Critiquing Said: A Defense of Orientalist Literature

In his seminal work Orientalism, Said argues that Orientalism is an intricately devised process by which Europeans produce knowledge that transforms our understanding of Eastern people, places, and values. Orientalist works are not necessarily representative of the Orient’s geographic and material reality, he argues, nor is objective truth their primary concern. Rather, Orientalism is a way of “filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness” (Said 6), of projecting a contrasting texture, experience, and flavor that allows the West to define itself as diametrically opposed to the East. In this process, Said claims that those within the enterprise of Orientalism have artificially constructed a dichotomy between the East and West that is rooted in a unidirectional assertion of power, one that assumes the absolute primacy of a Eurocentric perspective and is used as justification for Western exploration, navigation, and material exploitation. However, I will argue that Said’s critique of the Orientalist binary is based on a limited and carefully curated archive, his contentions too emphatic when a more diverse picture of Orientalist works is taken into account; furthermore, I will contend that Said’s language when describing a unidirectional East-West relationship is inconsistent with both the inherent nature of power and current U.S. foreign policy; lastly, I will reason that Said’s position as a prominent figure in the academic community makes his generalizations about Orientalist literature prone to the same cultural hegemony he so vehemently detests.

First, I would like to make it clear that I do not intend to imply that Said’s selected archive makes his observations about the East-West binary in their totality obsolete. After all, a vast proportion of Orientalist works were produced by a self-selective and politically motivated authorship whose elite status allowed for the large scale material investment associated with Orientalist inquiry at the time. Much to Said’s credit, even a brief analysis of the works of those he references — like Gustave Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval, François-René de Chateaubriand, and Rudyard Kipling — reveals how rich French and English men have systematically mischaracterized and homogenized the Oriental world as characteristically opposed to Western interests. Nonetheless, what I am arguing is that any work that seeks to provide a serious understanding of academic Orientalism and “pays little attention to scholars like Steinthal, Muller, Becker, Goldziher, Brockelmann, [and] Noldeke,” or suppresses any work that complicates one’s own sweeping conclusions about Orientalism, “needs to be reproached” (Said 18). This is especially true when these overlooked authors may provide evidence against the notion that Orientalism has a characteristic “internal consistency” (Said 5), both in the way it creates an artificial binary between the East and West, and in the way it uses said binary to establish an Occidental “positional superiority” (Said 7).

One look at Edward Terry’s Voyage to East-India, George Sandys’ exploration of the Turkish people, or even Anthony Jenkinson’s journey into Persia, and one might at first find evidence that these Western, male, and largely aristocratic authors view “European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Said 7). For instance, Terry’s unflattering description of the East-Indian Mogul and his small territories, as represented by Mercator’s Great Book of Cosmography, challenges the King’s self-proclaimed title of “​Conqueror of the World​” (Terry 193); by the same token, Sandys’ emasculation of the fat and sexually flaccid Turkish Sultan “…who chokes as he feeds” (Sandys 23), as well as Jenkinson’s contention that Persians are erroneous in thinking “themselves to be the best of all nations” (Jenkinson 101), are not positive representations of the regions. Nonetheless, when taken together, these accounts complicate Said’s framework in that they also reveal the stark heterogeneity of Oriental people, places, and things. From East-India’s political fragmentation between Hindus and Muslims, to the Turkish people’s unbounded opulence and sexual liberation, to the Safavid Empire’s staunch refusal to engage in European trade on the basis of religious differences, Orientalist writers do not always paint distant societies with a single, broad stroke of the brush. Instead, they often accept that each society within the East has its own character, value system, and social infrastructure, adjusting their interactions with these distinct places accordingly. In doing so, they often converse with those parts of Eastern cultures with which they both agree and disagree — as all people, regardless of their “Western-ness” or inherent motivations, do when exposed to what is fundamentally new.

Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that Said fails to include in his work marginalized groups of interest, like female and Eastern writers, who are by virtue of their social stations epistemically privileged. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for instance, a European woman having lived in both England and Turkey, is in her Turkish Embassy Letters able to access those complicated and intimate spaces that the male writers Said references cannot physically access. Specifically, she is able to use her experience within Turkish bathhouses to slowly erode the traditional Oriental depictions of nakedness, brutality, and gluttony by admiring the elegant garments that Turkish women regularly wear. Discussing in pointed detail serene and elegant images such as a “thin rose color damask…silver flowers…white kid leather,” and the “straight-falling sleeves” (Montagu 69) of her own dress, she further indicates a sense of freedom, humility, and hospitality to Turkish culture. Even the Caftan — one of Europe’s most enduring symbols of the injustice and backwardness of the Orient — comes to represent a source of liberty, free public passage, and social mobility. Not only is her own Caftan “exactly fitted” (Montagu 69), indicating a sense that she “fits in” with her new community (a fluidity of identity), but Lady Mary’s descriptions further characterize her as being “in [her] Turkish habit” (Montagu 69). This phrase implies that the cultural boundaries Said claims to exist between the East and West are not strictly enforced, but can instead be dissolved or circumnavigated through the type of cultural exposure Lady Montagu undergoes. 

These diverse Orientalist texts also raise a natural question, that if Said’s archive causes him to systematically construct the West as not only monolithic, but also as having the supreme power to misrepresent and dominate “the Rest,” how can he avoid generalizing the ways in which Eastern and Western regions fundamentally interact — the complex and interconnected relationships of power both between and within these societies that give them life and agency? More importantly, how can Said avoid participating in the same binary between the Orient and Occident that he critiques, when he oversimplifies all Orientalist texts as the “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient… a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 3)? And the answer to these questions is rather simple: historians like Said “…cannot (and should not be trying to) establish universal laws of social or political ‘physics’” (Ferguson xx) with reliable predictive capacities because power is by its inherent nature messy and uncertain, infinitely more diverse than any schematic can adequately capture and use. 

We must take seriously the contention that the shape of power does not lend itself to an East-West unidirectionality, instead something wholly infinite and complex, perpetually webbing, branching, and developing unpredictably. Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, for instance, posits a conception of power divorced from differentials of wealth, appearance, and technology — Said’s classic distinctions between the East and West. Specifically, the novel follows the dynamic and paradoxical relationship of a Venetian voyager and his Turkish captor Hoja on a journey of confused identity and self-reflection. The interaction between the two men becomes a test of character for both individuals and culminates when Hoja forces the Venetian to write about all the misdeeds of his life, physically beating him whenever he reads something he doesn’t like. Yet interestingly “the more [Hoja] read[s] about [the Voyager’s] sins and increase[s] his petty, infantile punishments, the more [the Voyager becomes] wrapped in a peculiar sense of security: for the first time, [he begins] to think [he has Hoja] in the palm of [his] hand” (Pamuk 67). In this way, Pamuk’s descriptions of the men’s paradoxical interactions make it difficult to shake the odd yet profound feeling that the Venetian is really the one pulling the strings, dictating his master’s identity through words and manipulation. Even further, Hoja and the Venetian’s characterization as mirror images, as feuding yet deeply interdependent “look-alikes” (Pamuk 22), comes to represent the popular psychology of the Turkish people, the constant and internal battle between tradition and novelty, ignorance and self-exploration, even truth and deception. It is those all-consuming struggles to reconcile the distant and conflicting parts of our identities that teaches us that power and “Western-ness” are not mutually exclusive in the way Said’s binary implies; rather, unequal distributions of power transcend age, culture, community, social distinction, and are even situated within human consciousness.

It is, furthermore, glaringly obvious that Said’s conception of the East-West power dynamic is inconsistent with the Orient’s geopolitical reality. Chiefly, the prosperous diplomatic relationship of power between the U.S. and Israel in recent years is not even remotely similar to the tense and deeply volatile relationship between the U.S. and Iran, even though it can be argued that both nations fit into Said’s notion of the oppressed, Oriental “other.” In February 2019, as a “Middle East Summit” orchestrated by the Trump administration kicked off, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the meeting was to “advance the common interest of war with Iran.” Simultaneously, a Saudi news outlet with prominent ties to the royal family urged the US to launch strikes against Iran after an alleged Iranian drone strike on a Saudi oil pipeline. Even these nations’ hardline support for the United States to exit from the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 was a frantic response to “…growing US-Iranian reconciliation that would have jeopardized their clout with Washington and their influence” (KIMT3 News 1), showing that modern discourse surrounding the Oriental world is “less a clash of civilizations than a clash within a civilization… an Islamic world in the midst of a desperate ideological struggle” (Burns 159). 

