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]