Drawing upon the methods of feminist criticism of the 1970s, Said's Orientalism did much to create the field of postcolonial studies by teaching us to "read for the gap," placing texts in broad political contexts. Despite its obviously valid points about weaknesses of Euro-American thought, its appeal for Western intellectuals, and its liberating effect on intellectuals from former countries that were colonized, this seminal book has some major flaws:
Though enormously effective as a polemic, Orientalism is very shoddy as scholarship, and yet it presents itself as a corrective to flawed scholarship.
The book completely neglects China, Japan, and South East Asia, and it has very little to say about India. Although purporting to be a study of how the West treats all of the East, the book focuses almost entirely upon the Middle East. Its generalizations about "the Orient" therefore repeat the very Orientalism it attacks in other texts!
It is bizarrely forgiving of French Orientalist writers like Nerval and Flaubert.
Orientalism is an orientalist text several times over, and in two ways commits the major errors involved with the idea of the Other: First, it assumes that such projection and its harmful political consequences are something that only the West does to the East rather than something all societies do to one another. (I am surely not the only teacher who has had heard Asian-American students returning from their parent's country of origin exclaim, "Everything Said says the West does to the East, the East does to the West!")
Because Orientalism is apparently based on very little knowledge of the history of European and Non-European imperialism, it treats Western colonialism as unique. This point, like the previous one, makes perfect sense if one takes Said's pioneering book largely as a political polemic, for in that case such omissions might be forgivable. One expects more from criticism and scholarship, particularly politically motivated criticism and scholarship.
Although greatly influenced by feminist criticism and theory, Orientalism almost completely neglects gender matters. Although emphasizing the way the West sexualizes the East, it also tends to repeat the pattern, and, moreover, its generally favorable treatment of French orientalization suggests a great insensitivity to such issues,
For many scholars, one of Orientalism's most offensive claims was its dramatic assertion that no European or American scholar could "know" the Orient and that, moreover, all scholarly attempts to do so (except Said's own) always constituted acts of oppression. In a single dramatic move, which had great appeal for many, Said committed the greatest single scholarly sin: he silenced others by preventing them from taking part in the debate. According to Said, if someone knew Persian or Tamil grammar, the history of Islam or Hinduism, or the societies of Saudi Arabia, Eygpt, or Bangladesh, he or she already belonged to the devil's party. They were corrupted by what Said defined as Orientalism. For Said, who studied literature at Princeton and Harvard, this proved a very convenient tactic, since he knew very little about these alien fields. Indeed, one of the bitterest charges directed at him was that in his own Orientalist ignorance of the actual Middle East, Said himself in effect suppressed important work by Egyptian and Arabic scholars!
Whatever liberatory or other benefits Orientalism might have offered upon its appearance, it has harmed literary studies and literary students. By focusing exclusively on the political valences of literary texts, it has very little to offer those also interested their literary or aesthetic dimensions. Even those with little interest in such non-political themes have been harmed by the school of thought Orientalism has fostered: its political argument, which first enriched familiar texts, impoverishes when it leads to a neglect of literary and rhetorical technique. (Note: Said does not himself argue against acquiring such skills, but those who follow him often do.)
Even if all these charges were true (and I believe they are), Said's Orientalism remains a major work. Why do you think this is the case? How is the book larger than the local conditions in which it was produced? Why do the book's strengths, rather than its weaknesses, appear far more important to a scholar working in, say, Morocco, Singapore, or India?
Last Modified: 18 March, 2002