As such, Oriental nations themselves, and not necessarily the West, often contribute to the alleged binary between the Orient and Occident by representing one another “…as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization” (Said 108). Contrary to Said’s conceptions, there are clear limits to what Western powers “can do directly to shape that debate… [beyond creating] a sense of geopolitical order… and [giving] moderate forces the sustained support they [need] to demonstrate that they could deliver for their people” (Suri 1). Nonetheless, the perpetually shifting alliances and antagonisms between these nations raise questions about what constitutes the “West.” Does this word merely characterize a geographic and political entity comprised of Europe and the Americas, or does it posit an ideological distinction between conflicting interests as well? Can places like Israel and Saudi Arabia be ideologically Western but geographically Eastern, and how is Said’s discourse surrounding Orientalism weakened by this bimodality? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, it is clear that tribalism, as a double-edged and inescapable phenomenon of the world, seems to occur not only between Eastern and Western societies as they are classically defined, but within their dynamic structures as well. Perhaps, self-differentiation can go ad infinitum to the lowest common denominator, where each and every one of us, given our own unique interests and circumstances, may construct in-groups and out-groups. 

The purpose of critiquing Said on these grounds — his limited textual selection and its relation to his misunderstandings about the discourse of power, culture, and social politics surrounding Orientalism — is not to chastise him, attack his character, or paint him as uninformed. Instead, it is meant to show that although Said spends a great deal of his book critiquing Orientalist academics on the grounds that their authority unilaterally allows them to make unjustified statements about the Orient, no person (and this is true even of Said) is the sole arbiter of the truth. This is because every writer on the Orient  “assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge of the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies” (Said 20). As Albert Camus once remarked, all thoughts are anthropomorphic; as members of the world of understanding substantiated in the world of sense, every construction becomes anthropocentrically entangled. But to use one’s unique position at the forefront of the field of Orientalism to make sweeping conclusions about its shape, spread, and consistency, while fully aware of the limitations of one’s archive and their effect on the accuracy of one’s statements, is to be hegemonic. That is to say, that the power to narrate, “…or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism” (Said xiii), but is a critical problem of Said’s textual methodology as well — one that takes all of his arguments to task on the basis that they were conceived from an archive intentionally unrepresentative of the vast diversity of texts comprising Orientalism more broadly. 

Said, then, must be criticized, if not because of the way in which he homogenizes Orientalism in order to fit an argumentative framework built on an East-West binary, then at the very least “…to widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing authority” (Said xviii). There must be critical consciousness if “…there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for… Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom” (Said 29, my emphasis). It is only through this kind of hard and solid thinking that one can escape the tormenting confines of conformity and engage in productive, controversial discourse; through unapologetic deliberation and unwavering criticism, one can expose ideological weaknesses at their core and awaken the world from its rose-colored, and often romantic, fantasies about itself. The whole object of criticism is, and must be, to give social, political, and philosophical questions the form comparable to an animal who has suddenly discovered its own consciousness.

References:

Burns, William J. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. Random House, 2019.

Ferguson, Niall. Civilization: the West and the Rest. Penguin, 2012.

Hakluyt, Richard. Voyages and Discoveries. Penguin UK, 1972.

MacLean, Gerald, Ivo Kamps, and Jyotsna Singh. “Travel Knowledge: European” Discoveries” in the Early Modern Period.” (2001): 85.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. The Turkish embassy letters. Broadview Press, 2012.

Pamuk, Orhan. The White Castle: A Novel. Penguin UK, 2015.

Said, Edward W. Culture and imperialism. Vintage, 2012.

Said, Edward W. The world, the text, and the critic. Harvard University Press, 1983.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.

“Saudi Arabia and Israel Are Pushing US to Confront Iran. Trump Shouldn’t Take the Bait.” KIMT News.

Suri, Jeremi. “The Long Rise and Sudden Fall of American Diplomacy.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 17 Apr. 2019.

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