Edward Said Lecture The Myth of 'The Clash of Civilzations'



A prominent intellectual, Edward Said has been an influential literary critic, theorist and a significant political figure, especially as an advocate of the rights of Palestinians. His critical work provided groundbreaking considerations of emerging poststructuralist theorists, such as Derrida and Foucault. Arguing for a socially engaged criticism against both linguistically oriented theories like deconstruction and ideologically dogmatic positions, he promoted a worldly, secular criticism. Beginning with Orientalism, which established the field of postcolonial studies, he has focused on imperialism and the interplay between the dominant West (the “Occident”) and the Middle and Far East (the “Orient”). Said discusses how European and U.S. literary and cultural representations, academic disciplines, and public perceptions foster biases against non-Western peoples, casting them as oriental Others.
Palestinian but educated in British and American colonial schools in Cairo and later in U.S. universities, he experienced firsthand the complicated relations between the East and Western imperialism. Born in Jerusalem, Palestine, controlled by Great Britain since 1922 (with a mandate from the League of Nations to help establish a Jewish national home). In the aftermath of WW II, the United Nations divided Palestine into Arab and Jewish territories and placed the city of Jerusalem under its control. The resulting political tension and fighting within Palestine led Said’s family to emigrate to Cairo at the end of 1947. British mandate expired in 1948, Jewish authorities declared the establishment of the State of Israel, on which all the neighbouring Arab countries immediately declared war. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled what had been Palestine. Though the creation of Israel is celebrated in the West as the restoration of a Jewish homeland, Palestinians call it the nakbah, or “disaster”. Said comments, “Israel was established; Palestine was destroyed.”His father was a prosperous businessman, and Said received an elite education. His father had emigrated to the United States served in the army in WW I, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Said became a naturalized citizen in 1953 and attended Princeton University. Doctoral work in English and comparative literature. Successful academic career.
While often criticizing Israel’s and the United States’ refusal to recognize a Palestinian state, he has also criticized the leadership and policies of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He is an organic intellectual developing his criticism of Western representations of Arab culture and his advocacy for the rights of Palestinians out of his personal roots. He has always experienced his identity as complicated, as a U.S. citizen as well as a Palestinian, as an “Oriental” as well as a Western scholar educated in the British tradition, and as a renowned academic figure as well as an often dissenting political spokesperson. He feels out of place; this sense of homelessness defines for him the proper stance of the intellectual, who should remain independent of theoretical, disciplinary, professional, and national loyalties, yet always be attentive to social injustice and the brutal reality of history.
Said’s Beginnings: Intention and Method, is a pioneering comparison of Foucault’s method of historical “archaeology” and Derrida’s deconstructive critique of language, ultimately favouring Foucault’s focus on social forces, a dense meditation on literary beginnings and influences, an erudite examination on figures from the Western humanistic tradition. He attained prominence with Orientalism. When conflicts in the Middle East were escalating, it provided a timely, controversial and critical overview of the history of Western understandings of Arab culture. He helped draft the Declaration of Palestinian statehood. Strong dissent against pro-Israeli U.S. policies that operated at the expense of Arab peoples. With Orientalism, he examined the political dimensions of literature and culture. Many critics see this turn as a decisive shift in his focus from academic literary theory to actual politics, but in fact his writings display a number of commonalities:
· A consistent grounding in the literary canon;
· An appreciation of philology and the long humanistic tradition of criticism;
· Research across disciplines, especially history;
· An wide concern, influenced by Foucault, with the interrelation of culture and political power;
· A belief in the value of individual achievements in literature, criticism, and politics;
· An assertion of the independent role of the intellectual as someone who avoids orthodoxies both, theoretical and political.
For him, literary, philological, and critical texts are always in the world and have social resonances. Said propounds a broad definition of Orientalism, encompassing both Western academic scholarship in disciplines whose field of study is the “Orient”, such as anthropology, philology, history, and area studies, and the general Western image of the Orient depicted in novels, political accounts, and contemporary media. Employing the techniques of close literary analysis, he shows how Western writers, archaeologists, linguists, historians, and politicians from the 18th to the present day have discovered and in a sense invented the Orient. Orientalism reveals more about the West and its fantasies than about the actual people, culture, and history of the East; not simply a myth, it is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient.” The literary, cultural, and historical discourses of Orientalism participate in the conquest and continuing subjugation of the East. His analysis is a warning to scholars and intellectuals, showing how scholarship is sometimes informed by racism and how intellectuals have been complicit in the administration of imperial power.
