Reflections on Edward Said's Orientalism

Writ Large FM Broadcast


Beginning in the 17th century, European countries began colonizing countries east of Europe. They imposed their own ideas over local cultures and extracted free labor and resources. One way that European colonizers justified this exploitation was through an academic discipline called Orientalism. In 1978, Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University, published a book of the same name, Orientalism. In his critique, he challenged Europeans’ construction of the so-called “East,” outlined the biases of Orientalist study, and transformed the course of humanities scholarship.


Zachary Davis: Beginning in the 17th century, European countries such as Britain and France began colonizing various countries east of Europe. These cultures they encountered were very different from their own. The European colonizers imposed their culture on the people they were colonizing and exploited them for free labor and natural resources. The Europeans tried to justify their colonization efforts by framing it as a civilizing mission, that they were helping these people by bringing them into the modern age. 

This view has largely and negatively shaped how Western societies view this part of the world sometimes called “The East.” For hundreds of years, Westerners justified this view, presenting themselves and believing themselves to be better than Eastern peoples. Part of how they did this was through the academic discipline called Orientalism.

Stathis Gourgouris: Orientalism is a discipline of studies of language, culture, and history that is oriented—this is really not a pun, but that's precisely the point—towards the cultures of the East. And “the East” is a very, very broad category that includes basically anything that's east of, of Istanbul, actually, so all the way to the, what we call “the Far East,” which is now no longer being said. “The Near East” is the kind of Mediterranean, sort of Arab world. “The Far East” is the world of China and Japan and so on. 

Zachary Davis: That’s Stathis Gougouris, professor of comparative literature and society at Columbia University. For hundreds of years, Orientalism went hand in hand with the politics of the time. When Europeans studied these cultures as ‘other,’ they justified their view that the so-called East was lesser than Europe. 

Stathis Gourgouris: They studied those cultures as the opposite of Europe. I mean, quite clearly they understood their ancient significance, even their ancient glory. It’s not that they minimized the achievements, let's say, of Chinese civilization. They didn't, but they saw it as considerably, something considerably different, ‘other’ to what is Europe. 

Zachary Davis: Professor of literature and public intellectual Edward Said gave a new meaning to the term “Orientalism.” He used the term to refer to the West’s condescending depiction and portrayal of the East. In 1978 he published his book of the same name.

Stathis Gourgouris: It's a study of how European societies, primarily British and French, constructed, first of all, envisioned, constructed, and enacted a world that we call the Orient—that they called the Orient back then, that we call the East now. 

Zachary Davis: Welcome to Writ Large, a podcast about how books change the world. I’m Zachary Davis. In each episode, I talk with one of the world’s leading scholars about one book that changed the course of history. For this episode, I sat down with Professor Stathis Gourgouris to discuss Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Stathis Gourgouris: One of the points that Said makes in Orientalism is that this, what he called sort of “the construction of the East” as a category was characterized by the fact that it belonged entirely to the past, that whatever, whatever it had achieved had been done and that in the present, it was, it was a world that was not developing, that, that in essence, it had remained in this sort of ancient past, in essence, not even proximate. And that its civilization at the current point was a kind of—current point being the 19th century—was in decline, in a kind of kind of irreparable decline. 

Zachary Davis: Orientalism the academic discipline celebrated the achievements of ancient Eastern societies. But in doing so, it simultaneously framed contemporary Eastern societies as lesser than their ancient counterparts. Because the Europeans engaging in Orientalist studies and colonization saw themselves as superior to modern Eastern societies, they felt entitled to claim their historical artifacts.

Stathis Gourgouris: Another discipline that is very, very much implicated in Orientalism, literally in the 19th century, which is archaeology. Archaeology being, again, you know, the kind of science and discipline that is conducted elsewhere, right, in that sense. Hence the, you know, the great excavations, of course, in the Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean world at the time. So it was a kind of archaeology of culture, of cultures that are presumed to have died. And that is a very important separation point: while European cultures are still living in a vibrant etc., etc..

Zachary Davis: These European scientists and academics took their work very seriously. 

Stathis Gourgouris: They were experts. They knew languages, extraordinary number of languages, and they were very learned. And Said, you know, to be fair, he talks about that. He recognizes the, the kind of, the knowledge that they have. He contextualizes this knowledge and politicizes it—And I mean “politicizes” here in the best possible sense, understands its politics, I mean. But he recognizes it. 

