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Book Review


By Edward W. Said

Dilshad Muhammad Istanbul Aydin University

Theory on International Relations

Ates Uslu

January 30, 2013


Edward W. Said, Orientalism . New York: Vintage Books, 1979, 368 pages.

Each international relations theory is usually being built on philosophical metaphysics

and/or affected by some key-books and key-scholars. It can be considered that Leviathan by

Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) and Politics Among Nations by Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980)

have fundamentally shaped the realistic point of view of the international relations. American

scholar and statesman Woodrow Wilson in his turn has affectively and directly contributed to

the liberal school of the international relations. Basing on such an understanding, it can also be

argued that Orientalism by Edward W. Said (1935-2003) is an important work in the critical

theory field in general and in the post-colonial perspective of international relations in

particular. As a non-Western professor at Columbia University and some other prestigious

American universities like Harvard and Stanford, Said in his Orientalism has extensively

elaborated, in details, on the nature of the relation between East and West in different ages and

mainly in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to Said, this relation is

between a powerful side and a weakened one; “the essential relationship, on political, cultural,

and even religious grounds, was seen-in the West, which is what concerns us hereto be one

between a strong and a weak partner” (p. 40). Said’s main argument in his book is that “the

West” has developed a one-way image of “the East” and that the former is treating the later

basing on this imposed image and that West has mobilized everything (mainly scholarly

efforts) in order to solidify this notion and hence the West dominates the East: “The

relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying

degrees of a complex hegemony” (p. 5). Said even goes further when he discusses the

psychological and philological aspects of this image; Said claims that the West has associated

the word “West” or “Occident” with the first person pronounces like “we”, “our” and “us” and

the word “East” or “Orient” with words like “they”, “their” and most importantly “the other”.

That is, West has developed and maintained its own identity through inventing “the other”.


According to Said, East is one of West’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In

addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West)” (p. 1)

Book’s Structure

Throughout his book, Said discusses and evaluates tens of examples of Western

orientalists, statesmen, writers, military and political leaders as well as a lot of Western books

and works of art. Said states that early orientalists, through their works, have set metaphysics

for East to be dominated by West. Once the West has mobilized its power to apply these

perceptions on the East, more orientalist knowledge has been required to meet the new needs

of such a domination and so on and so forth: “knowledge gives power, more power requires

more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control”

(p. 36). In each orientalist example, Said explains, in details, how it contributes to the Western

understanding of the East. Said divides Orientalism into three chapters: “The Scope of

Orientalism”, “Orientalist Structures and Restructures” and “Orientalism Now”.

The first

chapter “The Scope of Orientalism” is concerned with how the notion of orientalism is

scientifically emerged.

That is, Western Orientalists have applied their scientific tools and

materialistic methodologies to study the East including living elements: the human beings;

“Orientalist reality is … antihuman” (p. 44). Eastern people and societies were “reduced” and

removed from their “existentialist” beings in the Western laboratories of orientalism. By doing

so, Western orientalists aimed to construct an East which fits their preconceived notion of “the

other” or of the East; “Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-

created” (pp. 92). In this chapter, Said relates these orientalist practices to colonialism and

domination by stating that political and/or military leaders are taking the product of Western

orientalists as for granted and “accredited” knowledge and then conquering the East. For

example, Said describes how Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was affected by the French

orientalist Constantin-Francois de Volney (1757-1820) and how Napoleon’s Campaign in


Egypt and Syria was directly affected by Volney’s work Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie. (p. 81).

Said also presents another example of how Westerns generate Eastern concepts according to

their point of view regardless to how Eastern understand these concepts: “One constraint acting

upon Christian thinkers who tried to understand Islam was an analogical one; since Christ is

the basis of Christian faith, it was assumed-quite incorrectly- that Mohammed was to Islam as

Christ was to Christianity. Hence the polemic name "Mohammedanism" given to Islam” (p.

60). Moreover, Said set a milestone-European decision to be the starting point of for the active

Orientalism: the “decision of the Church Council of Vienne in 1312 to establish a series of

chairs” in Eastern languages in European cities. (49-50).

In the beginning of the second chapter of the book “Orientalist Structures and

Restructures”, one can trace a kind of optimism in Said’s words but this does not last long.

