflect cultural leadership. Orientalism was a collective European notion of European superiority with the West having the upper hand. The network of discursive structures was put in place by European scholars over time with the intention to understand (to produce knowledge) in order to control and manipulate a very different world: the Orient.

The European encounter with the alien culture was not only a cultural clash but also a meeting between unequals. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Orient was but a shadow of its former self. According to Said’s arch intellectual enemy, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton, the Middle East had deliberately made the collective cultural decision to eschew Western scientific modernism and thus “missed” the Enlightenment at a crucial moment. The technological gap between East and West was signaled by the stunning victory of Napoléon over the Egyptians in 1794 (where his army discovered marijuana. Soon everyone was inhaling and Baudelaire writes under the spell of the weed. The British imbibed the drug as a “medicine” and the Queen herself used hashish for menstrual cramps.). The Western imagination was fevered by thoughts of the depravity of the East and, although Said did not discuss art, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Ingres was painting his many paintings of the legendary harems and Delacroix actually paid a visit to the secluded ladies of Algiers. The idea of the Orient was “appropriated” both artistically and scientifically by the all conquering Europeans. It is at this point in time, the early decades of the 19th century, when the West was actively changing the West, Lewis wrote,

Some centuries earlier, the Islamic Middle East had led he world in science and technology, including devices for measuring time. But Middle-Eastern technology and science ceased to develop,precisely at the moment when Europe and more specifically Western Europe was advancing to new heights. The disparity was gradual but progressive.

Not only could Western powers come and go in the Middle East as they pleased, but it was also at this time that the East became the object of the European gaze. The scrutiny of the “Orient” is linked to imperialism and empire with the Middle East the first and closest territory of conquest. As Foucault stated in Discipline and Punish, to see is to produce knowledge and to have power. The Orient was constructed along the lines of other conquered territories, as “inferior”, as “feminine”, as “uncivilized”, as “barbaric”, and as the Other. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant. The Orient is insinuating and dangerous; and Western rationality is undermined by Eastern excesses. These literary characterizations fulfilled two needs, first to justify the domination of one group over the other and second to create an identity for the dominant group. The Orient was contained and represented within the dominating framework. The rise of Orientalism as a system of representation coincides with the rise of European empires. Between 1815 and 1914, Europeans directly controlled 85% of the globe.

Orientalism as a European textual construction is implicated with colonial authority and is a product of exteriority in which the Orientalist is the one who represents the Orient as the other. If the Orient could represent itself, it would; but it cannot, and therefore, it is the task of the Orientalist to represent the silenced culture. Thus the Orient is made clear to the Westerner, and the representation of the East functions in terms of traditions, conventions, and codes. The Oriental is “irrational, depraved, fallen, childlike, different”, while the European is “rational, virtuous, mature, normal”. This “knowledge” of the Oriental produces “the Oriental”. The Orient is divided into two spaces: the Near East and the Far East, but this Orient is but a stage where the East is confined. The Orient is penalized for being outside the system of Western Christianity’s morality. The tropes of Orientalism were collections of free-floating fragments that were accumulated into units of knowledge. This “knowledge” was a resistance to the strangeness of the Orient. Said pointed out,

..Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient’ nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious “Western” imperialist plot to hold down the “Oriental” world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also a whole series of “interests” which, by means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, it not only creates but also maintains; it is rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate,what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power..

Said wrote that the Western writers had a strategic location, or a location of power, from which s/he writes texts that become part of a strategic formation or a discourse where the “oriental studies” reside. He pointed out that the practice of Western representation of the East, from the “exterior” is done on the assertion that if the East could represent itself it could and since it cannot, the West must do this task of representation. These cultural discourses are ” not ‘truth’ but representations. “It hardly needs to demonstrated again that language itself is a highly organized and encoded system, which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information, represent and so forth.” As a result of this “representation,” regardless of the century, the Orient is always fixed in time and place in the mind of the West and the represented “history” of the “Orient” is conceived of as a series of responses to the West which is always the actor and judge of Oriental behavior. Edward Said made the point that this binary opposition based upon the semiotics of power results in paternalistic or aggressive foreign policy decisions. He noted that Henry Kissinger based his policy towards the Orient upon the very binary relations that Orientalists had been constructing for centuries.