Zachary Davis: Because Europe had established colonies in the East, Orientalism the discipline wasn’t confined to the page. It was popular for aristocratic youth to take a year or two off from school to travel to these places in the European colonial sphere and study these ancient cultures.

Stathis Gourgouris: So, in the context of that kind of aristocratic colonial privilege, you have these travelers. It was called The Grand Tour, as we know it, and they would travel to these lands where great civilizations once existed which, to which they have access, access now to travel because of, precisely because of colonialism. 

Zachary Davis: The Grand Tour typically began in Greece and Rome. Although Western European society drew much inspiration from the ancient Classical world, modern Greece was still categorized as being part of the East.

Stathis Gourgouris: Greece at that point is still part of the Ottoman Empire. So in that sense, Greece is very, very much part of the Orient. And, and Italy does not exist as a nation. It’s just a bunch of principalities.

Zachary Davis: The Grand Tour, like archaeology, focused on the past achievements of great civilizations from these regions. But by doing so, it diminished the modern cultures in those areas.  

Stathis Gourgouris: It's a famous quotation by René Chateaubriand, who was one of the great writers of the French Romanticism. He says, “I'm...I'm traveling to Greece to see a culture which is dead,” something like that, or “to see the culture of a people who are dead,” which is kind of remarkable because there are people living there. Right? But for him the people who live there don't matter at all. What matters is, what matters are the traces of, of that which, of people who have died. 

So, that is indicative of Orientalist attitudes. People would travel through, and they would be unconcerned with what goes on around. And they would look at these archaeological sites.

Zachary Davis: In this way, European academia and politics perpetuated colonialism and justified the view that Europe was superior to Asia. This view spread through European popular culture as well. Many Europeans who went on The Grand Tour would then write fictional and non-fictional accounts based on their experiences of these foreign cultures. 

Stathis Gourgouris: They would get to write about them in these narratives, which were sort of like chronicles, which would then became bestsellers. They became incredibly widely read accounts and translated in many of the European languages and, and read by the youth, including women. This is actually also very important—of course, of the privileged classes. , again, it goes without saying. And that became part of their education, in the broader sense, their cultivation. 

Zachary Davis: In addition to European literature about the East, Orientalism also was expressed in the visual arts. European painters, especially French and English, depicted magical scenes of the East, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

Stathis Gourgouris: So, in that sense, you know, Orientalism as a kind of popular fiction, a kind of inventory of images and values becomes ingrained in the kind of earliest development of minds in Europe and then begins to perpetuate itself.

Zachary Davis: What was driving that interest in, in ruins and in past civilizations? And what exactly gave them that cultural arrogance that they were so much better?

Stathis Gourgouris: This is colonial arrogance, the fact that you can conquer these lands and that you can subjugate them. I mean, you know, the, when the British were able to subjugate, you know, the Indian subcontinent. I mean, there's an extraordinary culture with an incredible history and power. The very fact they were able to do that gives them a sense that they're superior. And, and the superiority is not just a military kind. That's the key here. It's not just military and economic. That's where it begins. It has to be cultural in order to be cemented, in order to be legitimized. 

Zachary Davis: Said talks about this in Orientalism. He describes Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in the late 18th century. Napoleon conquered the Egyptian cities of  Cairo and Alexandria in 1798. On his conquest, he took with him top geographers, linguists, and archaeologists who tried to map and categorize everything about Egyptian culture. 

Stathis Gourgouris: So, these people are part of the kind of military expedition, this kind of army of knowledge-makers. This is how it has to be seen. And, and that's part of the conquest. So, yes, this, this shows incredible arrogance, extraordinary arrogance, which comes out of the power to conquer. This is the only way I can explain it.

Zachary Davis: Said’s own life was shaped by colonialism. 

Stathis Gourgouris: Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 under the, at that point, in fact, it was Mandatory Palestine, under British rule. So he was born in a colonial framework. That is absolutely essential. And he, his schooling was British colonial schooling.

Zachary Davis: Said moved with his family from Jerusalem to Cairo in 1947 when he was 12 years old. Egypt had gained its independence from Britain in 1922, but British troops were still in Cairo when Said and his family arrived. 

Stathis Gourgouris: And he grows up in Cairo, where, of course, Egypt is, is an independent nation, yes, but the, but the British colonial structure still exists, particularly in the schooling for the elites. So, he is prepared unwittingly by being an object of the same exact education of how the youth of Europe, the elite youth of Europe, right, the educated youth of Europe, learns about itself through various kinds of representations of culture, of itself and of others. So, that's ingrained in him. He embodies it. 

