Edward Said and Orientalism

Said and Foucault

Let me begin with my uneasiness to read what I would like to call “Foucauldian studies” (studies that relay on theories developed by Michel Foucault). One of the objectives of this study is unpacking the historical a-priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses which represent the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch (episteme). In so doing, a Foucauldian study works on the level of language as a system of representation used to communicate the realities. As a language itself is an arbitrary system, a knowledge produced through its system is inevitably arbitrary. Therefore, it believes that nothing is natural, given, and essential, because everything is made arbitrarily.

The main task of such “suspecting” study, then, is to show arbitrariness of knowledge, of discipline. Such insistence, however, allows the concept itself to be vulnerable to its own critiques – the arbitrariness of the study in unpacking the established system of knowledge. When reading Foucauldian studies, regardless its incredible contribution, I found that uneasiness because, finally, we are faced with another unsatisfying, constructed, and no less arbitrary, criticism.

Edward Said does realize that possible problem when he finds it hard to find a point of departure. “The idea of beginning, indeed the act of beginning, necessarily involves an act of delimitation by which something is cut out of a great mass of material, separated from the mass, and made to stand for, as well as be, a starting point, a beginning” (p.16). Like the discourse he wants to uncover, Said also has to relay on the arbitrary episteme. While Michel Foucault, whose work he is greatly indebted, paid no significant role to the authors with regard to discourses; Said does “believe[s] in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism” (p. 23). To me, this is an arbitrary taking of Foucault idea. If we follow Foucault and other post-modernist, including Derrida, individual has no role in determining the discourse because he/she has no choice in what Said calls “the system of for citing works and authors” (p. 23), the system of reference and representation.

They do not have a choice because, at least, three reasons (all of which are also Said’s arguments). First, there are no such beginning authors and works, and Said believes it though. In arguing for the importance of an author, Said puts Edward William Lane’s Manners and Customs of the modern Egyptians as an example of popularly cited author/work. However, what Said forgets, Edward William himself does refers to episteme already existed when he was writing his work.

Second, an author is working to represent something out of him/herself and for the audience that force him to follow the rule of audience. He does not talk with himself at all. When an author talks about the Orient he has to write in the language, the dictionary, the lexicography, known by his audience. To make them understand the Orient, the author is forced to write in their way of understanding (episteme). An orientalist is constrained by more than strategy to deal with the Orient. It is true that he has to determine, “how to get hold of it [Orient], how to approach it, how not to be defeated or overwhelmed by its sublimity, its scope…” (p.20), but also “who my reader is, what they need to know, how I present the fact, when the right time is” in the Occident context.

Third, after all, it is the audience who will give the meaning and interpretation. The same text by Bernard Lewis saying that there is no “native secularism” in the East is put by Said as one of the examples how the Orientalist treats the Orient generalization (p. 341). However, the same text would be the argument for some Muslims (on behalf of whom Said is writing) to reject secularization in the Muslim country. On the fate of his book, Said says, “Orientalism, almost in Borgessian way, has become several different books” (p. 330 with my emphasize).

He (as other author does) has no control on how the audience gives the meaning and finding the intention of his book. Therefore, for one who believes in the power of discourse, it is odd that Said wants to “correct misreadings and, in a few instances, willful misinterpretations.” (p. 330), because, as he argues for his very book, what matters is “not correctness of the representation nor its fidelity to some great original” (p. 210), rather the different setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstance of the audience that are different with his own.

For the Orient

It is interesting to find that Said wants to “help” the silent Orient to speak. “My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptations of employing this structure upon themselves and upon others” (p. 25).

I would argue that such an effort is to no avail. Firstly, the Foucauldian study, which Said bases his critique on, does not lend itself to the task of formulating an alternative; it is only deconstruction without reconstruction. After knowing all the manifest and latent Orientalism Said has described in his book, what next? In Foucault’s analysis, according to Bryan S Turner, “there is no discourse-free alternative since extensions of knowledge coincide with the fields of power. We are thus constrained to ‘the patient construction of discourse about discourse, and to the task of hearing what has already been said’.”[1] What we can do is only unsealing the structure of established (said) knowledge, not to reestablish an alternative.

Secondly, without disregarding some changes in the level of academic society that make Said seemed happy in his final sentences of his “Afterword” (written seventeen years after the first publication), the imperial cultural leadership (hegemony) of the Occident over the Orient seems never change and get worse. The fact makes Said angry and emotional in his “Preface to the Twenty Fifth Anniversary Edition”, written four months before his death. “I wish I could say, however that general understanding of the Middle East, the Arabs, and Islam in the United States has improved somewhat but alas, it really hasn’t” (p. xviii). The explanation of this is simple, because knowledge and power are inseparably intertwined. As long as the economical, military, technological, cultural powers remain in the Occident, few, if any, will change. His criticism may have changed the academic Orientalism, but not its imaginative level embedded in popular culture — media, TV, films — he has addressed in his book Covering Islam.

[1] Bryan S Turner, “Orientalism and the Problem of Civil Society in Islam” in Orientalism, Postmodernism, and Globalism, New York: Routledge, p.31

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