So I finished reading Orientalism, and I just want to make a few quick notes on the book before moving on to another post.
In his Afterword, written 15 years after Orientalism was first published, Said addresses some of the issues that had been on my mind as I was reading the book. The major one was that it has been accused of being an expression of anti-Westernism. Said breaks down this accusation, then refutes it with a well-written explanation that declares his book to be “anti-essentialist [rather than anti-Western], radically skeptical about all categorical designations such as Orient and Occident” (p. 331).
I hope the following collage of excerpts from the Afterword accurately portrays his explanation:
“[H]uman identity is not only not natural and stable, but constructed, and occasionally even invented outright … [N]o one finds it easy to live uncomplainingly and fearlessly with the thesis that human reality is constantly being made and unmade, that anything like a stable essence is constantly under threat … We all need some foundation on which to stand; the question is how extreme and unchangeable is our formulation of what this foundation is …
“My objection to what I have called Orientalism is not that it is just the antiquarian study of Oriental languages, societies, and peoples, but that as a system of thought Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing but no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and from, so to speak, from above” (pp. 332 – 333).
I highly recommend the last 27 pages of Said’s book: his conclusion, which consists of the last four pages of the book’s final chapter; and his Afterword. I enjoyed these sections more than any other part of Orientalism, as they summarize his thesis and address what I felt were key issues he had left out of the body of his argument.
Oh, and the final gem I came across while reading Said’s conclusion:
“I would not have undertaken a book of this sort if I did not also believe that there is scholarship that is not as corrupt, or at least as blind to human reality, as the kind I have been mainly depicting. Today there are many individual scholars working in such fields as Islamic history, religion, civilization, sociology, and anthropology whose production is deeply valuable as scholarship. The trouble sets in when the guild tradition of Orientalism takes over the scholar who is not vigilant, whose individual consciousness as a scholar is not on guard against idées reçues all too easily handed down in the profession” (p.326).
Yes! Said has redeemed himself! Not all work done in the West is biased! People can move past their cultural boundaries! We can all sympathize and identify with “Others”!
God, am I one happy child.