Zachary Davis: This was an important part of Said’s formative years and played a huge role in the work he did later in life, including Orientalism. Said was born Palestinian and was educated under British colonial structures in Egypt. He grew up speaking both Arabic and English and did not feel entirely comfortable with either identity. In addition, his father was an American citizen.

In his 2002 text Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Said comments on his youth, With an unexceptionally Arab family name like Said connected to an improbably British first name… I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity at all...

Stathis Gourgouris: Eventually the young Said ends up in the United States, goes to school in the U.S., and follows an American education of a very elite kind, goes to Princeton and to Harvard and becomes a professor at Columbia. It's the sort of the epitome of a very successful young American. Which I, which I think up until a certain point he fully embodied, meaning that the Arab-ness of Said was, it was always present in his personal life, but it was not part of his intellectual world.

Zachary Davis: While teaching at Columbia University, Said reached a turning point. In June of 1967, a war broke out between Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. This was known as the Six Day War. After six days of fighting, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, and the West Bank and Arab sector of East Jerusalem. 

Israel now occupied land that was previously Palestinian territory, including all of Jerusalem and its holy sites. The war had a huge impact on Said, who was born in Jerusalem and grew up Palestinian. 

Stathis Gourgouris: As a professor at Columbia in New York, he gets to experience the New York side of the Six Day War in 1967, which radicalized him. I think we have to use that term here, politicizes him in a certain way that hadn't been before in terms of him being a Palestinian— an Arab generally, but a Palestinian specifically.

Zachary Davis: For the next decade, Said focused his attention on politics. 

Stathis Gourgouris: In this ten year period, Said will become increasingly concerned with matters of, Palestinian matters and with generally how the colonial and by then imperial machine, which now would include the United States, right, is engaged in these societies. What is it doing to these societies? So, suddenly the background of his childhood and his youth in Jerusalem and Cairo is kind of coming to the forefront in a very different light, you see. And in the same period, three things happen. One, of course, is the. is the research that leads into Orientalism. The second is his first work, his first political work, which is collected in a book called The Question of Palestine. And also he becomes part of the Palestinian National Council in 1977, a year before Orientalism is published. 

I think this is a very important part of the biography, and it helps us contextualize the book. Now, Said himself always said, it is very, very important that “I am a professor of literature. I don't do politics.” He did politics, but he was trying to separate the two things. I think he tried very hard to do this his entire life. Whether he succeeded or not, it's kind of irrelevant because in a sense, I don't think that they can be separated. But in any case, I think that enabled him to work a certain way. 

So Orientalism as a book, the book now, also draws from his learning as a professor of comparative literature and as a, a student of great European cultures and its history. But with a slight change—Well, it’s not, the change is not slight, it's actually huge, right? The perspective, the shifting perspective is, is incredibly important. Suddenly, he begins to see this from the other side.

Zachary Davis: Said received a very Western education, beginning in British occupied Cairo through his time at Princeton and Harvard. But his research and works in the years leading up to Orientalism gave him a non-Western perspective on colonialism and Western occupation in the rest of the world.   

Stathis Gourgouris: At that point, his interest in colonialism also begins, which will inform all of the post Orientalism work. 

Zachary Davis: What is, at its highest level, is the book arguing? And then, and maybe take us through the arc of the argument and some of your pieces of it that you find most compelling.

Stathis Gourgouris: The object of study is is, you know, various levels of of cultural making, culture making, from literature, which includes travel narratives, all the way to, you know, historical works, social science sort of works where linguistics and philology, and all the way to political, both works of politics, meaning sort of political philosophy, but also politics as a vocation, as a practice. Right? So, the whole machinery of culture and education of Europe. 

It's very important, of course, to also say at the outset, you know, the beginning, that he, that the book also shows how the categories “East” and “West” are really... they don't exist as such. They're, they exist as categories because they've been invented as categories. There are categories of geography and history—those are the two terms, right, geography and history—which are inventions. It's not that people don't exist in these societies, you know, real people with real histories and so on. It's, it's that whatever the real histories and real experiences are, they are overcome by these constructions, which then, you know, these constructions are perfectly real. They're constructions, but they're perfectly real. They have real consequences. And then the book is also, in that respect, a kind of study of those consequences at a secondary level.