According to Said, the already-established orientalist utterances have not been substituted by

a healthy alternative rather another “generalized” attributes were imposed on East. Again

orientalism applies its methodological way (generalizing) in describing the East. East this time,

in late eighteenth century and nineteenth century, was depicted as being naïve, virgin and

imaginary. Since East is being naïve (cannot control its territories) and virgin (has many

undiscovered or non-invested potentials), then these facts justifies the Western direct interfere

to the East. In this concern Said quotes what Alphonse Lamartine (1790-1869) says: “nations

without territory, patrie, rights, laws or security … waiting anxiously for the shelter” and Said

states that this “shelter” is the “European occupation” (p. 179). Throughout the second chapter,

Said keeps referring to how Western orientalism has enhanced its methodological and scholarly













anthropological contributions and Ernest Renan’s (1823-1892) philological ones.

In the third chapter “Orientalism Now”, Said states that conventions of orientalism are

still exiting with only a main difference; the orientalist role of United Kingdom and France has


been replaced United States of America’s orientalism. According to Said the West-East

binarism is now commonly referred to as “Advanced/backward binarism” (p. 207). Said says

that the changes occurring in the twentieth century are no more than superficial and marginal

changes and that there is no fundamental or essential changes in the field: “The change occurs

in the manifest orientalism, the unanimity, stability, and durability of latent orientalism are

more or less constant … differences in form and personal style, rarely in basic content” (p.

206). The chapter also sheds light on the American attitude in the Middle East region, mainly

the oil-producing countries.

Orientalism’s Contribution to Critical Theory

It is commonly agreed that critical theory is a school of thoughts which usually

criticizes any fixed theory, doctrine or school. Edward Said in Orientalism, shows how Western

orientalism is something fixed and based on a narrow and limited traditions; according to Said,

orientalists believe that “the Orient never changes” (p. 104).

As far as critical theory is

concerned, Orientalism criticizes the Eurocentric aspect dominating the world during the last

three centuries; “One sees how much, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, the

hegemonism of possessing minorities, unveiled by Marx and Engels, and the anthropocentrism

dismantled by Freud are accompanied by europocentrism in the area of human and social

sciences, and more particularly in those in direct relationship with non-European peoples” (p.

97). As a post-colonial work, Orientalism is entirely built on one main idea; the Western

domination and hegemony over the East. Said comprehensively explores the colonial practices

in the colonialized parts of the world mainly Egypt and India. Another remarkable contribution

to critical theory is Said’s attitude concerning anti-feminist attitudes of the Western orientalists.

Said explains how Western orientalism associates East with women; and since East is

something inferior, women inherit this character: “the Orient was a place where one could look

for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe. Virtually no European writer who wrote on or


traveled to the Orient in the period after 1800 exempted himself or herself from this quest” (p.

190). Said states the both Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

were concerned in a way or another with the image of “fatal woman” in their “exotic” writings

after both have paid visits to the East (p. 180). Said also argues that orientalists have,

sometimes, treated the East in a “masculine” and patriarchal way and that orientalism is “an

exclusively male province” (p. 207). Since the East, like women, is not productive, the West

has the right to “inseminate” it: (p. 219).


As we have seen, Orientalism is an indispensable book for those who are concerned

with cultural studies and post-colonialism. As such, the usual criticism directed to critical

theory can be applied in criticizing Orientalism; it does not offer an alternative for what it is

criticizing. One major critic to Said is that by the time he accuses Western orientalists as being

selective and overgeneralizing, he makes general judgments and talks about some selected

orientalist examples; almost there is no German or Russian orientalist work throughout

Orientalism. It is evident that Said does not agree with Roland Barthes’s notion of “Death of

Author” when he shows orientalists’ personal backgrounds and the historical discourses they

wrote through. In this concern, Said’s Orientalism can be criticized from the same point of

view; As an Arab from Palestine, Said can be considered as a pan-Arabism author. Said has

written the book under review during 1970s oil crisis and after 1973’s October War. Moreover,

in the very beginning, Said starts his book by directing heavy criticism against Arthur James

Balfour (1848-1930) which can be related to Balfour Declaration of 1917.