Orientalism is particularly indebted to the work of Foucault, as Said adopts Foucault’s method of archival research, his focus on cultural and historical knowledges as a system of discourse, and his tracing of the complex interrelation of power and knowledge. But for Said, the disciplinary institutions of knowledge are not simply embedded in the Foucauldian category of power; they directly serve the historical interests of European imperialism. He also diverges from Foucault’s generalized, impersonal sense of discourse, instead retaining a humanistic belief in the determining imprint of individual writers and intellectuals. Another influence is Derrida’s critique of concepts such as centre and margin and self and Other. For Said, the margin of the East helps define the colonial centre of the West, and the Oriental Other is a projection of the Western view that constructs it. These are related terms that played a crucial role in the development of postcolonial studies. He criticizes Derrida’s linguistic focus and extends poststructuralists theory to examine its implications for real-world politics, the British rule of India, the European partitioning of the Middle East, and the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Less influence on Said’s work is that of Raymond Williams, the British literary and cultural critic. Said praises his disregard for traditional academic boundaries as the distinction between literature and history, and follows him in his concern with the societal effects of literature and culture. Although Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993) is often taken as an answer to Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) in showing how culture does not gets rid of anarchy but operates in the service of imperialism, its direct precedent is William’s Culture and Society (1958). In The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), Said insists on the need to analyze the relation of art and criticism to society. He attacks critics who promote a disinfected textuality, without reference to and therefore camouflaging the social network in which texts are embedded. His primary target is deconstruction and Said came to represent the counterpoint to the deconstructive modes of criticism prevalent during the 1970s and 1980s. While acknowledging sympathies with the Left, he also offers some sharp criticism of leftist literary criticism, such as U.S. Marxism, that he views as principally an academic, not a political, commitment, and he rejects critical systems that prescribe their results in advance. He believes that the critic should retain autonomy. He calls for an oppositional criticism, which is reducible neither to a doctrine nor to a political position, and which is life-enhancing and opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom. He names this secular criticism. It rejects party-line thinking and dogma. Influence in the development of postcolonial studies. Orientalism is a critical classic, with an impact not only on literary studies but also on anthropology, history, international studies, and the discipline known as Orientalism. Within the field of literary studies, various scholars have criticized different aspects of his work: his residual humanism and belief in individual will, his liberal rather than radical views, his eschewal of professionalism for amateurism, his inattention to feminism, and his primary focus on the high Western literary tradition.
Pivotal role in contemporary theory and his success in forging a path for crossing disciplinary boundaries and in combining political commitment and intellectual work. As demonstrated in Orientalism, he has underlined the relation of literary study to the world, especially the relation of culture to the brute reality of imperialism.
Orientalism (1978)
In Orientalism Said explores the way literature and other socio-cultural constructs presented a distorted image of the colonised, turning him/her into the ‘other’, the antagonist of the European citizen. ‘Otherness’ is one of the central arguments in Said’s Orientalism, enabling him to explore the way Western nations approach the Orient and how their lack of knowledge leads them to create inconsistent stereotypes that downgrade the image of the region. Said says the most recurrent clichés are based on negation instead of on reaffirmation. The Orient is described according to what it is not rather to what it is, contributing to perpetuate the inferiority of the Oriental people. The stereotypes more frequently associated with the Orient are:
· Timelessness: The West is the land of progress; the East is a place anchored to the past and unable to evolve due to its own backwardness.
· Strangeness: The West epitomises rationality and pragmatism, the East is the land where the most fantastic events can happen. European nations identified strangeness with magic, sorcery or witchcraft.
· Race: Racial differences were systematised, enhancing all the clichés which were considered innate to the Oriental. Arabs with violence, Chinese with inscrutability and Indians with laziness.
· Gender: African or Asian women were associated with exoticism and eroticism, viewed as inexhaustible sources of pleasure. Oriental women fulfilled the most deeply constrained sexual desires and instincts of Western colonisers, whose views ultimately dehumanised and objectified the female natives.
· Feminine: The West appears as a male construct –heroic, courageous, industrious-, the Orient is portrayed as a woman who “is ‘penetrated’ by the traveller whose ‘passions’ it rouses, it is ‘possessed,’ ‘ravished’, ‘embraced’ … and ultimately ‘domesticated’ by the muscular coloniser”
Orientalism is a way of accepting the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is the place of Europe’s colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant and one of its recurrent images of the Other. The Orient has helped to define the West as its contrasting image. By Orientalism he means many things:
· An academic one: Anyone who teaches or writes about or researches the Orient is an Orientalist and what he does is Orientalism.
· A style of thought based on the epistemological distinction between the Orient and the Occident.
· The corporate institution for dealing with the Orient: a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient (mainly the French and British).
Orient and Occident are man-made. Their relationship is a relationship of power, of domination, of hegemony. According to Gramsci, in any society, non totalitarian, certain cultural forms predominate over others; certain ideas are more influential than others; that is what he calls hegemony. It is hegemony that gives Orientalism its durability and strength. What made European culture hegemonic is the idea of European identity as superior in comparison with all non-European cultures. Orientalism claims that political imperialism governs an entire field of study, imagination and scholarly institutions in such a way as to make its avoidance impossible. Nearly every 19th century writer, and writers of previous periods, was well aware of imperialism. This doesn’t mean that culture must be demeaned, quite the contrary, its constrain upon writers and thinkers was productive. Everyone writing about the Orient is outside the Orient and as a result, what they produce a representation if they write fiction as if they write so-called truthful texts. Orientalism responded more to the culture that produced it than to its object, which was also produced by the West.

Bibliography:
LEITCH, VINCENT B., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2001.
BALDICK, CHRIS. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
CASHMORE, ELLIS. Ed. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. London: Routledge, 1996.