Zachary Davis: Said drew inspiration from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. In his pamphlets known as The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci explores why people in lower levels of power agree to be ruled by those in higher positions of power.

He says the dominating people manipulate morality, culture, and logic to gain the upper hand. This includes creating geographic boundaries that can be used to categorize and oppress others. 

Stathis Gourgouris: I think the motto is from Marx. It's a classic. You know, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” So, you know, geography is, is a kind of mode of thinking, a framework of thinking that produces certain representations. History does the same, right? You know, living culture versus dead culture because, you know, these cultures have never come into the present. That's kind of a crude way to think of it. 

Zachary Davis: Another powerful tool is the manipulation of language. In the 1960s, Said encountered the post-structuralist thinkers. They believed that language is essential when trying to explain the social world. Of all the post-structuralists, Said was most influenced by Michel Foucault. Foucault was a French philosopher and political activist. His early work focused on how language shapes reality.

Stathis Gourgouris: And Foucault does this, of course, studying, in essence, the history of France. Right? He's not interested in anything outside of France, but he does it in unbelievable detail. And it's very, very important to note, by the way, that in the book, in English translated The Order of Things, which was published in 1966, Foucault talks about some of these figures that Said will also look at in Orientalism, including the the the number of intellectuals who followed Napoleon in the expedition, as it was called, the conquest of Egypt. 

Foucault is interested in these figures because they were the, the great minds of that era. It's not an accident. And in being the great minds of that era, they shaped culture and education of that era. So, I think that's what's attractive to, to Said: Foucault’s understanding that knowledge is power and that language is power. 

Zachary Davis: Does Said give some examples of how language shapes reality in a way that benefits, you know, the, the ruling class or something?

Stathis Gourgouris: I think the simplest, the simplest way to talk about how language has power is, of course, to think of, you know, racism. Racist language enables the person who articulates it or uses it to feel superior, and it certainly demeans the person who receives it, but also justifies whatever would be the inequity in the relationship, which would include the oppression. 

Zachary Davis: European colonizers strategically used language to justify their conquest of the East. 

Stathis Gourgouris: The French used to use this term mission civilisatrice which means “civilizing mission,” which was… The Napoleonic expedition was a civilizing mission. “We're going to go to these Egyptians, and after we map them and understand what they are and how they work, we're going to show them better ways to do things, you know, build better waterways of the Nile, for example, because we have the know-how, the technology and so on.” 

Zachary Davis: This myth was a big part of how the colonizers justified colonization. They said they were helping the people they were colonizing by bringing them into the modern world in exchange for labor and natural resources. This view puts the colonizers in the dominant position.

Stathis Gourgouris: So language... Once you demean the other, once you, you actually articulate in language how the other is beneath you, then justifies all kinds of things from things that might actually make the existence of the other better, even that can be said—but you know, “better” comes a certain cost, by the way—all the way to, of course, annihilating the other.

Language is never neutral because human beings are never neutral. Right? We human beings always enact our value judgments. It's impossible not to, right? We're not machines. We differentiate, we discern. We, we make distinctions. That's how we understand the world. So nothing is neutral in the human sphere. 

Zachary Davis: The first two-thirds of Orientalism focuses on the history of European colonialism and the structures that reinforce the colonialist view of the East. But in the last section of Orientalism, Said talks about Orientalism the academic discipline from the period following World War II up to the present time of writing in the 1970s. 

Stathis Gourgouris: It's a very, very important part of the book because it updates what is a history of culture, politics and culture in the 19th century. It updates this history in terms of the 20th century in two domains. One is in the way the modern university is created, practically the American University and how area studies fields are created as a result of the post-World War II American domination of the globe. This then...

So, Orientalism disappears from the masthead, as it were, and is substituted by these more neutral sounding names, you know, Department of Asian Studies, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, and so on, which are these hubs of expert knowledge that is linked directly to political, hegemonic political power, right? So that's actually a very important part of the book that I think opens up Said to the later work that, that has to do more with the study of imperialism. 

The other aspect of the book that is equally important is how, you know, Orientalism is a way of studying the process by which colonialism leads and is part of the history of nationalism in again, two fronts. On the European side, how colonial power, you know, breeds nation states, a certain kind of argument about independence, self-determination, freedom, etc. while it denies that to the colonized societies until the 20th century and the great period of decolonization anticolonial struggle where this European invention, the nation state, is the means by which these societies rebelled against their colonial, Orientalist oppressors to, to liberate themselves and found their own nations and how the Orientalist elements bleed into these new institutions of independent nations in the so-called—at that point, remember, the word is “third world,” right—how they bleed into the independent structures of the third world and how in that sense they compromise the, you know, the emancipatory project, the compromise, the real freedom that the national independence movements called for. That second aspect becomes incredibly important for Said from that point on, and his studies turn more towards that.

