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Edward Said

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Edward Said

Edward Said was a leading literary critic and a professor of English and comparative literature who lived from 1935-2003. He is best known as a founder of postcolonial studies as an academic field and for his 1978 book Orientalism.

Postcolonial studies is an academic field that explores the postcolonial school of thought. This school of thought involves a critical analysis of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism across culture, politics, and economics. It focuses on how those from colonised regions and countries have been exploited, and how systems of exploitation and oppression continue to impact them today.

Edward Said biography

Edward Said was born on November 1st 1935 to Hilda and Wadie Said in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine. His father, Wadie Said was Palestinian however earned American Citizenship for himself and his family by joining the American Expeditionary forces during World War One.

Mandatory Palestine was a geopolitical area that existed between 1920 and 1948 in the region of Palestine. Great Britain controlled the area during this time.

Edward Said: Early life and education

At age 11, in 1947, Said began studying at St George's School in Jerusalem. This school followed a British style of education, and the majority of teachers were Anglican Christians.

In his 2002 essay 'Between Worlds', Said commented on his sense of identity whilst growing up;

I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport, and no certain identity, at all.1

Said continued his education at Victoria College, a European-style school. The school was designed to educate the upper-class youth of the region, and train them to become postcolonial politicians who would guide the decolonisation process. In 1951, Said was expelled from Victoria College for his rebellious behaviour and he moved to Northfield Mount Hermon Boarding School in Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Victoria College was set up to train a generation of leaders who could lead the process of decolonisation. However, its entire education system was Western.

The school's first rule in its handbook stated that students caught speaking any language other than English would be punished. All of the teachers at the school were English, however, the students were mostly Arab, with Arabic as their first language.

Therefore, even though the school was designed to aid in the decolonisation process, it still imparted Western values and ideas to its students. This is reflective of the dominant sentiment at the time that Western culture, politics, and society were superior. Said's later academic work on post-colonialism examined and critiqued this sentiment.

Said graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon as one of the top students in his class. He went on to study at Princeton University and graduated with an A.B. in English in 1957. In 1960, Said achieved a Master of Arts from Harvard University, from where he later achieved a Doctor of Philosophy in 1964.

From 1963 up until his death in 2003, Said taught at Columbia University. Alongside teaching at Columbia, Said was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1974, and a Fellow at Stanford University between 1975 and 1976.

Edward Said: Political legacy

Alongside his academic legacy, Said also left a mark on Middle-Eastern politics. In 1979, Said published his essay 'Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims'. This essay underpinned Said's belief in the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing for the political and philosophical legitimacy of Zionist claims to a Jewish homeland, alongside the right the Palestinian people have for self-determination.

Said produced multiple works on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including; The Question of Palestine (1979), The Politics of Dispossession (1994), and The End of the Peace Process (2000).

Said remained involved in politics up to the end of his life. In 2003, while sick with leukaemia, Said heavily critiqued the U.S invasion of Iraq.

Edward Said books

Edward Said's first work was published in 1966 and was titled Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography. Notable works by Said include:

  • The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983).
  • Culture and Imperialism (1993)
  • Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004)

Said's most famous work is Orientalism (1978). This book established Said as a literary and cultural critic, with its examination of how the West perceives the East and the narratives of this perception.

Edward Said Orientalism (1978)

Orientalism explores how the Western world has represented Middle Eastern culture and society in their academic study, art, and literature. Said argued that in Western depictions of the East there is a;

subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.

Said gave the term orientalism to the Western portrayals and perceptions of the Middle East. Defining orientalism as;

a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.

Ontological relates to a branch of philosophy known as ontology that studies the nature of human kind and their existence in society. Epistemological relates to a branch of philosophy that explores the concept of knowledge, and how we use knowledge to perceive reality.

In Orientalism, Said highlights how the formation of Western knowledge of 'the Orient' has influenced Western perceptions of the Middle East. In Western literature and academics, a clear distinction is drawn between the peoples and cultures of the Middle East and the West, which isn't necessarily accurate to the reality of these peoples.

Orientalism in academic circles is a term used for Western beliefs and teachings on the orient. An orientalist, is a person who studies the orient.

The Orient, refers to the people of the Middle East, while the Occident refers to the people of the West.

In his examination of Western depictions of this Middle East, Said highlights how literature, and writing, influence the politics of culture, language, and power. The interaction between power and knowledge in the context of Orientalism led Said to describe this concept as a 'discourse'.

In Orientalism Said argued that through representations, or misrepresentations, of the Middle East in literature and art, the West justified its imperial policies. Therefore, the root of the misrepresentation of the Middle East in Western academics was the colonial ambitions of Europe and the U.S.A. The false, romanticised images of the Middle East in Western academics, presented the colonial subaltern as in need of being 'cared for' by a paternal, colonial body, as they were unable to think, or speak, for themselves.

Subaltern is a term from postcolonial studies which refers to colonial populations ruled and controlled by an imperial body.

Edward Said and Postcolonialism

Orientalism became one of the founding texts of postcolonial studies, which emerged as a form of academic study in the 1980s.