Henry Kissinger, architect of the last stage of the Viet Nam War, divided the world in terms of the colonizer: there are those societies which are pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian, undeveloped and developed. In other words, Kissinger assumed that the experience of the Enlightenment is necessary for “civilization”. His assumptions were based upon the supposed superiority of Western—Newtonian—scientific, rational thinking that produced “superior” technological society. In the year 2007, Kissenger warned against imposing Western ideas upon a region that did not share the same history,

In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else.

Edward Said lived long enough to witness September 11th an event that elevated Bernard Lewis to a consultant to the Bush administration. He also lived long enough to watch the American invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, an invasion predicated “Oriental” perfidy and the need of backward peoples to be rescued by democracy. Forty years later and two invasions of Iraq later, Orientalism was still one of the best known books, widely read in theory but completely ignored in practice. Edward Said died in exile, never wavering from his position that Israel was a colonial entity established by imperialist powers and imposed illegitimately upon a people that were considered to have no claim to territory or to identity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Post-Colonial Theory: Albert Memmi



Albert Memmi, The Colonized and the Colonized

Just as Race is essentially an American phenomenon, Post-Colonial Theory is essentially a European phenomenon. While it is necessary to make a distinction between the very different experiences of people of color under European and American rule, it is also possible to make a more general theoretical point. Colonialism and racism are both outcomes of the concept of “the Other.” The idea of the One and the Other stems from European philosophical thinking that both pre-dated the system of European model of imperialism, which included conquest, slavery, colonialism, and exploitation of non-Europeans, and justified a set of practices based on difference. For hundreds of years, colonialism, a manifestation of imperialism, was the means whereby Europeans controlled peoples of other continents, until two World Wars gradually eroded a rule that included over ninety percent of the globe. The “post” of Colonialism is both the after-time of a historical period and the critique of the episteme or mind set that led one small part of the world to dominate the Other.

Descartes posited a separation between mind and matter, Emmanuel Kant placed a gap between the subject and the object, Georg Hegel distinguished between the master and the slave. Saussure noted that language is structured in pairs of opposites. Jacques Derrida insisted that polarities are interdependent upon each other. Whether through language or philosophical models, the point is that the subject, the thinking human being, can understand what s/he is only in terms of what s/he is not. Human consciousness comes into being through this recognition of difference and, as Hegel demonstrated, the need to be acknowledged by the Other. The germ of the problem is clear in Hegel who understood that the difference between the One and the Other constitutes inequality. Rather than a neutral “difference” that merely designates or distinguishes, “difference” is loaded with judgments: the Master is superior to the Slave, and, although they recognizes themselves through each other, this recognition favors the Master and works to the detriment of the Slave. It does not matter that the Master cannot exist without the existence of the Slave, without the presence of a “master” the “slave” would be free.

Later philosophers point out that, while language might be structured out of opposites, socially and politically the One and the Other are not “natural” events but are constructed out of the need, not just to determine differences, but to dominate. The mode of constructing the Other is a form of representation or of the One re-presenting the Other in terms that craft domination. Taken to extremes Othering others moves very quickly to dehumanization. According to Theodor Adorno, the “Identity thinking” or the concept of universality, of the Enlightenment is based upon exclusion. If certain selected elements are included within an existing structure, then certain “other” elements have to be excluded to make the initial inclusion meaningful. Post-Colonial theory is about that exclusion. However, Post-Colonial theory is about existentialism or the conditions under which one comes into existence or consciousness through the deliberate extinction of the humanity of the Other.

Exclusion and dominance began long before the philosophy of post-coloniality. Just as colonialism antedated and generated racism, sexism antedates all prejudices and establishes the primary division or the primal Othering between the genders. In isolated communities, in small tribes, the people saw only themselves and there was no other. Long before there was a need for tribes to confront each other over control of territory, the Other had already been created and that Other was Woman. When he attempted to theorize the universal dominance of women by men, Friedrich Engels reasoned that the creation of the idea of “property” or “ownership” allowed men to reduce women and cattle and land to objects to be owned. However, even if Engels was right (and we have no way of knowing that he was), the idea of the One and the Other must have already existed if only because the concept of “equality” needs “inequality” to be meaningful.

