Book Review: Orientalism

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Annotation

Edward Said was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. He is known as the founder of postcolonial studies. Born in 1935 in Mandatory Palestine to a Palestinian mother, he was an American citizen by way of his father, a U.S. Army veteran. Said defined Orientalism as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[1]He cites Foucault often through the book and relates that as European powers gained in strength and expanded through colonization and empire building, discursive powers were used to subjugate the peoples of the Orient using literature, politics, imagery, ideas, culture, and religion. He methodologically walks through the historical timeline beginning with Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt, Balfour’s lectures to the House of Commons, through the literature that emerged from European authors about the Orient to the development of new fields of study, like philology, to explain how Orientalism was codified as a specialized field of study. The Orient came to be defined as everything the Occident was not through comparative discourse.[2]

Application

Because of my interest in postcolonialism, I found Said’s theory fascinating and applicable to other colonized peoples, particularly Latin America. Although colonization of the Orient by the British and French was different than that experienced by the indigenous in Latin America, there are similar trends that can be identified. The way that the subjugated peoples of the Orient were referenced by Said as a “subject race, dominated by a race that knows them and what is good for them better than they could possibly know themselves” is a common thread used by all colonizers. Where Said focused on discourse and how the culture and religion of the subject people was generated through language; Eduardo Galeano, in Open Veins of Latin America, focused on resource extraction as the methodology of the colonizer in Latin America.

The discourse used by Orientalists to describe the Orient are still used today. For example, Said discussed the themes of the Crusades and liberty from Chateaubriand’s Oeuvresand said, “…Arabs whose civilization, religion and manners were so low, so barbaric, and antithetical as to merit reconquest” and “of liberty, they know nothing.”[3]These sentiments are still existent in commentary about Muslims, be they from Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran and are regularly used by military or governmental officials to justify continued aggression and nation building in the Middle East.

[1]Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 25thAnniversary Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 3.

[2]Said, Orientalism, 149.

[3]Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 25thAnniversary Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 172.