Zachary Davis: What was the immediate reception of this book and how has its interpretation changed?

Stathis Gourgouris: It was criticized viciously from all kinds of sides. Well, it's clearly criticized by the Euro-American Academy because it was an insult, of course, to them and their privileges. But he was criticized in the Arab world. This is very, very significant. The Arab world to a large extent rejected the book because it saw, it saw it as—it’s very interesting—mistakenly, as an elite view of an assimilated Arab who knows more about the West than he knows about Arab societies. And, and so, and part of that, my interpretation would be it was motivated by, again, if not the inability, the unwillingness to confront the deep ingrained structures of Orientalism in, since we're talking about Arab societies, in the Arab self, in the way that the Arab self, you know, understands itself. 

I understand there's a huge generalization. Arab societies are very different. But nonetheless, you know, the point is that these differences is erased by Orientalism. The point is that there is no difference. All Arabs are the same. Right? So that part of it, to the degree that that has been sort of incorporated, internalized is the word, you know how that has been underestimated by Arab intellectuals, I think, was part of what motivated the critique.

Zachary Davis: Of course, I think a big reason this book continues to be celebrated is it's viewed as the moment of birth of postcolonial studies. So, I'd love to ask you, you know, is that claim true?

Stathis Gourgouris: So Orientalism, I don't know if you can say that it created postcolonial studies per se, because postcolonial studies deserves to be credited to anticolonial intellectuals, many of whom would not, were not yet—yet, this is very, very important—in American or British universities. 

Now, Said is, of course, as I said in the very, very beginning, part of that anticolonial, you know, group of anticolonial intellectuals. There's no doubt about that in my mind. That has to be… If we leave that out, then we don't understand both his motivation and his makeup. And Said was very, very good about attributing credit to the, to the great figures of the anticolonial, of anticolonial culture that I had just mentioned, particularly the Caribbean poets, African thinkers, especially. But, yes, the academy has, has singled it out as a kind of departure point. And I think that it served that purpose. It served the purpose for establishing a field that very quickly became fashionable. Said—I'm not saying that, Said himself says that.

You know, near the end of his life, he criticized it with real vehemence. He felt that postcolonial states had become an easy field. You know, a kind's easy to criticize Europe in the end. That's the easiest thing to do. Of course, it's like, look at them. They're racists. You know, they're colonial murderers. I mean, they massacred societies, of course. That's part of their history. That's the easiest thing to do. The hardest thing to do is this kind of self critique that he was asking for the non-Europeans to be doing, the self critique that he was asking the postcolonial thinkers to be doing. So, I think that's very important to relativize the influence and not to think of it, that, not to reproduce—

What I'm to say is I don't want to reproduce the kind of conventional idea Orientalism is a book that launched postcolonial studies, etc., etc., because in some ways it should be the conscience of postcolonial studies. Because it is a book about self-examination. It was part of his own being, of his own coming to terms with himself at a very peculiar and rather accidental sort of moment in history for him. And if we see Orientalism as a kind of blueprint, you know, that we then we just follow and apply, then we will end up in these very, very simplistic notions about otherness and and so on and so forth, and then criticize, you know, the easy criticism of the if the West really exists! This is the whole point, that the West does not exist any more than the East does. Right? 

So, the influence of the book and I think the, beyond its power of convention will be always that its students, the ones that study it very carefully, will see it as a book of self critique, as a book of examining various structures of identity that block our capacity to understand ‘the other,’ which means block our capacity to understand ourselves. That's part of the same process, right? And in that sense, a critique of nationalism. It's a critique of postcolonial societies. It’s not a rallying cry of postcolonial societies. 

Zachary Davis: When Edward Said wrote Orientalism, he didn’t just challenge colonization. He called into question the West’s entire self-identity. It helped loosen the knot that Orientalism and European colonialism created—a knot we are still untangling today. 

Stathis Gourgouris: It has created a term and an adjective, a term of judgment, that has entered common language. I think that when a book does that, we're talking about a huge magnitude of influence, right? I mean, it's a book that creates a term and that people don't even know where the term came from. You know, that, that is huge influence.