In his linking of property and inequality, Engels, along with Karl Marx, would lay the groundwork for a theory of the economy in which capitalism determines society and human relations. Marxism, therefore, was the foundation or stepping stone for Post-Colonial theory, which began to emerge in the 1970s out of traditional Marxism. Post-Colonialism was the intellectual creation of post-war immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to the Mother Country of England or France to be educated at elite institutions. Marxism’s critique of capitalism provided a useful frame through which the capitalist thrust of imperialism and the class relations of colonialism could be analyzed. In these early years, Post-Colonial theory showed up on the theory radar as “Subaltern Studies” at the University of Sussex with the colonial subjects, the subordinated and the marginalized as active speakers. However, the position of Post-Colonial theory within Marxism was an uneasy one and there is an earlier approach that provided yet another avenue for critique, Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized published in 1957.


Albert Memmi (1920-) is the ultimate Other, a Jew in a Muslim country, Tunisia, colonized by the French. Born in 1925 of a Berber mother and an Italian father, who passed on his Jewish identity, Memmi was able to observe the turbulent process of de-colonizaiton when Algeria and Tunisia became independence from the French in in 1956. Memmi’s contribution to the Post-Colonial conversation was that he lived within colonialism, unsure of his place: as a native of Tunisia he was colonized, as a Jew he identified with his fellow Europeans, the French. Although he certainly recognized the economic “fascism” of imperialism, Memmi placed colonialism in it more precise structure: racism. While it is correct that imperialism and colonialism were the result of the needs of capitalism to continually expand, the point is that only in territories of color did the Europeans take over and exploit (Asia and India) and exterminate the inhabitants (the Americas) and establish colonists to control their economic interests. In his remarkable book, Remarkable Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Stephen Greenblat remarked upon the unprecedented nature of this post-Columbian imperialism.

As Memmi pointed out in the beginning of his book, the imperialist adventure was a layered one: on one hand it was a purely economic quest which was authorized as a good-hearted desire to “help” and “civilize” the poor unfortunate native through benevolent colonization. The argument for civilizing of the dark-skinned native is linked to just that—the dark skin, which is racism, which in turn is simple Othering another human being out of viable existence. Thus Post-Colonial theory became part of existentialism long before it was funneled through Marxism. It is no accident that it was Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the introduction when The Colonizer and the Colonized was published in 1957. In his opening sentence Sartre, whose companion Simone de Beauvoir was friends with American writer Richard Wright, links colonization to racism, the kind of racism flourishing in America.

Only the Southerner is competent to discuss slavery, because he alone knows the Negro; the puritanical and abstract Northerners know man only as an entity. This fine line of reasoning still has its uses: in Houston, in the newspapers of New Orleans, and in “French” Algeria—since we too are someone’s Northerners. The newspaper there tell us that the colonizer alone is qualified to speak of the colony. The rest of us, who live in the mother country do not have his experience, so we are to view the burning land of Africa through this eyes, which will just show us the smoke.

Memmi’s writing is a doubling: he is both the colonizer by dint of being a European and he is also the colonized by dint of being Tunisian. His approach is hybrid for he lives with a version of what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness.” As a Jew and a Tunisian he suffered from a double anti-Semitism, both in in Tunisia and in France, where Jews had been deported to death camps. After being educated in post-war Paris, Memmi’s place in society that he has no place for he is part of the diaspora, pulled back and forth between Paris and Tunis, at home nowhere but finally settling in Paris. In 1982 he published Racism which begins with a sentence that could be written today: “There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.” Memmi’s most recent book and sadly probably his last is the 2006 book, The Decolonization and the Decolonialized, which subverts the “civilizing” argument of the imperialists by asking why these former colonies have not flourished.

