Orientalism and Post-Orientalism. Ten Years without Edward Said

Patricia Almarcegui

Writer and lecturer on Comparative Literature

The publication in 1978 of Edward Said’s Orientalism meant a renewal in the field of literary and cultural studies. In this book, the author, who lived and grew up in two British colonies, Palestine and Egypt, and followed university studies in the United States (where he lived most of his life), reported on the commonplaces the West uses to define and condition its vision of the East. Thus, it becomes a homogenous and unmovable entity. Over the years, the unquestionable legacy of this work has been enriched with numerous crucial revisions that mainly highlight the paradox on which it was built. This paradox leads to the ambivalence of the West-East binomial and is the result of the post-colonialist separation of both categories. On the tenth anniversary of Edward Said’s death, with many countries still immersed in their Arab springs, it is necessary to overcome this dichotomy and redefine the world space to adapt to new events. 

Edward Said, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York, from 1977, died in 2004. Mainly known for his book Orientalism (1978),[1] he was one of the most renowned literary and cultural critics in the United States. His writings on the Middle East and its relation with the West had a major influence on scientific disciplines such as English language, history, cultural studies, anthropology and political science. Said combined his academic work in the field of culture, the arts and humanistic criticism with a publicly active role as an opera critic, media specialist, publicist and political advisor. He undertook these latter tasks following the work of 1970s French philosophers, whose texts nobody knew how to assimilate and incorporate into their work like the American comparatists. In the academic world of this country, post-colonial studies have become a comparative method and French studies have become transnational.

Said was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Cairo, where he studied at Victoria College and, later, at Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts. He graduated in English Literature from Princeton University and defended his doctoral thesis Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of the Autobiography (1966) in the same speciality at Harvard University. Despite his intellectual career, endorsed by the publication of over 15 books, including Beginnings (1975),[2] The World, the Text and the Critic (1983)[3] and Culture and Imperialism (1993),[4] which are still influential, he is better remembered for his advocacy of the Palestinian cause: first as a member of the Parliament in exile from 1977 to 1991, later for distancing himself from Yasser Arafat and finally for supporting a bi-national state. 

Orientalism obliged binary thinking or, in other words, the assumption that Westernism also existed. In this way, the West was considered a homogeneous entity lacking in heterogeneity

This article seeks to review Orientalism based on the latest changes that have taken place in comparative literature, cultural studies and political events.

The publication of Orientalism in 1978 shook the field of comparative studies in the United States. The book analysed and reported how western writers had represented the East. With their works, knowledge of the Other had actually been shaped as a result of a construct. The East was not a motionless passive object by nature but rather a human creation. Throughout generations of intellectuals, artists, writers and Orientalists, the West had produced its image of the East.

The East was homogenised and treated as a concept that could be analysed and understood. It constituted a static and invariable space, while the West was dynamic and variable. Orientalism showed the need to question the representations of the East until 1978 and, most importantly, the need to create a new way of talking and approaching it, about which Said, at least in this publication, said nothing. 

The work established itself as one of the forerunners of the post-colonial discourse theory and gave way to colonial discourse research as an academic sub-discipline within the field of cultural and literary theory. Moreover, it helped develop the so-called cultural otherness and include the Eastern debate in decolonisation. Paradoxically, it would be from these fields of study generated by Orientalism, such as post-colonial and subaltern studies and cultural otherness, that the first proposals emerged to approach the East in a different way. It is also where the most relevant criticisms appeared of Said’s assumptions, notably the following:

Said was “excessively” westernised; in other words, he only focused on European texts to illustrate his assertions. Moreover, he proposed a static and immovable image of the East, which means a monolithic and homogeneous block that, like a synecdoche, could replace an entire space. In this way, he himself applied the essentialist reading he had denounced, and omitted the hybridism and heterogeneity also found within colonial power.

