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Thoughts on Edward Said’s Orientalism

I find Said’s application of Foucault’s concept of Discourse to be closely related to Thomas Kuhn’s concept of Paradigms. Both refer to unconscious mental structures that both assist and limit human thinking. They it assist in that they create mental shortcuts, categories for rapidly understanding the whirling chaos of perceptions and impressions that constitute realities direct approach on our senses. However, the limitation comes from the fact that whatever doesn’t fit the pre-existing structure is not even perceived, or if it happens to be noticed is explained away, so that whenever reality doesn’t fit the theory, it is reality that is adjusted. I find it interesting that both concepts arise within a decade of each other, both representing a dawning awareness not only of what we think, but of how we think. And of course both are linked to the study of history, because it is only in comparison and with an understanding of how people thought in the past, that these paradigms/discourses shift over time, the but they are even noticed. In both interest in both instances, when you are thinking within a paradigms/discourse you are not aware of the fact. And, paradoxically as soon as you transcend your current paradigm, you are simply entering another one (though the new one, being fresh, may not be so clearly defined). As such, Said’s Orientalism is itself a Discourse, a way of looking at things that was at the time of its publication revolutionary, and then became popular. But that’s not to say that it has an exclusive claim to accurately represent reality. More classical Orientalists have a different point of view. Robert Irwin in the introduction to his book Dangerous Knowledge (2006) observes that, "Most of the subsequent debate has taken place within the parameters set out by Edward Said. Much that is certainly central to the history of Orientalism has been quietly excluded by him, while all sorts of extraneous material has been called upon to support an indictment of the integrity and worth of certain scholars. One finds oneself having to discuss not what actually happened in the past, but what Said and his partisans think ought to have happened.” (4). You have, in essence, discourse versus discourse, paradigm versus paradigm.

Said makes a two-part claim about Orientalism. The first is that Orientalism constitutes a discourse, in the sense that Foucault uses the term. The second is that this discourse, this network of interlinked ideas, is inextricably linked to the history of political domination over the region known as the Orient. I can accept the first claim is fairly obvious, and to the second claim I would gladly grant a degree of influence, but the inextricable part is the one I wonder about. You can it really be true that no observations in 150 years of study of the Middle East are accurate enough to stand independent of the fact that the observer belonged to a dominant political structure? While the introduction portion of the 2003 edition of Said’s book happily recounted the reactionary criticism that the first edition received when it was first published, criticism that was so ill considered that it’s hardly worth taking seriously, the book is now 25 years old, popular, and well-established. In that time various points have been disputed, some more effectively than others. I quoted Robert Irwin above, who wrote an entire book on the subject. It seems me the most cogent arguments against Said’s thesis are those that go after the second part, the claim that the history of imperialism is inextricably linked to all thoughts about "Orientals". Influence is surely present, but thoughts about, say, the development of the Arabic language could conceivably come from a study of the language itself independent of whether your people occupy an Arabic-speaking territory, or your territory is occupied by Arabic speaking peoples.


Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Vinatage,1978.

Robert Irwin. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontentents. New York: Overlook, 2006.

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