In Orientalism, Said critiqued the academic study of the 'Orient'. Said argued that the study of the 'Orient' by the West was not a form of objective academic study. Instead, this study was an example of political intellectualism intended to affirm Western scholar's European identity, promoting colonial values. The existence of Oriental scholarship, dominated and controlled by Westerners, rested upon the assumption that Eastern scholars were incapable of documenting their histories and cultures.

Due to the nature of Orientalism as an academic school, Said argued that cultural representations of the East by Oriental scholars could not be considered as true or accurate.

Orientalism and the 'Other'

In Orientalism, Said presented the concept of the 'Other'. Arguing that the identity and existence of every culture relies on the existence of a different 'other' culture. Through this concept of the 'Other', Said argued that to create their own culture and sense of self, the West constructed the culture of the Middle East as the 'other'. This construction of Middle Eastern culture occurred in European academies and therefore does not align with the reality of Middle Eastern culture.

Edward Said quotes

'Blind Imperial Arrogance', Los Angeles Times (2003)

In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Said critiqued the United States of America's 'imperial perspective' and approach to politics in the Middle East. Although the U.S doesn't have the same colonial history as England, France, and other European nations, Said highlights how the nation's attempts to 'reform' the Middle East are imperialistic in nature. Commenting on this, and the damaging effects of U.S intervention, Said writes;

Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.

Orientalism (1978), 'Orientalism Now'

In the chapter of Orientalism titled 'Orientalism Now' Said discusses how Orientalists such as Lawrence of Arabia have produced a 'we' and a 'they' in their study of 'the orient'. This divide between the West and the East is based on the 'main issue' of;

preserving the Orient and Islam under the control of the White Man

Orientalism (1978), 'Afterword'

In the 1995 edition of Orientalism Said added an afterword that addressed some of the critiques Orientalism had received when it was first published.

In this section of the afterword, Said addresses how Orientalists prescribed 'essential' qualities to peoples, which were unchangeable and often inferior to European qualities. Said opposes the idea that identity can be defined by 'essential' unchanging qualities, arguing instead that;

human identity is not only natural and stable, but constructed, and occasionally even invented outright.

Edward Said - Key takeaways

  • Edward Said was a literary critic and professor of English who lived from 1935 to 2003.
  • Said was born and raised in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine, before attending boarding school in the United States.
  • Said is best known as a founder of postcolonial studies and for his book Orientalism (1978) which is one of the founding texts of postcolonial studies.
  • In Orientalism Said explored how the Western world has represented Middle Eastern culture and society in their academic study, art, and literature.
  • A key concept which Said expanded on in Orientalism was the 'Other'. Said argued that the identity and existence of every culture relies on the existence of a different 'other' culture.

References

  1. Edward Said, 'Between Worlds', Reflections on Exile, and Other Essays, 2002

Frequently Asked Questions about Edward Said

Edward Said was best known as a founder of postcolonial studies as an academic field and for his 1978 book Orientalism

In Orientalism, Said presented that theory that the West justified its imperial policies by misrepresenting Middle Eastern cultures and peoples in its literature.

Edward Said was a leading literary critic and a professor of English and comparative literature who lived from 1935-2003. 

Said's main argument in Orientalism is that modern conceptions of the Middle East in literature and academia are based on false images and ideals created by the West. These false images exoticize the Middle East and its peoples.

Orientalism by Edward Said is one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. This text inspired later works from various people of colour which critically examined the portrayal of non-white cultures and peoples in academia. 

Final Edward Said Quiz

Question

When was Edward Said born?

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Answer

1935

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Question

Edward Said is best known as a founder of ______ studies.

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Answer

Postcolonial

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Question

True or false: Edward spent his early childhood in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine.

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Answer

True. Said grew up and studied in Jerusalem up until 1951 when he moved to a boarding school in Massachusetts.

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Question

Which important text did Said publish in 1978?

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Answer

Orientalism

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Question

Which U.S. invasion did Said heavily critique?

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Answer

The U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Question

What was Said's first published work?

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Answer

Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966).

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Question

Which of these is not a work by Edward Said?

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Answer

'An Image of Africa' (1978)

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Question

What did Said explore in Orientalism?

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Answer

How the Western world has represented Middle Eastern culture and society in their academic study, art, and literature. 

Show question

Question

Fill in the gaps to this quote from Orientalism (1978):


'Subtle and persistent ____  prejudice against ____ peoples and their culture.'

Show answer

Answer

Eurocentric and Arabo-Islamic

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Question

What is this quote defining?


'a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'

Show answer

Answer

Orientalism 

Show question

Question

Define orientalism.

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Answer

Orientalism in academic circles is a term used for Western beliefs and teachings on the orient.  


Show question

Question

What is an orientalist?

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Answer

An orientalist, is a person who studies the orient.

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Question

True or false: Said argued that cultural representations of the East by Oriental scholars could not be considered as true or accurate.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What did Said say about the 'Other'?

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Answer

Said argued that the identity and existence of every culture relies on the existence of a different 'other' culture. 

Show question

Question

Where is this quote from?


'Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.'

Show answer

Answer

Said's Los Angeles Times article titled 'Blind Imperial Arrogance' (2003).

Show question

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