The answer can be found by returning to the groundbreaking The Colonizer and the Colonized where Memmi outlined the psychological effects of racism upon the One who is the colonizer and becomes morally corrupted and upon the Other who incorporated the role of the (non)Other as inferior and incapable and without consequence. The One systematically eradicated the native culture and the native language as the price for merely entering into the company of the Colonizer. The Colonized is forced to give up indigenous identification but in the process loses any meaningful identity. The process is one of psychological slavery that dehumanizes the Other and turns her into an object. The Other begins to identify with the (impossible) One but evolves into what Caribbean poet and politician, Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) called “thingification” in the 1955 book, Discours sur le colonialism. Memmi described the path of the Colonized into the exile of religion, the only remaining refuge and his discussion of the trajectory of the Colonized into religion and rebellion sheds light on the events unfolding today in the Middle East and North Africa.

Memmi’s seminal book outlined the social costs and the psychological damage a racist system of inequality does to the colonizer who enjoys unearned privilege. His portrait of the colonizer is scathing. The colonizer is pictured as a glamorous figure who is nevertheless an individual who is mediocre and who would have little future in the Mother Country. In the “colonies,” the colonizer can succeed but not in open and honest competition but at the expense of people who have been dis-empowered. Once the colonizer becomes aware of–becomes conscious of–the Other or the colonized, then the truth of the situation becomes clear. The colonizer is in charge and can write the rules and can make the laws, all of which benefit one element of the binary: the colonizer. The colonized are dehumanized, like a Slave, and exist to be exploited for the benefit of the Master. True, on the surface this exploitation is economic, the outcome of the punitive capitalistic practices of imperialism but at another level, suppressed by the colonizer, lies a narrative of oppression based solely on skin color. As Memmi wrote,

Colonialism denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence, and keeps them by force in a state of misery and ignorance that Marx would rightly call a subhuman condition. Racism is ingrained in actions, institutions, and in the nature of the colonialist methods of production and exchange. Political and social regulations reinforce one another.

The colonizer is doubly illegitimate: not only is he an interloper in a land that is not their but she is also taking away opportunities from the colonized. Making unjust laws that reinforce an unjust system only make the system doubly unjust. Both parties are entrapped in a society that harms them both but one party, the colonizer receives too many benefits to be willing to relinquish her unjust privileges and the colonized have no power to change his conditions. Aime Casaire presciently perceived that a price would have to be paid when he observed in 1955,

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.

The fact is that the so-called European civilization – “Western” civilization – as it has been shaped by two centuries of bourgeois rule, is incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem; that Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience”; and that, increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.

Like Memmi, Cesaire laid out the charges against the colonial system during a time when the system was breaking down, bent and bowed under the weight of its own injustice. It is interesting to note that the years in which Memmi and Cesaire were writing, the mid to late fifties, were the same years that initiated the Civil Rights Movement in America. Like Memmi, Cesaire compared the rule of the French over their colonies to the rule of the Nazis over their conquered territories. In effect, in attempting to retain what is not legitimately theirs, the French have become their own worst nightmare. As he wrote,

..colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism..

Although the early critiques of colonialism predate all “posts,” Memmi and Cesaire clearly understood the interdependence of the two poles: the colonizer and the colonized, and this interdependence is the very agent that will deconstruct the binary. Memmi was aware that the colonized would demand self-determination and that war and rebellion would continue until the ties were severed.The ties between the colonizer and colonized are not just political they are psychological. The interiorization of inferiority on the part of the native would have grave consequences. Later post-colonial theorists, writing after the end of Empires would take a Post-Structuralist approach inherited from linguistic and literary theory and re-evaluate the dialectical dance between the colonizer and the colonized. Cesaire used his poetry as a political weapon, twisting Shakespeare’s Brave New World to reproach the usurper:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

Aime Cesaire’s version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1968)

Both authors lived long enough to engage in scholarly debates about colonialism and would see the end of the “civilizing” mission of European imperialism. Both would live in the Mother Country of France and speak and write in the mother tongue and both would live to see France changing as the colonized, the oppressed Muslim population, “come home.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]