Edward Said’s Orientalism: Influence, Significance and Criticism in Post-Colonialism Studies

The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus (1511) painting
The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus (1511)

After Edward Said’s work, Orientalism, was published in 1978, it created a lot of buzz and admiration in the academic world, particularly in the budding field of post-colonialism studies, while it also attracted a lot of criticism from notable scholars. This text has shaped and refined the vision, opinion and perception of legions of post-colonialism scholars – essentially anybody who researched and explored this field in the past few decades.

This essay will present the theoretical context of Said’s text and discuss its influences, significance and criticism within the field of post-colonialism studies.

Michel Foucault’s Influence on Edward Said

It’s very important to note that Said was very influenced by the distinguished French philosopher Michel Foucault, whom he mentions explicitly in Orientalism. Michel Foucault is mainly regarded as a post-structuralist, even though he renounces this definition of himself. For those who didn’t stumble upon Foucault before, he analyzes in his theories the relationships between language and power, and claims that the discourse within a culture maintains and perpetuates the dominant powers in that society.

This claim is evident in the entirety of Said’s text, who himself analyzes the relationships between language and power within the specific framework of post-colonialism. Here’s one relevant quote from the text that highlights Foucault’s influence on Said (877):

“Most important, such texts [colonialist texts] can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe. In time such knowledge and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced out of it.”

As plainly illustrated by this quote, Said takes Foucault’s principles of knowledge and power within the discourse and adapts them into his post-colonialist theory.

Knowledge Is Used for Domination and Control

In chapter 1 of his book Orientalism, Edward Said discusses how the British referred to the acquisition of knowledge as a pretext to colonialize foreign lands. Knowledge of the Oriental is the alleged instrument enabling the British to impose the colonialist power system on their subjects. To illustrate his point, Said quotes prominent British political figures such as Arthur James Balfour and Lord Cromer, who have described their occupied “Orientals” in Egypt and India as inferior beings – directly and indirectly – in order to justify colonialism.

 Said states that “British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour” (emphasis original, page 32), which means that the ability of the British to obtain and to study the knowledge of Egypt (the colonialized Oriental land) eventually proves their superiority and justified dominance. Following this logic, Balfour rationalizes that “Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation” (34). Cromer was less subtle than Balfour, and in an essay, he straightforwardly declares that “knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable” (36). It is clear that for Cromer, knowledge was a means for dominating and controlling the Oriental; and not less important, this knowledge holds economic merits. Furthermore, Said asserts that Cromer regarded Orientals merely as “the human material he governed in British colonies” (39), and therefore their knowledge would allow their subjection.

Said’s portrayal of British colonialism in Orientalism displays an organized structure in which the acquired knowledge of one culture is used as proof of the superiority of another culture; consequently, that supposedly justifies the colonization of the Oriental.

Said’s Impact on Post-Colonialism Studies

Said has a tremendous impact in the particular field of post-colonialism studies. For many eminent post-colonialist scholars and thinkers, Said’s Orientalism is the basis upon which they built their own theories, arguments and ideas. Said’s terminology and division of the West (the “Occident”) versus the East (the “Orient”), and his ideas of how the “rational, virtuous, mature” West wields language to dominate the “irrational, depraved, childlike” East (all Said’s words) became the foundation of post-colonialist studies. Let’s focus on two leading renowned and influential by their own merits academics who based their view on Said’s Orientalism.

The prominent Indian-English post-colonialist scholar Homi Bhabha, who uses Said’s notions and terminology as his bedrock for his own influential theories, stated in an interview:

“And Edward Said’s work was of course crucial in suggesting a whole transdisciplinary terrain—as I say in my book, Said’s perspective caused the flash of recognition in which I first apprehended my own project.”

And indeed, in his essays, Bhabha regards Said’s principles as his starting point from which he elaborates and explains his theories. Bhabha is considered one of the most important thinkers and scholars in the post-colonial field and his different works – which, again, are founded on Said’s ideas – are instrumental and authoritative to many high-profile academics all over the world.

Another distinguished scholar who Said influenced enormously is the celebrated Indian-American theorist Gayatri Spivak, with whom Said was on friendly terms. In her book Outside in the Teaching Machine, Spivak regards Said’s Orientalism as “the source book in our discipline.” After Said’s passing, Spivak referred to him as “my friend and ally, the founder of postcolonial studies, Edward W. Said.” If so, Said is not just another highly distinguished and respected scholar in a specific academic field but is widely regarded as the founder of post-colonialism studies, as acknowledged by one of the field’s most iconic theorists.

Criticism of Said’s Orientalism

There is one conspicuous recurring claim made against Said by critics. This claim was probably first made by Professor Bernard Lewis from Princeton, with whom Said had a few public back-and-forth correspondences after Lewis wrote a long essay called “The Question of Orientalism,” attempting to refute Said’s work. Lewis asserted that Said only focused on the British and French empires from the eighteenth century onwards while ignoring others, such as the Germans; Lewis thus implies that Said’s research is incomplete and flawed.

This claim was later also reiterated separately by the British historian Albert Hourani who stated, “Edward totally ignores the German tradition and philosophy of history which was the central tradition of the orientalists” (Gallagher, 1994). At one point, Lewis referred to his argument with Said with the frustration-fraught statement, “It is difficult to argue with a scream of rage.” Indeed, Said’s Orientalism has an uncompromising, relentless, combatant style that might remind the unapologetic style of third-wave feminism even though it precedes it by about ten years.

Another critical response to Said is by the British historian Robert Irwin, who claims in his book For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies that Said infused the term (or what was a profession) “orientalist” with derogatory connotations, whereas before Said’s work had been published, this was an acclaimed academic branch in which scholars had studied Eastern cultures and languages and actually helped in understanding these societies and cultures. According to Irwin, Said made them seem like oppressive colonialists, which ultimately only damaged East-West relations.

As demonstrated, the ideas and principles in Edward Said’s Orientalism reverberate continuously in the field of post-colonialism ever since the text’s initial publication in 1978. It is one of the most influential texts published in the 20th century, which attracted both ardent followers and avid detractors.

While Said essentially established the field of post-colonialism and unified its terminology, he also attracted a lot of criticism. He is broadly regarded as one of the most famous, significant and inspiring scholars of the 20th century – both by his admirers and critics.

Works Cited:

Gallagher, Nancy Elizabeth. Interview with Albert Hourani in Approaches to the History of the Middle East. London: Ithaca Press, 1994, pp. 40–41.
Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. Penguin UK, 2007.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon. 1978.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. Routledge, 2012.