Moreover, Orientalism seemed to take for granted another true East, which once again Said did not mention.Orientalism obliged binary thinking or, in other words, the assumption that Westernism also existed. In this way, the West was considered a homogeneous entity lacking in heterogeneity. Neither was Westernism the answer to Orientalism. As stated by the anthropologist James Clifford, possibly one of the most lucid critics of Orientalism,Said was dichotomising and, therefore, essentialising, what had always been a continuum: East and West.

It was above all Subaltern Studies, the group basically founded by historians who sought to create an alternative to the dominant discourse about the history of India, which completed part of Said’s assertions. From the gaps of his comparative project the concept of culture was broadened and redefined until resulting in the new cultural studies.

Moreover, his critics continued, Said avoided interpreting the texts socially and economically. In other words, he avoided the assumptions he had expressed in his work Beginnings (1975) and that he would apply thereafter. Every author and work has to be questioned from different points of view, so that each reading and interpretation can generate new values of the work.

One of the great successes of Orientalism, little or very rarely highlighted, is the use of travel literature as a field study, as for centuries knowledge of the East came from the works of travellers who showed the world through their experiences. The journey made it possible to recognise the heterogeneity and complexity of geography from diverse non-specialised viewpoints, such as that of geographers, merchants, writers and diplomats. As he himself would state in 1991, travellers were able to cross frontiers, span territories, abandon fixed positions and, as a result, create hybrid and polymorphic discourses.

Thus, the criticisms continued; the representations of the East went beyond a discourse of politics and power and reached other meanings. The study of categories such as time and space allowed the creation of aesthetic and narrative forms which escaped a political interpretation. At the same time, there were other ways of studying Orientalism, hybrid and eclectic, such as through the language of music, architecture and theatre.

Moreover, Said’s assertions were also branded as ideological. As Maxime Rodinson will note, Said preferred to interpret the cultural representations ideologically before analysing them.  

In short, Orientalism was built upon a paradox. When the theses he defended were applied to the work, the result was ambivalence. Although Said responded in a general way to criticisms in the 1995 prologue to the reissue of Orientalism, his responses were very weakly backed up as – and this is the most important criticism – he referred to himself. He turned to his personal experience, to the effort involved in constructing his identity, to his exile status, and to his belonging to two different cultures, in order to respond to the conceptual shortcomings and gaps in his book. This is still a surprising posture and outside the European academic and comparative tradition.

However, the defence of personal experience as a conceptual justification comes from the insertion of multiculturalism into the academic field, which requires the function of the comparatist to be transformed. Although theories such as new criticism or deconstruction used to demand that the researcher or academic defended abstraction and maintained a distance from personal involvement in the study, for some years this involvement in the criticism of the text has been almost absolute.

The defence of personal experience as a conceptual justification comes from the insertion of multiculturalism into the academic field, which requires the function of the comparatist to be transformed

The most important change in comparative literature since it was instituted in the United States as a discipline born out of the exile of European intellectuals during the Second World War has been the inclination of philological studies towards cultural and post-colonial studies. The Europeanist orientation has changed in such a way that it has been replaced by other literatures, cultures and civilisations outside the so-called western canon. The universalising or Europeanist vision has been replaced by multicultural plurality. The comparison is no longer made between movements, authors and books, but between critical systems and diverse assessments. Hence, today theory has become essential both in literary and cultural studies, and it is difficult to separate the former from the latter.

In the current context, in which comparative literature has inserted the study of cultural texts of other ethnicities and has applied a post-colonial view for its research, the most pressing question to ask is the following: does comparative literature have any value today or has it given way to postcolonial studies? The latest revisions of such studies, which have emerged from within the studies themselves and are based on the researchers who shaped them, such as Homi Bhabba and Gayatri Spivak, recognise that they have become another form of power. Postcolonial powers and the texts that they investigated must not become another canon, or be set up as a unique form of research. As recognised by professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University Hamid Dabashi, who, together with the two previous academics, teach the subjects of Postcolonial Theory in their respective universities, we are seeing the end of post-colonialism. Over the last thirty years, the post-colonial subject has meant a colonial subject built and maintained upon an illusion: that the emancipation of the empire was possible. This has become a theory applied by comparative studies in almost all its research outside practice and reality.

The status quoof academics such as Said and Spivak also needs to be dismantled. To this end, we must completely decentralise the West, which cannot be set up as the main interlocutor. Dabashi, together with the social and cultural theoretician Ashis Nandy, and the research project Baraza. Young African Women’s Leadership Initiative, recognise the critical and intellectual cul-de-sac we have gone down in recent years. To change this, Middle Eastern, Southern Asian and African studies must be transformed and reflect the progression and innovation of thought.

Orientalism must be re-read, reformulated and inserted into the latest political, social and cultural events, and above all into the context of the Arab uprisings. How often I have wondered over the last three years about what reflection Said would have made about the East after them. Dabashi, in his book Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (2008),[5] one of the most important and contemporary contributions to Orientalism, as among other things it broadens the field of study to Iran and to other cultural representations, suggested one possible response: East and West have not been as historically separated as has been argued.

The Arab uprisings have changed the imaginative geography of the East. In their beginnings, they managed to sweep away negative images, prejudices and stereotypes nurtured over the centuries. For the first time, they discredited the Orientalist clichés about the inability of Arabs and Muslims to sustain democratic systems. As the philosopher Tarek Ramadan liked to assert provocatively in public two decades ago, equality, fraternity and solidarity are not concepts that only belong to the West. Three years later, a shadow seems to be falling over the so-called Arab Spring and there are still uncertainties concerning the conclusion of its process in all the countries where it has taken place. However, in each one, it has left the mark of a mass mobilisation in which the inhabitants made use of their own status as citizens. In this way, new spaces for challenging the state have emerged. The future seems uncertain, but the previous immovable and iron order has tumbled.

The world can no longer be divided into the imaginary categories of East and West, or between West and the rest. The public space has expanded, and it is being loaded and redefined to accommodate the new events. As Dabashi asserted in his conversation with Nandy on the website Humanities and Social Sciences, “a new discourse for a new relationship between our ideas of the human subject and our idea of human communities” is necessary

We should highlight some ideas from the two main tributes that, over 2013, have taken place to commemorate the ten years since Said’s death. In the first place, the themes into which the symposium of the Haus der Kultur der Welt in Berlin were divided, which allow an approach to the state of research into Orientalism and comparative literature. Based on the method defended by Said in his research, interdisciplinarity, as well as the insertion of his work into the socio-cultural and global context of the Arab Uprisings, dealt with the following themes: “Orientalism Traps”, “Engagement, Resistance and Imagination,” “The Anti-Narratives of Late Style”, “Power, Weakness and Agency” and “Beyond the Limits of Power”.

The Arab uprisings have changed the imaginative geography of the East. In their beginnings, they managed to sweep away negative images, prejudices and stereotypes nurtured over the centuries

The second tribute, at the University of Utrecht, had the most outstanding theoreticians in the field of comparative literature and contributed one of the most important ideas today to advance research into Orientalism: the concept of muthanna. Based on the Arab notion of the same name, it means the relation between two entities, which do not form a duality but a pair/couple. In this sense, it is necessary to imagine and examine situations that go beyond a binary logic of dichotomies and oppositions.

East and West have not been dissociated. They have had to separate, above all since the era of colonial dissolution, to study the East in more detail and, perhaps for the first time, to not have its appropriation as an objective. Once separated, the logic of knowledge shows that they maintained a history of crossings, meetings and coexistences. And, in terms of comparative literature, as Babbha already said, the cultural studies or non-canonical literatures have not usurped the place of canonical literature, but have generated a hybridisation that highlights the meeting at least of the centre with the peripheries.


[1] Orientalism, New York, Pantheon Books.

[2] New York, Columbia University Press.

[3] Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

[4] London, Vintage.

[5] Chicago, Transaction Publishers.